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What's all the PubSubHubbub?

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You can never have enough protocols

The project was started in the summer of 2008. "We wanted a server-to-server protocol for interoperable messaging. We wanted a way for servers to talk to servers,” Slatkin says.

He acknowledges there are already plenty of messaging protocols. But Google has, um, higher expectations than any of those protocols can meet. Slatkin and his partner, Brad Fitzpatrick (who is known for starting LiveJournal), wanted to create a protocol that is designed, among other things, for what he refers to as topic-based messaging. Rather than supporting filtering, PubSubHubbub, a stream is based on a specific URL or address.

They also wanted something scalable for the future and something that would enable instant syndication of content. “RSS and Atom might be good for things today that are generally slow moving on the order of hundreds or thousands of updates per day,” says Slatkin. “We wanted to move in the direction of hundreds or thousands of updates per second.”

As examples, Slatkin listed a number of relatively tame scenarios where he thinks PubSubHubbub would be useful. He described “decentralized social networks” where, for example, people on Facebook can communicate with people on MySpace as if they are on a single social network. He hopes this will lead to federated messages, saying “think of e-mail, but better.” He also said PubSubHubbub could enable blog comments to be instantaneous and therefore more interactive, noting that on some sites, people spend more time reading and responding to comments than reading the actual blog entries.

In his discussion, Slatkin recognized that other messaging protocols, such as AMQP, have good ideas. But he claims they aren’t good at topic-based messaging and that they are very complicated to use. And, according to Slatkin, many just aren’t as scalable as Google would like.

PubSubHubbub, according to Slatkin, addresses all these issues. And he likens his creation to TCP, saying “it would be awesome if we had an application level protocol for streams of data that stands the test of time like TCP has.”

The protocol was made widely available in July of this year. While it hasn’t been widely discussed or publicized, PubSubHubbub is already in use on many blogs. Slatkin says more than 100 million blogs are PubSubHubbub-enabled, including all the Blogger blogs and FeedBurner feeds, and it’s used in apps like FriendFeed and TwitterFeed.

What's good for the web is, well, you know

Though Google has made little hoopla about Hubbub, the company has some big aspirations for the protocol.

When asked how this is good for Google, Slatkin gave the canned response: “What’s good for the web is good for Google. It’s in our best interest to get maximum engagement of people online. And the best way to get maximum engagement is with things that spur real-time conversation between individuals.”

But then he continued with another small aspiration. “Someday we would like to be able to turn off the crawl. So instead of having to go and find what’s new, people would just tell us. You can imagine a day where there’s some fat tube of the Internet, and you can just subscribe to everything that changes, as it changes. Hubbub is something that can actually enable that.”

He summed this up by saying: “What’s in it for Google is hopefully the ability to do real-time indexing of everything, all the time.” ®

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