Distributed Component Object Model full report
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DCOM Technical Overview
Microsoft® Distributed COM (DCOM) extends the Component Object Model
(COM) to support communication among objects on different computers”on
a LAN, a WAN, or even the Internet. With DCOM, your application can be
distributed at locations that make the most sense to your customer and
to the application.
Because DCOM is a seamless evolution of COM, the world's leading
component technology, you can take advantage of your existing
investment in COM-based applications, components, tools, and knowledge
to move into the world of standards-based distributed computing. As you
do so, DCOM handles low-level details of network protocols so you can
focus on your real business: providing great solutions to your
Why Write Distributed Applications?
Distributing an application is not an end in itself. Distributed
applications introduce a whole new kind of design and deployment
issues. For this added complexity to be worthwhile there has to be a
significant payback.
Some applications are inherently distributed: multi-user games, chat
and teleconferencing applications are examples of such applications.
For these, the benefits of a robust infrastructure for distributed
computing are obvious.
Many other applications are also distributed, in the sense that they
have at least two components running on different machines. But because
these applications were not designed to be distributed, they are
limited in scalability and ease of deployment. Any kind of workflow or
groupware application, most client/server applications, and even some
desktop productivity applications essentially control the way their
users communicate and cooperate. Thinking of these applications as
distributed applications and running the right components in the right
places benefits the user and optimizes the use of network and computer
resources. The application designed with distribution in mind can
accommodate different clients with different capabilities by running
components on the client side when possible and running them on the
server side when necessary.
Designing applications for distribution gives the system manager a
great deal of flexibility in deployment.
Distributed applications are also much more scalable than their
monolithic counterparts. If all the logic of a complex application is
contained in a single module, there is only one way to increase the
throughput without tuning the application itself: faster hardware.
Today's servers and operating systems scale very well but it is often
cheaper to buy another identical machine than to upgrade to a server
that is twice as fast. With a properly designed distributed
application, a single server can start out running all the components.
When the load increases, some of the components can be deployed to
additional lower-cost machines.
The DCOM Architecture
DCOM is an extension of the Component Object Model (COM). COM defines
how components and their clients interact. This interaction is defined
such that the client and the component can connect without the need of
any intermediary system component. The client calls methods in the
component without any overhead whatsoever. Figure 1 illustrates this in
the notation of the Component Object Model:

Figure 1. COM components in the same process
In today's operating systems, processes are shielded from each other. A
client that needs to communicate with a component in another process
cannot call the component directly, but has to use some form of
interprocess communication provided by the operating system. COM
provides this communication in a completely transparent fashion: it
intercepts calls from the client and forwards them to the component in
another process. Figure 2 illustrates how the COM/DCOM run-time
libraries provide the link between client and component.

Figure 2. COM components in different processes
When client and component reside on different machines, DCOM simply
replaces the local interprocess communication with a network protocol.
Neither the client nor the component is aware that the wire that
connects them has just become a little longer.
Figure 3 shows the overall DCOM architecture: The COM run-time provides
object-oriented services to clients and components and uses RPC and the
security provider to generate standard network packets that conform to
the DCOM wire-protocol standard.

Figure 3. DCOM: COM components on different machines
Components and Reuse
Most distributed applications are not developed from scratch and in a
vacuum. Existing hardware infrastructure, existing software, and
existing components, as well as existing tools, need to be integrated
and leveraged to reduce development and deployment time and cost. DCOM
directly and transparently takes advantage of any existing investment
in COM components and tools. A huge market for off-the-shelf components
makes it possible to reduce development time by integrating
standardized solutions into a custom application. Many developers are
familiar with COM and can easily apply their knowledge to DCOM-based
distributed applications.
Any component that is developed as part of a distributed application is
a candidate for future reuse. Organizing the development process around
the component paradigm lets you continuously raise the level of
functionality in new applications and reduce time-to-market by building
on previous work.
Designing for COM and DCOM assures that your components are useful now
and in the future.
Location Independence
When you begin to implement a distributed application on a real
network, several conflicting design constraints become apparent:
¢ Components that interact more should be "closer" to each other.
¢ Some components can only be run on specific machines or at
specific locations.
¢ Smaller components increase flexibility of deployment, but they
also increase network traffic.
¢ Larger components reduce network traffic, but they also reduce
flexibility of deployment.
With DCOM these critical design constraints are fairly easy to work
around, because the details of deployment are not specified in the
source code. DCOM completely hides the location of a component, whether
it is in the same process as the client or on a machine halfway around
the world. In all cases, the way the client connects to a component and
calls the component's methods is identical. Not only does DCOM require
no changes to the source code, it does not even require that the
program be recompiled. A simple reconfiguration changes the way
components connect to each other.
DCOM's location independence greatly simplifies the task of
distributing application components for optimum overall performance.
Suppose, for example, that certain components must be placed on a
specific machine or at a specific location. If the application has
numerous small components, you can reduce network loading by deploying
them on the same LAN segment, on the same machine, or even in the same
process. If the application is composed of a smaller number of large
components, network loading is less of a problem, so you can put them
on the fastest machines available, wherever those machines are.
Figure 4 shows how the same "validation component" can be deployed on
the client machine, when network-bandwidth between "client" machine and
"middle-tier" machine is sufficient, and on the server machine, when
the client is accessing the application through a slow network link.

Figure 4. Location independence
With DCOM's location independence, the application can combine related
components into machines that are "close" to each other onto a single
machine or even into the same process. Even if a larger number of small
components implement the functionality of a bigger logical module, they
can still interact efficiently among each other. Components can run on
the machine where it makes most sense: user interface and validation on
or close to the client, database-intensive business rules on the server
close to the database.
Language Neutrality
A common issue during the design and implementation of a distributed
application is the choice of the language or tool for a given
component. Language choice is typically a trade-off between development
cost, available expertise, and performance. As an extension of COM,
DCOM is completely language-independent. Virtually any language can be
used to create COM components, and those components can be used from
even more languages and tools. Java, Microsoft Visual C++®, Microsoft
Visual Basic®, Delphi, PowerBuilder, and Micro Focus COBOL all interact
well with DCOM.
With DCOM's language independence, application developers can choose
the tools and languages that they are most familiar with. Language
independence also enables rapid prototyping: components can be first
developed in a higher-level language, such as Microsoft Visual Basic,
and later reimplemented in a different language, such as C++ or Java,
that can better takes advantage of advanced features such as DCOM's
free threading, free multithreading and thread pooling.
Connection Management
Network connections are inherently more fragile than connections inside
a machine. Components in a distributed application need to be notified
if a client is not active anymore, even”or especially”in the case of a
network or hardware failure.
DCOM manages connections to components that are dedicated to a single
client, as well as components that are shared by multiple clients, by
maintaining a reference count on each component. When a client
establishes a connection to a component, DCOM increments the
component's reference count. When the client releases its connection,
DCOM decrements the component's reference count. If the count reaches
zero, the component can free itself.
DCOM uses an efficient pinging protocol (see the section below titled
"Shared Connection Management between Applications" for more details)
to detect if clients are still active. Client machines send a periodic
message. DCOM considers a connection as broken if more than three ping
periods pass without the component receiving a ping message. If the
connection is broken, DCOM decrements the reference count and releases
the component if the count has reached zero. From the point of view of
the component, both the benign case of a client disconnecting and the
fatal case of a network or client machine crash are handled by the same
reference counting mechanism. Applications can use this distributed
garbage collection mechanism for free.
In many cases, the flow of information between a component and its
clients is not unidirectional: The component needs to initiate some
operation on the client side, such as a notification that a lengthy
process has finished, the update of data the user is viewing (news
ticker or stock ticker), or the next message in a collaborative
environment like teleconferencing or a multi-user game. Many protocols
make it difficult to implement this kind of symmetric communication.
With DCOM, any component can be both a provider and a consumer of
functionality. The same mechanism and features manage communication in
both directions, making it easy to implement peer-to-peer
communication, as well as client/server interactions.
DCOM provides a robust distributed garbage collection mechanism that is
completely transparent to the application. DCOM is an inherently
symmetric network protocol and programming model. Not only does it
offer the traditional unidirectional client-server interaction, but it
also provides rich, interactive communication between clients and
servers and among peers.
A critical factor for a distributed application is its ability to grow
with the number of users, the amount of data, and the required
functionality. The application should be small and fast when the
demands are minimal, but it should be able to handle additional demands
without sacrificing performance or reliability. DCOM provides a number
of features that enhance your application's scalability.
Symmetric Multiprocessing (SMP)
DCOM takes advantage of Windows NT support for multiprocessing. For
applications that use a free-threading model, DCOM manages a thread
pool for incoming requests. On multiprocessor machines, this thread
pool is optimized to the number of available processors: Too many
threads result in too much context switching, while too few threads can
leave some processors idle. DCOM shields the developer from the details
of thread management and delivers the optimal performance that only
costly hand coding of a thread-pool manager could provide.
DCOM applications can easily scale from small single processor machines
to huge multiprocessor systems by seamlessly taking advantage of
Windows NT support for symmetric multiprocessing.
Flexible Deployment
As the load on an application grows, not even the fastest
multiprocessor machine may be able to accommodate demand, even if your
budget can accommodate such a machine. DCOM's location independence
makes it easy to distribute components over other computers, offering
an easier and less expensive route to scalability.
Redeployment is easiest for stateless components or for those that do
not share their state with other components. For components such as
these, it is possible to run multiple copies on different machines. The
user load can be evenly distributed among the machines, or criteria
like machine capacity or even current load can be take into
consideration. With DCOM, it is easy to change the way clients connect
to components and components connect to each other. The same components
can be dynamically redeployed, without any rework or even
recompilation. All that is necessary is to update the registry, file
system, or database where the location of each component is stored.
An organization with offices in multiple locations, such as New York,
London, San Francisco, and Sydney, Australia, can install the
components in its servers. Two hundred users simultaneously access 50
components in a server with the expected performance. As new business
applications are delivered to users, applications that use some
existing business components and some newer ones, the load on the
server grows to 600 users, and the number of business components grows
to 70. With these additional applications and users, response times
become unacceptable during peak hours. The administrator adds a second
server and redeploys 30 of the components exclusively on the new
machine. Twenty components remain exclusively on the old server, while
the remaining 20 are run on both machines.

Figure 5. Parallel deployment
Most real-world applications have one or more critical components that
are involved in most of the operations. These can be database
components or business rule components that need to be accessed
serially to enforce "first come, first served" policies. These kind of
components cannot be duplicated, since their sole purpose is to provide
a single synchronization point among all users of the application. To
improve the overall performance of a distributed application, these
"bottleneck" components have to be deployed onto a dedicated, powerful
server. Again, DCOM helps by letting you isolate these critical
components early in the design process, deploying multiple components
on a single machine initially and moving the critical components to
dedicated machines later. As explained previously, no redesign or even
recompilation of the components is needed.

Figure 6”Isolating critical components
For these critical bottleneck components, DCOM can make the overall
task go more quickly. Such bottlenecks are usually part of a processing
sequence, such as buy or sell orders in an electronic trading system:
Requests must be processed in the order they are received (first come,
first served). One solution is to break the task into smaller
components and deploy each component on a different machine. The effect
is similar to pipelining as used in modern microprocessors: The first
request comes in, the first component processes it (does, for example,
consistency checking) and passes the request on to the next component
(which might, for example, update the database). As soon as the first
component passes the request on to the second component, it is ready to
process the next request. In effect, there are two machines working in
parallel on multiple requests, while the order in which requests are
processed is guaranteed. The same approach is possible using DCOM on a
single machine: multiple components can run on different threads or in
different processes. This approach simplifies scalability later, when
the threads can be distributed on a multiprocessor machine or the
processes can be deployed on different machines.

Figure 7. Pipelining
DCOM's location-independent programming model makes it easy to change
deployment schemes as the application grows: A single server machine
can host all the components initially, connecting them as very
efficient in-process servers. Effectively, the application behaves as a
highly tuned monolithic application. As demand grows, other machines
can be added, and the components can be distributed among those
machines without any code changes.
Evolving Functionality: Versioning
Besides scaling with the number of users or the number of transactions,
applications also need to scale as new features are required. Over
time, new tasks need to be incorporated and existing ones modified. In
the conventional approach, either clients and components have to be
updated simultaneously or the old component has to be retained until
all clients have upgraded”an undertaking that can become a major
administrative burden when a significant number of geographically
dispersed sites or users is involved.
DCOM provides flexible evolutionary mechanisms for clients and
components. With COM and DCOM, clients can dynamically query the
functionality of the component. Instead of exposing its functionality
as a single, monolithic group of methods and properties, a COM
component can appear differently to different clients. A client that
uses a certain feature needs access only to the methods and properties
it uses. Clients can also use more than one feature of a component
simultaneously. If other features are added to the component, they do
not affect an older client that is not aware of them.
Being able to structure components this way, enables a new kind of
evolution: The initial component exposes a core set of features as COM
interfaces, on which every client can count. As the component acquires
new features, most (often even all) of these existing interfaces will
still be necessary; and new functions and properties appear in
additional interfaces without changing the original interfaces at all.
Old clients still access the core set of interfaces as if nothing had
changed. New clients can test for the presence of the new interfaces
and use them when available, or they can degrade gracefully to the old

Figure 8. Robust versioning
Because functionality is grouped into interfaces in the DCOM
programming model, you can design new clients that run with old
servers, new servers that run with old clients, or mix and match to
suit your needs and programming resources. With conventional object
models, even a slight change to a method fundamentally changes the
contract between the client and the component. In some models, it is
possible to add new methods to the end of the list of methods, but
there is no way to safely test for the new methods on old components.
From the network's perspective, things become even more complicated:
Encoding and wire-representation typically depend on the order of the
methods and parameters. Adding or changing methods and parameters also
changes the network protocol significantly. DCOM handles all these
problems with a single, elegant, unified approach for both the object
model and the network protocol.
Scalability is not much of a benefit if the initial performance is not
satisfactory. It is always good to know that more and better hardware
can take an application to its next evolutionary step, but what about
the entry-level requirements? Don't all these high-end scalability
features come at a price? Doesn't supporting every language from COBOL
to assembly language necessarily compromise performance? Doesn't the
ability to run a component on the other side of the world preclude
running it efficiently in the same process as the client?
In COM and DCOM, the client never sees the server object itself, but
the client is never separated from the server by a system component
unless it's absolutely necessary. This transparency is achieved by a
strikingly simple idea: the only way a client can talk to the component
is through method calls. The client obtains the addresses of these
methods from a simple table of method addresses (a "vtable"). When the
client wants to call a method on a component, it obtains the method's
address and calls it. The only overhead incurred by the COM programming
model over a traditional C or assembly language function call is the
simple lookup of the method's address (indirect function call vs.
direct function call). If the component is an in-process component
running on the same thread as the client, the method call arrives
directly at the component. No COM or system code is involved; COM only
defines the standard for laying out the method address table.
What happens when the client and the component are actually not as
close”on another thread, in another process, or on another machine at
the other side of the world? COM places its own remote procedure call
(RPC) infrastructure code into the vtable and then packages each method
call into a standard buffer representation, which it sends to the
component's side, unpacks it, and reissues the original method call:
COM provides an object-oriented RPC mechanism.
How fast is this RPC mechanism? There are different performance metrics
to consider:
¢ How fast is an "empty" method call?
¢ How fast are "real world" method calls that send and return
¢ How fast is a network round trip?
The table below shows some real-world performance numbers for COM and
DCOM to give an idea of the relative performance of DCOM compared to
other protocols.
Table 1.
Parameter Size 4 bytes 50 bytes
calls/sec ms/call calls/sec ms/call
Pentium®, in-process 3,224,816 0.00031 3,277,973 0.00031
Alpha, in-process 2,801,630 0.00036 2,834,269 0.00035
Pentium, cross-process 2,377 0.42 2,023 0.49
Alpha, cross-process 1,925 0.52 1634 0.61
Alpha to Pentium remote 376 2.7 306 3.27
* These informal numbers were obtained on the author's Dell OptiPlex XM
5120 (120 MHz Pentium, 32-MB RAM) and a small DEC Alpha-based RISC-
machine (200 MHz, 32-MB RAM). Both machines were running the release
version of Windows NT 4.0 (Build 1381). DCOM was using UDP over Intel®
EtherExpress PRO network cards (10 Mbps) on the Microsoft corporate
network under a normal load. The COM Performance Sample”available in
the Windows NT 4.0 Microsoft Win32® SDK”can be used to obtain similar
numbers with other configurations.
The first two columns represent an "empty" method call (passing in and
returning a 4-byte integer). The last two columns can be considered a
"real world" COM method call (50 bytes of parameters).
The table shows how in-process components obtain zero-overhead
performance (rows 1 and 2).
Cross-process calls (rows 3 and 4) require the parameters to be stored
into a buffer and sent to the other process. A performance of roughly
2000 calls per second on standard desktop hardware satisfies most
performance requirements. All local calls are completely bound by
processor speed (and to some extent by available memory) and scale well
on multi-processor machines.
Remote calls (rows 5 and 6) are primarily network bound and indicate
approximately 35% overhead of DCOM over raw TCP/IP performance (2 ms
roundtrip time for TCP/IP).
Microsoft will soon provide formal DCOM performance numbers on a wide
range of platforms that show DCOM's ability to scale with the number of
clients and with the number of processors on the server.
These informal”but reproducible”performance numbers indicate an
overhead of approximately 35% of DCOM over raw TCP/IP for empty calls.
This ratio decreases further as the server performs actual processing.
If the server requires 1 ms”for example to update a database”the ratio
decreases to 23% and to 17% if the server requires 2 ms.
The overall performance and scalability advantages of DCOM can only be
reached by implementing sophisticated thread-pool managers and pinging
protocols. Most distributed applications will not want or need to incur
this significant investment for obtaining minor performance gains,
while sacrificing the convenience of the standardized DCOM wire-
protocol and programming model.
Bandwidth and Latency
Distributed applications take advantage of a network to tie components
together. In theory, DCOM completely hides the fact that components are
running on different computers. In practice however, applications need
to consider the two primary constraints of a network connection:
¢ Bandwidth. The size of the parameters passed into a method call
directly affects the time it takes to complete the call.
¢ Latency. The physical distance and the number of network
elements involved (such as routers and communication lines) delay even
the smallest data packet significantly. In the case of a global network
like the Internet, these delays can be on the order of seconds.
How does DCOM help applications to deal with these constraints? DCOM
itself minimizes network round trips wherever possible to avoid the
impact of network latency. DCOM's preferred transport protocol is the
connectionless UDP subset of the TCP/IP protocol suite: The
connectionless nature of this protocol allows DCOM to perform several
optimizations by merging many low-level acknowledge packages with
actual data and pinging messages. Even running over connection-oriented
protocols, DCOM still offers significant advantages over application-
specific custom protocols.
Shared Connection Management between Applications
Most application level protocols require some kind of lifetime
management. The component needs to get notified when a client machine
suffers a catastrophic hardware failure or the network connection
between client and component breaks for an extended period of time.
A common approach to this problem is to send keep-alive message at
periodic intervals (pinging). If the server does not receive a ping
message for a specified time, it declares the client "dead."
DCOM uses a per machine keep-alive message. Even if the client machine
uses 100 components on a server machine, a single ping message keeps
all the clients connections alive. In addition to consolidating all the
ping messages, DCOM minimizes the size of these ping messages by using
delta pinging. Instead of sending 100 client identifiers, it creates
meta-identifiers that represent all 100 references. If the set of
references changes, only the delta between the two reference sets is
transmitted. Finally, DCOM piggybacks the ping message onto regular
messages. Only if the entire client machine is idle with respect to a
given server machine does it send periodic ping messages (at a 2-minute

Figure 9. Consolidated lifetime management
DCOM allows different applications (even from different vendors) to
share a single, optimized lifetime management and network failure
detection protocol, reducing bandwidth significantly. If 100 different
applications with 100 different custom protocols are running on a
server, this server would normally receive one ping message for each of
those applications from each of the connected clients. Only if these
protocols somehow coordinate their pinging strategies can the overall
network overhead be reduced. DCOM automatically provides this
coordination among arbitrary COM-based custom protocols.
Optimize Network Round-Trips
A common problem in designing distributed applications is an excessive
number of network round trips between components on different machines.
On the Internet, each of these round trips incurs a delay of typically
1 second, often significantly more. Even over a fast local network,
round-trip times are typically measured in milliseconds”orders of
magnitude above the cost of local operations.
A common technique for reducing the number of network round trips is to
bundle multiple method calls into a single method invocation (batching
or boxcarring). DCOM uses this technique extensively for tasks such as
connecting to an object or creating a new object and querying its
functionality. The disadvantage of this technique for general
components is that the programming model changes significantly between
the local and the remote case.
A database component provides a method for enumerating the results of a
query either row by row or several rows at a time. In the local case, a
developer can simply use this method to add the rows one by one to a
list box. In the remote case, this approach would incur a network round
trip for each row enumerated. Using the method in a batched fashion
requires the developer to allocate a buffer large enough to hold all
the rows in the query and retrieve them in one call, then adding them
to the list box one by one. Because the programming model has changed
significantly, the developer has to make design compromises so the
application will work efficiently in a distributed environment.
DCOM makes it easy for component designers to perform batching without
requiring the clients to use a batching-style API. DCOM's marshaling
mechanism lets the component inject code on the client side, called a
"proxy object," that can intercept multiple method calls and bundle
them into a single remote procedure call.
The developer of the previous example continues to enumerate the
methods one by one, since that is the way the application's logic
requires it. (The list box API requires this.) However, the first call
for enumerating the query result arrives in the application-specific
proxy object, which retrieves all the rows (or a reasonable "batch" of
rows) and caches them in the proxy object. Subsequent calls then come
from this cache without additional network round trips. The developer
continues with a simple programming model, yet the overall application
is optimized.

Figure 10. The component model: Client-side caching
DCOM also allows efficient referrals from one component to the other.
If a component holds a reference to another component on a separate
machine, it can pass this reference to a client running on a third
machine (refer the client to another component running on another
machine). When the client uses this reference, it communicates directly
with the second component. DCOM short-circuits these references and
lets the original component and machine get out of the picture
entirely. This enables custom directory services that can return
references to a wide range of remote components.
Example 1
A chess application can allow players who are waiting for a partner to
register with a chess directory service. Other players can browse or
query the list of waiting players. When a player chooses a partner, the
chess directory service returns a reference to the partner's client
component. DCOM automatically connects the two players; the directory
service is not involved in any further transactions.
Example 2
A "broker" component keeps track of a pool of 20 server machines
running identical components. It measures the current load on the
servers and detects when servers are added or removed. When a client
needs a component, it connects to the "broker" component, which returns
a reference to a component on the server with the lowest load. DCOM
automatically connects the client to the server; the "broker" component
then gets completely out of the way.

Figure 11. Referral
If necessary, DCOM even allows components to plug in arbitrary custom
protocols that use means outside of the DCOM mechanism. The component
can use custom marshaling to inject an arbitrary proxy object into the
client process, which can then use any arbitrary protocol to talk back
to the component.
Example 1
A server-side component might be using an ODBC connection to talk to an
SQL Server„¢ database. When a client retrieves this object, it may be
more efficient to have the client machine communicate directly with the
SQL Server database (using ODBC) instead of using DCOM to communicate
with the server machine, which in turn communicates with the SQL Server
database. With DCOM's custom marshaling, the database component can
basically copy itself onto the client machine and connect itself to the
SQL Server without the client ever noticing that it is connected not to
the database component on the server anymore, but to a local copy of
the same database component.
Example 2
A trading system needs two kinds of communication mechanisms: a secure,
authenticated channel from clients to a central system, which is used
for placing and revoking orders, and a distribution channel, which
disseminates order information simultaneously to all connected clients.
While the client/server channel is handled efficiently and easily using
today's DCOM secure and synchronous connections, the broadcast channel
might require a more sophisticated mechanism using multicast
technologies to accommodate large numbers of listeners. DCOM allows
this custom protocol ("reliable broadcast") to be plugged seamlessly
into the application architecture: A data sink component can
encapsulate this protocol and make it completely transparent to both
client and server. For small installations with few users, standard
DCOM point-to-point protocols can be used, while larger customer sites
would use the sophisticated custom broadcast protocol. If DCOM provides
a standard multicast transport in the future, the application can
migrate seamlessly to the new protocol.

Figure 12. Replacing DCOM with custom protocols
DCOM provides a multitude of ways to "tweak" the actual network
protocol and network traffic without changing the way that clients
perceive the component: Client-side caching, referrals, and replacing
the network transport when necessary are but a few techniques that are
Using the network for distributing an application is challenging not
only because of the physical limitations of bandwidth and latency. It
also raises new issues related to security between and among clients
and components. Since many operations are now physically accessible by
anyone with access to the network, access to these operations has to be
restricted at a higher level.
Without security support from the distributed development platform,
each application would be forced to implement its own security
mechanisms. A typical mechanism would involve passing some kind of
username and password (or a public key)”usually encrypted”to some kind
of logon method. The application would validate these credentials
against a user database or directory and return some dynamic identifier
for use in future method calls. On each subsequent call to a secure
method, the clients would have to pass this security identifier. Each
application would have to store and manage a list of usernames and
passwords, protect the user directory against unauthorized access, and
manage changes to passwords, as well as dealing with the security
hazard of sending passwords over the network.
A distributed platform must thus provide a security framework to safely
distinguish different clients or different groups of clients so that
the system or the application has a way of knowing who is trying to
perform an operation on a component. DCOM uses the extensible security
framework provided by Windows NT. Windows NT provides a solid set of
built-in security providers that support multiple identification and
authentication mechanisms, from traditional trusted-domain security
models to noncentrally managed, massively scaling public-key security
mechanisms. A central part of the security framework is a user
directory, which stores the necessary information to validate a user's
credentials (user name, password, public key). Most DCOM
implementations on non-Windows NT platforms provide a similar or
identical extensibility mechanism to use whatever kind of security
providers is available on that platform. Most UNIX implementations of
DCOM will include a Windows NT-compatible security provider.
Before looking more closely at these Windows NT security and directory
providers, let's take a look at how DCOM uses this general security
framework to make building secure applications easier.
Security by Configuration
DCOM can make distributed applications secure without any security-
specific coding or design in either the client or the component. Just
as the DCOM programming model hides a component's location, it also
hides the security requirements of a component. The same (existing or
off-the-shelf) binary code that works in a single-machine environment,
where security may be of no concern, can be used in a distributed
environment in a secure fashion.
DCOM achieves this security transparency by letting developers and
administrators configure the security settings for each component. Just
as the Windows NT File System lets administrators set access control
lists (ACLs) for files and directories, DCOM stores Access Control
Lists for components. These lists simply indicate which users or groups
of users have the right to access a component of a certain class. These
lists can easily be configured using the DCOM configuration tool
(DCOMCNFG) or programmatically using the Windows NT registry and Win32®
security functions.
Whenever a client calls a method or creates an instance of a component,
DCOM obtains the client's current username associated with the current
process (actually the current thread of execution). Windows NT
guarantees that this user credential is authentic. DCOM then passes the
username to the machine or process where the component is running. DCOM
on the component's machine then validates the username again using
whatever authentication mechanism is configured and checks the access
control list for the component (actually for the first component run in
the process containing the component).If the client's username is not
included in this list (either directly or indirectly as a member of a
group of users), DCOM simply rejects the call before the component is
ever involved. This default security mechanism is completely
transparent to both the client and the component and is highly
optimized. It is based on the Windows NT security framework, which is
probably one of the most heavily used (and optimized!) parts of the
Windows NT operating system: on each and every access to a file or even
to a thread-synchronization primitive like an event or semaphore,
Windows NT performs an identical access check. The fact that Windows NT
can still compete with and beat the performance of competing operating
systems and network operating systems shows how efficient this security
mechanism is.

Figure 13. Security by configuration
DCOM provides an extremely efficient default security mechanism that
lets developers write secure distributed applications without having to
worry about security at all. Any security provider supported by Windows
NT can be used with DCOM's security mechanism.
Programmatic Control over Security
For some applications, a single component-wide access control list is
not sufficient. Some methods in a component may be accessible only to
certain users.
An accounting business component may have a method for registering new
transactions and another method for retrieving existing transactions.
Only members of the accounting department (user group "Accounting")
should be able to add new transactions, while only members of upper
management (user group "Upper Management") should be able to view the
As indicated in the previous section, applications can always implement
their own security by managing their own user database and security
credentials. However, working from a standardized security framework
provides many benefits to end-users. Without a security framework,
users have to remember and manage logon credentials for each
application they are using. Developers have to be aware of security in
each and every component of their applications.
DCOM simplifies customizing security to the needs of specific
components and applications, providing extreme flexibility while
incorporating any security standard supported by Windows NT. See the
following section for details.
How can an application use DCOM security to implement the selective
security required in the examples above? When a method call comes in,
the component asks DCOM to impersonate the client. After this, the
called thread can perform only those operations on secured objects that
the client is permitted to perform. The component can then try to
access a secured object, such as a registry key, that has an Access
Control List on it. If this access fails, the client was not contained
in the ACL, and the component rejects the method call. By choosing
different registry keys according to the method that is being called,
the component can provide selective security in a very easy, yet
flexible and efficient way.

Figure 14. Per interface security using registry keys
Components can also simply obtain the authenticated username of the
client and use it to look up permissions or policies in their own
database. This strategy employs the authentication mechanism of the
Windows NT security framework (password/public key, encrypted passwords
on the wire, etc.). The application does not have to worry about
storing passwords or other sensitive information. The next version of
Windows NT will provide an extended directory service that allows
applications to store custom data inside the Windows NT user database.
DCOM provides even more flexibility. Components can require different
levels of encryption and different levels of authentication, while
clients can prevent components from using their credentials when
Security on the Internet
There are two basic challenges facing applications designed to work
over the Internet.
¢ The number of users can be orders of magnitude higher than in
even the largest company.
¢ End users want to use the same key or password for all of the
applications they are using, even if they are run by different
companies. The application or the security framework on the provider
side cannot store the private key of the user.
How can DCOM's flexible security architecture help applications to deal
with these problems? DCOM uses the security framework provided by
Windows NT. (See the section above on Security for more details.) The
Windows NT security architecture supports multiple security providers,
¢ Windows NT NTLM authentication protocol, which is used by
Windows NT 4.0 and previous versions of Windows NT.
¢ The Kerberos Version 5 authentication protocol, which replaces
NTLM as the primary security protocol for access to resources within or
across Windows NT domains.
¢ Distributed password authentication (DPA), the shared secret
authentication protocol used by some of the largest Internet membership
organizations, such as MSN„¢ and CompuServe.
¢ Secure channel security services, which implement the SSL/PCT
protocols in Windows NT 4.0. The next generation of Windows NT security
has enhanced support for public-key protocols that support SSL 3.0
client authentication.
¢ A DCE-compliant security provider, available as a third-party
add-on to Windows NT.
All of these providers work over standard Internet protocols and have
different advantages and disadvantages. The NTLM security provider and
the Kerberos-based provider replacing it in Windows 2000 are private
key based protocols. They are extremely efficient and secure in
centrally administered environments or a collection of Windows NT
Server-based domains with mutual or unilateral trust-relations.
Commercial implementations of NTLM security providers are available for
all major Unix platforms (such as AT&T's "Advanced Server for Unix
With the Windows NT 4.0 directory service, multimaster domains scale
well up to approximately 100,000 users. With the extended directory
service in Windows 2000, a single Windows NT domain controller can
scale to approximately a million users. By combining multiple domain
controllers into the Windows 2000 directory tree, the number of users
it is possible to support in a single domain is practically unlimited.
The Windows 2000 Kerberos-based security provider allows even more
advanced security concepts, such as control over what components can do
while impersonating clients. This security provider also requires fewer
resources for performing authentication than the NTLM security
provider. (See the section above on Security for more details.)
Windows 2000 will also include a public-key based security provider.
This provider makes it possible to decentralize management of security
credential with any Windows NT application, including DCOM-based
applications. Authentication with public keys is less efficient than it
is with private keys, but it allows authentication without storing the
client's private credentials.
A wide range of fundamentally different security providers (private
key, public key) can be used by DCOM-based distributed applications
without requiring any change to even advanced, security sensitive
applications. The Windows NT security framework makes writing scalable
and secure applications easy, without sacrificing flexibility and
Load Balancing
The more successful a distributed application, the higher the load that
the growing number of users places on all components of the
application. Often, even the computing power of the fastest hardware is
not enough to keep up with the user demand.
An inevitable option at this point is the distribution of the load
among multiple server machines. The section above, titled
"Scalability," mentions briefly how DCOM facilitates different
techniques of load balancing: parallel deployment, isolating critical
components, and pipelining of sequential processes.
"Load balancing" is a widely used term that describes a whole set of
related techniques. DCOM does not transparently provide load balancing
in all its different meanings, but it does make it easy to implement
different types of load balancing.
Static Load Balancing
One method of load balancing is to permanently assign certain users to
certain servers running the same application. Because these assignments
do not change with conditions on the network or other factors, this
method is called static load balancing.
DCOM-based applications can be easily configured to use specific
servers by changing a registry entry. Custom configuration tools can
use the Win32 remote registry functions to change these settings on
each client. With Windows 2000, DCOM will use the extended directory
service for implementing a distributed class store, which will make it
possible to centralize these configuration changes.
With Windows NT 4.0, applications can use some simple techniques to
achieve the same results. A basic approach is to store the server name
in some well-known central location, such as a database or a small
file. The client component simply retrieves the server name whenever it
needs to connect to the server. Changing the database or the file
contents changes all clients or arbitrary groups of clients
A much more flexible approach uses a dedicated referral component. This
component resides on a well-known server machine. Client components
connect first to this component, requesting a reference to the service
they require. The referral component can use DCOM's security mechanisms
to identify the requesting user and choose the server depending on who
is making the request. Instead of just returning the name of the
server, the referral component can actually establish a connection to
this server and return it directly to the client. DCOM then
transparently connects the client directly to the server; and the
referral component gets completely out of the way. It is even possible
to completely hide this mechanism from the client by implementing a
custom class-factory in the referral component.
As user demand grows, administrators can change the components to
transparently choose different servers for different users. Client
components remain entirely unchanged, and the application can migrate
from a model whose administration is decentralized to a centrally
administered approach. DCOM's location independence and support for
efficient referral make this kind of design flexibility possible.
Dynamic Load Balancing
Static load balancing is a good technique for dealing with growing user
demand, but it requires the intervention of an administrator and works
well only for predictable loads.
The idea of the referral component can be used to provide more
intelligent load balancing. Instead of just basing the choice of server
on the user ID, the referral component can use information about server
load, network topology between client and available servers, and
statistics about past demands of a given user. Every time a client
connects to a component, the referral component can assign it to the
most appropriate server available at that moment. Again, from the
client's point of view this all happens transparently. This method is
called dynamic load balancing.
For some applications, dynamic load balancing at connection time may
not be sufficient. Clients may not typically disconnect for long
periods of time, or demand may be unevenly distributed among users.
DCOM does not, by itself, provide support for this kind of dynamic
reconnection and distribution of method invocations, since doing so
requires intimate knowledge of the interaction between client and
component: The component typically retains some client-specific status
information (state) between method invocations. If DCOM suddenly
reconnected the client to a different component on another machine,
this information would be lost.
However, DCOM makes it easy for application designers to introduce this
logic explicitly into the protocol between client and component. The
client and the component can have special interfaces to decide when a
connection can safely be rerouted to another server without loss of any
critical state information. At this point, either the client or the
component can initiate a reconnection to another component on another
machine before the next method invocation. DCOM provides all the rich
protocol extensibility mechanisms necessary to implement these
additional application-specific protocols.
The DCOM architecture also permits injecting component-specific code
into the client process. Whenever the client invokes a method, a proxy
component provided by the real component intercepts this invocation in
the client process and can reroute it to other servers. The client does
not have to be aware of this at all; DCOM provides flexible mechanisms
to transparently establish these "distributed components."
With this unique feature, DCOM makes possible the development of
generic infrastructures that deal with load balancing and dynamic
method routing. Such an infrastructure can define a standard set of
interfaces that convey the presence or absence of state information
between a client and a component. Whenever the client-side part of the
component detects absence of state information, it can dynamically
reconnect the client to a different server.
Microsoft Transaction Server uses this mechanism to extend the DCOM
programming model. By requiring a simple set of standardized state
information management interfaces, Transaction Server can obtain the
necessary information to offer sophisticated load balancing. In this
new programming model, client and component interactions are bundled
into transactions that basically indicate when a sequence of method
invocations has reached a point where no state information remains
pending between the two components.
DCOM provides a powerful infrastructure for implementing dynamic load
balancing. Simple referral components can be used to transparently
implement dynamic server allocations at connection time. More
sophisticated mechanisms for rerouting individual method invocations to
different servers can easily be implemented, but they require more
intimate knowledge of the interaction between clients and components.
Microsoft Transaction Server, built entirely on DCOM, provides a
standardized programming model that conveys this additional
application-specific knowledge to the Transaction Server
infrastructure, which in turn can perform very sophisticated static and
dynamic reconfiguration and load balancing.
Fault Tolerance
Graceful fail-over and fault-tolerance are vital for mission-critical
applications that require high availability. Such resilience is usually
achieved through a number of hardware, operating system, and
application software mechanisms.
DCOM provides basic support for fault tolerance at the protocol level.
A sophisticated pinging mechanism, described below in the section
titled "Shared Connection Management between Applications" detects
network and client-side hardware failures. If the network recovers
before the timeout interval, DCOM reestablishes connections
DCOM makes it easy to implement fault tolerance. One technique is the
referral component introduced in the previous section. When clients
detect the failure of a component, they reconnect to the same referral
component that established the first connection. The referral component
has information about which servers are no longer available and
automatically provides the client with a new instance of the component
running on another machine. Applications will, of course, still have to
deal with error recovery at higher levels (consistency, loss of
information, etc.).
With DCOM's ability to split a component into a server side and a
client side, connecting and reconnecting to components, as well as
consistency, can be made completely transparent to the client.
Microsoft Transaction Server provides a generic mechanism for handling
consistency at the application level. Combining multiple method
invocations into atomic transactions guarantees consistency and makes
it easier for applications to avoid loss of information.

Figure 15. Distributed component for fault-tolerance
Another technique is commonly referred to as "hot backup." Two copies
of the same server component run in parallel on different machines,
processing the same information. Clients can explicitly connect to both
machines simultaneously. DCOM's "distributed components" make this
action completely transparent to the client application by injecting
server code on the client-side, which handles the fault-tolerance.
Another approach would use a coordinating component running on a
separate machine, which issues the client requests to both server
components on behalf of the client.
A fail-over attempts to "migrate" a server component from one machine
to the other when errors occur. This approach is used by the first
release of Windows NT Clusters, but it can also be implemented at the
application level. DCOM's "distributed components" make it easier to
implement this functionality and shield the clients from the details.
DCOM makes implementing sophisticated fault-tolerance techniques
easier. Details of the solution can be hidden from clients using DCOM's
"distributed components," which run part of the component in the client
process. Developers can enhance their distributed application with
fault-tolerance features without changing the client component or even
reconfiguring the client machine.
Ease of Deployment
The best application is useless, if it can not be easily installed and
administered. For distributed applications, it is critical to be able
to centralize administration and make client installation as
straightforward as possible. It is also necessary to provide
administrators with ways to detect possible failures as soon as
possible, preferably before they cause any damage.
How can DCOM help in making an application more manageable?
A common approach to simplifying client side installation can be
summarized under the buzzword "thin client": the less functionality
that resides on the client, the fewer installation and maintenance
problems can occur.
However, the "thinner" the client components, the less user-friendly
the overall application, and the higher the demands to both network and
server. Also, thin clients do not take advantage of the significant
computing power already available on today's desktops, which is not
likely to decrease for most users because desktop productivity
applications like word processors or spreadsheets are inherently
monolithic. Choosing the right level of "thickness" is thus a critical
decision in the design of a distributed application.
DCOM helps in making this tradeoff between flexibility and ease of
deployment by letting developers and even administrators choose the
location of individual components. The same business components (for
example, data entry validation) can be run on the server or on the
client with a simple change of configuration. The application can
dynamically choose which user interface component to use (HTML
generator on the server or ActiveX control on the client).
The biggest problem for maintaining "fat" clients is updating those
clients to newer versions. As of today, Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0
provides an elegant solution to this problem with its support for code
downloading. Whenever a user browses to a page, Microsoft Internet
Explorer checks the version of the ActiveX controls used on the page
and updates them automatically if needed. Applications can also use
this support directly (the ActiveX CoCreateClassFromURL function)
without explicitly using a browser.
For Windows 2000, the concept of code download will be extended to the
concept of a native COM class store. This class store will use the
extended directory to store configuration information about components,
including references to the actual code, conceptually extending the
local registry as used today. The class store will effectively provide
both Intranet (extended directory) and Internet (code download,
Internet search-path) code repositories, making them completely
transparent to existing applications.
Installing and updating the server components is usually a much less
critical problem. However, in a highly distributed application, it is
often not possible to upgrade all clients simultaneously. DCOM's robust
versioning support, described above in the section titled "Evolving
Functionality: Versioning," allows servers to expose new functionality
while maintaining complete backward compatibility. A single server
component can handle both old and new clients. Once all clients are
updated, the component can phase out support for the functionality that
is not needed by the new clients.
With both code-download and its future extension, the class store,
administrators can centrally install and upgrade clients efficiently
and robustly, making it possible to migrate from "fat" clients to
intelligent clients without thinning out too much functionality. DCOM's
support for robust versioning makes it possible to update servers
without previously updating all potential clients.
Part of installing and upgrading client components is configuring those
components and maintaining their configuration. As far as DCOM is
concerned, the single most important configuration information is the
server machine that runs the components needed by a client.
With code download and the class store, this configuration information
can be managed from a central location. A simple change to the
configuration information and installation packages updates all the
clients transparently.
Another technique to manage client configuration is through the use of
the referral components described above in the section titled "Load
Balancing." All clients connect to this referral component, which
contains all the configuration information and returns the appropriate
component to each client. Simply changing the central referral
component changes all clients.
Some components, typically server components, require additional
component-specific configuration. These components can use DCOM to
expose additional interfaces, which allow changes to the configuration
and retrieval of the current configuration. Using DCOM's security
infrastructure, developers can make these interfaces available only to
administrators with the appropriate access permissions. The broad
support for rapid development tools makes it easy to write elegant
front-end applications that use the administrative interfaces. The same
interfaces can be used for automated configuration changes using simple
scripting languages like Visual Basic Script or Java Script.
Code download and the class store can be used to centrally configure
components. Referral components are an efficient and elegant way to
further centralize configuration information. Components can expose
additional DCOM interfaces only visible and accessible to
administrators, allowing the same DCOM infrastructure to be used for
configuration and monitoring of components.
Protocol Neutrality
Many distributed applications have to be integrated into a customer's
or corporation's existing network infrastructure. Requiring a specific
network protocol would require an upgrade of all potential clients,
which is simply unacceptable in most situations. Application developers
have to take care in keeping the application as independent as possible
of the underlying network infrastructure.
DCOM provides this abstraction transparently: DCOM can use any
transport protocol, including TCP/IP, UDP, IPX/SPX and NetBIOS. DCOM
provides a security framework on all of these protocols, including
connectionless and connection-oriented protocols.
Developers can simply use the features provided by DCOM and be assured
that their application is completely protocol-neutral.
Platform Neutrality
A distributed application often has to integrate different platforms on
both the client side and the server side. Developers are confronted
with significant
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Distributed Objects and Remote Invocation


Distributed Applications: Applications that are designed to have cooperating programs that run in several different processes.
Several familiar programming models that have been extended to distributed programs:
Move from conventional procedure call to Remote Procedure Call (in different processes).
Remote Method Invocations: allows different objects to call each others.
Objects receive notification if other objects have been changed by some external events.
Visibility: Object B is Visible to Object A if and only if A can invoke Methods defined in Object B.
Types of visibility:
Object B is a parameter to some function in object A.
Object B is defined as a member variable in Object A.
Object B is declared globally for Object A.
Object B is defined in some function in Object A.
RPC is the same of RMI in the case of using objects environment.

It is a software that provides programming model above the basic building blocks of processes and messages passing between objects.
An important aspect in middleware is the location transparency.
There is an independency from the details of communication protocol, OS, and HW.


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