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Chapter: Distributed Systems : Communication in Distributed System

TCP stream communication

The API to the TCP protocol, which originates from BSD 4.x UNIX, provides the abstraction of a stream of bytes to which data may be written and from which data may be read.

TCP stream communication


The API to the TCP protocol, which originates from BSD 4.x UNIX, provides the abstraction of a stream of bytes to which data may be written and from which data may be read. The following characteristics of the network are hidden by the stream abstraction:


Message sizes: The application can choose how much data it writes to a stream or reads from it. It may deal in very small or very large sets of data. The underlying implementation of a TCP stream decides how much data to collect before transmitting it as one or more IP packets. On arrival, the data is handed to the application as requested. Applications can, if necessary, force data to be sent immediately.


Lost messages: The TCP protocol uses an acknowledgement scheme. As an example of a simple scheme (which is not used in TCP), the sending end keeps a record of each IP packet sent and the receiving end acknowledges all the arrivals. If the sender does not receive an acknowledgement within a timeout, it retransmits the message. The more sophisticated sliding window scheme [Comer 2006] cuts down on the number of acknowledgement messages required.


Flow control: The TCP protocol attempts to match the speeds of the processes that read from and write to a stream. If the writer is too fast for the reader, then it is blocked until the reader has consumed sufficient data.


Message duplication and ordering: Message identifiers are associated with each IP packet, which enables the recipient to detect and reject duplicates, or to reorder messages that do not arrive in sender order.


Message destinations: A pair of communicating processes establish a connection before they can communicate over a stream. Once a connection is established, the processes simply read from and write to the stream without needing to use Internet addresses and ports. Establishing a connection involves a connect request from client to server followed by an accept request from server to client before any communication can take place. This could be a considerable overhead for a single client-server request and reply.


Java API for TCP streams • The Java interface to TCP  streams is provided in the classes

ServerSocket and Socket:


ServerSocket: This class is intended for use by a server to create a socket at a server port for listening for connect requests from clients. Its accept method gets a connect request from the queue or, if the queue is empty, blocks until one arrives. The result of executing accept is an instance of Socket – a socket to use for communicating with the client.


Socket: This class is for use by a pair of processes with a connection. The client uses a constructor to create a socket, specifying the DNS hostname and port of a server. This constructor not only creates a socket associated with a local port but also connects it to the specified remote computer and port number. It can throw an UnknownHostException if the hostname is wrong or an IOException if an IO error occurs.


TCP client makes connection to server, sends request and receives reply

TCP server makes a connection for each client and then echoes the client’s request

The information stored in running programs is represented as data structures – for example, by sets of interconnected objects – whereas the information in messages consists of sequences of bytes. Irrespective of the form of communication used, the data structures must be flattened (converted to a sequence of bytes) before transmission and rebuilt on arrival. The individual primitive data items transmitted in messages can be data values of many different types, and not all computers store primitive values such as integers in the same order. The representation of floating-point numbers also differs between architectures. There are two variants for the ordering of integers: the so-called big-endian order, in which the most significant byte comes first; and little-endian order, in which it comes last. Another issue is the set of codes used to represent characters: for example, the majority of applications on systems such as UNIX use ASCII character coding, taking one byte per character, whereas the Unicode standard allows for the representation of texts in many different languages and takes two bytes per character.


One of the following methods can be used to enable any two computers to exchange binary data values:


The values are converted to an agreed external format before transmission and converted to the local form on receipt; if the two computers are known to be the same type, the conversion to external format can be omitted.


The values are transmitted in the sender’s format, together with an indication of the format used, and the recipient converts the values if necessary. Note, however, that bytes themselves are never altered during transmission. To support RMI or RPC, any data type that can be passed as an argument or returned as a result must be able to be flattened and the individual primitive data values represented in an agreed format. An agreed standard for the representation of data structures and primitive values is called an external data representation.


Marshalling is the process of taking a collection of data items and assembling them into a form suitable for transmission in a message. Unmarshalling is the process of disassembling them on arrival to produce an equivalent collection of data items at the destination. Thus marshalling consists of the translation of structured data items and


primitive values into an external data representation. Similarly, unmarshalling consists of the generation of primitive values from their external data representation and the rebuilding of the data structures.


Three alternative approaches to external data representation and marshalling are discussed:


CORBA’s common data representation, which is concerned with an external representation for the structured and primitive types that can be passed as the arguments and results of remote method invocations in CORBA. It can be used by a variety of programming languages.


Java’s object serialization, which is concerned with the flattening and external data representation of any single object or tree of objects that may need to be transmitted in a message or stored on a disk. It is for use only by Java.


XML (Extensible Markup Language), which defines a textual fomat for representing structured data. It was originally intended for documents containing textual self-describing structured data – for example documents accessible on the Web – but it is now also used to represent the data sent in messages exchanged by clients and servers in web services.


In the first two cases, the marshalling and unmarshalling activities are intended to be carried out by a middleware layer without any involvement on the part of the application programmer. Even in the case of XML, which is textual and therefore more accessible to hand-encoding, software for marshalling and unmarshalling is available for all commonly used platforms and programming environments. Because marshalling requires the consideration of all the finest details of the representation of the primitive components of composite objects, the process is likely to be error-prone if carried out by hand. Compactness is another issue that can be addressed in the design of automatically generated marshalling procedures.


In the first two approaches, the primitive data types are marshalled into a binary form. In the third approach (XML), the primitive data types are represented textually. The textual representation of a data value will generally be longer than the equivalent binary representation. The HTTP protocol, which is described in Chapter 5, is another example of the textual approach.


Another issue with regard to the design of marshalling methods is whether the marshalled data should include information concerning the type of its contents. For example, CORBA’s representation includes just the values of the objects transmitted, and nothing about their types. On the other hand, both Java serialization and XML do include type information, but in different ways. Java puts all of the required type information into the serialized form, but XML documents may refer to externally defined sets of names (with types) called namespaces.


Although we are interested in the use of an external data representation for the arguments and results of RMIs and RPCs, it does have a more general use for representing data structures, objects or structured documents in a form suitable for transmission in messages or storing in files.

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