Thursday, August 16, 2007

Apache Camel Addresses Need for Discrete Infrastructure for Services Mediation and Routing

Edited transcript of BriefingsDirect[tm/sm] podcast with Dana Gardner, recorded July 27, 2007.

Listen to the podcast here.
Podcast sponsor: IONA Technologies.

Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you’re listening to BriefingsDirect. Today, a sponsored podcast discussion on a top level Apache Software Foundation project, known as Apache Camel.

It’s a way to help developers do better integration and mediation for routing in software-intense environments, and moving lots of objects and component services around, but also relying on rules and patterns to do so.

To help us understand more about Apache Camel, we’re joined today by James Strachan, technical director of engineering at IONA Technologies. Welcome, James.

James Strachan: Hi.

Gardner: Tell us a little bit about Apache Camel. It seems to be a subset of many other integration and infrastructure projects in the open-source community. Tell us a little bit about the history of how Apache Camel came to be.

Strachan: Earlier this year, Apache Camel grew organically from code and ideas from a bunch of other Apache projects, particularly Apache ActiveMQ and Apache ServiceMix. We found that people wanted to create and use patterns from the "Enterprise Integration Patterns" book in many different scenarios.

Some people wanted to use these patterns inside an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), some people wanted to use these patterns inside a message broker, and other people wanted to use these patterns inside an application itself or to talk between messaging providers. Still other people wanted to use them inside a Web services framework or some other communication platform. So, rather than tie this routing code to a particular message broker or ESB, we tried to extract this code to be a standalone framework that can be used in any project.

Gardner: I assume that this is to simplify it and make it easier for developers? Is that right?

Strachan: Definitely. What we tried to do with Camel was give it the smallest footprint possible, so that it can be reused anywhere, whether in a servlet, in the Web services stack, inside a full ESB, or a messaging application.

Gardner: And, this is a plain old Java object (POJO), I believe, also built in Java. Is that correct?

Strachan: Absolutely.

Gardner: Tell us a bit about the team behind this and perhaps a little background for yourself?

Strachan: I'm an Apache committer. I’ve been in Apache for over five years now, and I am an Apache member for a few years too. I can’t remember how many. The Camel team is comprised mostly of people from the ActiveMQ team and also from ServiceMix and Apache CXF communities. Plus, a bunch of other people have joined since then.

Gardner: Tell us a little bit about your relationship with Apache. You’re involved with a number of activities there. Is that right?

Strachan: I've been around Apache for many years now, and I am involved in all kinds of different projects -- ActiveMQ, ServiceMix are the big ones -- but also on a bunch of others, like Jakarta Commons, Maven, and many others.

Gardner: There are a number of terms we’ve been bandying around. Let’s assume that not everyone listening is that deeply into technology. When we talk about mediation and patterns, let’s flesh some of these out. Mediation and routing, how is that different from what people might understand generally under enterprise integration?

Strachan: I definitely recommend people read Gregor Hohpe's book "Enterprise Integration Patterns." He offers a really good patterns catalog of how people should do mediation and integration. Rather like the original Gang of Four "Design Patterns" book, which describes low-level programming things, Gregor’s book describes very well how enterprise integration patterns (EIPs) can work and gives us a language for describing them.

Aggregate, re-sequencer, message filter, and message translator generally describe patterns people commonly want to do within an integration solution. One of the simplest patterns is "content-based router," where you want to route messages around your network, based on the content. It might be, for example, that for gold-level customers you want to use the big, shiny, fast machines in your data center, but for bronze-level customers you use the crappy, old, worn Linux box in the corner of the basement.

Gardner: You mentioned earlier ESB, enterprise service bus. Explain to me how this works in terms of other ESBs. This is ESB-agnostic. Is it something that people will use to complement ESBs or perhaps replace them in some instances? What’s the relationship between Camel and an ESB?

Strachan: That’s a good question. In some ways the term "ESB" is a little bit like the terms "object" and "component," in that ESB is used for many different things. It has kind of lost a lot of its meaning. We typically don’t tend to think of Camel as being an ESB. We think of it as a rules-based routing and mediation framework that you may deploy inside an ESB.

We work very closely with the ServiceMix community at Apache which has created a complete Java Business Integration (JBI)-compliant container of JBI components. Camel can be deployed within the ServiceMix ESB among JBI components, but some people don’t use JBI and they may just use Java Message Service (JMS) or they may just use Web services or they may just be JAX-WS clients or whatever. So, we try to make Camel agnostic to technologies. You can use it within patterns like Spring, or JBI or OSGi, or you can use it within any application.

Gardner: I’ve also heard you refer to this as a domain-specific language project. What do you mean by that?

Strachan: Programming languages are often very general purpose. They can be used to solve any kind of problem. Domain-specific languages have become popular lately, and they’re basically tied to typically a business domain, such as investment banking, telco, or whatever. In Camel’s case, we’ve made a domain-specific language that focuses purely on the EIPs.

The language itself describes how to do the various things you typically do in the patterns, such as wire tap, aggregator, content-based router. These are first-class concepts within the language itself. We’ve implemented this domain-specific language in both Java and XML, so you can stick to a Java IDE if you prefer, or, if you’d rather, you can use XML to describe this language and deploy it inside your Spring XML.

Gardner: So, we’ve had vertical industry domain-specific languages. This seems to be more of a functionally domain-specific language. Is that a correct statement?

Strachan: Yes. The EIP is the functional domain, or rather the business domain.

Gardner: And, this is all about getting more granularity, more specialization for integration that nonetheless can play across a more general or horizontal capability. Is that fair?

Strachan: Definitely. Across all of IT we’re seeing increased specialization in many different areas, where the specialization helps us solve a problem at a higher level. If you spend your life solving problems, with, say, JavaBeans everywhere, you have a lot of code to comprehend and understand, and things can get quite complicated. The higher level of abstraction helps us solve problems easily.

Gardner: And, because we’re doing it an open-source environment where there’s a community involved, the more likelihood that this will be applied across many other different types of platforms and technology?

Strachan: Exactly. The other benefit of being with Apache is that we have a very liberal license, so this can be embedded in any commercial product very easily. We've seen lots of partners using this technology.

Gardner: Right. A few moments ago, we talked about ESBs. There has been, as you say, some divergence in the term ESB. There are also a number of products and approaches in the field. How about for Camel as a rules-based routing and mediation engine? Are there many others of those? Who else is trying to solve the same problem, or can we safely say that the Camel is unique?

Strachan: It depends on how wide you cast that net. Camel is unique in a number of ways. What we’re doing with Camel is defining a high-level language to describe EIPs, which I don’t think anybody else has done before. The other thing that’s unique is that this language very closely maps to components that work inside Spring 2.

We use a lot Spring 2 features, such as declarative transactions, inversion of control configuration, and various utility classes for working, with such things as JMS and JDBC and Java Persistence API (JPA). What we’re doing is raising the abstraction level to make things very simple, reducing the amount of XML we have to write, but still exposing the wire-level access if you need to do the really hard stuff and roll your sleeves up and get down and dirty.

Gardner: Let’s move this a bit closer to the business side. I wonder what sort of a problem set it is that we’re facing here. Is this a new approach to older problems or a new approach to newer problems? What's the problem solution fit here in the market?

Strachan: The problem we’re trying to address is the routing and mediation problem, which lots of people have. They're taking data from various components and sources -- whether it’s files, databases, message queues, Web services, instant messaging, or other data systems, integrating them together, formatting them, and connecting them to the systems. From a higher level perspective, this could be for legacy integration of systems, for smart routing, performance, monitoring, or testing or monitoring transaction flows.

In general, integration is a very old problem. As soon as we relate to couple of different computer programs, we already have an integration problem and that just grows with time. The thing that’s new is the approach that’s used. We're increasing the abstraction level by making it very easy to work at the EIP layer.

People don’t have to worry about the low-level details of how to use JMS, how to use JBI, or how to wire together the Spring components correctly, and so forth. We're giving people a nice, simple, high-level abstraction, but yet we are exposing all the power of frameworks like Spring and still exposing the low-level details if you need them.

Gardner: Over the last couple of years, because of the popularity and use of Web services, the business side wants to expand the interactions across not only applications, but organizations, and perhaps in a supply chain setting. It sounds like this helps solve the issue of inclusiveness across domains and businesses, and then adds the opportunity to start moving toward event-driven computing. Does that sound fair?

Strachan: Definitely. And, as soon as people start moving toward distributed systems, service oriented architecture (SOA), event-driven architectures, and all these other terms, the one thing that keeps happening is that people need a pervasive technology they can apply anywhere. Camel is lightweight, and can be used anywhere, in a smart end point, in an ESB, or a message broker.

ActiveMQ5 is coming out in [August, 2007]. That's going to have EIPs integrated in the client and the broker by Camel. ServiceMix has integration with Camel and CXF, as a project at Apache, which implements the JAX-WS standard that’s got EIP integration via Camel. We’re seeing a large number of projects that have EIP integration via Camel. It’s already proven in the open-source world that it’s very easy to reuse this routing and mediation technology anywhere. Hopefully, we'll see this just grow and grow.

Gardner: It’s curious to me. It seems like yesterday, but I suppose we're going on 10 years now, that a lot of these functions -- singular, distributed, perhaps even proprietary -- were combined into what became conceptually the application server. Now, it seems like we’re decoupling things. That one large application server approach might not be the best fit, as we get more types of routing and messaging in these integration patterns.

Can you expand on that? What's been the larger trend, in terms of architecture?

Strachan: There’s been a definite move away from J2EE apps, the big application servers, and people are looking for small, lightweight solutions that solve only the problem they have and not problems they don’t have. A lot of software vendors suffered from the kitchen-sink syndrome, where they tried to have one of everything in a big box. That just led to lots of complexity and redundancy.

People really want small and simple-to-use components that solve the problems they have. I've seen that throughout all of our customers. People ask for very specific solutions. They don’t say, "Give me a SOA." They say, "I need a message router," "I need a message bus," "I need an ESB," or "I need a services framework." Often, people have very specific requirements and are very much cherry-picking the best-of-breed components from the open-source tool set.

Gardner: So, it’s the Swiss Army Knife approach.

Strachan: Exactly.

Gardner: That works well for developers. I wonder over time how Camel might find itself being used in terms of operators, specifiers, and architects on the operational side of things. Do you see this moving in that direction? What’s the short-, medium-, and long-term implementation roadmap that you foresee for Camel?

Strachan: Today it's very much developer-focused. The current Camel is aimed at developers who are savvy with Java, XML, or Spring. What we want then is to gradually raise the abstraction level, so the architects and operational people can monitor services, monitor business processes, perform operational behavior, plus be able to design and deploy EIPs in a simple way.

For example, building tools and making it easier to design EIPs, as well as to choose a monitoring tool, are important.

Gardner: How would the specifying roadmap shake out? Do you think this is something that would get bundled in or integrated? How would this be something easily rationalized in production environments for those people that are going to be looking at large data center implementations?

Is this something that would be part of another grouping of products, other Apache kind of projects? How would this combine to make a whole larger than the sum of the parts?

Strachan: What we’ve seen over the last few years is a huge diversity in how people actually deploy products. Maybe five years ago, people assumed the world was J2EE app servers and everything would deploy in a J2EE deployment unit. These days, we see people make their own deployment units. We're seeing a lot of people move towards OSGi bundles. So we see a huge difference in the ways in which people deploy software now.

One of the reasons we’ve taken extreme steps to split Camel up and make it a very simple and easy to use bundle is that we know that there is a huge range of deployment platforms. Some people want to use Camel within their own smart end points. Some people want to host it inside the message broker, in the ESB and so forth. So, we see it going into production in many guises and many different forms.

Gardner: In IONA’s case, how would this be used in the context of its offering? I'm assuming that, as with other IONA offerings, it will be the commercial open-source support approach.

Strachan: Yes. Camel’s pretty much the core foundation for smart routing and mediation within an entire product suite. We have a product called FUSE, an open-source SOA backplane that provides a services framework, a message broker, an ESB, and a mediation and routing engine. The mediation and routing engine is based very heavily on Apache Camel, and we're using Apache Camel throughout other projects as well.

Gardner: Are there forums or community sites? How are some of the dialog and collaboration around this taking place?

Strachan: If you go to http://open.iona.com, there is a whole raft of documentation online forums, a wiki, and so forth.

Gardner: I know this is fairly early, but maybe this will be a good time to lay out some of the milestones. Are we expecting some significant developments and/or visions within the overall Camel project? Can you give us a bit of a timeline?

Strachan: It’s still fairly early for the timeline, but the next version of Camel 1.2 should be out fairly soon, and it's going to offer improved monitoring and management tools and particularly improved visualization and tooling.

Toward the end of the year, we’re hoping to improve various other capabilities we’ve added recently for extract, transform and load (ETL). It’s a way of loading data into systems and load testing systems with data. Plus, another area we’ve been developing what we call business activity monitoring (BAM), which helps monitor transaction flows across different systems.

For example, you might want to track that a purchase order in a system maps through to an invoice that comes out of another system. You might be processing a 100,000 of those a day, but there is one that goes along every few hours, and you want to find out which one that is within a small time window. That’s another area where we are extending the reach of Camel to do very complex and powerful monitoring.

Gardner: That's interesting, because this provides the actual routing mechanisms that provide a window into what's good, and also what's not good about how those processes are being built and used.

Strachan: Definitely. We’ve found that as soon as you have this very flexible and reusable integration patterns, it’s very easy to build on that, to build higher level abstractions, whether this is powerful testing frameworks, stimulation frameworks, ETL or BAM. We’re seeing the levels of abstraction increase to remove layers and layers of complexity.

Gardner: Is this something that could be applied to the ongoing -- and I imagine increasingly arduous -- task of dealing with semantic issues in terms of data across applications? That is to say, helping to define a mediation and a rules-based approach, such as this help in how companies can deal with that diversity and then come up with more common approaches to data and content that can then be injected into a business process.

Strachan: Definitely. This is a very large and complex topic. There are just a few bullet points on the top, and we’ve already got a range of transformation and validation capabilities in Camel, but we’re looking to improve this in various ways.

IONA recently acquired a company, called C24, which has a whole range of technologies for doing semantic mapping and transformation of different data formats. For example, they've got models for pretty much all the standard financial formats, like SWIFT, FpML, FIX, and all these other things. And, they've got other models for telcos. We’re looking to open source some of that and integrate that into Camel for doing lots of data service type integration.

Another area that’s kind of similar, but slightly different, is in the business activity monitoring ground, where you sometimes want to just check the effect of systems. So, it’s a little bit like I am doing real time reconciliation systems, and you’re doing all this transformation between systems, but you want to make sure of the end results, like that final purchase order or that final settlement instruction does contain the values that you expect. For example, we might want to check that the purchase order amount matches the invoice amount, or whatever.

Gardner: As you say, it’s early in the evaluation of Camel, but are there instances where we can see how it's being used or how developers have identified this as a productivity benefit, or are there metrics of productivity? How is it helping in terms of getting a better job done?

Strachan: We’ve got a bunch of different customers using Camel in different ways. We seem to have a few different kinds of customers finding Camel for the first time. Some come from an ActiveMQ background. They're doing lots of messaging, and they want something a bit more powerful to do more complex routing within the message broker itself.

Some come from the ServiceMix background. They are very ESB focused. They love JBI. They like the idea of standards-based ESB. They’ve got a bunch of standards-based integration components, but they’re working together, and they just want a slightly more powerful routing engine to work with.

Some of our customers have been using Mule. They found Camel a little bit easier, and they’ve migrated across. Finally, there are people who’ve just found Camel, that's all they know, and they just dive straight into it.

One of the things we’re seeing from customers is that using APIs, like JMS and JBI in particular, and to a lesser extent JAX-WS, could often become complicated, but people find that wiring things together with Camel is almost trivial. People get things going really quickly without having to read pages and pages of specifications for things like JMS or JBI, or dealing with the lower-level details of Spring.

We see quite a rapid productivity gain, and it means that people can then use lots of different technologies, whether it’s JMS or JBI without having to spend a long time figuring out things in the Spring manuals.

Gardner: Among these early users are there any vertical industries popping out, where it seems to be making sense first, perhaps financial services?

Strachan: Yes, finance and telcos definitely are big markets, but we’re also fairly strong in the e-tailers. Those areas will be our big three markets right now.

Gardner: Can you explain the business problems that they're using it for?

Strachan: Pretty much all of our customers have similar kinds of problems. They have lots of silos in applications. There are lots of messages being exchanged between systems, whether those are messages via flat files, email, JMS, legacy message brokers, or web services. They generally want to do one or more of the patterns, whether counter-based routing, or message transformations. We see more people starting to investigate a business activity monitoring feature of Camel, and that’s something I'm quite excited about.

Lots of companies, once they realize they can tie together messages to business processes, start running rules off the back of that. That has been extremely useful for people. One thing about SOA that’s quite difficult is knowing what’s really happening in your system.

Today, people have often done such things as monitor message queues or use a JMX-based management console to look at numbers and statistics. Being able to tie together all the different things flowing through your SOA to actual business processes is extremely useful and valuable for customers.

Gardner: There seems to be some murkiness in how feedback will occur, when you have events-driven architectures, and how to create common approaches to runtime and design time with this BAM emphasis that we are seeing associated with Camel. Do you expect that Camel could fill some of that role in terms of a balancing act between what takes place in operations and what needs to be brought into a service level agreement of some kind?

Strachan: Definitely. I have worked with quite a few customers on various BAM-related problems, and it does seem that BAM solves those problems. It’s quite hard to have an off-the-shelf tool to do everything people need. Almost as soon as people start doing any kind of BAM, they find that they want to put their own code in there. You might be in financing, and maybe there is a trade in U.S. dollars. You want to take that trade to the settlement instruction, but you want to do a foreign exchange conversion in there.

Almost as soon as you start doing the “hello world,” BAM-type scenarios, you tend to want to roll your sleeves up and actually do some coding of some kind, to do custom reconciliation, custom calculations, custom visualizations. BAM is very much a framework-driven thing, rather then a black-box tool. Certainly, we see people take on the Camel framework itself and then expand and extend it to do more powerful things.

Gardner: I suppose that’s part and parcel of open source, community-driven projects. They tend to be pushed out in a variety of directions. Do you have any sense of what other functional parts or functional capabilities we might see brought into Camel?

Strachan: A big area is visualization. It’s incredibly hard for people to follow what’s happening in general. Once you can create a wire tap into any system, it’s very easy to glean information from it and find out what’s happening, what its throughput is, what it is actually doing. You can then do things like trace messages around the system, correlate messages to business processes, reverse engineer whole business flows from legacy systems.

That whole area is a visualization and tooling problem. I see that as a very large area of research with the Camel project. We hope to be to be rolling out in Q4 the first batch of visualization tools. It's very much a work in progress in the next few years to get even better, more powerful operational controls and visualization engines.

Gardner: By getting more visual, it seems like we can bring more people into the process, and that maybe elevates us beyond BAM into business intelligence. Is that fair?

Strachan: Definitely. Absolutely.

Gardner: I think a lot of business people would like to get more of a real-time sense of what’s going on among these processes to provide more confidence, as they move processes from manual and older message into this new SOA approach.

Strachan: Definitely. Plus people want early warning notice of any kind of failure. One of the nice things is that you can be alerted that maybe something's going on that hasn't been found yet. Maybe it's running a bit slow today, or maybe it’s just a heavy trading day. But, it might not be, and maybe something is really wrong. So, rather than waiting for some extreme failure that results in a fine or extra interest being paid, you can respond more rapidly than that.

Gardner: Let’s just circle back quickly. Developers seem to be the core short- to medium-term audience for this. What sort of developers specifically should be more aware of what Camel’s capable of?

Strachan: I’d say anyone who’s doing any kind of SOA or distributed programming. They should at least take a good look. Definitely, anybody who ever read the EIP book. If you read that book, you’d probably just see Camel and you’ll immediately just figure out exactly what it’s doing. It’s very simple.

If you're doing Web services, you might need mediation. If you're doing any kind of messaging using multiple databases, if you have any kind of integration problems, and certainly if you’re using any kind of ESB, then definitely take Camel for a ride.

Gardner: Now, when we look toward getting more information on this, we have the resources at Apache Foundation, and also, as you mentioned, http://open.iona.com?

Strachan: Yes.

Gardner: Any other resources? You mentioned the book. Are there any other resources on this that people should be aware of?

Strachan: Those are the big three. There’s also my blog: http://macstrac.blogspot.com/.

Gardner: Very good. Well, we’ve been discussing a budding Apache Foundation project known as Apache Camel. It’s a rules-based routing and mediation engine for POJO-based implementation of EIPs.

Discussing this with us today, we had James Strachan, technical director of engineering at IONA Technologies.

I'm your host and moderator Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions. Thanks for listening and learning more about Apache Camel.

Listen to the podcast here.
Podcast sponsor: IONA Technologies.

Transcript of Dana Gardner’s BriefingsDirect podcast on Apache Camel. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2007. All rights reserved.
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