Friday, November 6, 2009

The Orchestrators

Back in the XIX century (that’s the 19th century for all you X-geners!), there was a composer who didn’t know how to play the piano. In fact, nor did he know how to play the violin, the flute, the trombone, or any other instrument for that matter. Yet, the man managed to compose symphonies that to this day are considered musical masterpieces. The composer’s name was Louis Hector Berlioz, and he achieved this feat by directing the orchestra through each step of his arrangement and composition. His most recognized work is called “Symphonie Fantastique” and, according to Wikipedia, the symphony is scored for an orchestra consisting of 2 flutes(2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 2 clarinets (1st doubling E-flat clarinet), 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 ophicleides (what the heck is an ophecleide? A forerunner of the euphonium, I found out. What the heck is a euphonium? Well, check it out in Wiki!), 2 pairs of timpani, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, bells in C and G, 2 harps, and strings.
By now, you probably get the idea. Mr. Berlioz fully exemplifies the ultimate back-end composite services element: The Orchestrator. Berlioz composed some pretty cool stuff by knowing a) what he wanted to express, b) what specific set of instruments should be used at a particular point in time, and c) how to communicate the notes of his composition to the orchestra.
Every SOA-based system needs its Berliozes.
There are several dimensions involved in defining the role of an orchestrator for SOA. First, as discussed earlier, most orchestrator roles will be provided within the context of an application; not as a part of a service. That is, the orchestration is what defines an application and makes one application different from another. The orchestration is the brain of the application, and it is the entity that decides the manner and SOA services calling flow.
In some instances, you might even be able to reuse orchestration patterns and apply them across multiple applications. Better still, you can build orchestration patterns by utilizing the emerging Business Process Modeling technologies (BPM). BPM simplifies the work of creating orchestration logic by providing a visual and modular way of assembling orchestration flows. A small commentary of mine is this: BPM is not SOA, but BPM requires SOA to work properly.
An apropos question is to ask how much orchestration should be automated in the SOA system as opposed to letting the user manually orchestrate his or her own interactions. To answer this question it is best to remember the complexity rule I stated earlier:  the simpler the user interaction; the more complex the system, and vice-versa. 
Then again, there are limits to the complexity of an orchestration. A full-fledged Artificial Intelligence system could become the ultimate orchestration engine but, unfortunately, such a machine remains in the realm of science fiction.  Cost-Benefit compromises must be made.
Say we have a travel oriented system and need to find the coolest vacation spots for the month of September. Should we let the user manually orchestrate the various steps needed to reach a conclusion? Each step would indirectly generate the appropriate service calls for searching destinations, filtering unwanted responses, obtaining additional descriptions, getting prices, initiating the booking, and so forth. Or we could consider developing a sophisticated orchestration function that’s able to take care of those details and do the hard work on behalf of the prospective traveler. But should we do it?
The answer lies in the size of “the market” for a particular need. Clearly, there is a need for a travel orchestration capability that can take care of all the details mentioned. After all, isn’t this why Travel Agencies emerged in the first place? If the orchestration is need by only a few users, then it is best not to spend money and effort attempting to automate something that is too unique. On the other hand, if the request becomes common, then it is preferable to create an automated orchestration function that organizes and integrates the use of SOA services.
The orchestrators design should always accommodate the transparency tenets in order to allow horizontal scalability. In other words, if you provide the orchestration via servers located in the system membrane, you will need to design the solution in such a way that you can always add more front end servers to accommodate increased workloads, without disrupting the orchestration processes in existing servers. Because orchestration usually requires the server to maintain some form of state, at least for the duration of a transaction, you will need to incorporate some form of session-stickiness in the orchestration logic. Later on, I will write more about why I recommend that this is the one and only area where a “session state” between the user and the orchestration should exist, even as I still advice to keep backend services discrete and sessionless.