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Ramifications of WebDAV's property design decisions

From: Yaron Goland <yarong@microsoft.com>
Date: Wed, 23 Dec 1998 16:30:06 -0800
Message-ID: <3FF8121C9B6DD111812100805F31FC0D08792BEE@RED-MSG-59>
To: "'Slein, Judith A'" <JSlein@crt.xerox.com>, "Masinter, Larry <masinter@parc.xerox.com>" <masinter@parc.xerox.com>, Jim Davis <jdavis@parc.xerox.com>, w3c-dist-auth@w3.org
This e-mail investigates the ramifications of WebDAV's property design
choices. I will be putting out a separate e-mail which will discuss how we
ended up with this design and what we can do to help future groups avoid the
same fate.

<Design Principals>
The essential error WebDAV made was in allowing for the existence of live
properties. As is being discovered, live properties cover a lot of ground.
From properties that seem natural and obvious, such as getcontentlength, to
protocol related information hammered into the property mechanism, such as
the lockdiscovery property.

But both are in WebDAV because of performance issues in HTTP. Those are the
issues I discuss in my second e-mail. Until those issues are resolved we
will have to deal with the design problems I discuss below.

As a side note, one can argue that both properties should be available so
that DASL can search them. There is no requirement that DASL limit its
search scope to just properties. DASL is free to search on any aspect of a
resource, not all of them expressed through properties.
</Design Principals>

The first error is the use of side effects from setting a property's value
as a mechanism to alter the state of a resource. This error was avoided in
the WebDAV protocol but I fully expect many people will find the siren call
of sneaking in some functionality through PROPPATCH too hard to resist.

HTTP already provides a mechanism for causing state changes in a resource,
it is called a method. Using property side effects is really nothing more
than tunneling a state change request through a PROPPATCH. There is no
difference between this and tunneling through HTTP using the POST method.
Both essentially require that a new protocol be invented and thus rob the
user of that new protocol of the features and infrastructure already built
into HTTP.

Some claim they can avoid the first error by only using properties to
provide read-only functional data. This is the error that WebDAV made.
However, HTTP already provides a mechanism to interrogate a resource, as
before, it is called a method. By overloading properties with read-only
functional data we kill functional severability in the server.

For example, one may want to purchase PROPFIND/PROPPATCH support for one's
store from Vendor A and LOCK support for the same store from Vendor B.
WebDAV's design makes this purchase decision almost impossible. Vendor A and
B must have some agreement with each other so that someone performing Vendor
A's PROPFIND can obtain the lockdiscovery property in order to use Vendor
B's LOCK implementation. Because both implementations were written to work
with the same store, there should be no reason for them to have to interact
at the protocol level. It is the store that enforces locks, the LOCK
implementation just exposes the store's features. But because WebDAV made
the design mistake of mixing functional data into properties, this
severability isn't possible.

The unfortunate ramifications of our bad design choice is that there will
probably have to be some sort of standard (unofficial or otherwise) to allow
"hooking in" to PROPFIND/PROPPATCH support by server extensions. I don't
even want to think of the performance ramifications.

<Is it live or is it Memorex?>
A third abuse of the system, one WebDAV managed to avoid, is interpreting
the existence of a property as functional data. Imagine, for example, that
one retrieved a lockdiscovery property from a resource and therefore assumed
that the resource supported locking. What if that resource is really just
level 1 compliant and the lockdiscovery property is there because of a COPY
or is there because of a buggy client? Without the server standing guard any
insane client could come up and set that property. The lesson is that one
must always proactively check that a property is live. In the case of the
lockdiscovery property this is achieved by performing OPTIONS and checking
for the DAV header. If it contains a 2 then one knows that dav:lockdiscovery
property is live.

I know that some have suggested that we have an explicit mechanism to
determine if a particular property is live. While I can imagine that DASL
might have some interest in such a feature, I think for general usage it is
inappropriate. As the WebDAV design principal "It is required or it is not
in the spec" indicates, clients do not look for functionality piece meal.
They aren't going to go to a server and ask "Are creationdate, displayname,
getcontentlanguage, getcontentlength, getcontenttype, getetag,
getlastmodified, resourcetype and source all live on your server?" They are
going to ask for the DAV header.
</Is it live or is it Memorex?>

There is one last feature that one could claim gives legitimacy to live
properties, this is schema enforcement. LDAP is the canonical example, it
provides a mechanism to say things like "This property must be an integer"
or "If this property is defined then so must this property be defined."

The working group has looked at this issue in the past and wisely choose to
ignore it until the WebDAV standard had settled down a bit. I think there is
an excellent argument to be made for schema support in WebDAV. The reason
being that this feature does not require a server to understand or enforce
the "meaning" of a property, as functional properties often require. Rather
the server is only required to blindly enforce a set of well defined
syntactic rules. Such an enforcement mechanism can act in complete
isolation, thus not violating the rule of severability.

The easy conclusion is to declare that live properties are just bad design
and to ban them. But there are very serious problems in the HTTP protocol
which lead to WebDAV's property design. Until these issues are addressed we
can not realistically demand that people cease from this bad design

I look forward to the day when these HTTP issues are resolved, alternative
mechanisms are provided for the functional data now in WebDAV and we declare
DAV's properties to be officially deprecated.
Received on Wednesday, 23 December 1998 19:30:10 GMT

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