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6.2 TCP and the Client/Server Paradigm

In network programming (and often in other forms of communication, such as database programming), applications that use sockets are divided into two categories, the client and the server. You are probably familiar with the phrase client/server programming, although the exact meaning of the phrase may be unclear to you. This paradigm is the subject of the discussion below.

6.2.1 The Client/Server Paradigm

The client/server paradigm divides software into two categories, clients and servers. A client is software that initiates a connection and sends requests, whereas a server is software that listens for connections and processes requests. In the context of UDP programming, no actual connection is established, and UDP applications may both initiate and receive requests on the same socket. In the context of TCP, where connections are established between machines, the client/server paradigm is much more relevant.

When software acts as a client, or as a server, it has a rigidly defined role that fits easily into a familiar mental model. Either the software is initiating requests, or it is processing them. Switching between these roles makes for a more complex system. Even if switching is permitted, at any given time one software program must be the client and one software program must be the server. If they both try to be clients at the same time, no server exists to process the requests!

The client/server paradigm is an important theoretical concept that is widely used in practical applications. There are other communications models as well, such as peer to peer, in which either party may initiate communication. However, the client/server concept is a popular choice due to its simplicity and is used in most network programming.

6.2.2 Network Clients

Network clients initiate connections and usually take charge of network transactions. The server is there to fulfill the requests of the client—a client does not fulfill the requests of a server. Although the client is in control, some power still resides in the server, of course. A client can tell a server to delete all files on the local file system, but the server isn't necessarily compelled to carry out that action (thankfully!).

The network client speaks to the server using an agreed-upon standard for communication, the network protocol. For example, an HTTP client uses a set of commands different from a mail client, and has a completely different purpose. Connecting an HTTP client to a mail server, or a mail client to an HTTP server, will result not only in an error message but in an error message that the client will not understand. For this reason, as part of the protocol specification, a port number is used so that the client can locate the server. A Web server typically runs on port 80, and while some servers can run on nonstandard ports, the convention for a URL is not to list a port, as it is assumed that port 80 is used. For more information on ports, see Section 6.1.2.

6.2.3 Network Servers

The role of the network server is to bind to a specific port (which is used by the client to locate the server), and to listen for new connections. While the client is temporary, and runs only when the user chooses, the server must run continually (even if no clients are actually connected) in the hope that someone, at some time, will want its services. The server is often referred to as a daemon process, to use Unix parlance. It runs indefinitely, and is normally automatically started when the host computer of the server is started. So the server waits, and waits, and waits, until a client establishes a connection to the server port. Some servers can handle only a single connection at a time, while others can handle many connections concurrently, through the use of threads. Multi-threaded programming is discussed in depth in Chapter 7.

When a connection is being processed, the server is submissive. It waits for the client to send requests, and dutifully processes them (though the server is free to respond with an error message, particularly if the request violates some important precept of the protocol or presents a security risk). Some protocols, like HTTP/1.0, normally allow only one request per connection, whereas others, such as POP3, support a sequence of requests. Servers will answer the client request by sending either a response or an error message—the format of which varies from protocol to protocol. Learning a network protocol (when writing either a client or a server) is a little like learning a new language, as the syntax changes. Typically, though, the number of commands is much smaller, making things a little easier. The behavior of the server is determined in part by the protocol and in part by the developer. (Some commands may be optional, and are not always supported by server implementations.)

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