Monday, November 2, 2009

Why isn't the Web Object-Oriented?

A big part of the Web is web services, but often these services are not modelled using an object oriented paradigm, even though it is well suited for complex behaviours. Web services are often modelled using a simple request/response paradigm or a service oriented paradigm using a RESTful framework, but many of these resource oriented frameworks can be adapted to support some object oriented concepts.

Many people think of classes and methods when they think of Object-Oriented Programming (OOP). However, I like to think of OOP as message passing with class specialization. This is particularly helpful when designing Web services, which also use a message passing model. Even RESTful Web services use forms of message passing between nodes.

Consider the simple URL below. When followed a GET request is sent to a Google server. This can be thought of as sending Google's search object a message with the given search term parameter (using the Google network as the authority). The search object (in this case a proxy) responds with an HTML page with the search results.

   Object Authority
/ \
\__________________________/ \_____________________________________/
| |
Object Identity message

All HTTP requests can be thought of as messages being sent to remote objects. The request method, query parameters, headers, and body make up the message, and the request URI identifies the message's target object. The HTTP response is the message's return value.

However, OOP is more than simply message passing. A big part of OOP is the association of behaviour with data. The relationship between behaviour and data drives at the difference between service oriented and object oriented paradigms. A service oriented model is like an object oriented model, but all objects are stateless singletons with their own unique behaviour. Because of this, pure service oriented systems can be more efficient (less data access), but is more expensive to maintain, as each service must consider all possible variations at once. In contrast, OOP supports behaviour specialization and can more closely reflect the structure of systems 'in the real world'.

While many services are identified by a single request URI (scheme+authority+path), most RESTful frameworks allow data to also be associated with the URI. JAX-RS, for example, allows path parameters that are often populated with a unique entity ID. By incorporating the entity ID in the URI, data is associated with the behaviour in the same way as in an OOP paradigm. However, most RESTful frameworks fail to provide any support for object or resource behaviour specialization -- a feature that is incredibly powerful in class-based OOP.

The Web is actually fairly close to seamlessly supporting an object-oriented paradigm. Processing efficiency seems to be the only barrier. However, with the growing costs of maintaining complex Web systems, I'm not sure how long this argument can hold up. When do you think we'll have an object oriented Web framework and what would it look it?

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