Something about the title of this week’s Perspectives interview, OpenSearch federation with Search Server 2008, has been nagging me ever since I wrote it. In the interview, Richard Riley and Keller Smith describe how the new Microsoft search server can extend its reach by sending queries to other search services that can return results as OpenSearch-compliant RSS or Atom feeds.
We call this activity federation, but the enabling technology is syndication. So is the group of participating servers a federation, or is it a syndicate?
1 a federated body formed by a number of nations, states, societies, unions, etc., each retaining control of its own internal affairs.
2 an encompassing political or societal entity formed by uniting smaller or more localized entities: as a: a federal government b: a union of organizations
That seems too formal, too heavyweight, for an OpenSearch-mediated search scenario. When you modify a search service to return results in the OpenSearch format, you’re not necessarily joining any kind of union. You’re just making it easier for other entities to latch onto your search results.
OpenSearch was announced on March 16, 2005, at the Web 2.0 conference. That same day I adapted my version of the InfoWorld search service to use it. There was nothing special about what I did, which is why it only took a few minutes. I just added a variant of the query URL that returned results as RSS, with a few minor extensions to comply with OpenSearch.
Then I registered my service with Amazon’s A9, searched A9 for “Jean Paoli”, and saw the combined results shown here.
This arguably was a federation, because you had to join the club in order to have results from your service show up in A9. But nothing about OpenSearch required things to work that way. Other services could consume my search feeds without requiring me to register with them, or permit them.
What’s more, any RSS reader could consume those feeds. Although I’d done the OpenSearch hack to showcase integration with A9, it turned out that I’d solved another problem without even intending to. It was now also possible for individuals to subscribe to InfoWorld queries.
OpenSearch can involve federation, but more fundamentally it’s about syndication. So, do the participating entities form a syndicate?
1 a: a group of persons or concerns who combine to carry out a particular transaction or project b: cartel c: a loose association of racketeers in control of organized crime
2 a group of individuals or organizations combined or making a joint effort to undertake some specific duty or carry out specific transactions or negotiations
That doesn’t seem right either. We can get closer by focusing on the definitions that emphasize simultaneous publication:
1 a business concern that sells materials for publication in a number of newspapers or periodicals simultaneously
2 to publish simultaneously, or supply for simultaneous publication, in a number of newspapers or other periodicals in different places: Her column is syndicated in 120 papers
But these definitions still involve more business coordination than OpenSearch, or feed syndication in general, require. If I use OpenSearch to publish a search service within the enterprise, I don’t need to make a formal agreement with the Search Server administrator in order to enable that server to include my search results. I just need to publish my results as an RSS feed, and tell that person I’ve done so. That same RSS feed is available to users who may wish to subscribe to searches performed directly on my service.
It’s the same on the open web. When you adopt a syndication-oriented architecture, small pieces can be loosely joined, or they can be more tightly coupled. But the underlying publish/subscribe mechanism doesn’t determine that choice.
Chewing on these definitions is more than a pedantic exercise for me. In my local community, I’m trying to show how a particular use of publish/subscribe technology — namely, calendar syndication — can solve an important problem for people, organizations, and the community as a whole.
Federation would clearly be the wrong word for the network of calendars that I’m trying to bring into existence. I’ve been using the word syndication instead. But now I suspect that’s the wrong word too. I want to convey that we can create small pieces, that they can be loosely joined, and that important network effects will emerge. I don’t yet know what word or phrase will make that cluster of concepts light up in people’s heads.