April 25, 2007

The Political Implications of a Web Architecture

A quote, by a CIO, on Web Architecture vs. Client/Server Architecture. This passage (from an out-of-print book) highlights, for me, why there are philosophical divides in this architectural debate to this day. I will also note that this reflects common sense today in certain crowds -- the rise of the stupid network, the end to end argument, Emphases are mine.

"Webs are spun out of fine threads, but they get their strength from clever design and a capacity to overcome local failures. Much of the promotion of client-server methods implies that by distributing existing computer power you gain in economy and reliability. If you leave the existing hub network in place without alternative database management practices, and locate the new servers at the ends of the existing hubs, your support costs as well as risks will increase. Your costs will increase because you will have many more data centers to attend to. Your risks will also increase because your points of vulnerability will be greater.

When it comes to computing, I believe that all networked computers are created equal. Some may be richer, some may be poorer in terms of power, functions, or resources. However, I consider it a matter of good prudence that all computing resources should be able to connect to each other by multiple routes. Each computer should be able to reach others by at least two and preferably three physically independent paths. The routing should not be done at hubs, but at points of origin by inserting into each message destination-seeking instructions. The traditional way to connect people, such as in the telephone system, linked dumb and low cost handsets with very expensive and enormously smart central switches. In web networking, the network is passive and the switches are cheap while the messages and the stations are very intelligent.

Network stations should be treated as equals and not as separate classes of supiror "clients" attended by inferior "servers" because the stations are now supercomputers. These distinctions are not just a linguistic quibble. They are a matter of distinction that are reflected in how network privileges and network organizations are put together.

Web networking supports cooperation among groups that organize and dissolve rapidly. It could be design engineers on separate continents reaching agreement on the layout of a circuit board. It could be an infantry commander coordinating close air and artillery actions. It could be working out details of a purchase with a stock broker. It could be an act as simple as placing an order for merchandise. Who will talk to whom, with what device, over what telecommunications link, is unpredictable and therefore cannot be specified in advance in the same way as you would design structural members of a building.

The fundamental premise behind web networking is that regardless of the amount of automation involved in a transaction, there is always a human being who will be accountable for what happens. Web networking is not only a matter of software design, but also a refection of managerial practices how to handle exceptions, errors, security, and responsibility for data integrity. The politics of web networking is a reflection of how an organization views relationships among employees, customers, and suppliers. The master-slave, hub-spoke configuration enforces subordination and centralization of knowledge and control. This form is medieval, authoritarian, and totalitarian. Peer-to-peer computing over web networks does not in itself guarantee cooperation, but surely makes it possible. It is egalitarian, with all of its faults and freedom to engage in wasteful foolishness."

-- Paul Strassmann, 1995, "The Politics of Information Management". Paul was the former CIO of Xerox, General Foods, the U.S. Department of Defence, and NASA.

Posted by stu at April 25, 2007 02:16 PM