XMPP untethered – serverless messaging in the core?

In the XMPP session at last february’s FOSDEM I gave a brief demo of some NoTube work on how TV-style remote controls might look with XMPP providing their communication link. For the TV part, I showed Boxee, with a tiny Python script exposing some of its localhost HTTP API to the wider network via XMPP. For the client, I have a ‘my first iphone app‘ approximation of a remote control that speaks a vapourware XMPP remote control protocol, “Buttons”.

The point of all this is about breaking open the Web-TV environment, so that different people and groups get to innovate without having to be colleagues or close-nit business partners. Control your Apple TV with your Google Android phone; or your Google TV with your Apple iPad, or your Boxee box with either. Write smart linking and bookmarking and annotation apps that improve TV for all viewers, rather than only those who’ve bought from the same company as you. I guess I managed to communicate something of this because people clapped generously when my iphone app managed to pause Boxee. This post is about how we might get from evocative but toy demos to a useful and usable protocol, and about one of our largest obstacles: XMPP’s focus on server-mediated communications.

So what happened when I hit the ‘pause’ button on the iphone remote app? Well, the app was already connected to the XMPP network, e.g. signed in as bob.notube@gmail.com via Google Talk’s servers. And so an XMPP stanza flowed out from the room we were in, across to Google somewhere, and then via XMPP server-to-server protocol over to my self-run XMPP server (an ejabberd hosted on Amazon EC2’s east USA zone somewhere). And from there, the message returned finally to Brussels, flowing through whichever Python library I was using to Boxee (signed in as buttons@foaf.tv), causing the video to pause. This happened quite quickly, and generally very quickly; but sometimes it can take more than a second. This can be very frustrating, and while there are workaround (keep-alive messages, smart code that ignores sequences of buffered ‘Pause!’ messages, apps that download metadata and bring more UI to the second screen, …), the problem has a simple cause: it just doesn’t make sense for a ‘pause’ message to cross the atlantic twice, and pass through two XMPP servers, on its the way across the living room from remote control to TV.

But first – why are we even using XMPP at all, rather than say HTTP? Partly because XMPP lets us easily address devices on home networks, that aren’t publically exposed as running a Web server. Partly for the symmetry of the protocol, since ipads, touch tables, smart phones, TVs and media centres all can host and play media items on their own displays, and we may have several such devices in a home setting that need to be in touch with one another. There’s also a certain lazyness; XMPP already defines lots of useful pieces, like buddylist rosters, pubsub notifications, group chats; it has an active and friendly community, and it comes with a healthy collection of tools and libraries. My own interests are around exploring and collectively annotating the huge archives of content that are slowly coming online, and an expectation that this could be a more shared experience, so I’m following an intuition that XMPP provides more useful ‘raw materials’ for social content exploration than raw HTTP. That said, many elements of remote control can be defined and implemented in either environment. But for today, I’m concentrating on the XMPP side.

So back at FOSDEM I raised a couple of concerns, as a long-term XMPP well-wisher but non-insider.

The first was that the technology presents itself as a daunting collection of extensions, each of which might or might not be supported in some toolkit. To this someone (likely Dave Cridland) responded with the reassuring observation that most of these could be implemented by 3rd party app developer simply reading/writing XMPP stanzas. And that in fact pretty much the only ‘core’ piece of XMPP that wasn’t treated as core in most toolkits was the serverless, point-to-point XEP-0174 ‘serverless messaging‘ mode. Everything else, the rest of us mortals could hack in application code. For serverless messaging we are left waiting and hoping for the toolkit maintainers to wire things in, as it generally requires fairly intimate knowledge of the relevant XMPP library.

My second point was in fact related: that if XMPP tools offered better support for serverless operation, then it would open up lots of interesting application options. That we certainly need it for the TV remotes use case to be a credible use of XMPP. Beyond TV remotes, there are obvious applications in the area of open, decentralised social networking. The recent buzz around things like StatusNet, GNU Social, Diaspora*, WebID, OneSocialWeb, alongside the old stuff like FOAF, shows serious interest in letting users take more decentralised control of their online social behaviour. Whether the two parties are in the same room on the same LAN, or halfway around the world from each other, XMPP and its huge collection of field-tested, code-supported extensions is relevant, even when those parties prefer to communicate directly rather than via servers.

With XMPP, app party developers have a well-defined framework into which they can drop ad-hoc stanzas of information; whether it’s a vCard or details of recently played music. This seems too useful a system to reserve solely for communications that are mediated by a server. And indeed, XMPP in theory is not tied to servers; the XEP-0174 spec tells us both how to do local-network bonjour-style discovery, and how to layer XMPP on top of any communication channel that allows XML stanzas to flow back and forth.

From the abstract,

This specification defines how to communicate over local or wide-area networks using the principles of zero-configuration networking for endpoint discovery and the syntax of XML streams and XMPP messaging for real-time communication. This method uses DNS-based Service Discovery and Multicast DNS to discover entities that support the protocol, including their IP addresses and preferred ports. Any two entities can then negotiate a serverless connection using XML streams in order to exchange XMPP message and IQ stanzas.

But somehow this remains a niche use of XMPP. Many of the toolkits have some support for it, perhaps as work-in-progress or a patch, but it remains somewhat ‘out there’ rather than core to the XMPP approach. I’d love to see this change in 2011. The 0174 spec combines a few themes; it talks a lot about discovery, motivated in part by trade-fair and conference type scenarios. When your Apple laptop finds people locally on some network to chat with by “Bonjour”, it’s doing more or less XEP-0174. For the TV remote scenario, I’m interested in having nodes from a normal XMPP network drop down and “re-discover” themselves in a hopefully-lower-latency point to point mode (within some LAN or across the Internet, or between NAT-protected home LANs). There are lots of scenarios when having a server in the loop isn’t needed, or adds cost and risk (latency, single point of failure, privacy concerns).

XEP-0174 continues,

6. Initiating an XML Stream
In order to exchange serverless messages, the initiator and
recipient MUST first establish XML streams between themselves,
as is familiar from RFC 3920.
First, the initiator opens a TCP connection at the IP address
and port discovered via the DNS lookup for an entity and opens
an XML stream to the recipient, which SHOULD include 'to' and
'from' address. [...]

This sounds pretty precise; point-to-point communication is over TCP.  The Security Considerations section discussed some of the different constraints for XMPP in serverless mode, and states that …

To secure communications between serverless entities, it is RECOMMENDED to negotiate the use of TLS and SASL for the XML stream as described in RFC 3920

Having stumbled across Datagram TLS (wikipedia, design writeup), I wonder whether that might also be an option for the layer providing the XML stream between entities.  For example, the chownat tool shows a UDP-based trick for establishing bidirectional communication between entities, even when they’re both behind NAT. I can’t help but wonder whether XMPP could be layered somehow on top of that (OpenSSL libraries have Datagram TLS support already, apparently). There are also other mechanisms I’ve been discussing with Mo McRoberts and Libby Miller lately, e.g. Mo’s dynamic dns / pubkeys idea, or his trick of running an XMPP server in the home, and opening it up via UPnP. But that’s for another time.

So back on my main theme: XMPP is holding itself back by always emphasising the server-mediated role. XEP-0174 has the feel of an afterthought rather than a core part of what the XMPP community offers to the wider technology scene, and the support for it in toolkits lags similarly. I’d love to hear from ‘live and breath XMPP’ folk what exactly they think is needed before it can become a more central part of the XMPP world.

From the TV remotes use case we have a few constraints, such as the need to associate identities established in different environments (eg. via public key). If xmpp:danbri-ipad@danbri.org is already on the server-based XMPP roster of xmpp:nevali-tv@nevali.net, can pubkey info in their XMPP vCards be used to help re-establish trusted communications when the devices find themselves connected in the same LAN? It seems just plain nuts to have a remote control communicate with another box in the same room via transatlantic links through Google Talk and Amazon EC2, and yet that’s the general pattern of normal XMPP communications. What would it take to have more out-of-the-box support for XEP-0174 from the XMPP toolkits? Some combination of beer, money, or a shared sense that this is worth doing and that XMPP has huge potential beyond the server-based communications model it grew from?

‘Republic of Letters’ in R / Custom Widgets for Second Screen TV navigation trails

As ever, I write one post that perhaps should’ve been two. This is about the use and linking of datasets that aid ‘second screen’ (smartphone, tablet) TV remotes, and it takes as a quick example a navigation widget and underlying dataset that show us how we might expect to navigate TV archives, in some future age when TV lives more fully in the World Wide Web. I argue that access to the ‘raw data‘ and frameworks for embedding visualisation apps are of equal importance when thinking about innovative ways of exploring the ever-growing archives. All of this comes from many discussions with my NoTube colleagues and other collaborators; rambling scribblyness is all my own.

Ben Hammersley points us at a lovely Flash visualization http://www.stanford.edu/group/toolingup/rplviz/”>Mapping the Republic of Letters”.

From the YouTube overview, “Researchers map thousands of letters exchanged in the 18th century’s “Republic of Letters” and learn at a glance what it once took a lifetime of study to comprehend.”


Mapping the Republic of Letters has at its center a multidimensional data set which spans 300 years and nearly 100,000 letters. We use computing tools that help us to measure and analyze data quantitatively, though that will not take us to our goal. While we use software and computing techniques that were designed for scientific and statistical methods, we are seeking to develop computing tools to enhance humanistic methods, to help us to explore qualitative aspects of the Republic of Letters. The subject of our study and the nature of the material require it. The collections of correspondence and records of travel from this period are incomplete. Of that incomplete material only a fraction has been digitized and is available to us. Making connections and resolving ambiguities in the data is something that can only be done with the help of computing, but cannot be done by computing alone. (from ‘methods and philosophy‘)


screenshot of Republic of Letters app, showing social network links superimposed on map of historical western Europe


See their detailed writeup for more on this fascinating and quite beautiful work. As I’m working lately on linking TV content more deeply into the Web, and on ‘second screen’ navigation, this struck me as just the kind of interface which it ought to be possible to re-use on a tablet PC to explore TV archives. Forgetting for the moment difficulties with Flash on iPads and so on, the idea roughly is that it would be great to embed such a visualization within a TV watching environment, such that when the ‘republic of letters’ widget is focussed on some person, place, or topic, we should have the opportunity to scan the available TV archives for related materials to show.

So a glance at Chrome’s ‘developer tools’ panel gave me a link to the underlying data used by the visualisation. I don’t know exactly whose it is, nor how they want it used, so please treat it with respect. Still, there it is, sat in the Web, in tab-separated format, begging to be used. There’s a lot you can do with the Flash application that I’ve barely touched, but I’m intrigued by the underlying dataset. In particular, where they have the string “Tonson, Jacob”, the data linker in me wants to see a Wikipedia or DBpedia link, since they provide explanation, context, related people, places and themes; all precious assets when trying to scrape together related TV materials to inform, educate or entertain someone with. From a few test searches, it turns out that (many? most?) the correspondents are quite easily matched to Wikipedia: William Congreve, Montagu, 1st earl of Halifax, CharlesHough, bishop of Worcester, John; Stanyan, Abraham;  … Voltaire and others. But what about the data?

Lately I’ve been learning just a little about R, a language used mainly for statistics and related analysis. Here’s what it’ll do ‘out of the box’, in untrained hands:

letters<-read.csv('data.txt',sep='\t', header=TRUE)
v_author = letters$Author=="Voltaire"
v_letters = letters[v_author, ]
Where were Voltaire’s letters sent?
> cbind(summary(v_letters$dest_country))
[,1]
Austria            2
Belgium            6
Canada             0
Denmark            0
England           26
France          1312
Germany           97
India              0
Ireland            0
Italy             68
Netherlands       22
Portugal           0
Russia             5
Scotland           0
Spain              1
Sweden             0
Switzerland      342
The Netherlands    1
Turkey             0
United States      0
Wales              0
As the overview and video in the ‘Republic of Letters‘ site points out (“Tracking 18th-century “social network” through letters”), the patterns of correspondence eg. between Voltaire and e.g. England, Scotland and Ireland jumps out of the data (and more so its visualisation). There are countless ways this information could be explored, presented, sliced-and-diced. Only a custom app can really make the most of it, and the Republic of Letters work goes a long way in that direction. They also note that
The requirements of our project are very much in sync with current work being done in the linked-data/ semantic web community and in the data visualization community, which is why collaboration with computer science has been critical to our project from the start.
So the raw data in the Web here is a simple table; while we could spend time arguing about whether it would better be expressed in JSON, XML or an RDF notation, I’d rather see some discussion around what we can do with this information. In particular, I’m intrigued by the possibilities of R alongside the data-linking habits that come with RDF. If anyone manages to tease anything interesting from this dataset, perhaps mixed in with DBpedia, do post your results.
And of course there are always other datasets to examine; for example see the Darwin correspondence archives, or the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Correspondence project which has a Dickens-based pilot. While it is wonderful having UI that is tuned to the particulars of some dataset, it is also great when we can re-use UI code to explore similarly structured data from elsewhere. On both the data side and the UI side, this is expensive, tough work to do well. My current concern is to maximise re-use of both UI and data for the particular circumstances of second-screen TV navigation, a scenario rarely a first priority for anyone!
My hope is that custom navigation widgets for this sort of data will be natural components of next-generation TV remote controls, and that TV archives (and other collections) will open up enough of their metadata to draw in (possibly paying) viewers. To achieve this, we need the raw data on both sides to be as connectable as possible, so that application authors can spend their time thinking about what their users really need and can use, rather than on whether they’ve got the ‘right’ Henry Newton.
If we get it right, there’s a central role for librarianship and archivists in curating the public, linked datasets that tell us about the people, places and topics that will allow us to make new navigation trails through Web-connected television, literature and encyclopedia content. And we’ll also see new roles for custom visualizations, once we figure out an embedding framework for TV widgets that lets them communicate with a display system, with other users in the same room or community, and that is designed for cross-referencing datasets that talk about the same entities, topics, places etc.
As I mentioned regarding Lonclass and UDC, collaboration around open shared data often takes place in a furtive atmosphere of guilt and uncertainty. Is it OK to point to the underlying data behind a fantastic visualisation? How can we make sure the hard work that goes into that data curation is acknowledged and rewarded, even while its results flow more freely around the Web, and end up in places (your TV remote!) that may never have been anticipated?