My degree is in philosophy; specifically I studied what would be called cognitive science or philosophy of mind. I still read papers and articles about the field occasionally as they come to my attention. Doing some pleasure reading this father’s day weekend I came across this passage in a paper called “Conceptual Problems in Memetics in a Multi-Level View of Evolution and Behaviour” which seemed to call out a problem that is worth considering for those contemplating the next generation of directories:
Consider the problems of ostension for a mother who points out and names the species of a bird that is singing in a tree to her infant child. How does the child know what precisely is being given a name: the name could refer to all trees containing birds, or all small, noisy objects, or of that particular bird, or of the underside of its belly? To avoid ambiguity, the child needs some low-level schemas, perhaps reflecting the nature of taxonomy and the economy of expression, which act as “attractors” for the acquisition of new higher-level schemas. These aspects might allow a child to surmise firstly that the mother is referring to the bird in itself, and not as part of its relation to this particular tree, or the fact that the bird happens to be singing. Secondly, these aspects should allow the child to realise[sic] that it is the “whole” object of the bird that is being referred to, rather than, say, only its underside. While the child has not yet developed a detailed knowledge of birds and their general relations to other very basic categories in the world, he or she is unlikely to expect the mother to be referring to detailed aspects of a bird.
We all know what someone means when they say “there is a need to track all the accounts and rights granted to those accounts that are associated with any specific person”. There are definitive ideas of an account, a person and a right – though a right is likely the one most likely to admit something inexact into the conversation. But these very concrete things are not first order objects in directories, they don’t have their own schema. Instead they are all persons or, worse, accounts, and the very obvious classes they fit into described in that simple to understand requirement are merely attributes assigned to them. That seems like something worth fixing. When the technical and real life descriptions diverge that much, it can never be good for your ability to get things done.
If you look at the language I’m using, my prejudice becomes clear. The concepts of object oriented programming seem to be very useful in this problem space. The idea of having a base class, like a person, and having classes that extend that to be an employee or similar flows very well. It also fits very well with reality. All these entities are people after all. And that base object becomes implemented through a schema for entries in a directory. If one organization relies heavily on contractors and another does not, it’s likely that contractors will have very different “schemas” defining them in each. If those two organization now want to share data about identity including the contractors, they may find themselves with a big job of mapping. If they had a shared basic schema that has been used by another more complex one as a parent in the more contractor reliant shop, there are well established ways for those interactions to take placed based on patterns from object oriented designs. And imagine how much better that could be using something similar to a common schema everyone used.
Doing things along these OO lines would also allow us to do more with less. Since the base classes are shared, changes to those would make their way through everything. And as new use cases arise, simple inheritance would allow for quick work making these new classes of schemas that map to the needs.
No one knows how to make a big proclamation in the identity world like Kim Cameron. His keynote at #eic10, the Kuppinger Cole European Identity Conference for 2010, was no disappointment. Kim reviewed his ideas for the “Federated Interscaler Directory”, which was often misquoted as saying “Interstellar”. The basic idea was to “extend” the current ubiquitous Active Directory platform to hold a more flexible framework for relationship expression, policy enforcement and other elements that directories of today are missing. While adding all that, this new directory platform should also scale, in the sense that it could administer millions of identities, as well as support advanced features like federation, token translation and other things that are clearly becoming part of next gen identity.
On it’s surface, that all sounds nice. But it also sounds dangerous to me. One other theme at #eic10 throughout many talks, and something Kim even said during his, was that we shouldn’t want identity systems to be monolithic (he said so in reference to the ability to federate with other IdP’s outside the directory itself). But the system Kim described and the picture he used to illustrate it looked pretty monolithic to me. A lot of what he described is possible today already with a loose federation of platforms from many vendors and open source projects. You can enforce all the policy you need with a XACML authorization engine and properly tooled interfaces and proxies for applications and providers. You can manipulate schemas and the objects they serve up as needed with virtual directories. If Microsoft were to make AD into one big solution for all that, then the biggest differentiator would be having its monolithic status versus the loose coupling of many other components. I tend to be a fan of loose couplings, but I’ll keep the jury out until I see more from Kim.
One thing that I really liked was Kim’s call for everyone to work together on a common identity schema. It’s not the first time he’s done so. At PDC he made a great presentation that described the same idea in much greater detail [link to the PPTX Powerpoint file from PDC]. A project of this kind, if well done, could solve many, many interoperability and operational challenges in the identity world. So much time is spent now negotiating, either in research or in calls at run time, to figure out what attributes and properties of an identity are available. If there were a completely standard schema and a means to publish it easily, then that goes away.
I’ll have more thoughts from the conference later. For now I’m going to put on my space suit and leave the Microsoft ship and hope Kim hasn’t locked the bay doors when I get back.