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Client-Server
Volume Number:10
Issue Number:3
Column Tag:From The Trenches

True Life Story

Developing a Client-Server system

By Malcolm H. Teas, Rye, New Hampshire

Note: Source code files accompanying article are located on MacTech CD-ROM or source code disks.

About the author

Malcolm Teas has been programming the Macintosh for five years in C with MPW and Think C. He’s active with object programming in TCL because he has a short attention span and likes to write applications quickly. His most recent shareware is Apple Π, a Π calculation program available on America Online. He lives, works, and consults from his house on the seacoast of New Hampshire. Seacoast Software, 556 Long John Road, Rye, NH 03870-2213, mhteas@aol.com or mhteas@well.sf.ca.us

In the spirit of all those TV shows with “real-life” themes, and temporarily short of real article ideas, I proposed an article on the true-to-life story of how I recently helped develop a client-server system. They probably accepted this article because I used the words “Case History” in my proposed title, which sounds like I’m knowledgeable. Of course I might have just caught them on an good day.

In any case, the plot for this story takes two programmers (including myself) and pits them against the clock and programming bugs to implement a system that the customer needed for a legal deadline. Our customer decided that, while it’d be alright if I wrote about this, they didn’t want their name and business included, therefore, they’ll remain “our customer” to preserve their competitive secret. Their business, of course, should never be associated with air conditioning equipment. You never heard it from me.

What the customer needed

Our customer must, by law, track the intelligent use of their product by their large customers. To do this, there are customer representatives that visit their customers, survey them, then file papers on the surveys. For various reasons these surveys may be audited periodically, so, unlike the rest of us, they must actually be able to find the papers they’ve filed over the last several years.

Our customer had been doing this for some time, not completely successfully, with paper, filing cabinets, and lots of clerks. The Macintoshes were used to generate paper and keep the clerks busy. Although the Macs were connected in a large network, they weren’t taken advantage of for this sort of purpose. Pages were printed on a laser printer, photocopied, then one copy was filed locally and the other was US-mailed to an archiving office.

The problems with this system were substantial. To start with, it was slow. Papers often became misfiled, were on someone’s desk for audit work and so unavailable to others, or got lost in the mail. The US Mail costs were starting to get expensive. It was difficult to analyze the reports in another order from the original filing order. In short, the existing system was unwieldy.

Our Client-Server design

The management that brought us in wanted to use the Macintosh more fully. The customer was using MS-Mail and file servers throughout the company successfully and was interested in making better use of the Macs and their network with a “network-enabled application” or “netware” as they called it. They saw this project as a way to move toward that.

We came up with a client-server system that uses a 4D database as the server application, and a client application written in Think C. Documents are archived by dragging their icons onto the client application icon. The client app starts up, allows the user to specify the archiving criteria, sends the document to the server, and quits.

Since far fewer people need to retrieve documents than need to archive them, we used simple file sharing on the server to allow people to retrieve documents. The client front-end application allows a wider range of less technically sophisticated people to archive documents correctly. A user doesn’t need file sharing privileges to archive a document. Later, in release two, we changed this because the number of users was expected to grow substantially.

The client application has one window with popups on the left side to specify the state, division, and year that the document should be filed under. On the right side of the window are two scrolling lists: the customer’s name and number; and the customer’s location. The customer’s name list contents is determined by the criteria on the left side. The contents of the customer’s location list is determined by the left side criteria and the selected customer.

There are fields that show the currently selected customer and location. Some checkboxes allow new customer’s names, numbers, and locations to be added. This addition takes place when the document is actually filed. The document is filed when the “Archive” button in the lower right of the window is clicked.

These are the essential elements of the client application. It has no menu bar. The application is basically a one-shot. The window (in the first version) is actually a dialog.

What’s done where

We found that the main design issue was how to divide the functionality between the client and server applications. We had to decide this first; the system design was too unwieldy otherwise. Once determined, the messages between the two were defined and each piece became modularized.

Our server is a simple one that receives, stores, and retrieves data for the client. A client-server architecture is good for sharing common data with more than one user. The server handles the common part and the client creates the interface to it. We needed the server to store the documents and the criteria (customer information, state, division, etc.) used to index them.

User interaction and interface, on the other hand, is best handled on the client. After all, a program with one user is faster than a program with multiple users. This, ultimately, is the reason behind moving from mainframe-centered systems to client-server systems. Although speed isn’t always an issue in the user interface (after all, humans can take a long time - up to several hundred milliseconds - to recognize that something changed on the screen, much less understand it), we can use the processing time to format and display the data in useful ways for the user. The client application also tries to “condition” the data sent to the server so the server doesn’t have to handle as many error conditions. This is no excuse for the server programmer to forget to program error detection and recovery. We’re trying to save server execution time, not make the server less robust.

Different kinds of messages

Once the customer and the other filing criteria are specified, we need to send the document to the server, and the server must file it. This interchange of messages while the user is waiting must be handled quickly, but the document sending doesn’t need to be handled interactively. It could be processed by the server up to minutes later. Because of this difference between the two types of messages we needed to handle, we used two messaging methods.

Custom AppleEvents became the interactive message protocol and programmatic MicroSoft Mail became the non-interactive message protocol. This was convenient since we could easily enclose documents in the MS-Mail message to send them to the server. In the second release, we were to extend these messages to do document and report retrieval from the server.

We built custom AppleEvents to: establish communication with the server, get the customer number list, get the list of customer locations for a customer number, and tell the server to add a new customer number or location. We used the MS-Mail message to send the document to the server. The server could, at it’s discretion, defer processing of this document if AppleEvent messages were coming in. We gave interactivity a higher priority.

Note that a true client-server system has no real knowledge of a “session”. A session is the sort of communications protocol that happens when you log onto AppleLink or America Online for example. You’re connected until you log off and, more importantly, whatever happens depends on what’s happened before. But a client-server system exchanges complete messages. Whatever the server does with a message is completely determined by the contents of that message from the client. There’s no explicit “state” memory of what the client’s done before as there is with a terminal session.

Only one of our messages came close to abusing the pure client-server architecture. The AppleEvent message to establish communication from the client to the server was used to trade version numbers between the two. After all, we wanted to plan for future versions with different messages; this allowed us to detect a client and server with different versions trying to talk to each other. Other messages assumed that this was already established.

Real Life - design’s great, but how do we do it?

We didn’t have much time to design and build this. We were given two months, and of that time we were to design, build, and have a user test of the system before it went into production. This meant that we needed to restrict the design to only the absolutely necessary elements and to build those as quickly as possible.

This constraint help us decide to use 4D (version 2.2.3) for the server and Think C for the client. 4D uses a higher level language. While it proved easier to build database code with, the user interface you can build with it isn’t as flexible. The interface you can build with 4D doesn’t follow the Apple Human Interface Guidelines very closely. In addition, like a lot of specialized higher-level languages, it’s good at what it’s designed for, but of limited use in a more general application. Fortunately, the server application didn’t have or need much of a user interface. It needed to work with data and communicate. The former was what 4D was designed for, the latter we added with externals (extensions in code resources) from third parties. The server uses 4D externals written by third parties to get and send messages with the client application. (We were not using the 4D Server from ACI US, just standard 4D with externals.)

The client application needed to be written in a more flexible language than 4D. It turned out to be the more complex application of the two; user interface code often is since it needs to deal with a wider range of possibilities. We chose Think C (version 5) for this since it’s fast compile/link/build cycle would help us meet our time goal.

Another factor in the logistics are the people. The person writing the server application is quite experienced in 4D and less familiar with C. As the author of the client, I’m quite the opposite. We picked development environments that played to our strengths. This was very important in such a short-cycle development project. Partly due to our experience, we both had code samples and snippets that we reused in our respective development environments. The reused code was already written and tested, so it also sped up the process.

One of the problems of client-server development is that to develop either part, it helps to have the other part already running. After all, an unstable messaging interface is a key component that can slow development. We solved this by having the server application development lag the client. I initially developed the client with a “virtual” server. The client’s messaging routines checked whether a global variable was set. If it was, the routines faked the expected response of the server. If not, they talked to the real server. As our messaging interface was largely defined beforehand, we knew what to expect.

Later, as the server application was developed, we could test it against the already running client application. Although there were errors in both sides, the bulk of the client was already written and running. This left us free to concentrate on the messaging and server development.

Adding bells and whistles

Security was a feature that we, as developers, were interested in. The users weren’t concerned with this, actually, we had to talk to them quite a while to convince them to use passwords. We didn’t want them to accidentally lose something and come back to us saying “why didn’t you think of that?”. One of the things we get paid for is to think of these things ahead of time. We also added keywords in the messages that the server checks for. If these keywords aren’t in a message, the server ignores the message. It’s a little harder to spoof the system this way.

Once we’d made the decision to use System 7’s file sharing as the method of retrieving documents, our major security features were already implemented. The AppleEvents use the same security as the file sharing. Since we require that the user use the same MS-Mail ID as the file sharing user name and that the user already be logged on to MS-Mail, the security there is already taken care of too. While the user name being the same in the file sharing and the mail system may seem onerous, it’s not really as our customer already has this requirement to simplify their system management.

One last required feature was an autosearch of the customer number list to do auto-completion. The client application has two lists on the right side of it’s window that show the customer and their location. Above each of them are fields that indicate the current customer and location selected from the list. If the user types in one of these fields, the client program searches the list for the closest match. If it finds only one match, it fills out the rest of what you would’ve typed. If it finds more than one match, it moves the list to display the first matched item (the list is kept in sorted order).

System capacity

Client-server systems can vary on several grounds: Computation/request, size (in bytes) of the request, amount of expected requests per unit of time, and number of clients serviced by the server. These, naturally, interact. If the server has a lot of work to do for each request (or the average request), then the amount of requests it can process is lower. Luckily for us, the parameters of this system were quite nice. A low request rate, low computation overhead per request, and small (comparatively) number of users. This let us run the server (for the first version) on an SE/30.

The second version is being rolled out to the whole USA. We’re anticipating a rather larger number of users. However, we’ve got information from the first release to allow us to better estimate the load. One parameter for us that’s important is the disk space used. We expect that to be quite high. The initial release helped us to estimate that better.

We decided that there are two ways of estimating these parameters, either the peak method or the average method. Each is better for different parameters. For example, you wouldn’t use an average method for the disk space needed, you’d need the peak estimate there - and a generous one too. However, if the server couldn’t respond as quickly as it should, that wouldn’t be terrible. So, the average method could be used to estimate the needed CPU capacity of the server.

Putting version one into production

The system went together rather quickly. Less than two months after starting development, a couple of us drove to the customer’s pilot office to bring the client application to the first users and train then. We promptly ran into a culture clash.

There was no problem getting the users trained. However, as predicted, they didn’t want to use passwords. We’d designed the system so that most anyone could use it - including the representatives that visited the customers. We didn’t know, though, that the office culture was such that the representatives didn’t actually touch the keyboard. They dictated the reports, clerical staff took the taped dictation, created the documents, and filed them. Now, using the client application to file the documents, we had a very few heavy users instead of a larger number of occasional users.

In any case, the customers loved the system. One month later we received a letter praising the system and “its on-time, under-budget development” that met all their needs.

The things that helped us make this a quick project were: it’s clear, focused project definition, our ruthless approach to feature creep, and our ability to reuse existing source code. Without the focused project definition, we would’ve gotten lost in message definition problems, and issues like “what feature goes where” debates. When new features came up to be discussed, our approach was usually negative. Now, it isn’t fun to be a killjoy, but if your goal is to get the thing out the door, then you’ve got to have a ruthlessly pragmatic approach: will this feature add enough benefit to compensate for the time delay? Bear in mind that estimates of development time and benefits may not be accurate either; you have to factor in risk adjustments, too.

Reusing existing code is something that should be done more often. It’s like walking in seven-league boots. Imagine that you’re a carpenter. Suddenly you’re told that because you’d built one bookshelf, you’d never have to build another. You could sell that same one over and over. Why, you’d be overjoyed! But many developers neglect to scavenge a project when they’ve finished for reusable source code pieces. Perhaps that’s the difference between just a programmer and a real software engineer.

So, why a second version?

If the customer liked it so much, why do another version? Like many complex systems, it’s hard to know exactly what’s needed before hand. Also, some features we dropped out earlier when we’d gotten too ruthless on feature-creep needed to go back in. The customer wanted several things: to get lots of its U.S. offices using this, drag-n-drop of multiple documents, better reports, and most significantly, they wanted to track the activities of the representatives.

Sealing the system

To use this system in all of their offices, we’d need automatic document retrieval. After all, permitting file sharing access to a few people is one thing. A larger group is quite another, especially with the need to archive the files automatically. We could improve security and simplify the system’s management with an automatic document retrieval feature. Document deletion would still be manual however. Since this is an archival system, we didn’t want to make that part easy. We decided that, in large part, the system would be “sealed” against easy file-sharing access.

The hands-on users wanted some changes made to the interface for ease of use. We hadn’t anticipated the pattern of use which led them to want to drag-n-drop multiple files. They also wanted some bigger fields so they could see longer document names. These and other, similar features would make the system far more usable. While these were little features, they were essential to the day-to-day users.

If we got graphics, use graphics!

The activity tracking was the least well-defined feature. After some work, we ended up with a flowchart of the activities that a representative goes through to inspect a customer. Some of this flowchart was defined by the legal guidelines, some by the company’s guidelines. After some faltering attempts at a user interface for this, we put the flowchart horizontally in a window that scrolled from left to right.

This seems to be working out well. It shows the information in the way that the representatives and other users think of it, and clarifies the relationships between the items in the flowchart. Each item has a box with a checkbox as its title, a date field for the deadline date, and another for the actual date for finishing the item. When the item is done, the checkbox is checked. The deadline date is calculated automatically, and the actual date is filled in by the user. When the deadline date is getting near, the box’s edge changes to red and becomes bold. This gives the user time to do something before the deadline arrives.

The users also wanted to generate reports on all of their customers at once. The reports, document retrieval, and activity information all seemed to fit together and didn’t seem to fit in the existing client application, so we designed a new client for the same server that handled these new functions.

Going to Objects

Technically more important, we moved from C to the subset of C++ used in Think Class Libraries (TCL). This meant that the original client (the Archiver) needed rewriting too due to it’s changes. Its structure was complex enough that additions were quite difficult and there were a lot of internal dependencies. Rewriting in in TCL would permit us to redesign these out. This would also allow us to re-use much of the same code in the new client (called the Monitor). We chose TCL because it was part of the development environment we were already using. While MacApp has good points - better control over segmentation for example - the overhead of MPW was too great.

In mapping out the hierarchy of objects for the Archiver and Monitor, I used a simplified form of the Booch method of design. I could simplify the method since I was the only one doing client application development. The view hierarchy was fairly obvious in design while the internal data hierarchy was less so. Often, in a client application, there’s a mirroring between the view objects, those that make the visible elements of the interface, and the internal objects that maintain the data for the application. Another method is to build the view in the way that suits the interface, and the internals in the way that the data is best built.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t as clear to me then as it is now. After close to ten years of building programs in C, I was able to design easily “on the fly”. Not that I was ever that lazy, but I did tend to keep my designs rather informal. This is less easy in OOP design. It’s more difficult to go back and reshape existing objects. After all, the point is to encapsulate the information they need. This information includes the design information for that object and class. If you have to go back, you’ve forgotten too much already.

I’m not saying that you can’t go back and modify, but your system’s architecture and structure is more important in OOP than in procedural programming. Extra time up front on OOP design isn’t wasted. I believe it’s essential. The lack of good OOP design tools is also a factor; better tools would make this process easier, but they aren’t a cure-all, either. The mindset for OOP design and programming is different than that for procedural programming.

If you were building a car and you didn’t have standardized parts, you could custom-craft the necessary parts as you went. As long as you know how to build each part as you come to it, and as long as you know overall what you want to build, custom-crafting parts isn’t a problem. This is analogous to procedural programming - it takes longer, but there’s no concern with standardized parts. However, to produce a number of similar cars, you’d want standard parts. To use them, you need a more detailed design so you can know what to use when. It’s a trade-off between design and greater flexibility. This isn’t to say that OOP is bad; quite the opposite. The greater flexibility with custom programming isn’t usually needed. I strongly prefer the OOP approach.

Part of the OOP design problem is figuring out just what an object is. Using the TCL helped in this respect. Objects were already defined. I could usually sub-class something to specialize it’s operation to what I needed. This reduced the issue of deciding what operations and data to encapsulate in a object. This issue of deciding what an object is can be quite important. After all, an object is the software representation of a design concept. Do it right and the design is written in code easily, do it wrong and the development is difficult and schedule-busting.

We re-wrote the Archiver and developed the Monitor (a more complex application) in a little over three months. As I write this, we’re just past user test. We made some bug fixes and small changes, and are now ready to implement across the nations. This development was significantly faster than the prior version, even though I felt I could’ve done the design better.

I re-wrote the Archiver first. Some code I ported from the prior version, but most of it was new. Generally, the code I ported were algorithms that I made into methods. I could’ve also simply called regular “C” code from the methods. That approach would be good for a collection of interrelated “C” routines. The approach I used was better because the original routines were largely concerned with user interface and not operations. The TCL takes care of the user interface features either by itself or by you sub-classing existing objects.

We’d specifically designed the Monitor to be similar in user interface to the Archiver. This allowed me to reuse many of the Archiver’s objects in the Monitor, so that sped up development significantly.

What would I do again?

The step-wise approach to client-server development with the fake server layer in the client was clearly something I’d repeat. Also, 4D makes a good server for this kind of architecture. However, if the traffic to the server were significantly higher, we’d have to reconsider this.

I’d definitely repeat the OOP development. The lucky opportunity to do much the same thing in C and in TCL was useful in that in gave me a clear comparison. I prefer the TCL, that way I can concentrate on writing the interesting code, not the same stuff over and over.

 

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