Skip to content.
Personal tools
You are here: Home » Features » Metaphors for understanding the e-framework

Metaphors for understanding the e-framework

Christina Smart and Sarah Holyfield
Last modified 12 Jul, 2006
Published 12 Jul, 2006
A light hearted exploration of how people think about technological concepts like service oriented architecture.

The e-Framework for Education and Research is taking a ‘service oriented approach’ and involves a pretty abstract set of concepts including services, their definitions, descriptions agents and implementations. The original diagram to represent the e-Learning Framework (ELF) and subsequently the e-Framework became known as a ‘wall of bricks’, but there may be other ways of thinking about services and service oriented approaches which people might find useful.

At a recent meeting about adopting the service areas of the e-Framework for Education and Research Brian Kelly from UKOLN commented “OK so we’ve got human readable and machine readable – now we need human understandable”. In an effort to explore how people understand the e-Framework collection of services and the abstract definitions, we asked a variety of people about what metaphors helped them to understand the e-framework – What metaphors help you visualise the e-Framework for Education and Research?

The result was surprising at times! If you’re struggling with the concepts – maybe some of these would help – and perhaps you’d like to contribute how you think about it?

Scott Wilson, Assistant Director, CETIS

packofcards [1]

“I like to think of a "deck of cards" rather than "wall of bricks", and the various combinations of services to meet a particular need are like a flush or a straight or some other sort of play. The kinds of services you have in your hand (i.e. in the environment) determine the kinds of hands you can play.”

Tish Roberts, Programme Director for the JISC e-Learning Programme

pallette [2]

“I like to think of a painting palette of services, that can be blended together to create new colours”.


“ SOA can be seen like constructing a hi-fi – instead of having an integrated system you can’t adapt, you could build one to suit yourself using components from different makes – an amplifier from one company, a CD player from another and so on (thanks to Clive Church for this one!)”

Wilbert Kraan, Assistant Director, CETIS

swiss army knife [3]

“My personal favourite metaphor is that of the tool shop or tool box inventory: just a plain list of all the tools you could use for a specific job. It's also meant to provide an analogy with the OK-but-not-great tools that you'd get with an all-in-one, but things seem to break down a bit there: people seem to like their Swiss army knives :-}”

Bill Olivier, JISC Technical Director

piecesoflego [4]

“In the Lego metaphor, the framework would simply be the list of lego pieces, with details of their size and shape. The reference model would be the set of instructions for building a particular model, for example what sort and how many pieces of lego you would need to build a house, and how you would fit them together. You would need a different set of instructions to build a car. The lego pieces themselves would be equivalent to the agents, orchestration engines and user environments.

Where the metaphor breaks down is that with reference models the users determine what the model looks like, and what level it’s addressing, is it a set of instructions to build one house or a city?”

Vashti Zarach CETIS Enterprise SIG co-ordinator

Brad [5]

“My choice of metaphor betrays far too much time spent reading trashy magazines. I see the framework as a web of connections like the intricate diagrams that magazines print to depict the complicated networks of celebrity dating patterns. In this metaphor you would see each service as a different celebrity, which has quite long and deep relationships with some services, and quick flings with other services, the odd passing snog with a couple of services and then no relationships with other services. This would lead to an informal web of different types of connections linking up different services in the framework, rather than just a wall of individual unconnected services.”

Lisa Corley, CETIS Pedagogy Forum co-ordinator

james bond [6]

“When discussing ‘services’ and ‘agents’ I like to think of James Bond (007) who is an agent for the secret service (MI6, Her Majesty’s Secret Service.) Bond works on behalf of the service and people who interact with Bond don’t ‘see’ the Secret Service (or ‘Q’). So then you just have to decide which ‘agent’ you want to use – probably like the debate over which actor was the best Bond – Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan etc. When a new ‘agent’ comes on the scene, much like software, you decide which ‘agent’ you prefer. Whichever you decide, they all do pretty much the same job.”

Christina Smart, e-Learning Programme Journalist and Editor

molecules [7]

“Maybe it’s because I used to be a biologist – but I like to think of the e-Framework from a molecular perspective. In my metaphor the periodic table is equivalent to the service definitions, which contains the descriptions of the properties of each element. The service agent would be the atom itself which can combine in particular ways with others to form different molecules with certain properties. Molecules can in turn combine to form more complex structures like proteins that can perform particular jobs. So the protein would be equivalent to the user environment. “

Sarah Holyfield, e-Learning Programme Journalist and Editor

“Well I think of it in a visual, three dimensional, biological sort of way – like a pond with cells of various sizes and types which have particular specialist functions floating around in it. They all have various numbers of tentacles or ‘arms’ that are able to connect with the tentacles of other cells. These cells may connect together to form small organisms which can do more complex things than each cell alone as a result of combining functions. The organisms can involve any set of combinations, but the combinations will only make sense and survive if they do something useful.

I think of it as being something dynamic and flexible Perhaps these things could evolve! Maybe that’s the answer to the sustainability problem?! :-)”

  • This is an excuse to show some pretty pictures of diatoms – I know I’ve got my metaphors disastrously mixed – but it’s just a visual idea!

diatom 1 [8]

diatom 2 [9]

Or do clusters of brain cells provide a better analogy? – braincells [10]

Mark Power, Programme Support Officer, CETIS


That's the problem with talking about metaphors to help understand areas of just gives people another distraction to argue over.

This is Mark, in cynic mode....signing off.. ;-)

And from a discussion on reference models -

Bill: The service parts of reference models are the Meccano set; the reference models are the crane. Scott: I disagree, I think the reference model is how to build the crane

And some quotes -

John Markoff, New York Times

“The internet is entering its Lego era.”

Darren Barefoot on web services

“Ironically, it is the very nature of Web services as plumbing that makes them an important evolution in Internet computing. Imagine a neighborhood where each house connected to the city water supply using a different kind of pipe. Some are square, some are triangular; some require elbow joints, some don't. It's a plumber's nightmare, and, generally speaking, this was Internet computing before Web services. If the promise of Web services pays off, we'll have provided a universal bracket for all of these pipes, making it a lot easier to get a drink...”


A reference model for a dinner party

dinner party [11]

Dinner parties take a wide variety of forms from informal gatherings with close friends to highly formal and structured events. They all involve the selection and combination of dishes, wines etc from a ‘framework’ of possible dishes and wines, and the use of certain types of tools and objects such as cutlery, table decorations etc, and perhaps a dress code.

The hosts of a dinner party need to firstly decide what this event is about (relaxing? impressing someone? a wedding? etc) and a ‘reference model’ for this particular type of dinner party would then suggest certain suitable combinations of dishes and wines, the sequence in which these would appear, perhaps the types of acceptable clothing etc.

However, it would not say what these dishes or clothes should actually be, or what technology in the way of cookers, food processors etc should be used. The specific choice of recipes etc would be described in the ‘design’ of the particular event, and the actual result in terms of the meal itself would be the ‘artifact’. [12]

Your metaphors?

We've realised that this small set of metaphors clearly shows how differently people think about these things, yet there are common threads that run through them all. We’re not sure if exploring these will help or hinder in gaining a shared understanding! Let us know if you’d like to add to the list!






[5] vashti's picture..









Supported by JISC Supported by CETIS
Powered by Plone