Computer Networks (CS425)

Instructor: Dr. Dheeraj Sanghi

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Remote Procedure Call

Data Conversion

There is a possibility of having computers of different architectures in the same network. For e.g. we may have DEC or Intel machines ( which use Little-endian representation) connected with IBM or Motorola PCs (which use Big-endian representation) . Now a message from an Intel machine, sent in Little-endian order, may be interpreted by an IBM machine in Big-endian format. This will obviously give erroneous results. So we must have some strategy to convert data from one machine's native format to the other one's or, to some standard network format.

Available Methods :

Remote Procedure Call (RPC)

RPC comes under the Application-Oriented Design, where the client-server communication is in the form of Procedure Calls. We call the machine making the procedure call as client and the machine executing the called procedure as server. For every procedure being called there must exist a piece of code which knows which machine to contact for that procedure. Such a piece of code is called a Stub. On the client side, for every procedure being called we need a unique stub. However, the stub on the server side can be more general; only one stub can be used to handle more than one procedures (see figure ). Also, two calls to the same procedure can be made using the same stub.

Now let us see how a typical remote procedure call gets executed :-

  1. Client program calls the stub procedure linked within its own address space. It is a normal local call.
  2. The client stub then collects the parameters and packs them into a message (Parameter Marshalling). The message is then given to the transport layer for transmission.
  3. The transport entity just attaches a header to the message and puts it out on the network without further ado.
  4. When the message arrives at the server the transport entity there passes it tot the server stub, which unmarshalls the parameters.
  5. The server stub then calls the server procedure, passing the parameters in the standard way.
  6. After it has completed its work, the server procedure returns, the same way as any other procedure returns when it is finished. A result may also be returned.
  7. The server stub then marshalls the result into a message and hands it off at the transport interface.
  8. The reply gets back to the client machine.
  9. The transport entity hands the result to the client stub.
  10. Finally, the client stub returns to its caller, the client procedure, along-with the value returned by the server in step 6.

This whole mechanism is used to give the client procedure the illusion that it is making a direct call to a distant server procedure. To the extent the illusion exceeds, the mechanism is said to be transparent. But the transparency fails in parameter passing. Passing any data ( or data structure) by value is OK, but passing parameter 'by reference' causes problems. This is because the pointer in question here, points to an address in the address space of the client process, and this address space is not shared by the server process. So the server will try to search the address pointed to by this passed pointer, in its own address space. This address may not have the value same as that on the client side, or it may not lie in the server process' address space, or such an address may not even exist in the server address space.

One solution to this can be Copy-in Copy-out. What we pass is the value of the pointer, instead of the pointer itself. A local pointer, pointing to this value is created on the server side (Copy-in). When the server procedure returns, the modified 'value' is returned, and is copied back to the address from where it was taken (Copy-out). But this is disadvantageous when the pointer involved point to huge data structures. Also this approach is not foolproof. Consider the following example ( C-code) :

The procedure 'myfunction()' resides on the server machine. If the program executes on a single machine then we must expect the output to be '4'. But when run in the client-server model we get '3'. Why ? Because 'x, and 'y' point to different memory locations with the same value. Each then increments its own copy and the incremented value is returned. Thus '3' is passed back and not '4'.

Many RPC systems finesse the whole problem by prohibiting the use of reference parameters, pointers, function or procedure parameters on remote calls (Copy-in). This makes the implementation easier, but breaks down the transparency.

Protocol : Another key implementation issue is the protocol to be used - TCP or UDP. If TCP is used then there may be problem in case of network breakdown. No problem occurs if the breakdown happens before client sends its request (client will be notified of this), or after the request is sent and the reply is not received ( time-out will occur). In case the breakdown occurs just after the server has sent the reply, then it won't be able to figure out whether its response has reached the client or not. This could be devastating for bank servers, which need to make sure that their reply has in fact reached to the client ( probably an ATM machine). So UDP is generally preferred over TCP, in making remote procedure calls.

Idempotent Operations:

If the server crashes, in the middle of the computation of a procedure on behalf of a client, then what must the client do? Suppose it again sends its request, when the server comes up. So some part of the procedure will be re-computed. It may have instructions whose repeated execution may give different results each time. If the side effect of multiple execution of the procedure is exactly the same as that of one execution, then we call such procedures as Idempotent Procedures. In general, such operations are called Idempotent Operations.

For e.g. consider ATM banking. If I send a request to withdraw Rs. 200 from my account and some how the request is executed twice, then in the two transactions of 'withdrawing Rs. 200' will be shown, whereas, I will get only Rs. 200. Thus 'withdrawing is a non-idempotent operation. Now consider the case when I send a request to 'check my balance'. No matter how many times is this request executed, there will arise no inconsistency. This is an idempotent operation.

Semantics of RPC :

If all operations could be cast into an idempotent form, then time-out and retransmission will work. But unfortunately, some operations are inherently non-idempotent (e.g., transferring money from one bank account to another ). So the exact semantics of RPC systems were categorized as follows:


The basic idea behind Sun RPC was to implement NFS (Network File System). Sun RPC extends the remote procedure call model by defining a remote execution enviroment. It defines a remote program at the server side as the basic unit of software that executes on a remote machine. Each remote program consists of one or more remote procedures and global data. The global data is static data and all the procedures inside a remote program share access to its global data. The figure below illustrates the conceptual organization of three remote procedures in a single remote program.

Sun RPC allows both TCP and UDP for communication between remote procedures and programs calling them. It uses the at least once semantic i.e., the remote procedure is executed at least once. It uses copy-in method of parameter passing but does not support copy-out style. It uses XDR for data representation. It does not handle orphans(which are servers whose corresponding clients have died). Thus if a client gives a request to a server for execution of a remote procedure and eventually dies before accepting the results, the server does not know whom to reply. It also uses a tool called rpcgen to generate stubs automatically.

Let us suppose that a client (say client1) wants to execute procedure P1(in the figure above). Another client (say client2) wants to execute procedure P2(in the figure above). Since both P1 and P2 access common global variables they must be executed in a mutually exclusive manner. Thus in view of this Sun RPC provides mutual exclusion by default i.e. no two procedures in a program can be active at the same time. This introduces some amount of delay in the execution of procedures, but mutual exclusion is a more fundamental and important thing to provide, without it the results may go wrong.

Thus we see that anything which can be a threat to application programmers, is provided by SUN RPC.

How A Client Invokes A Procedure On Another Host

The remote procedure is a part of a program executing in a remote host. Thus we would have to properly locate the host, the program in it, and the procedure in the program. Each host can be specified by a unique 32-bit integer. SUN RPC standard specifies that each remote program executing on a computer must be assigned a unique 32-bit integer that the caller uses to identify it. Furthermore, Sun RPC assigns a 32-bit integer identifier for each remote procedure inside a given remote program. The procedures are numbered sequentially: 1, 2, ...., N. To help ensure that program numbers defined by separate organizations do not conflict, Sun RPC has divided the set of program numbers into eight groups.
Thus it seems sufficient that if we are able to locate the host, the program in the host, and the procedure in the program, we would be able to uniquely locate the remote procedure which is to be executed.

Accommodating Multiple Versions Of A Remote Program

Suppose somebody wants to change the version of a remote procedure in a remote program. Then as per the identification method described above, he or she would have to make sure that the newer version is compatible with the older one. This is a bottleneck on the server side. Sun RPC provides a solution to this problem. In addition to a program number, Sun RPC includes a 32-bit integer version number for each remote program. Usually, the first version of a program is assigned version 1. Later versions each receive a unique version number.
Version numbers provide the ability to change the details of a remote procedure call without obtaining a new program number. Now, the newer client and the older client are disjoint, and no compatibility is required between the two. When no request comes for the older version for a pretty long time, it is deleted. Thus, in practice, each RPC message identifies the intended recipient on a given computer by a triple:

                                           (program number, version number, procedure number)

Thus it is possible to migrate from one version of a remote procedure to another gracefully and to test a new version of the server while an old version of the server continues to operate.

Mapping A Remote Program To A Protocol Port

At the bottom of every communication in the RPC model there are transport protocols like UDP and TCP. Thus every communication takes place with the help of sockets. Now, how does the client know to which port to connect to the server? This is a real problem when we see that we cannot have a standard that a particular program on a particular host should communicate through a particular port. Because the program number is 32 bit and we can have 232 programs whereas both TCP and UDP uses 16 bit port numbers to identify communication endpoints. Thus RPC programs can potentially outnumber protocol ports. Thus it is impossible to map RPC program numbers onto protocol ports directly. More important, because RPC programs cannot all be assigned a unique protocol port, programmers cannot use a scheme that depends on well-known protocol port assignments. Thus, at any given time, a single computer executes only a small number of remote programs. As long as the port assignments are temporary, each RPC program can obtain a protocol port number and use it for communication.

If an RPC program does not use a reserved, well-known protocol port, clients cannot contact it directly. Because, when the server (remote program) begins execution, it asks the operating system to allocate an unused protocol port number. The server uses the newly allocated protocol port for all communication. The system may choose a different protocol port number each time the server begins(i.e., the server may have a different port assigned each time the system boots).

The client (the program that issues the remote procedure call) knows the machine address and RPC program number for the remote program it wishes to contact. However, because the RPC program (server) only obtains a protocol port after it begins execution, the client cannot know which protocol port the server obtained. Thus, the client cannot contact the remote program directly.

Dynamic Port Mapping

To solve the port identification problem, a client must be able to map from an RPC program and a machine address to the protocol port that the server obtained on the destination machine when it started. The mapping must be dynamic because it can change if the machine reboots or if the RPC program starts execution again.

To allow clients to contact remote programs, the Sun RPC mechanism includes a dynamic mapping service. The RPC port mapping mechanism uses a server to maintain a small database of port mappings on each machine. This RPC server waits on a particular port number (111) and it receives the requests for all remote procedure calls.

Whenever a remote program (i.e., a server) begins execution, it allocates a local port that it will use for communication. The remote program then contacts the server on its local machine for registration and adds a pair of integers to the database:

                                           (RPC program number, protocol port number)

Once an RPC program has registered itself, callers on other machines can find its protocol port by sending a request to the server. To contact a remote program, a caller must know the address of the machine on which the remote program executes as well as the RPC program number assigned to the program. The caller first contacts the server on the target machine, and sends an RPC program number. The server returns the protocol port number that the specified program is currently using. This server is called the RPC port mapper or simply the port mapper. A caller can always reach the port mapper because it communicates using the well known protocol port, 111. Once a caller knows the protocol port number the target program is using, it can contact the remote program program directly.

RPC Programming

RPC Programming can be thought in multiple levels. At one extreme, the user writing the application program uses the RPC library. He/she need not have to worry about the communication through the network. At the other end there are the low level details about network communication. To execute a remote procedure the client would have to go through a lot of overhead e.g., calling XDR for formatting of data, putting it in output buffer, connecting to port mapper and subsequently connecting to the port through which the remote procedure would communicate etc. The RPC library contains procedures that provide almost everything required to make a remote procedure call. The library contains procedures for marshaling and unmarshaling of the arguments and the results respectively. Different XDR routines are available to change the format of data to XDR from native, and from XDR to native format. But still a lot of overhead remains to properly call the library routines. To minimize the overhead faced by the application programmer to call a remote procedure a tool named rpcgen is devised which generates client and server stubs. The stubs are generated automatically, thus they have loose flexibility e.g., the timeout time, the number of retransmissions are fixed. The program specification file is given as input and both the server and client stubs are automatically generated by rpcgen. The specification file should have a .x extension attatched to it. It contains the following information:-



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