Wednesday Oct 07, 2009

Sketch of a RESTful photo Printing service with foaf+ssl

Let us imagine a future where you own your data. It's all on a server you control, under a domain name you own, hosted at home, in your garage, or on some cloud somewhere. Just as your OS gets updates, so all your server software will be updated, and patched automatically. The user interface for installing applications may be as easy as installing an app on the iPhone ( as La Distribution is doing).

A few years back, with one click, you installed a myPhoto service, a distributed version of fotopedia. You have been uploading all your work, social, and personal photos there. These services have become really popular and all your friends are working the same way too. When your friends visit you, they are automatically and seamlessly recognized using foaf+ssl in one click. They can browse the photos you made with them, share interesting tidbits, and more... When you organize a party, you can put up a wiki where friends of your friends can have write access, leave notes as to what they are going to bring, and whether or not they are coming. Similarly your colleagues have access to your calendar schedule, your work documents and your business related photos. Your extended family, defined through a linked data of family relationship (every member of your family just needs to describe their relation to their close family network) can see photos of your family, see the videos of your new born baby, and organize Christmas reunions, as well as tag photos.

One day you wish to print a few photos. So you go to web site we will provisionally call print.com. Print.com is neither a friend of yours, nor a colleague, nor family. It is just a company, and so it gets minimal access to the content on your web server. It can't see your photos, and all it may know of you is a nickname you like to use, and perhaps an icon you like. So how are you going to allow print.com access to the photos you wish to print? This is what I would like to try to sketch a solution for here. It should be very simple, RESTful, and work in a distributed and decentralized environment, where everyone owns and controls their data, and is security conscious.

Before looking at the details of the interactions detailed in the UML Sequence diagram below, let me describe the user experience at a general level.

  1. You go to print.com site after clicking on a link a friend of your suggested on a blog. On the home web page is a button you can click to add your photos.
  2. You click it, and your browser asks you which WebID you wish to use to Identify yourself. You choose your personal ID, as you wish to print some personal photos of yours. Having done that, your are authenticated, and print.com welcomes you using your nicknames and displays your icon on the resulting page.
  3. When you click a button that says "Give Print.com access to the pictures you wish us to print", a new frame is opened on your web site
  4. This frame displays a page from your server, where you are already logged in. The page recognized you and asks if you want to give print.com access to some of your content. It gives you information about print.com's current stock value on NASDAQ, and recent news stories about the company. There is a link to more information, which you don't bother exploring right now.
  5. You agree to give Print.com access, but only for 1 hour.
  6. When your web site asks you which content you want to give it access to, you select the pictures you would like it to have. Your server knows how to do content negotiation, so even though copying each one of the pictures over is feasible, you'd rather give print.com access to the photos directly, and let the two servers negotiate the best representation to use.
  7. Having done that you drag and drop an icon representing the set of photos you chose from this frame to a printing icon on the print.com frame.
  8. Print.com thanks you, shows you icons of the pictures you wish to print, and tells you that the photos will be on their way to your the address of your choosing within 2 hours.

In more detail then we have the following interactions:

  1. Your browser GETs print.com's home page, which returns a page with a "publish my photos" button.
  2. You click the button, which starts the foaf+ssl handshake. The initial ssl connection requests a client certificate, which leads your browser to ask for your WebID in a nice popup as the iPhone can currently do. Print.com then dereferences your WebId in (2a) to verify that the public key in the certificate is indeed correct. Your WebId (Joe's foaf file) contains information about you, your public keys, and a relation to your contact addition service. Perhaps something like the following:
    :me xxx:contactRegistration </addContact> .
    Print.com uses this information when it creates the resulting html page to point you to your server.
  3. When you click the "Give Print.com access to the pictures you wish us to print" you are sending a POST form to the <addContact> resource on your server, with the WebId of Print.com <https://nasdaq.com/co/PRNT#co> in the body of the POST. The results of this POST are displayed in a new frame.
  4. Your web server dereferences Print.com, where it gets some information about it from the NASDAQ URL. Your server puts this information together (4a) in the html it returns to you, asking what kind of access you want to give this company, and for how long you wish to give it.
  5. You give print.com access for 1 hour by filling in the forms.
  6. You give access rights to Print.com to your individual pictures using the excellent user interface available to you on your server.
  7. When you drag and drop the resulting icon depicting the collection of the photos accessible to Print.com, onto its "Print" icon in the other frame - which is possible with html5 - your browser sends off a request to the printing server with that URL.
  8. Print.com dereferences that URL which is a collection of photos it now has access to, and which it downloads one by one. Print.com had access to the photos on your server after having been authenticated with its WebId using foaf+ssl. (note: your server did not need to GET print.com's foaf file, as it still had a fresh version in its cache). Print.com builds small icons of your photos, which it puts up on its server, and then links to in the resulting html before showing you the result. You can click on those previews to get an idea what you will get printed.

So all the above requires very little in addition to foaf+ssl. Just one relation, to point to a contact-addition POST endpoint. The rest is just good user interface design.

What do you think? Have I forgotten something obvious here? Is there something that won't work? Comment on this here, or on the foaf-protocols mailing list.

Notes

Creative Commons License
print.com sequence diagram by Henry Story is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at blogs.sun.com.

Monday Aug 24, 2009

FrOSCon: the Free and Open Source Conference in Sankt Augustin, Germany

[froscon logo goes here]

At HAR2009 a couple of people put me in contact with Dries Buytaert, the creator and project lead of Drupal, the famous Open Source content management platform based on php. Dries is leading a very interesting effort aimed at integrating the semantic web stack in Drupal. So I was really happy when he responded to the introduction. He suggested we meet at FrOSCon the Free and Open Source conference located in Sankt Augustin, near Bonn, Germany. I really wanted to stay a bit longer in Amsterdam, but this was just too important an occasion to miss. So I packed up my bag Friday, and after meeting up with Dan Brickley, the co-author of the Foaf ontology who needs no introduction, I caught the last train towards Germany. This turned into a 5 hour trip with 5 changes on slow local trains as those were the only ones I could bring my bicycle onto without first packing it into a box.

[note: this blog uses html5 video tag to view ogg video files, and is best viewed with Firefox 3.5]

Going to FrOSCon turned out to be a very good idea. First of all I met Dries and introduced him quickly to foaf+ssl. It took less than 15 minutes to explain how it worked, for Dries to get himself a foaf certificate on foaf.me and to try it out. If this were made easy to use on Drupal sites, it would be a great way to get some very creative people to help build some cool apps making the most out of distributed social networks...

On Sunday Dries gave a very good keynote "The secrets of building and participating in Open Source communities". Building Open Source communities is not easy, he starts off with, yet it is fundamental to any successful project. He then goes on to elaborate on 6 six themes which from his experience allow a community to thrive and grow:

  • Time: it takes time to grow a community. Open source communities are always a bit broken, like the internet: there is always something not functioning, but the whole works very well.
  • Software architecture:
    • make the code modular,
    • centralise the source code, so that people who contribute modules, and others can find the code
  • Ecosystem: allow volunteers and commercial organizations to work together. Each has something to bring to the party. Everybody has to be equal. And don't have roadmaps, as they disencourage experimentation and rigidify processes. "Trust, not money is the currency of Open Source"
  • Tools, Community Design patterns:
    • Adoption: easy registration. RSS feeds, documentation
    • Identity: profiles, avatars, buddy lists, contacts
    • Group support: issue queues, trackers, activity streams, reputation
    • Conversations: messaging, comments, forums, blogs, interest groups, planet/aggregator
    • Development: CVS/SVN/git/bzr issue queues. release management
  • Mission: Have a mission that goes beyond the project. In the case of Drupal it is democratizing online publishing. And the core values are
    • Be open to Change
    • Collaboration
    • 100% transparency
    • Agile
  • Leadership: "leadership is not management". Replace planning with coordination (see Clay Shirky's talk "Institution vs collaboration")
Coming from someone with real experience in a very successful project these words are very much worth listening to:

Just before the start of Dries' keynote you may have noticed an announcement about a change in the program. The talk on Subversion was canceled due to the inability of the speakers to attend, and it was replaced by a talk on distributed social networks. Yep! During the party the evening before I was told there could be a slot for me to give a talk on foaf+ssl the next day. So on the suggestion of Naxx, an open source grey hat security specialist I had met in Vienna, and who I was surprised to see here again, I spent the whole evening rewriting my slides for Apple Keynote. Naxx spends 3/4 of the year traveling giving talks on security and he had a few hints for me on how to improve my presentation skills. I tried to remember a few of them, and to make sure I did not wave my hands as much as I did at HAR. Here is the result "The Social Web: How to free yourself of your social networks and create a global community:


(The slides for this talk are available online here)

Please do send me some feedback on how I can improve both my talk and my presentation of it. I may have gone a bit too deeply here into technical details for example, and I should probably have added a section on the business model of distributed social networks. As the last talk of the conference there were only 40 or so attendees, but I was really thankful for the last minute opportunity given to me to present on this topic.

Naxx who helped me work on my presentation skills, gave a very interesting and worrying talk "Malware for Soho Routers: The war has begun", where he showed just how easy it is to hack into everyday home routers and turn them into zombie machines ready to launch an attack on the web. I had always thought that financial incentives would lead large telecoms to make sure that such routers were secure. Not at all it seems. Short term profit motives have led many of them to buy the cheapest machines with the worst possible software (web pages built with shell scripts!) with laughable security. Security may be on the news everyday since September 11 2001, but clearly it was always just a sham. Listen to his talk, and be very worried:

Time either to help out on a open source project for secure routers, or to invest money in a cisco one!

Finally I do have to say that the prize for best presentation (I saw) clearly has to go to Simon Wardley from Canonical, for his funny, entertaining and educational keynote "Cloud Computing". If you have been wondering what this beast is, this will really help:

Well that's it from the FrOSCon, which in german is pronounced FroshCon, "Frosch" being the german for Frog, hence the logo. It was great attending, and I have the feeling of having made a huge leap forward here on my tour.

Thursday Jun 11, 2009

The foaf+ssl world tour

As you can see from the map here I have been cycling from Fontainebleau to Vienna (covering close to 1000km of road), and now around Cyprus in my spare time. On different occasions along my journey I had the occasion to present foaf+ssl and combine it with a hands on session, where members of the audience were encouraged to create their own foaf file and certificates, and also start looking into what it takes to develop foaf+ssl enabled services. This seems like a very good way to proceed: it helps people get some hands on experience which they can then hopefully pass on to others, it helps me prioritize what need to be done next, and should also lead to the development of foaf+ssl services that will increase the network value of the community, creating I hope a viral effect.

I started this cycle tour in order to loose some weight. I still have 10kg to loose or so, which at the rate of 3kg per 1000km will require me to cycle another 3000km. So that should enable me to visit quite a few places yet. I will be flying back to Vienna where I will stay 10 days or so, after which I will cycle to Prague for a Kiwi meeting on the 3rd of July. After that I could cycle on to Berlin. But really it's up to you to decide. If you know a good hacker group that I can present to and cycle to, let me know, and I'll see how I can fit it into my timetable. So please get in contact! :-)

Thursday May 21, 2009

Identity in the Age of Cloud Computing

The Aspen Institute published a 90 page round table report in April entitled "Identity in the Age of Cloud Computing: The next-generation Internet's impact on business, governance and social interaction" under a generous Creative Commons License. I read the freely available pdf over the last week with interest, as it covers a lot of the topics I am talking on this blog, and gives a good introduction into cloud computing (of which I have not yet written).

The paper is a report by J.D. Lasica of a round table discussion with a number of very experienced people that occurred just before the 2008 presidential election. It included people such as Rod Beckstrom, Director of the National Cyber Security Center of the United States Department of Homeland Security, David Kirkpatrick Senior Editor of Internet and Technology at Forune Magazine, Professor Paul M Romer of Stanford University, known for his work on New Growth Theory, Hal Varian, chief ecoomist at Google, and many more...

The discussion around the table must have been very stimulating. Here is my take on the paper.

Identity

Identity turned out to be the core of the discussion. The abstract summarized this best:

Throughout the sessions personal identity arose as a significant issue. Get it right and many services are enabled and enhanced. The group tended to agree that a user-centric open identity network system is the right approach at this point. It could give everyone the opportunity to manage their own identity, customize it for particular purposes, (i.e., give only so much information to an outsider as is necessary for them to transact with you in the way you need), and make it scalable across the Net. Other ways of looking at it include scaling the social web by allowing the individual to have identity as a kind of service rather than, as Lasica writes, "something done to you by outside interests."

The Cloud

The cloud is a way to abstract everything in the connected web space. It is the way the user thinks of the net. It is nebulous. Where information and services are is not important. This is the experience people have when they read their mail on gmail. They can read their mail from their computer, or from their cell phone, or from their hotel, or from their friends computer. The mail and the web, and their flickr photos, and their delicious bookmarks are all there.

The cloud from the developer's point of view is very similar. He buys computing power or storage on Amazon, Google, GoGrid or the upcoming Sun Cloud. Where exactly the computer is located is not important. If demand for the service he develops grows, he can increase the number of machines to serve that demand. This of course is a great way to quickly and lightly get startups going - no need to get huge financing for a very large number of servers to deal with a hypothetical peak load.

The Social Networks on the cloud also allow people to link up and form virtual and short lived organizations for a task at hand. This again reduces costs enabling the companies to get started for very little money, very quickly, try out an idea. The paper does not say this: venture capital is no longer needed -- good thing too, as it has been serverely reduced by the current recession.

The Cloud and Identity

The cloud is the abstraction where the physical location of things becomes unimportant. What operating systems run the software we use, what computers they run on, where these computers are, all that is abstracted away, virtualized into a puff of smoke.

What is of course still needed is a way to name things and locate them in the cloud. What is needed is a global namespace, and global identifiers. These are indeed known as a Universal Resource Locator (URL). Since everything else is abstracted away, URLs are the only consistent abstraction left to identify resources.

It is therefore just one small step for the panelists to agree that something like foaf+ssl is the solution to identity on the cloud. It is user centric, distributed, permits global social networks, and allows for people to have multiple personalities... Foaf+ssl provides exactly what the panelists are looking for:

open identity would provide the foundation for people to invent and discover a new generation of social signals, advice services, affinity groups, organizations and eventually institutions. Because the identity layer is grounded on the principles of openness and equality, anyone would be able to create social networks, tagging systems, repu- tation systems or identity authentication systems.

Tuesday Dec 16, 2008

Link roundup before rebooting

The time has come for an OS upgrade to OSX 10.5.6, and as Firefox 3.1 beta 2 has kept up very well for a long time, I now have a huge number of tabs open. So here are some worth reporting on here, the rest are on my delicious feed.

I started looking into cloud computing and the semantic web and found a few really nice links:

  • Virtuoso cloud edition for Amazon's EC2 from OpenLink Software the company powering DBPedia and many of the Linked Data Cloud servers.
  • a new highly scalable java based semantic web database named Big Data which was presented at O'Reilly conference earlier this year (PDF of presentation). From their web site:

    Bigdata(R) is an open-source scale-out storage and computing fabric supporting optional transactions, very high concurrency, and very high aggregate IO rates. Bigdata was designed from the ground up as a distributed database architecture optimized for very high aggregate IO rates running over clusters of 100s to 1000s of machines, but can also run in a single-server mode. Bigdata offers a distributed file system, similar to the Google File System but also useful for workflow queues, a data extensible sparse row store, similar to Googles widely recognized bigtable project, and map/reduce processing for parallelizing data intensive workflows over a cluster.

    Bigdata(R) comes packaged with a very high-performance RDF store supporting RDF(S) and OWL Lite inference.[...]The Bigdata RDF Store was designed specifically to meet requirements for very large scale semantic alignment and federation.

    Looking around in their javadoc I found that they use the Sesame API

  • article by RedMonk on 15 ways to tell it's not cloud computing
  • The semantic grid project probably has some very good resources on cloud computing, so I should look there next.

I am sure there is more on that subject of cloud computing but that's what I have for now.

On social networks

For a bit of stimulation go look at Microsoft's rdf api.

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