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The Evolution of SOAP::LITE

by Pavel Kulchenko

I worked recently on a design of a lightweight Internet-based payment system using SOAP, and after having done so, I learned a number of valuable lessons that I thought I'd pass on here. First I'll talk about why I chose this route, then I'll talk a little bit about recent changes in the SOAP community, including the directions that this technology appears to be moving.

Based on what I learned while designing a similar payment system last year, plus already knowing little bit about SOAP, I thought that SOAP would play pretty well for the new system I was working on. I built the prototype in Perl, so I took a look at Keith Brown's SOAP/Perl module. After a couple of experiments, I was able to make my first SOAP call.

Even though my first impressions of these new tools were good, using the SOAP/Perl library initially wasn't that easy for me. So I wrote a simple wrapper around Brown's class that cut down the number of lines required to make a call on the client side from 25 to 5. The lesson that I've learned over the years is that simplicity and flexibility are the keys to progressing up the knowledge curve quickly. In that spirit, I decided to keep the interface as simple as possible on both the client and server sides.


Why SOAP and not something else?

I don't have extensive experience with XML-RPC, and I knew that relying on RPC calls only wouldn't be adequate for payment system I was working on. I realized that at some point I would need to send an XML document. That's why I took a closer look at SOAP.

Another appealing aspect was its ability to run on top of multiple protocols. I had planned to provide several ways for message delivery. Initially, SOAP's ability to extend functionality with headers looked more theoretical than practical for me, but as it turns out, it's very handy.

In the very beginning, it was just a brain exercise to build module that would serialize Perl data structures into XML, then deserialize it back into the Perl data. There were several modules on CPAN that could do similar things at that time, but I was looking for a module that could generate XML according to the SOAP specification.

O'Reilly Open Source Convention Featured Speaker

Pavel Kulchenko will be presenting the session, SOAP: The Power of Simplicity at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in San Diego, CA, July 23-27, 2001. Rub elbows with Open Source leaders while relaxing on the beautiful Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina waterfront. For more information, visit our conference home page or see our pre-conference coverage.


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After two days of thinking about this, and six hours of programming, I ended up with the module that could serialize the data and make a simple SOAP call. The first version had 200 lines and no deserialization part. One week later, I had a fully functional module that was about 600 lines and passed the first tests with public servers. I thought that two more weeks would give me all functionality I needed. I was naive, and eight months later I'm still not finished. But in the meantime, many new developments have emerged in the SOAP community.

SOAP comes of age

Three months into my project, I began to notice lots of activity in the SOAP community. Module grew in functionality and in number of available transports, such as SMTP, POP3, TCP, FTP and IO. Implementation of a pluggable serializer and deserializer allowed me to add support for XML-RPC protocol and to reuse all available infrastructure. Following the motto "Run everywhere where Perl runs," regexp-based XML parser was added to provide fallback on platforms where XML::Parser is not available (like Windows CE) [1].

This year most of the activity in SOAP was related in one way or another to achieving interoperability. The number of available SOAP toolkits are growing really fast -- more than 65 different ones are available, and the vast majority of those toolkits interoperate pretty well.

You should have no problem finding toolkits for the languages that you like to work with. Toolkits for more than 15 languages are available (Perl, Java, Python, C++, C#, languages with COM interface, Ada, JavaScript, PHP, Tcl, Ruby, Smalltalk, Delphi, XSLT, Orchard, K) with more than 10 toolkits for Java and 5 for C++. The choice is yours [2]. Authors of about 25 implementations actively participate in the process of improving interoperability between their toolkits.

At the same time, there's still lots of work to do. We are moving through the stage of achieving basic interoperability on several levels right now:

  • Transport -- including proper status codes for HTTP, handling character sets in "content-type" headers, the SOAPAction header, and others.
  • XML -- handling simple types, structs, arrays, nulls, encoding, and XML Schema support.
  • SOAP -- RPC-style communication, support for attributes, like actor and mustUnderstand).
  • WSDL -- because many toolkits rely on service description support for making and receiving SOAP calls.

The direction SOAP is moving

More complex systems are being built on top of these basic levels of interoperability. SOAP development is moving in two orthogonal directions: creating extensions using SOAP extensibility and implementing complex conceptions.

The most important extensions that will influence future of SOAP are: SOAP Messages with Attachments (describes how to wrap SOAP message into MIME envelopes together with various attachments, like images or binary objects), SOAP Security Extensions: Digital Signature (describes how to implement XML Signature specification in SOAP to add security features on protocol level), and encryption (based on XML encryption, that brings other security features, like confidentiality to the SOAP level).

Complex implementations include routing through several SOAP processors (intermediaries), reliable messaging, and asynchronous processing are also planned. Recent specifications from Microsoft and IBM are trying to address these aspects. SOAP-RP from Microsoft describes message paths that two-way message exchange, and WSFL from IBM defines usage and interaction patterns for web services.

Looking at the SOAP::Lite module, you may find some similarities with Perl itself. You can write a useful program in just three lines of code. There is also the "more than one way to do it" flexibility with SOAP that we see in the Perl community. And even though SOAP appears simple on the outside, there's lots of power under the hood.

For example, a SOAP client might be as simple as this:

use SOAP::Lite;
print SOAP::Lite
  -> uri('')
  -> proxy('')
  -> f2c(32)
  -> result;

You CGI-based SOAP server could be as long as four lines of code:

use SOAP::Transport::HTTP;
  -> dispatch_to('/Your/Path/To/Deployed/Modules')
  -> handle;

You may also write a client to access Userland's test server using XML-RPC protocol:

use XMLRPC::Lite;
print XMLRPC::Lite
  -> proxy('')
  -> call('examples.getStateList', [21,22])
  -> result;

Here is a SOAP client in just one line of code:

perl "-MSOAP::Lite service=>''" -le "print getQuote('MSFT')"

One of the things I enjoy about writing SOAP modules is to find existing resources on CPAN that I can incorporate into my work. It allows me to prevent code duplication, and reuse tools such as the XML parser, transport modules, compression, MIME generation, and many others.

What is on the table for the future? MQSeries and Jabber transports, non-blocking TCP and HTTP servers with SSL support, asynchronous processing, lightweight DBD implementation for remote database access on top of SOAP/XML-RPC, new sections for SOAP Cookbook, Quick Start Guide, and experiments with optimization technique that could bring significant performance benefits for already parsed messages.

That's only the major stuff. The entire TODO list is five hundred lines long. Any volunteers to cut it down? Watch for the new versions and come to talk during the upcoming Open Source Convention.

Pavel Kulchenko was a speaker at the O'Reilly Open Source Software Convention and has over 10 years of experience in design and development of complex financial applications.

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