Async Messaging and the Barbarian Hordes

At PDC 1996, Pat Helland did a six minute bit where he compared personal computing to the sacking of Rome and Microsoft Transaction Server to the Renaissance. It was called “Transaction Processing and the Barbarian Hordes” and in my opinion it should be required viewing for everyone in the tech industry.

Of course, the tech industry has changed significantly since PDC96. In particular, personal computing has become the new “Classical Rome” and web developers are the new barbarians. Just as Microsoft rediscovered transaction processing in the 90’s, it seems that RESTifarians are on the verge of rediscovering asynchronous messaging.

“The internet has been dead and boring for a while now.  It has reached a point of stability where flashes of technological creativity are rare, but every now and then some new technology can put a spark back in the ole gal (no sexism intended).

If you haven’t heard of WebHooks orPubSubHubBub its about time you did. Both are designed to  simplify and optimize the web.”

Mark Cuban, The Internet is about to change

Not to put too fine a point on it, but these “flashes of technological creativity” that Mark’s going gaga over aren’t new at all. Both Web Hooks and PubSubHubbub are essentially async messaging, the oldest form of messaging in the history of networking. But just as personal computing ignored the importance of transaction processing for a long time, REST has long ignored the importance of async messaging. Instead, web development has instead been focused exclusively on request/response – something I’ve struggled with for quite some time. But the rise of Twitter has driven many people to realize that something I’ve known since 2003: “In order to truly evolve syndication…we need to break free of the synchronous polling model.” [1]


I love the slogan from this Web Hooks presentation: “so simple you’ll think it’s stupid”. Web Hooks aren’t stupid – far from it – but they certainly are simple. They’re basically callbacks – which Web Hooks creator Jeff Lindsay readily acknowledges – invoked across the network using standard REST technology like HTTP and XML or JSON. The canonical webhook examples are Paypal Instant Payment Notification and GitHub Post-Receive Hooks. In both cases, you register a custom notification URL with the system in question. Then, when something specific happens in the system, a message gets POSTed to the registered URL. In some scenarios, it’s a simple notification. For example, when GitHub receives a commmit push, it POSTs a JSON message about the commit to the registered URL. In other scenarios, the initial message is the start of an async conversation – the system expects you to POST a message back to them sometime in the future. For example, when a customer makes a payment, PayPal POSTs a message to the URL you registered. You then confirm the payment by posting a message back to a well known PayPal URL.

Note, by the way, that both of these canonical examples depend on async messaging. GitHub isn’t going to do anything with a response anyway, so there’s no point in sending them a response. PayPal, on the other hand, is expecting a response. Yet, they use async messaging instead of an arguably simpler HTTP request/response operation. They do this for same reason WS-Transaction is the Anti-Availability Protocol – the last thing you want to do is lock up precious resources in your system waiting for some nimrod on the other side of the Internet to respond to a request you sent. Instead you what PayPal does – send an async message, listen on a separate channel for a response, correlate the messages explicitly via some kind of conversation identifier and release your precious resources to do other work while you wait for the response.


As for PubSubHubbub, it’s focused on real time delivery of new information. Dave Winer’s recent RSS Cloud efforts focus on real-time notification as well. In both cases, instead of subscribers polling a given RSS feed for changes every X amount of time, they register for notification when the feed is updated. This is very similar to the way GitHub uses async messages for commit push notification as described above.

Both PubSubHubbub and RSS Cloud include an intermediary that’s responsible for managing the list of current subscribers and relaying the notification when the publisher makes a change.  Honestly, I’m not a fan of the Hub/Cloud intermediary – it feels a little too ESB-like to me. However, since it’s only relaying notifications it receives without transformation, I can live with it. Besides, there’s no reason why a publisher can’t act as it’s own hub. The vast number of blogs and twitter users have so few subscribers that the extra layer of abstraction is probably not worth it. On the other hand, if you’re going to run a notification hub for the largest users, you might as well use it for smaller ones as well.

While I think Mark’s laid the “new technology” hype on pretty thick, I do think he hits the nail on the head regarding the major new business opportunities that can come from adopting the heretofore ignored async messaging model on the web:

“This could be an open door for the content business…Using The Associated Press as an example, AP could post their stories to a HUB. In realtime, the HUB can update member websites so that they will always have information first, before any aggregator. It may not take long for aggregators to recognize the new data on the member sites, but they won’t have it first.

The New York Times could do the same thing. Subscribers could get everything first, in realtime. Then after some delay which might be 1 minute, it might be 30 minutes depending on what the paper thinks is the value related to timeliness, it could post on the website and on twitter and facebook as updates. Would NY Times online readers pay $1 a month to be guaranteed that they get their news first, before anyone else ? I dont know.

In the sports world, text based play by play websites could be updated in realtime rather than pulling every 30 seconds or requiring the user to hit refresh every few seconds.”

Arguably, this opportunity is easier to realize precisely because async messaging isn’t new technology. Getting people to adopt a new technology is incredibly hard. It’s much easier to get people to adopt a new pattern for using an existing technology. And async messaging has been possible as long as the web has been in existence.

Web Hooks and PubSubHubbub are long overdue but very welcome steps forward in the evolution of the Internet. I wonder what the barbarians will rediscover next?

  1. Of course, writing a prediction like this is a far sight from actually implementing it. If I had actually put some engineering effort behind this in 2003, maybe I’d be a household name in the tech community by now. On the other hand, I said some things in that same post that have turned out to be spectacularly incorrect (“Indigo is going to make Longhorn a great platform for SOA”) so it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. ↩︎


Hm, nice post, dude. But how do these two toolkits solve the NAT/Firewall issue? Without a solution to this they are pretty much useless in breadth usage. And don't get me started about the definition of 'real time' :) -Christian