Rich Web Application Backplane

W3C Coordination Group Note 16 November 2006

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Mark Birbeck, x-port.net
John Boyer, IBM
Al Gilman, W3C Invited Expert
Kevin Kelly, IBM
Steven Pemberton, CWI, W3C
Charlie Wiecha, IBM


This paper introduces the concept of a "Rich Web Application Backplane" -- a set of common building blocks for web applications. We argue that submission, data models, model-view binding and behavior, and web components can provide a common infrastructure for multiple markup formats. Further, we propose a common infrastructure for both declarative and imperative web programming languages. By aligning APIs and their declarative representations, we hope to support both implementation approaches and increase interoperability between them.

Status of this Document

This paper has been released by the W3C Hypertext Coordination Group to stimulate discussion of common building blocks for web applications. The paper contains preliminary thoughts and is intended as a starting point for further conversation and collaboration among interested Working Groups.

This section describes the status of this document at the time of its publication. Other documents may supersede this document. A list of current W3C publications and the latest revision of this technical report can be found in the W3C technical reports index at http://www.w3.org/TR/.

Publication as a Coordination Group Note does not imply endorsement by the W3C Membership. This is a draft document and may be updated, replaced or obsoleted by other documents at any time. It is inappropriate to cite this document as other than work in progress.

The disclosure obligations of the Participants of this group are described in the charter.

Comments on this document are welcome. Please send them to the public mailing list public-backplane-comments@w3.org (archive).

This document was produced under the 24 January 2002 CPP as amended by the W3C Patent Policy Transition Procedure.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction
2 What is the Rich Web Application Backplane?
3 Submission
4 Data Model
5 Events and Lifecycle
6 Use cases
7 Accessibility
8 Discussion
9 Conclusion

1 Introduction

Web 2.0 combines a desire for increasing interactivity and responsiveness in Web applications, together with a desire to drive an exponentially growing source of applications through component-based (e.g. “mash-up”) rather than monolithic design methods. Interactivity and responsiveness result largely from asynchronous programming methods where the traditional page replacement design is replaced by enhanced client-side processing and incremental server interactions. Server interactions may either refresh data or presentation controls, without the disruption in end-user experience caused by complete page replacement. Component-based designs have resulted from the increasing trend of web authors to expose APIs within their client-side code, allowing for downstream (i.e. after page-generation) extension of those components with value-added data or presentation elements – not anticipated or controlled by the original page author.

There are a number of efforts underway in the W3C today that are oriented toward increasing web application responsiveness and/or toward supporting composition-based programming models. The Web Apps APIs WG has in its charter extensions to XMLHTTP, the backbone of AJAX applications. XForms has an asynchronous <submission> element which similarly is used to incrementally refresh content between its data model and the server. This paper proposes that there are a number of such common building blocks underlying web application design that cut across boundaries of working groups, boundaries of namespaces (XHTML, XForms, SVG, VoiceXML, etc), and that cut across boundaries of procedural (e.g. scripting) vs. declarative programming styles. By working toward a common definition of those building blocks, which we call a “rich web application backplane” we can support a more pluggable and composable infrastructure for web developers, without constraining their choice of namespace or programming technology, and hence accelerate the ecosystem of web 2.0 developers.

2 What is the Rich Web Application Backplane?

In the introduction, above, we began by identifying one element of the backplane: a common approach to “submission”. To be common across both scripting and declarative programming models, this component should define a lifecycle of events which can be driven by either script-based or declarative handlers. In much the same way as the DOM event API has been aligned with XML Events, the submission behavior can be defined consistently for both programming styles allowing developers to choose their preferred implementation technologies – and indeed to combine them in a single application with coherent behavior.

Other components that might be valuable as common web client infrastructure in the backplane are shown in Figure 1, below. They include an XML-based data model with associated support for validation and transformation handlers. As in the case with submission, the goal here would be to understand the underlying lifecycle of a data model – value change, validate, change-notify – rather than picking a single instance representation or schema language. The common lifecycle allows for application fragments (potentially still built with different technologies) to be composed more readily by plugging into a shared backplane of behavior.

Toward a common backplane for rich web applications
Figure 1: Rich Web Application Backplane

Perhaps the key aspect of the rich web backplane shown in Figure 1, above, is not a component itself but the data binding expressions and event lifecycle supporting their behavior across components. Data binding expressions can be used within and across the “model”, “view”, and/or “controller” of a web page. The figure shows an extensible set of view namespaces using a common data binding notation and lifecycle to connect to their model. Note that the figure does not mean to imply necessarily that multiple namespaces are present in any given page, just that view technologies build off a shared approach to data binding. Note also that data binding is likely a key aspect of the backplane even for web pages that do not adopt a formal MVC design pattern – for example dynamically to relate properties in one view element to another.

Finally, we suggest that the backplane could support a “loose coupling” style of interaction among components. By plugging into the backplane, and listening to and raising data change events on it, mash-ups might be created with fewer dependencies on the internal design of their embedded components. New controller languages, like the State-Chart XML being defined in the Voice Browser WG, could further simplify the job of responding to events on the backplane and hence help mash-up authoring become possible for increasing numbers of developers.

3 Submission

What is submission? At its most general submission first serializes some data to send…then sends it to some end-point…and gets various events to track progress…before receiving some data back.

A typical use for submission is to send data using HTML and VoiceXML forms; however this usually replaces the ‘current form’ and hence is disruptive to user experience. See the figure "HTML submit".

HTML submit
                namelist="name rank serial_number" 

A second use is to send and receive data in Ajax, where authors usually try not to replace the current page, as in the figure "AJAX server interaction" below.

AJAX server interaction
var req;
function loadXMLDoc(url) {
// native XMLHttpRequest object
if (window.XMLHttpRequest)
        req = new XMLHttpRequest();
        req.onreadystatechange = readyStateChange;
        // IE/Windows ActiveX version
        } else if (window.ActiveXObject)
                req = new ActiveXObject("Microsoft.XMLHTTP");
        if (req)
r                eq.onreadystatechange = readyStateChange;
                req.open("GET", url, true);

function readyStateChange() {
        // '4' means document "loaded"
    if (req.readyState == 4)
                // 200 means "OK"
                if (req.status == 200)
                        // do something here
            } else  {
            // error processing here

XForms defines an abstract submission layer with one element, <submission>. Data and submission are separated in the model, allowing for multiple policies for serialisation, validation, and relevance to be applied to the same data as appropriate.

XForms submission lifecycle includes events for start, done, and error. Using these events, one submission can be easily triggered by the success of another. See the figure "XForms submission", which illustrates the use of XForms to replace model data incrementally without a disruptive page refresh.

XForms submission

So what’s missing to bring these two approaches together? At least the following:

4 Data Model

The role of the data model in a Rich Web application is to serve as a bridge between end-users and the business services with which they interact. An XML data model can be seen as a mobile agent that carries with it selected business rules (e.g. bind statements in XForms) for interacting both with humans on the front-end and with a service-oriented architecture (SOA) on the back-end. Such intelligent XML objects provide value through improving interactivity on the client by moving validation closer to the point of contact with the user. They also allow for selected business rules to be carried with their associated data providing validation during disconnected use.

It is important to stress that all applications may not require the full set of function outlined here. We propose a modularized definition of a data model for the Rich Web application backplane that includes the following features:

We look below at a series of use cases that involve increasing levels of these data model features.

5 Events and Lifecycle

Within W3C and outside, much use is being made of events and event handling. Specs such as HTML and XForms use events as the hook for adding interactive functionality, and defining the processing model through sequences of events.

And then there are:

Events are important to many groups, especially those related to interactive content. Groups that are clearly involved include: HTML, Forms, SVG, WAI, Voice, SYMM, DI, CDF and Web API. What is needed is a unified approach across W3C, preferably in a generic way so that compound documents can operate in a consistent manner.

Topics that have to be addressed in the events area include:

As an example of the above topics, when addressing device independence we need to consider the difference between a click on a link and activating a link (which can happen via different approaches). Similarly you want to unlink the connection between how someone scrolls down, and the act of scrolling down, or how someone asks for help, or exits, and so on. This topic is closely related to accessibility for events as well.

A second example from the above list is XML-generic markup for handlers. HTML/XHTML/SVG have markup for binding to handlers via <script>. XML Events is a generic syntactic binding to DOM 2 events, but it is (deliberately) vague about what a handler looks like. We need a W3C-wide markup for handlers.

A backplane for event handling would be based on DOM 3 events, and allow a multi-namespace document to communicate over all the subparts using the same event mechanism.

6 Use cases

Having considered what we might propose for a backplane’s submission, data model, or lifecycle, let’s now look at a few use cases of the framework shown in figure 1 above. To emphasize that elements of the backplane must be useful individually, without requiring adoption or buy-in to the broader framework, we’ll begin by looking at submission processing alone. Then we show how the introduction of an XML data model – with or without associated validation processing – adds incremental value. Adding data binding and update events comes next, either to coordinate changes within or across model and view components. Finally, loose coupling is considered by adoption of a coarser-grained web component model again linked by data binding and change events on the backplane.

6.1 Asynchronous client-server interaction and <submission>

Figure 2 is a high-level schematic of a common AJAX use case, in which page content is updated incrementally to respond to some user action. In this example, the US “1040” tax form is augmented with an additional tab to help the user complete verify whether a dependent child is eligible for a tax exemption or not. In the example a focus event on the child’s name field could be used to trigger a handler that would then interact with the submission object to pull the HTML markup for the exemption tab and when it arrives to then insert it into the running form at the appropriate point likely under the root <div> tag of the form.

Figure 2: non-MVC asynchronous submission
Figure 2: non-MVC asynchronous submission

This is a fairly conventional use case for AJAX developers. The point here, however, is to propose that as a community we converge the API and event lifecycle of the submission object with its declarative representation – in a follow-on to the XForms <submission> tag. Having done so, then developers will be free to write either script-based handlers for the above logic or implement it using a declarative action markup such as in XForms.

It is likely over time that complex web applications such as this tax example will actually be authored by multiple organizations and run as a composite application, or mash-up. The base 1040 form, for example, might be provided by the US Internal Revenue Service. The “wizard” for computing child exemption eligibility, however, might be provided by a third party tax advisor such as Kiplinger or H and R Block. Different organizations may make different choices among programming models, markups, and declarative vs. script-based implementations. A converged API and event lifecycle for components such as submission will be key to bringing such separately developed code fragments together easily into a coherent overall application.

6.2 Submission coupled with XML data model

Figure 3 extends the asynchronous view update in the first example by introducing XML data models for the real-time locations of commuter trains in Dublin – which are to be overlaid on the corresponding map provided by, for example, Google, Yahoo, or another web mapping service. The interaction between client and server is unchanged from the above example and uses the same submission object as before. The introduction of a data model separate from its view allows for “headless” applications such as this one in which the consuming component essentially has only a model and controller, and is reusing the map component’s view for its purposes as well.

Figure 3: Introducing a data model
Figure 3: Introducing a data model

We outlined in more detail above the services that an XML model adds to the rich web backplane. In addition to storage for data instance values, the model might provide validation through an associated schema (using various notations) and/or non-schema constraints such as those in XForms <bind> expressions. The model will likely define its own event-based lifecycle which, as in the submission component, allows associated handlers to track the progress of model value changes and validation.

6.3 Data binding and update lifecycle

Most applications have their own views to present and interact with data in associated models, and hence require a binding notation and update lifecycle for coordinating changes between model and view. Figure 4 introduces the notion of a “container” or page lifecycle – a standard series of events triggered either by view updates to the model or inversely by model changes perhaps triggered by asynchronous updates from the server or associated mash-up component.

Figure 4: Introducing MVC design with update events
Figure 4: Introducing MVC design with update events

By linking multiple views to a common, shared, data model the example in Figure 4 also suggests that this page lifecycle can be an effective means to coordinate behavior across a number of cooperating components – without requiring explicit wiring pairwise among those components to achieve their coordination. This is a clear benefit of a “backplane”- oriented architecture in that it replaces O(n^2) view to view wirings with O(n) wirings between each view and its associated data.

6.4 Loose coupling of web components

The final use case, shown in Figure 5, takes the loose coupling idea one step further. Some applications built from multiple components, as is the case for multimodal interaction for example, may require variations on the data models used by each component. An approach whereby they bind directly to a single shared data model may not provide the flexibility required. Figure 5 supports this use case by allowing for multiple models to be plugged into the parent web page backplane and for an event-based lifecycle similar to that in the previous example to coordinate data changes among the multiple models in a manner similar to that used for model to view updates.

Figure 5: Loose coupling of web components
Figure 5: Loose coupling of web components

7 Accessibility

In order to afford functional and usable web applications we must support the user in orientation, actuation, and use. Orientation refers to a user's ability to answer questions such as: where am I?, what is there?, and what can I do? Actuation means the ability to control the application via an extensible set of input modes, including keyboard and by driving the application by automation from related add-on components -- in effect altering the "Where am I" point above. To be usable an application must afford a low task failure rate and reasonable task completion time.

To be accessible, the function and usability of the application has to survive gaps in the abilities of the human user. It can't be critically dependent on any modality of display or actuation. And it has to be held together in a sufficiently flexible and overtly explained way so that the orientation still hangs together under altered conditions of display or input.

A general requirement on Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) is that they both optimize direct, or in-built accessibility, and also support accessibility by affording compatibility with assistive technology (AT). Assistive technologies provide alternative navigation, presentation, and interaction modes with the underlying content of installed applications. They do so with the aid of technical contracts in the form of APIs that have been established by the application development platforms, operating systems and sometimes programming languages, to create a crossbar-switch combinability between applications and assitive technologies. Web applications need to participate in this compatibility.

Unfortunately, the way rich web applications have grown up using script to add interactive behavior to web pages, the communication with the platform accessibility APIs has been lost. Browsers can map the stable semantics of HTML elements to the accessibility APIs, but the scripted behaviors are opaque in this regard. There is inadequate information shared to construct the binding of the application to the API.

The Accessible Dynamic Web Content Roadmap identifies missing functionality in current web development methods and defines document schemas and ontologies to better support web developers in authoring accessible content. It gets enough information about scripted widgets into the web page in recognizable form so the browser can connect the application with the accessibility API of whatever platform it is running on. The Roadmap document focuses on getting the core functionality -- communication with the accessibility API in the operating environment -- restored with a minimum of change in the programming style of the application developer.

The backplane concept developed here is a bit more ambitious -- implement reusable functionality that the application developer will thank you for, not just what she will ask you for. A backplane for rich web applications has the opportunity not only to do it, but do it 'right.' Re-engineer the internals to capitalize on what XML, the DOM, XML Events, etc. give us.

The roadmap identifies platform requirements for authoring accessible content such as the need to surface application states and properties via a well-defined API such as provided by the XML DOM. The roadmap defines ontologies of the XHTML role attribute to establish essential communication between interactive web content and assistive technologies that need to understand that content and what it is doing as it interacts with the user.

The backplane aims to support an application development style in which components can be reused by application developers who didn't develop the components. This requires a certain management level of visibility into the components -- adequate for planning successful compositions. [In addition to the binding glue to carry out the composition.] The information that this downstream application developer needs in order to plan successful compositions, and the information the assistive technology needs to assure successful orientation and actuation in the user's adapted delivery context, are very much the same. In our development of a methodology and supporting technology for recombinant application components, we will find that often assistive technology has pioneered in functional areas we need. The accessibility APIs and the information that they expect from appliications are a case in point.

Communicating with the assistive technologies is functionality that is widely needed but lightly exercised. This makes it natural to allocate this functionality to underlying infrastructure such as the backplane we contemplate here. Delivering full-function compatibility with assistive technology, while at the same time maximizing the direct accessibility of the Web is a W3C imperative. The good news is that this is a clever way to assure the robustness of the backplane contract with its customers, the component- and application-developers. This robustness could well be essential for the success of the backplane as a network-effect must-have platform.

8 Discussion

8.1 I don’t believe in declarative languages, why should I care about this backplane stuff?

We hope this paper has clarified that the backplane is not about declarative vs. procedural languages. For a variety of valid reasons, web applications will continue to be developed in both script-based and declarative languages. The goal of the backplane is to allow these components to work together in the mash-ups becoming increasingly important in high-function web applications. The approach we propose is to align APIs and the lifecycle/behavior of declarative languages (e.g. DOM events and XML events, XMLHTTP and XForms submission) to make possible their interoperability.

8.2 Why aren’t you talking about Web Application formats as well?

We believe there are a number of valid reasons why a variety of markup and indeed non-markup formats will continue exist for presentation (view) technologies. SVG will exist alongside HTML, alongside VoiceXML for obvious reasons. Even within the GUI space, some platforms will have their own markup formats that make sense for their communities or presentation styles – for example XML representations of Eclipse rich client widgets. This, this paper isn’t about picking one markup format but understanding the underlying integration technologies which will make it easier for them to operate together.

8.3 This MVC stuff has been tried before and never works. If I don’t use it why should I care about the Rich Web Backplane?

The backplane does not require adoption of an MVC page design. See the above use cases for examples where the backplane can add value even to non-MVC page designs – in particular through a common approach to submission behavior.

8.4 What really is the backplane if it allows for all these variations among view namespaces and declarative vs. scripting programming styles?

The backplane is about the integration infrastructure that allows the multiple pieces of a web page to compose. The key features include a common page lifecycle (e.g. page load, submission), data model behavior (instantiation, instance change, validate), and pluggable view and controller technologies (binding to data model, refresh notification). These features should enable an increased ability to build web apps by composition rather than from scratch – which in turn drive an increased number and greater functionality of web apps.

8.5 Doesn’t the backplane require a big leap of faith among developers?

We should learn from the “Microformats” or RDF/A lesson here and provide easy on-ramps for backplane adoption. In the W3C community, we might start with some separable technologies such as the alignment between XMLHttp and declarative submission behavior. A common data model, binding notation, and model-view update events is another example. Over time, we could then work toward more complete framework as the value of the backplane is demonstrated by uptake in vendor and open source developer communities.

9 Conclusion

This paper has presented the concept of a set of common building block technologies that would aid in the integration and composition of web applications leveraging W3C formats and APIs. We have described a progressive approach to exploring and defining such technologies based essentially on dialog and collaboration across multiple communities, both in the W3C and eventually in open source and vendor communities as well. Importantly, we have tried to embrace a range of formats and languages by focusing on APIs, event lifecycles, and component models rather than declarative vs. imperative language choices.

We hope you take this paper in the spirit with which it was intended...rather than seeking detailed agreement on its technical content, our main goal has been to initiate a conversation. We hope you will participate in this conversation, perhaps by suggesting and helping organize follow-on activities to make a Web Backplane more than just the vision we have introduced here!