Through the looking glass

Bolstered by SOAPstation, Actional’s platform helps build, secure, and manage a Web services network

It’s a heady challenge for application management: How to decentralize business processes with Web services?

Difficult enough under traditional circumstances, administering applications with components that span business units or corporate boundaries is proving a stumbling block to broad, real-world adoption of Web services networks. Comprehensive monitoring and management tools for SOAs (service-oriented architectures) have been nearly nonexistent, making it tricky to rein in these interdependent software systems.

Actional is looking to bridge that gap. Its Web services management platform is made up of a centralized command post, the Looking Glass 4.0 server, and two levels of outpost monitoring, Active Agents and SOAPstation 4.0, the latter of which is an XML proxy armed to facilitate Web services management.

The Looking Glass platform sits inside your distributed Web services infrastructure. It tracks and tabulates the fault data and performance metrics reported by in-field agents to provide real-time feedback on the health and availability of your application nodes and network. Additional tools manage the application life cycle, and centralized security and policy planning.

On the downside, we found Looking Glass limited by .Net-only support, and the Active Agents and Looking Glass Console are restricted to the Windows platform. For companies running services on the .Net framework that want to integrate those services with those of business partners running other platforms, SOAPstation becomes the bridge.

Nevertheless, Looking Glass provides a far weightier management capability and toolset for building, securing, and managing a Web services network than its competitors’ offerings. It affords greater control than out-of-house hosted solutions such as those offered by Flamenco Networks, too —and its flexibility certainly beats that of internally instrumented applications.

SOAPstation Power

The platform does its job well: Looking Glass created a useful graphical map of my services infrastructure with clear heartbeat and cumulative availability statistics. Most impressively, the collected results facilitate quick fault trapping and tracing at the operations level, isolating not just the offending node, but the specific transaction. That is a substantial advantage in troubleshooting applications and getting them back online quickly.

The Looking Glass server collects and analyzes information from your services architecture, but its eyes and ears are the Active Agents and SOAPstation server components. Installed on the application servers, these serve as sentries between Web services consumers and your services end-points.

SOAPstation servers can be independently implemented and administered as a stand-alone product, but I feel that the benefits of uniting SOAPstations through a central point of management (as in Looking Glass 4.0) will ultimately make effectively managing large-scale Web services farms easier.

The SOAPstation server improves on Active Agents’ general monitoring capabilities by serving as a Web services proxy, brokering Web services transactions and performing intermediary tasks such as in-flight XSLT (eXtensible Stylesheet Language Transformation), XML message modification, and conversion among different security models. Using SOAPstation, I was able to reduce the intricacy of adapting and routing disparate services and improve processing flexibility.

I provisioned my Web services with SOAPstation as the new intermediary access point. The proxy server tools apply rules-based transformations to my SOAP streams both pre- and post-processing, so I built up complex, condition-based routing and performed tasks like raw XML message reformatting on the fly -- useful for bringing noncompliant messages into the fold.

SOAPStation’s interceptors hook customized processing into the message stream, and SOAPstation monitored the SOAP requests and responses for defined triggers and policies, such as fault conditions, time-based criteria, or custom-defined variables. Thanks to the interceptors, I could quickly manipulate my SOAP message in response to the triggers.

The easy-to-use wizard interface simplified rule customization and management, including defining policy conditions and building associations to necessary external specialized processors, such as an XSL transformation file.

I built security models for authenticating and authorizing access to my services with SOAPstation’s control features, a process simplified by the wizard-driven tools. Defining user- and role-based access was a cinch; SOAPstation supports LDAP and single sign-on mechanisms that would also be useful for mapping business partner and consumer-side access. SOAPstation’s mediation prowess can even transform disparate security protocols between a service’s requestor and provider, ensuring run-time compatibility among the security credentials passed across transactions.

SOAPstation’s flexible reporting facilities display both business usage and operation detail: I seamlessly documented QoS over time, a necessary step for establishing a base for SLAs.

I ran several impact assessments to test Looking Glass’s alerting and dependency features, bogging down the servers with internal, cycle-eating activity and increasing network traffic request patterns. In all cases, the multithreaded SOAPstation refused to flinch, maintaining accurate insight and alerts on network health.

Mapping Services Networks

SOAPstation’s power gives the Actional platform a strong foundation. Using Looking Glass Console, I culled data from across all Actional-managed Web services access points, whether monitored by SOAPstation or Active Agents, and could uniformly apply policies for security and routing.

The console’s interface is straightforward enough that business analysts -- rather than more costly programmers -- can use Looking Glass to realign objectives and re-route services for maximum business flexibility.

I remained impressed by Looking Glass’s well-delineated depiction of my services network and its communications, as well as the clear drill-down through a service’s ongoing operating metrics to see and act on throughput statistics, errors, and cumulative response latency.

All told, the Actional Web services platform of Looking Glass, SOAPstation, and Active Agents will ultimately reduce the effort and cost of ensuring application availability and security and simplify change management in a .Net services environment. Support for BEA WebLogic 8.1 was announced this month and support for IBM WebSphere is slated for year’s end, which means Looking Glass will soon shine even brighter.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Scalability (20.0%)
Security (10.0%)
Implementation (20.0%)
Manageability (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Interoperability (10.0%)
Support (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Actional Looking Glass 4.0 and SOAPstation 4.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 8.0 5.0 9.0 8.4
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