GoogleIt Mail IT Print IT PermaLinkHow Should IBM React To The End Of Proprietary File Formats?
07:58:09 PM
Written By : Richard SchwartzCategory : IBM Lotus Notes And Domino
Location : Nashua, NH

Microsoft has announced that the default file format Office 12 applications will be XML. This is big news. The full structure of Word, Excel, and Powerpoint documents will be visible, open, wide open. Anyone can look at and use the schemas, and anyone can manipulate Office data without having to use a Microsoft SDK or API.

Please mull over that last point for a few seconds.

It means that Microsoft is giving up API-level control of Office data.


The quesstion I want to ask is this: Is the IBM Workplace architecture alone, as it stands today, sufficient response to what Microsoft is doing at either a technical or strategic level? I have to admit that I'm still not up to speed enough on Workplace to form a definitive opinion on this. My gut reaction is that it isn't, or at least that it will not be perceived as being equally open. I could be wrong about that, and I'll give you the standard that I think should be applied to proving me wrong. If IBM is (or will be) publishing sufficient information to enable developers to manipulate natively-stored Workplace data without using any IBM APIs or back-end servers, then Workplace should be judged on a par with Office 12's openness.

This leads me to another part of the question, a little nearer and dearer to my heart, actually. What about Notes and Domino? IBM has clearly revived Notes and Domino and made them an integral part of the Workplace strategy, but if there's a poster child for proprietary data formats I'd have to say that NSF is probably one of the leading candidates. Does Microsoft's move to open up, by default, Office 12 data to the point that there is no lock-in to their application software or APIs mean that IBM needs to similarly open up NSF?

In Notes and Domino 7, DB2 is available as an optional alternative data format, but that doesn't make it fully open IMHO. On the other hand, IBM has had it's own XML format for Notes and Domino data, DXL, for quite some time now, and there's probably no technical reason why it couldn't be extended to fully encode everything that is stored in NSF. There would certainly be challenges in writing an ODS layer that natively stores DXL and yet still performs decently, but what if the format was a hybrid of NSF and DXL? The unit that Microsoft is opening up is the document, so why not open up Notes and Domino at the document level by changing the ODS to store all documents (i.e., data notes, and maybe design notes,also) outside of the NSF. I.e., for every FOO.NSF, create a FOO.DXD (DXL Directory) and fill it with DXL documents. Data (in local replicas, anyhow) in the DXL files could be manipulated by any tools.... even Notepad... and the core Notes/Domino software would monitor file modification date/time stamps and update summary buffers, indexes, unread marks, etc., stored in the NSF file as needed.

This wouldn't be simple by any stretch of the imagination. Changes couldn't really be limited to the ODS layer, most likely. For example, developers and users would undoubtedly need to be able to do things like take control naming of DXL files within the DXD directory, and maybe even control a folder structure in that directory. Otherwise there would be loads of open data that can be freely manipulated without the Notes API, but there would be no useful way to find the data that you want to manipulate.

Am I delusional here, or is this an issue that we need to be raising with IBM?

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Comments :v

1. Stan Rogers06/04/2005 02:53:06 AM

The only real sticking point I see here is the security model. With an API-free data access model, you lose read-access security in local replicas, so you would still need a Notes hook of some sort, even if it were simply to a crypto substem to unlock the XML store and sign notes/sections -- you would need a proof-of-authorship hash in addition to write access on a note to replicate with a managed (server) store.

Getting at the data mightn't be such a big problem, since it is more than conceivable that a view design can be translated to an XSLT (which would avoid storage redundancies), which would allow one to derive a data table document (.NET has this built-in simply, and it's only a little more work in Java) from which one could extract data meaningfully on the one hand, or lookup a document unid to use in a GetElementById call for more extreme treatment of individual documents.

But there's that security thing in the way.

2. Stephan H. Wissel06/04/2005 11:33:06 AM

DXD is just a few clicks away!
Step 1: Create an agent "on document create/change
Step 2: Let this agent DXLExport the changed node
Step 3: Create a directory watch application (a system class in the dotNet Framework does that) that watches for created/changed files and stuffs them back into the Notes DB (of course some logic to avoid wild round trips).
So as a proove of concept you can implement that relativly fast. However as Stan pointed out, the security thing is the challenge. You could handle that on the DXLImport (for wirte access) but that leads to all sorts of funny inconsistencies.

3. Richard Schwartz06/04/2005 02:22:53 PM

@Stan: Excellent point. But consider this: For local database access, readernames fields will be enforced during replication, so not a problem. And authorname fields could be enforced when updates to the XML are detected -- though to roll-back changes to XML made with external code would obviously require that the XML be a mirror copy, not the only copy. As for server databases, presuming the filesystem is secured properly it almost boils down to the same thing as local: if you have access to the server files then you effectively have the same read access as a full-access administrator. Authorname access could actually be enforced on the server, though, so you'd only have the equivalent of normal admin access rather than full-access admin access. On the whole it would be a little weaker then what you get with NSF today, but no worse than what we've had in pre-ND6 ODS versions.

@Stephen: I had indeed thought of exactly that, though as a core implementation I'd naturally want it to be done a little more cleanly. And even as an add-on implementation, I'd probably want to do it with the extension manager API and a server task rather than with agents and a stand-alone server. (And BTW: the .NET directory watch is great, but it wouldn't help on non-Windows server platforms. I'm sure, though, that equivalent services are available on every server OS though.)


4. Stan Rogers06/04/2005 08:21:48 PM

Readers fields will cover the case of the authorised user, but (unlike the NSF), this leaves data in the clear on a local machine for an unauthorized users as well, protected only by file-system access restrictions. Notes data is usually held in the Program Files directory in Windows, which makes it available to all users of the laptop or workstation. That strikes me as problematic.

Similarly, I can see the opportunity for unauthorised users or malware to make changes to the data in the XML store that can be rolled into the primary store with the permissions of an authorised user -- unless the authorised user is required to confirm changes on a document-by-document basis when Notes is started (you just know that's going to be overridable with a preference setting), or the changes are signed either at the store level or on a note-by-note basis in the XML.

Believe me, I've got nothing against an XML store (or, rather, a store that can be immediately exposed as XML). I've done things in DXL that I wouldn't consider trying if it meant fighting with CD records directly, and I've made use of local XML files for portable, replicable data in a few .NET projects. I just can't see a safe mechanism for exposing the store without first getting permission from Notes -- the .NET security model absolutely depends on My Documents and no user ever being a machine administrator (at least in Framework 1 and 1.1). That's a considerable step down from what we have with Notes.

5. Richard Schwartz06/04/2005 09:36:24 PM

@Stan: also a good point. It is no worse than it used to be back in the days when local databases could be accessed without entering the Notes ID password, but there certainly good reasons why that was changed. I suppose that there could be database property that requires one of several levels of security for the XML store: (1) no security -- meaning it's equivalent to the bad old days of local NSF access, (2) signature security -- anyone with access to the XML files can read the data, but changing the data requires re-signing the XML at the note level (and IBM could provide a signing tool that authenticates the signer, so you could still use any tool to make the change but they aren't accepted by the Notes core if the signature doesn't validate), (3) encryption security -- nobobdy gets access to the XML files without a password required to decrypt it first (perhaps using something like blowfish for local XML encryption so that it can truly be independent of the Notes ID or any other certificate system, and also preserving API independence), and finally (4) XML prohibited. And perhaps (2) and (3) could even be combined, so you need a password to decrypt and re-encrypt data, but since that's not verified by the Notes core you also need to sign it in order to get the changes accepted.


6. Philip Storry06/06/2005 04:05:44 PM

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7. Brian Benz06/06/2005 07:50:42 PM

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The announcement that the next version of all MS office documents will be based on XML actually gives us an interesting peek into the MS mindset when it comes to software. Office file formats are not containers; they are a way of transporting information. The file system (the Windows file system, of course….) is the container. And that won't be XML. Smart.

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