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'HTTP on steroids' to ease protocol work

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A new communications technology created by one of the Internet's most prolific authors and developers is generating buzz within the Internet engineering community, prompting an effort to standardize the technology before its anticipated launch next year.

The Blocks Extensible Exchange Protocol (BXXP) is the brainchild of Marshall Rose, an expert on network management, messaging and directory services, who helped write several key Internet standards including Post Office Protocol 3, Simple Message Transfer Protocol and SNMP. Rose's latest creation is a general-purpose framework for creating Internet applications protocols that serve as an alternative to the aging HTTP used for Web browsing.

The leadership of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) this week is expected to approve the charter of a new working group that will standardize BXXP. If the working group runs smoothly, a final specification could be ready for approval early next year.

Internet engineers say BXXP will significantly reduce the time it takes to prototype and build Internet applications protocols because it provides reusable code for basic data exchange between systems.

"When you're building a protocol, you have to decide how you're going to do error- message reporting and how you're going to handle the size of objects," says Michael Mealling, a senior research engineer with Network Solutions and an IETF participant. "BXXP solves all of that for you. Ninety percent of the [work] is done."

For corporate network managers, BXXP offers a common infrastructure for many new Internet applications that would ease staff training requirements and simplify applications support.

"BXXP is very easy to use, very easy to understand but very powerful," Mealling says. "Two completely unrelated protocols can use BXXP underneath, which saves us a lot of time."

Time will tell

While the BXXP technology looks promising, IETF leaders say it's too early to say how big of an impact it will have on Internet protocol development.

"It will take awhile to know if the mature technology that comes out of the working group will have a lot of support," says Scott Bradner, co-director of the IETF's transport area and a Network World columnist. Bradner points out the working group will start with Rose's initial draft of BXXP but could change the protocol significantly before it becomes a proposed standard.

"[BXXP] looks like a good approach to some real needs, but it is very early in the process," Bradner says.

Standardization of BXXP would be a boon to Invisible Worlds, a start-up founded by Rose that is developing BXXP-based intranet search and data management applications for large corporations. Several Internet luminaries are affiliated with Invisible Worlds including Carl Malamud, who helped get the Securities and Exchange Commission's Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis and Retrieval database online, Internet book publisher Tim O'Reilly and UUNET founder Rick Adams.

BXXP is essentially a tool kit that developers can use to quickly create protocols for a range of applications including instant messaging, file transfer, content syndication, network management and metadata exchange. Because it uses a peer-to-peer architecture, BXXP is a good foundation for creating protocols that govern distributed file-sharing applications such as Gnutella, iMesh and Freenet.

"Implementations of protocols will be much faster and much more reliable because developers can use the basic framework in BXXP," says Marco Gazzetta, vice president of technologies at Invisible Worlds in Petaluma, Calif. "BXXP makes creating new applications cheaper in the long run."

Application-specific protocols can be stacked on top of the reusable BXXP code, and developers can update the add-on protocols without changing the underlying BXXP foundation.

BXXP-enabled applications work by setting up and maintaining a network connection between two users, which can alternate between functioning as clients and servers. The two users can respond to requests for data as well as push data back and forth over a network connection.

One special feature of a BXXP connection is it can carry multiple simultaneous exchanges of data - called channels - between users. For example, users can chat and transfer files at the same time from one application that employs a network connection. BXXP uses XML to frame the information it carries, but the information can be in any form including images, data or text.

BXXP runs on top of TCP and acts as an alternative to HTTP or a custom-made data exchange protocol. HTTP was designed to handle the transport of hypertext documents and is ideal for Web browsing. However, HTTP doesn't work well for the transfer of XML data, nor does it support multiple simultaneous exchanges between users. For these types of applications, developers have to create their own special-purpose protocols. Now they can use BXXP to speed that process.

Beefed-up HTTP

"Think of BXXP as HTTP on steroids," says Kris Magnusson, director of developer relations at Invisible Worlds. "People are trying to jam all kinds of things into HTTP, and it has become overextended. BXXP won't replace HTTP for everything, but it can be used when new applications protocols are developed."

Rose developed BXXP because he was creating a metadata exchange protocol and needed a baseline communications mechanism other than HTTP.

Instead of creating a metadata-specific protocol, he built BXXP as a general-purpose foundation upon which he could stack a metadata protocol he calls Blocks. Rose also developed an instant-messaging protocol based on BXXP to demonstrate its flexibility.

Invisible Worlds has four BXXP implementations in operation as part of its development of metadata products for the legal and financial services industries. "BXXP runs and is working as expected," Invisible Worlds' Gazzetta says.

Invisible Worlds first demonstrated BXXP to the IETF community in March at a session attended by more than 200 people. The next step in the standardization path is for the BXXP working group's charter to be approved. Then the working group can hold its first meeting at the IETF's July conference in Pittsburgh.

Mealling, who attended the IETF's March session on BXXP, says "a lot of people were really, really excited about the things that [Rose] was able to get in the BXXP document and get right."

Meanwhile, Invisible Worlds next month will unveil a Web portal for BXXP developers that will provide software development kits, documentation and a database of BXXP users.

Invisible Worlds is building the BXXP portal itself but hopes to turn it over to the open source community as the protocol framework gains momentum.

Invisible Worlds also is sponsoring the development of open source code that will integrate BXXP with the Apache Web server software. A spokeswoman for Collab. Net, which is handling the development effort, says the odds are good that BXXP will be bundled in the next version of Apache, which is due out this fall.

Early next year, Invisible Worlds will launch its first commercial products based on BXXP. Invisible Worlds has 55 employees and has raised $12 million in venture capital financing.

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