A Really Simple Way to Distribute Data

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 2006-02-07 Print this article Print

RSS is a blogger's best friend. Now it's set to offer aid to the enterprise.

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is all the rage in the blogosphere, but beyond being a nifty publishing and subscription tool for bloggers, RSS is likely to play a significant role in distributing data across the enterprise.

Ray Ozzie, the developer of Lotus Notes, in his new role as chief technology officer at Microsoft, has publicly embraced RSS as a key technology for delivering services via the company's nascent Windows Live and Office Live services platforms. And as you begin to read some of the postings by Microsoft bloggers, it's pretty clear that they already see RSS as not just a publish-and-subscribe tool, but rather as a piece of middleware that solves a lot of the problems associated with distributing data across multiple clients and servers.

RSS, by definition, is a syndication format that makes it easy for users to aggregate updates to blogs and pull relevant news stories from Web sites. But at its core, RSS is just a method of transferring data that can be applied to any enterprise application, by creating channels that link specific users to certain subsets of data that can be automatically updated using a subscription model.

While Microsoft may be the first major software company to embrace RSS, other businesses have been pioneering the use of RSS to distribute data in the enterprise.

For example, Rentals.com, a Web site that connects potential renters with property managers, has a pilot project that uses RSS to distribute leads to property managers. The company's new computer telephony application, developed under the guidance of president John DeLatte, records requests from potential renters, who call an 800 number, to a database run by Rentals.com. The database then compares each request with a list of property managers who have locations and properties matching the request, and sends the lead to the appropriate manager via an RSS feed set up for that manager.

What makes this approach unique is that it allows Rentals.com to build a service-oriented architecture on its servers without extending programming code to the client. This greatly simplifies the support requirements of the application while opening it up to thin or rich clients, regardless of whether it's Macintosh, Windows 98, Windows XP or even a mobile computing client.

Dave Winer, one of the original developers of RSS in the late 1990s, has continued to roll out new tools such as an RSS Feed Manager that make it easier to aggregate and share data feeds on a regular basis. And as those tools become more robust, RSS will become more interesting for distributing data feeds across a large number of applications.

There are a lot people in the land of programming who cast a skeptical eye on RSS because it's not an elegant approach to data integration. In fact, RSS can consume a fair amount of bandwidth and processing time. But as Moore's Law continues to drive processor development, the amount of processing time something consumes will head toward irrelevancy. And in the meantime, bandwidth has become steadily less expensive.

So, the choice facing project managers building applications is whether they want to use something like Microsoft .NET or Java to distribute data to clients, or a technology like RSS that is simpler to support and less expensive to deploy.

Winer has repeatedly said that it's only a matter of time before RSS not only becomes the dominant method for distributing data to clients, but also replaces the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) messaging standard in the Web services stack because RSS will be the more prevalent option. And since Winer also led the development work on SOAP, he's probably got the best handle on which of those two efforts is going to maintain the most amount of momentum.

There's no doubt that numerous vendor-led standards bodies have taken umbrage with Winer's sweeping claims, but thus far he has been able to dismiss his critics simply by pointing to adoption rates that seem to indicate RSS is well on its way to becoming a de facto standard.

And with Ray Ozzie also on the bandwagon, the weight behind RSS as a tool for distributing data is about 10 times greater today than it was at this time last year, and will probably be another 100 times greater a year from now.

Michael Vizard is editorial director at ziff davis media's enterprise technology group. He can be reached at michael_vizard@ziffdavis.com.


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