Friday, October 2, 2009

On the Granularity of Services

You’re seated in a fancy restaurant ready to enjoy a nice gourmet meal.  The waiter shows up with the menu, but instead of a list of entrees and appetizers, you are confronted with a catalogue of recipes. You order a Tuna Tartare as appetizer. The waiter stares at you with a bewildered expression on his face. “Pardon?” he asks. “I’d like a Tuna Tartare,” you insist. He doesn’t understand and it finally hits you, he’s expecting you to guide him through each step of the recipe. “Heck,” you think, this must be some kind of novelty gimmick, like Kramer’s make-your-own-pizza idea in a classic Seinfeld episode, and so you begin the painstaking process of preparing for the appetizer:
“Please get 3 ¾ pounds of very fresh tuna. Dice the tuna into 1/4-inch cubes and place it in a large bowl.” The waiter scribbles furiously. “Got this part, sir, I’ll be right back!” he says as he dashes to the kitchen to begin preparing your order.
Reading from the menu, you continue when he returns by requesting that he combine1 ¼ cups of olive oil, 5 limes zests grated and 1 cup of freshly squeezed lime juice in a separate bowl. He runs back to the kitchen before you get a chance to tell him to also add wasabi, soy sauce, hot red pepper sauce, salt, and pepper to the bowl. . .
You get the idea.  There are different ways to ask for services. Let’s think of a more realistic computer design choice. Say you need to calculate the day of the week (What day does 10/2/2009 falls on?). If you were to define “Calculate-Day-of-the-Week” as a service, then you would be expected to allow this service to run in any computer, anywhere in the world (remember the transparency credo I covered earlier!), and to be reachable via a decoupled interface call.  If you were to answer, “Okay! No problem”, I would have to then ask you whether this is actually a sensible option. What would be the potential performance impact of having to reach out to a distant computer every time a day of the week calculation is needed?
Remembering the definition of services that I provided earlier, you insist that “Calculate-Day-of-the-Week” is definitely a service that provides a direct business value.
For SOA purposes a service represents a unit of work that a non-technical person can understand as providing a valuable stand-alone capability
You can argue that “Calculate-Day-of-the-Week” is in fact a unit of work that the salesperson, a non-technical person, can understand and that she will need to access with her Blackberry. In that case, I would then yield to the argument because you have shown that the calculation has business logic that is relevant to your company.
If, on the other hand, “Calculate-Day-of-the-Week” is needed only by programmers, and there is no requirement for it to be directly accessed by anyone in the business group, then this is something that should be handled as a programming function and not as a service. 
If the reason “Calculate-Day-of-the-Week” is needed is because the calculation is part of a broader computation, say to find out whether a discount applies to a purchase (“10% off on Wednesdays!”), then the real service ought to be “Determine-Discount” and not a day of week calculation. You see, defining what constitutes a service can be somewhat subjective.
Your team should apply similar reasoning when determining services: Calculating the hash value of a field is a function; not a service.  Obtaining passenger information from an airline reservation system is a service, but appending the prefix “Mr.” or “Ms.” to a name should not be considered a service.
Now, to be fair, there will always be those fuzzy cases that will demand your architecture team to make a call on a case-by-case basis.  If obtaining a customer name is needed for a given business flow, then it can be considered a service. However, if obtaining the customer name is part of a business process that is a part of assembling all customer information (address, phone number, etc.) you should really have a “Get-Customer-Information” service so as not to oblige the client to request each information field separately. 
In general, when it comes to services, it is better to start with fewer, coarser services and then move on to less coarse services on a need by need basis. In other words, it’s better to err on the side of being coarse than to immediately expose services that are too granular. It’s ultimately all about using common sense. Remember the restaurant example. When you order food in a restaurant it’s better to simply look at the menu and order a dish by its name.
Finally, even if a function is determined not to be a service, and therefore does not need to be managed with the more comprehensive life-cycle process used for services, there is no excuse for not following best-practices when implementing it. Just as with services, make certain the function is reusable, that it does not have unnecessary inter-dependencies, and that it is well tested. You never know when you may need to elevate a function to become a service.
But most importantly, the secret sauce in this SOA recipe is the interface: both, services and functions must have well defined interfaces.
More on this next week!