Problems and Prospects

April 26, 2000

Leigh Dodds

The XML-DEV community has been struggling against technical difficulties this week, whilst still managing to keep one eye on the future. XML-Deviant reports on the trials and tribulations.

Setting the Scene

Regular readers of this column may remember that, back in February, the XML-DEV mailing list moved from Imperial College to a new home at OASIS. I interviewed Peter Murray-Rust at the time to discuss the origins of the list, the reasons behind the move, and his vision for the future (see "Birth of a Community").

Unfortunately, since moving, the list has been beset by a number of problems. These have included complete outages that curtailed all traffic and long delays in processing messages sent to the list. The problems affected discussions on the list, which had previously enjoyed uninterrupted service at Imperial College. The XML-DEV archives have also been slow to update and are being poorly maintained.

The problems brought complaints from a number of list members, prompting a message from Laura Walker, the Executive Director of OASIS. Walker offered reassurances that the problems would be quickly resolved:

You will start to see major improvements within the next 10 days, and I will be providing more details on our plans for enhancing the services available to the XML-DEV community.

Still struggling with long delays, several members voiced their frustration with OASIS. Robert la Quey was among those who advocated moving away from OASIS:

The web is rapidly offering a variety of collaboration services and so it is just silly to stay stuck in the past with any organization that clearly does "not" get it and/or is unable or unwilling to respond to the needs of the larger community. Such organizations are unneeded baggage in a world where we all must travel both fast and light.

Peter Murray-Rust, disappointed with OASIS's apparent lack of concern, placed the ball in their court and invited discussion of alternative hosting arrangements.

I think it is incumbent on them to give us a vision of what they can do. I am more concerned about the apparent unconcern from OASIS members than I am about technical issues. I can conceive of a situation where OASIS play a different role from the one they do now.

The Cavalry Arrives

OASIS were quick to respond to Murray-Rust's concerns. A message from Bill Smith, the OASIS President, brought good news.

I would like to acknowledge the significant problems that this and other OASIS lists have been experiencing. I would also like to apologize for the time it has taken to resolve these problems. I can understand the very real frustration of list participants and would like to explain the steps that OASIS is now taking.

While acknowledging the list problems, Smith stated that the original ten day deadline would not be met. He did however make reassurances that the problems would be solved "with all due haste" and confirmed the appointment of a new Director of Technical Operations, Karl Best. Best will work alongside Norman Walsh, a well-known XML-DEV contributor who has taken on the task of sorting out the list problems.

This will apparently be the first time that OASIS have had a full-time staff member in this area, having previously relied on voluntary efforts. This goes some way towards explaining the cause of the problems and the resulting lack of updates. Peter Murray-Rust welcomed the involvement of Best and Walsh, and expressed hope that they'd serve as a liaison with OASIS:

I hope very much that Karl and Norm will become active contributors to the list. In this way many of the tensions need never develop. The lack of any apparent involvement or interest in XML-DEV by OASIS has been part of the reason for the very public criticism.

Norman Walsh took stock of the problems, and posted an unofficial "state of the service" to bring members up to speed. He also invited suggestions on how best to configure the list. Walsh expressed confidence that, with a little patience from the list, the outstanding problems will be resolved:

I sincerely believe that OASIS will correct the situation and will be able to provide responsive and useful mailing list and web facilities.

Several list members have already contributed thoughts on how the problems might be resolved -- Dave Winer began a discussion on Scripting News aimed at collecting information from a wider audience.

Walsh has been providing updates on his progress over the last few days -- a very welcome change of affairs. It's becoming increasingly important for any organization to provide immediate feedback when encountering problems of this sort. Users are now quite capable of voicing their dissatisfaction loudly and at length.

The current problems have done little to raise OASIS's profile among the XML-DEV community. Their role has been questioned previously (see "OASIS and the Future of SAX"). However, Peter Murray-Rust has expressed his desire to see XML-DEV involved with OASIS in some form:

I believe in the aims of OASIS and believe we need an organisation to fulfill them. Such an organisation is appropriate to host XML-DEV. I wish to see OASIS continue to be involved with XML-DEV. We have to have a flourishing organisation with these aims. I would like, therefore, to see an outcome where XML-DEVers, OASIS and others see a constructive way forward.

Looking to the Future

It is a testament to the diversity of XML-DEV that, even during outages and ongoing problems, discussion has continued. While some members feared that the list might fragment, others were considering future directions. David Brownell suggested that XML-DEV could look to an organization like SourceForge to provide some developer-oriented resources:

So what would XML-DEV manage that way? The obvious things are its software library (which today is scattered all over, and not well integrated -- viz. the catalog discussions that recurred recently) ... a web site that provides a long-term access point for some of the "gems". And a page for the mailing list, instructions, archive pointers, who to contact when there's trouble, and so on. Some of the things folk on the list have written should get pointers, or hosted copies. Internationalization resources, FAQs, rants, raves, ...

Brownell went on to suggest that this could be realized by forming a group of respected XML-DEV members who would build the initial framework.

A permanent XML-DEV CVS repository may become extremely important shortly: David Megginson has already stated his desire to step down as the maintainer of SAX. SAX2 is now nearing completion, having reached a final testing period this week. This is a natural point at which ownership for the project could be transferred. Whether this will be to another volunteer, or to a community-maintained repository, is as yet unknown.

Don Park expressed an interest in seeing XML-DEV explore more community features, such as Internet Relay Chat:

Facilities we find useful will likely be adopted by W3C and others so its another way to improve the standardization process. For example, there are enough people on this list to support [an] IRC channel ... More elaborate MUD-like chat facility can be used for subgroup meetings with the side benefit of recording the process automatically. I doubt anybody ever recorded weekly W3C WG teleconferences.

This sentiment was later echoed in an interesting essay posted by Peter Murray-Rust, entitled "Nature of XML-DEV". In the posting, too long to reproduce here, Murray-Rust draws parallels between the list and other online communities.

It seems that XML-DEV has taken these problems in stride, and might even benefit from a period of introspection. The next few weeks may well bring some interesting changes.