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Putting Web Services In Context

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WS-Context aims to bring flexible session management to SOAs, letting services maintain state without depending on URLs or lower-level protocols such as TCP/IP.

Part of a larger effort called WS-CAF, the WS-Context spec was written by Oracle, Red Hat and Arjuna, with support from IONA, Sun Microsystems and Fujitsu. IBM, Microsoft and BEA Systems have developed WS-Coordination, another OASIS standard that partially overlaps with WS-Context.

Despite the absence of powerful players IBM and Microsoft, WS-Context looks likely to succeed. Although WS-Coordination seems like a rival, it requires extensions, and WS-Context looks like it could be one of those extensions.

Network users take communications sessions for granted: Web sites recognize surfers from the time they log on until they click off. The phone system knows when a call begins and ends. But in the SOA world of loosely coupled systems and distributed applications, sessions aren't so simple. Most real-world implementations still depend on lower-level protocols or proprietary technologies, both of which can restrict a service's flexibility and potential for reuse.

Two standards released in April aim to change all this, but there's a catch. Although both come from the same group—OASIS, or the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards—they're backed by different vendor factions and have some overlapping functionality. However, they can work together, and we see both being necessary in the long term.

The standard most clearly targeted at session management is WS-Context, backed by Red Hat, Oracle, IONA and Arjuna. Its supporters compare it to HTTP cookies, the standard way in which Web sites keep track of visitors by storing small chunks of (usually) encrypted data on client machines. In addition to being used in SOA environments, WS-Context is also likely to be used as a means of sharing data in environments using SCA (Service Component Architecture), a new programming method aimed at making applications from smaller components that can run independently.

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