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Services and the Promise of Loose Coupling

Services are often described as being loosely coupled. However, the definitions for this term are varied and cover a broad array of concerns. Coupling is the degree to which some entity (e.g., client) depends on another entity. When the dependencies are many, the coupling is said to be high or tight (e.g., high coupling, tightly coupled). Conversely, when the dependencies are few, coupling is considered to be low or loose (e.g., low coupling, loosely coupled).

It is certainly true that web services can eliminate the client's dependencies on the underlying technologies used by a service. However, clients and services can never be completely decoupled. Some degree of coupling will always exist and is often necessary. The following list describes a few forms of coupling that service designers must consider.

  • Function coupling: Clients expect services to consistently produce certain results given certain types of input under particular scenarios. Clients are therefore indirectly dependent on the logic implemented by web services. The client will most certainly be affected if this logic is implemented incorrectly or is changed to produce results that are not in accordance with the client's expectations.
  • Data structure coupling: Clients must understand the data structures that a service receives and returns, the data types used in these structures, and the character encodings (e.g., Unicode) used in messages. If a data structure provides links to related services, the client must know how to parse the structure for that information. The client may also need to know what HTTP status codes the service returns. Service developers must be careful to refrain from including platform-specific data types (e.g., dates) in data structures.
  • Temporal coupling: A high degree of temporal coupling exists when a request must be processed as soon as it's received. The implication is that the systems (e.g., databases, legacy or packaged applications, etc.) behind the service must always be operational. Temporal coupling can be reduced if the time at which a request is processed can be deferred. Web services can achieve this outcome with the Request/Acknowledge pattern (59). Temporal coupling is also high if the client must block and wait for a response. Clients may use the Asynchronous Response Handler pattern (184) to reduce this form of coupling.
  • URI coupling: Clients are often tightly coupled to service URIs. That is, they often either have a static URI for a service, or follow a simple set of rules to construct a service URI. Unfortunately, this can make it difficult for service owners to move or rename service URIs, or to adopt new patterns for URI construction since actions like these would likely cause clients to break. The following patterns can help to reduce the client's coupling to the service's URI and location: Linked Service (77), Service Connector (168), Registry (220), and Virtual Service (222).
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