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From Local Objects to Distributed Objects

Objects are a paradigm that is used in most modern programming languages to encapsulate behavior (e.g., business logic) and data. Objects are usually "fine-grained," meaning that they have many small properties (e.g., FirstName, LastName) or methods (e.g., getAddress, setAddress). Since developers who use objects often have access to the internals of the object's implementation, the form of reuse they offer is frequently referred to as white-box reuse. Clients use objects by first instantiating them and then calling their properties and methods in order to accomplish some task. Once objects have been instantiated, they usually maintain state between client calls. Unfortunately, it wasn't always easy to use these classes across different programming languages and platforms. Component technologies were developed, in part, to address this problem.

Components were devised as a means to facilitate software reuse across disparate programming languages (see Figure 1.1). The goal was to provide a means whereby software units could be assembled into complex applications much like electronic components are assembled to create circuit boards. Since developers who use components cannot see or modify the internals of a component, the form of reuse they offer is called black-box reuse. Components group related objects into deployable binary software units that can be plugged into applications. An entire industry for the Windows platform arose from this concept in the 1990s as software vendors created ActiveX controls that could be easily integrated into desktop and web-based applications. The stipulation was that applications could not access the objects within components directly. Instead, the applications were given binary interfaces that described the objects' methods, properties, and events. These binary interfaces were often created with platform-specific interface definition languages (IDLs) like the Microsoft Interface Definition Language (MIDL), and clients that wished to use components frequently had to run on the same computing platform.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.1 Components were devised as a means to facilitate reuse across disparate programming languages. Unfortunately, they were often created for specific computing platforms.

Objects were eventually deployed to remote servers in an effort to share and reuse the logic they encapsulated (see Figure 1.2). This meant that the memory that was allocated for clients and distributed objects not only existed in separate address spaces but also occurred on different machines. Like components, distributed objects supported black-box reuse. Clients that wished to use distributed objects could leverage a number of remoting technologies like CORBA, DCOM, Java Remote Method Invocation (RMI), and .NET Remoting. The compilation process for these technologies produced a binary library that included a Remote Proxy [GoF]. This contained the logic required to communicate with the remote object. As long as the client and distributed object used the same technologies, everything worked pretty well. However, these technologies had some drawbacks. They were rather complex for developers to implement, and the process used to serialize and deserialize objects was not standardized across vendor implementations. This meant that clients and objects created with different vendor toolkits often had problems talking to each other. Additionally, distributed objects often communicated over TCP ports that were not standardized across vendor implementations. More often than not, the selected ports were blocked by firewalls. To remedy the situation, IT administrators would configure the firewalls to permit traffic over the required ports. In some cases, a large number of ports had to be opened. Since hackers would have more network paths to exploit, network security was often compromised. If traffic was already permitted through the port, then it was often already provisioned for another purpose.

Figure 1.2

Figure 1.2 Objects were frequently used in distributed scenarios. When a client invoked a method on the proxy's interface, the proxy would dispatch the call over the network to a remote stub, and the corresponding method on the distributed object would be invoked. As long as the client and distributed object used the same technologies, everything worked pretty well.

Distributed objects typically maintained state between client calls. This led to a number of problems that hindered scalability.

  • Server memory utilization degraded with increased client load.
  • Effective load-balancing techniques were more difficult to implement and manage because session state was often reserved for the client. The result was that subsequent requests were, by default, directed back to the server where the client's session had been established. This meant that the load for client requests would not be evenly distributed unless a sophisticated infrastructure (e.g., shared memory cache) was used to access the client's session from any server.
  • The server had to implement a strategy to release the memory allocated for a specific client instance. In most cases, the server relied on the client to notify it when it was done. Unfortunately, if the client crashed, then the server memory allocated for the client might never be released.

In addition to these issues, if the process that maintained the client's session crashed, then the client's "work-in-progress" would be lost.

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