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Chapter 3. Distributing Objects

Distributed objects are a potentially powerful tool that has only become broadly available for developers at large in the past few years. The power of distributing objects is not in the fact that a bunch of objects are scattered across the network. The power lies in that any agent in your system can directly interact with an object that "lives" on a remote host. Distributed objects, if they're done right, really give you a tool for opening up your distributed system's resources across the board. And with a good distributed object scheme you can do this as precisely or as broadly as you'd like.

The first three sections of this chapter go over the motivations for distributing objects, what makes distributed object systems so useful, and what makes up a "good" distributed object system. Readers who are already familiar with basic distributed object issues can skip these sections and go on to the following sections, where we discuss two major distributed object protocols that are available in the Java environment: CORBA and RMI.

Although this chapter will cover the use of both RMI and CORBA for distributing objects, the rest of the book primarily uses examples that are based on RMI, where distributed objects are needed. We chose to do this because RMI is a simpler API and lets us write relatively simple examples that still demonstrate useful concepts, without getting bogged down in CORBA API specifics. Some of the examples, if converted to be used in production environments, might be better off implemented in CORBA.

3.1. Why Distribute Objects?

In Chapter 1, "Introduction", we discussed some of the optimal data/function partitioning capabilities that you'd like to have available when developing distributed applications. These included being able to distribute data/function "modules" freely and transparently, and have these modules be defined based on application structure rather than network distribution influences. Distributed object systems try to address these issues by letting developers take their programming objects and have them "run" on a remote host rather than the local host. The goal of most distributed object systems is to let any object reside anywhere on the network, and allow an application to interact with these objects exactly the same way as they do with a local object. Additional features found in some distributed object schemes are the ability to construct an object on one host and transmit it to another host, and the ability for an agent on one host to create a new object on another host.

The value of distributed objects is more obvious in larger, more complicated applications than in smaller, simpler ones. That's because much of the trade-off between distributed objects and other techniques, like message passing, is between simplicity and robustness. In a smaller application with just a few object types and critical operations, it's not difficult to put together a catalog of simple messages that would let remote agents perform all of their critical operation through on-line transactions. With a larger application, this catalog of messages gets complicated and difficult to maintain. It's also more difficult to extend a large message-passing system if new objects and operations are added. So being able to distribute the objects in our system directly saves us a lot of design overhead, and makes a large distributed system easier to maintain in the long run.

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