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It's All About Platforms

While I'm indeed a big fan of the open-source approach to software development, there are definitely situations where an open-source approach would not benefit the parties involved. There are strong tradeoffs to this model, and returns are never guaranteed. A proper analysis requires asking yourself what your goals as a company are in the long term, as well as what your competitive advantages are today.

Let's start first with a discussion about Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), platforms, and standards. For the purposes of this essay, I'll wrap APIs (such as the Apache server API for building custom modules), on-the-wire protocols like HTTP, and operating system conventions (such as the way Linux organizes system files, or NT servers are administered) into the generic term ``platform.''

Win32, the collection of routines and facilities provided and defined by Microsoft for all Windows 95 and NT application developers, is a platform. If you intend to write an application for people to use on Windows, you must use this API. If you intend, as IBM once did with OS/2, to write an operating system which can run programs intended for MSWindows, you must implement the Win32 API in its entirety, as that's what Windows applications expect to be able to use.

Likewise, the Common Gateway Interface, or ``CGI,'' is a platform. The CGI specification allows web server developers to write scripts and programs that run behind a web server. CGI is a much much simpler platform than Win32, and of course does much less, but its existence was important to the web server market because it allowed application developers to write portable code, programs that would run behind any web server. Besides a few orders of magnitude in complexity, a key difference between CGI and Win32 was that no one really owned the CGI specification; it was simply something the major web servers implemented so that they could run each others' CGI scripts. Only after several years of use was it deemed worthwhile to define the CGI specification as an informational Request for Comments (RFCs) at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

A platform is what essentially defines a piece of software, any software, be it a web browser like Netscape, or be it Apache. Platforms enable people to build or use one piece of software on top of another, and are thus essential not just for the Internet space, where common platforms like HTTP and TCP/IP are what really facilitated the Internet's explosive growth, but are becoming more and more essential to consider within a computer environment, both in a server context and in an end-user client context.

In the Apache project, we were fortunate in that early on we developed an internal API to allow us to distinguish between the core server functionality (that of handling the TCP connections, child process management, and basic HTTP request handling) and almost all other higher-level functionality like logging, a module for CGI, server-side includes, security configuration, etc. Having a really powerful API has also allowed us to hand off other big pieces of functionality, such as mod_perl (an Apache module that bundles a Perl interpreter into Apache) and mod_jserv (which implements the Java Servlet API), to separate groups of committed developers. This freed the core development group from having to worry about building a ``monster'' to support these large efforts in addition to maintaining and improving the core of the server.

There are businesses built upon the model of owning software platforms. Such a business can charge for all use of this platform, whether on a standard software installation basis, or a pay-per-use basis, or perhaps some other model. Sometimes platforms are enforced by copyright; other times platforms are obfuscated by the lack of a written description for public consumption; other times they are evolved so quickly, sometimes other than for technical reasons, that others who attempt to provide such a platform fail to keep up and are perceived by the market as ``behind'' technologically speaking, even though it's not a matter of programming.

Such a business model, while potentially beneficial in the short term for the company who owns such a platform, works against the interests of every other company in the industry, and against the overall rate of technological evolution. Competitors might have better technology, better services, or lower costs, but are unable to use those benefits because they don't have access to the platform. On the flip side, customers can become reliant upon a platform and, when prices rise, be forced to decide between paying a little more in the short run to stick with the platform, or spending a large quantity of money to change to a different platform, which may save them money in the long run.

Computers and automation have become so ingrained and essential to day-to-day business that a sensible business should not rely on a single vendor to provide essential services. Having a choice of service means not just having the freedom to choose; a choice must also be affordable. The switching cost is an important aspect to this freedom to choose. Switching costs can be minimized if switching software does not necessitate switching platforms. Thus it is always in a customers' interests to demand that the software they deploy be based on non-proprietary platforms.

This is difficult to visualize for many people because classic economics, the supply and demand curves we were all taught in high school, are based on the notion that products for sale have a relatively scalable cost -- that to sell ten times as much product, the cost of raw goods to a vendor typically rises somewhere on the order of ten times as well. No one could have foreseen the dramatic economy of scale that software exhibits, the almost complete lack of any direct correlation between the amount of effort it takes to produce a software product and the number of people who can thus purchase and use it.

A reference body of open-source software that implements a wire protocol or API is more important to the long-term health of that platform than even two or three independent non-open-source implementations. Why is this? Because a commercial implementation can always be bought by a competitor, removing it from the market as an alternative, and thus destroying the notion that the standard was independent. It can also serve as an academic frame of reference for comparing implementations and behaviors.

There are organizations like the IETF and the W3C who do a more-or-less excellent job of providing a forum for multiparty standards development. They are, overall, effective in producing high-quality architectures for the way things should work over the Internet. However, the long-term success of a given standard, and the widespread use of such a standard, are outside of their jurisdiction. They have no power to force member organizations to create software that implements the protocols they define faithfully. Sometimes, the only recourse is a body of work that shows why a specific implementation is correct.

For example, in December of 1996, AOL made a slight change to their custom HTTP proxy servers their customers use to access web sites. This ``upgrade'' had a cute little political twist to it: when AOL users accessed a web site using the Apache 1.2 server, at that time only a few months old and implementing the new HTTP/1.1 specification, they were welcomed with this rather informative message:

The Web address you requested is not available in a version supported by AOL. This is an issue with the Web site, and not with AOL. The owner of this site is using an unsupported HTTP language. If you receive this message frequently, you may want to set your web graphics preferences to COMPRESSED at Keyword: PREFERENCES
Alarmed at this ``upgrade,'' Apache core developers circled the wagons and analyzed the situation. A query to AOL's technical team came back with the following explanation:
New HTTP/1.1 web servers are starting to generate HTTP/1.1 responses to HTTP/1.0 requests when they should be generating only HTTP/1.0 responses. We wanted to stem the tide of those faults proliferating and becoming a de facto standard by blocking them now. Hopefully the authors of those web servers will change their software to only generate HTTP/1.1 responses when an HTTP/1.1 request is submitted.
Unfortunately AOL engineers were under the mistaken assumption that HTTP/1.1 responses were not backward-compatible with HTTP/1.0 clients or proxies. They are; HTTP was designed to be backward-compatible within minor-number revisions. But the specification for HTTP/1.1 is so complex that a less than thorough reading may lead one to have concluded this was not the case, especially with the HTTP/1.1 document that existed at the end of 1996.

So we Apache developers had a choice -- we could back down and give HTTP/1.0 responses to HTTP/1.0 requests, or we could follow the specification. Roy Fielding, the ``HTTP cop'' in the group, was able to clearly show us how the software's behavior at the time was correct and beneficial; there would be cases where HTTP/1.0 clients may wish to upgrade to an HTTP/1.1 conversation upon discovering that a server supported 1.1. It was also important to tell proxy servers that even if the first request they proxied to an origin server they saw was 1.0, the origin server could also support 1.1.

It was decided that we'd stick to our guns and ask AOL to fix their software. We suspected that the HTTP/1.1 response was actually causing a problem with their software that was due more to sloppy programming practices on their part than to bad protocol design. We had the science behind our decision. What mattered most was that Apache was at that point on 40% of the web servers on the Net, and Apache 1.2 was on a very healthy portion of those, so they had to decide whether it was easier to fix their programming mistakes or to tell their users that some 20% or more of the web sites on the Internet were inaccessible through their proxies. On December 26th, we published a web page detailing the dispute, and publicized its existence not just to our own user base, but to several major news outlets as well, such as C|Net and Wired, to justify our actions.

AOL decided to fix their software. Around the same time, we announced the availability of a ``patch'' for sites that wanted to work around the AOL problem until it was rectified, a patch that degraded responses to HTTP/1.0 for AOL. We were resolute that this was to remain an ``unofficial'' patch, with no support, and that it would not be made a default setting in the official distribution.

There have been several other instances where vendors of other HTTP products (including both Netscape and Microsoft) had interoperability issues with Apache; in many of those cases, there was a choice the vendor had to make between expending the effort to fix their bug, or writing off any sites which would become inoperable because of it. In many cases a vendor would implement the protocol improperly but consistently on their clients and servers. The result was an implementation that worked fine for them, but imperfectly at best with either a client or server from another vendor. This is much more subtle than even the AOL situation, as the bug may not be apparent or even significant to the majority of people using this software -- and thus the long-term ramifications of such a bug (or additional bugs compounding the problem) may not be seen until it's too late.

Were there not an open-source and widely used reference web server like Apache, it's entirely conceivable that these subtle incompatibilities could have grown and built upon each other, covered up by mutual blame or Jedi mind tricks (``We can't repeat that in the lab... .''), where the response to ``I'm having problem when I connect vendor X browser to vendor Y server'' is, ``Well, use vendor Y client and it'll be all better.'' At the end of this process we would have ended up with two (or more) World Wide Webs -- one that was built on vendor X web servers, the other on vendor Y servers, and each would only work with their respective vendors' clients. There is ample historic precedence for this type of anti-standard activity, a policy (``locking in'') which is encoded as a basic business practice of many software companies.

Of course this would have been a disaster for everyone else out there -- the content providers, service providers, software developers, and everyone who needed to use HTTP to communicate would have had to maintain two separate servers for their offerings. While there may have been technical customer pressure to ``get along together,'' the contrary marketing pressure to ``innovate, differentiate, lead the industry, define the platform'' would have kept either party from attempting to commodify their protocols.

We did, in fact, see such a disaster with client-side JavaScript. There was such a big difference in behavior between different browsers, even within different beta versions of the same browser, that developers had to create code that would detect different revisions and give different behavior -- something that added significantly more development time to interactive pages using JavaScript. It wasn't until the W3C stepped in and laid the groundwork for a Document Object Model (DOM) that we actually saw a serious attempt at creating a multiparty standard around JavaScript.

There are natural forces in today's business world that drive for deviation when a specification is implemented by closed software. Even an accidental misreading of a common specification can cause a deviation if not corrected quickly.

Thus, I argue that building your services or products on top of a standards-based platform is good for the stability of your business processes. The success of the Internet has not only shown how common platforms help facilitate communication, it has also forced companies to think more about how to create value in what gets communicated, rather than trying to take value out of the network itself.

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Last updated: 1999-08-06