Java and the Internet


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If Java is, in fact, yet another computer programming language, you may question why it is so important and why it is being promoted as a revolutionary step in computer programming. The answer isn’t immediately obvious if you’re coming from a traditional programming perspective. Although Java will solve traditional stand-alone programming problems, the reason it is important is that it will also solve programming problems on the World Wide Web.

What is the Web?

The Web can seem a bit of a mystery at first, with all this talk of “surfing,” “presence” and “home pages.” There has even been a growing reaction against “Internet-mania,” questioning the economic value and outcome of such a sweeping movement. It’s helpful to step back and see what it really is, but to do this you must understand client/server systems, another aspect of computing that’s full of confusing issues.

Client/Server computing
The primary idea of a client/server system is that you have a central repository of information – some kind of data, typically in a database – that you want to distribute on demand to some set of people or machines. A key to the client/server concept is that the repository of information is centrally located so that it can be changed and so that those changes will propagate out to the information consumers. Taken together, the information repository, the software that distributes the information and the machine(s) where the information and software reside is called the server. The software that resides on the remote machine, and that communicates with the server, fetches the information, processes it, and displays it on the remote machine is called the client.

The basic concept of client/server computing, then, is not so complicated. The problems arise because you have a single server trying to serve many clients at once. Generally a database management system is involved so the designer “balances” the layout of data into tables for optimal use. In addition, systems often allow a client to insert new information into a server. This means you must ensure that one client’s new data doesn’t walk over another client’s new data, or that data isn’t lost in the process of adding it to the database. (This is called transaction processing. ) As client software changes, it must be built, debugged and installed on the client machines, which turns out to be more complicated and expensive than you might think. It’s especially problematic to support multiple types of computers and operating systems. Finally, there’s the all-important performance issue: you might have hundreds of clients making requests of your server at any one time, and so any small delay is crucial. To minimize latency, programmers work hard to offload processing tasks, often to the client machine but sometimes to other machines at the server site using so-called middleware. (Middleware is also used to improve maintainability.)

So the simple idea of distributing information to people has so many layers of complexity in implementing it that the whole problem can seem hopelessly enigmatic. And yet it’s crucial: client/server computing accounts for roughly half of all programming activities. It’s responsible for everything from taking orders and credit-card transactions to the distribution of any kind of data – stock market, scientific, government – you name it. What we’ve come up with in the past is individual solutions to individual problems, inventing a new solution each time. These were hard to create and hard to use and the user had to learn a new interface for each one. The entire client/server problem needs to be solved in a big way.

The Web as a giant server
The Web is actually one giant client-server system. It’s a bit worse than that, since you have all the servers and clients coexisting on a single network at once. You don’t need to know that, since all you care about is connecting to and interacting with one server at a time (even though you might be hopping around the world in your search for the correct server).

Initially it was a simple one-way process. You made a request of a server and it handed you a file, which your machine’s browser software (i.e. the client) would interpret by formatting onto your local machine. But in short order people began wanting to do more than just deliver pages from a server. They wanted full client/server capability so that the client could feed information back to the server, for example, to do database lookups on the server, to add new information to the server or to place an order (which required more security than the original systems offered). These are the changes we’ve been seeing in the development of the Web.

The Web browser was a big step forward: the concept that one piece of information could be displayed on any type of computer without change. However, browsers were still rather primitive and rapidly bogged down by the demands placed on them. They weren’t particularly interactive and tended to clog up both the server and the Internet because any time you needed to do something that required programming you had to send information back to the server to be processed. It could take many seconds or minutes to find out you had misspelled something in your request. Since the browser was just a viewer it couldn’t perform even the simplest computing tasks. (On the other hand, it was safe, since it couldn’t execute any programs on your local machine that contained bugs or viruses.)

Client-side programming [8]

The Web’s initial server-browser design provided for interactive content, but the interactivity was completely provided by the server. The server produced static pages for the client browser, which would simply interpret and display them. Basic HTML contains simple mechanisms for data gathering: text-entry boxes, check boxes, radio boxes, lists and drop-down lists, as well as a button that can only be programmed to reset the data on the form or “submit” the data on the form back to the server. This submission passes through the Common Gateway Interface (CGI) provided on all Web servers. The text within the submission tells CGI what to do with it. The most common action is to run a program located on the server in a directory that’s typically called “cgi-bin.” (If you watch the address window at the top of your browser when you push a button on a Web page, you can sometimes see “cgi-bin” within all the gobbledygook there.) These programs can be written in most languages. Perl is a common choice because it is designed for text manipulation and is interpreted, so it can be installed on any server regardless of processor or operating system.

Many powerful Web sites today are built strictly on CGI, and you can in fact do nearly anything with it. The problem is response time. The response of a CGI program depends on how much data must be sent as well as the load on both the server and the Internet. (On top of this, starting a CGI program tends to be slow.) The initial designers of the Web did not foresee how rapidly this bandwidth would be exhausted for the kinds of applications people developed. For example, any sort of dynamic graphing is nearly impossible to perform with consistency because a GIF file must be created and moved from the server to the client for each version of the graph. And you’ve no doubt had direct experience with something as simple as validating the data on an input form. You press the submit button on a page; the data is shipped back to the server; the server starts a CGI program that discovers an error, formats an HTML page informing you of the error and sends the page back to you; you must then back up a page and try again. Not only is this slow, it’s not elegant.

The solution is client-side programming. Most machines that run Web browsers are powerful engines capable of doing vast work, and with the original static HTML approach they are sitting there, just idly waiting for the server to dish up the next page. Client-side programming means that the Web browser is harnessed to do whatever work it can, and the result for the user is a much speedier and more interactive experience at your Web site.

The problem with discussions of client-side programming is that they aren’t very different from discussions of programming in general. The parameters are almost the same, but the platform is different: a Web browser is like a limited operating system. In the end, it’s still programming and this accounts for the dizzying array of problems and solutions produced by client-side programming. The rest of this section provides an overview of the issues and approaches in client-side programming.

One of the most significant steps forward in client-side programming is the development of the plug-in. This is a way for a programmer to add new functionality to the browser by downloading a piece of code that plugs itself into the appropriate spot in the browser. It tells the browser “from now on you can perform this new activity.” (You need to download the plug-in only once.) Some fast and powerful behavior is added to browsers via plug-ins, but writing a plug-in is not a trivial task and isn’t something you’d want to do as part of the process of building a particular site. The value of the plug-in for client-side programming is that it allows an expert programmer to develop a new language and add that language to a browser without the permission of the browser manufacturer . Thus, plug-ins provide the back door that allows the creation of new client-side programming languages (although not all languages are implemented as plug-ins).

Scripting languages
Plug-ins resulted in an explosion of scripting languages. With a scripting language you embed the source code for your client-side program directly into the HTML page and the plug-in that interprets that language is automatically activated while the HTML page is being displayed. Scripting languages tend to be reasonably simple to understand, and because they are simply text that is part of an HTML page they load very quickly as part of the single server hit required to procure that page. The trade-off is that your code is exposed for everyone to see (and steal) but generally you aren’t doing amazingly sophisticated things with scripting languages so it’s not too much of a hardship.

This points out that scripting languages are really intended to solve specific types of problems, primarily the creation of richer and more interactive graphical user interfaces (GUIs). However, a scripting language might solve 80 percent of the problems encountered in client-side programming. Your problems might very well fit completely within that 80 percent, and since scripting languages tend to be easier and faster to develop, you should probably consider a scripting language before looking at a more involved solution such as Java or ActiveX programming.

The most commonly-discussed scripting languages are JavaScript (which has nothing to do with Java; it’s named that way just to grab some of Java’s marketing momentum), VBScript (which looks like Visual Basic) and Tcl/Tk, which comes from the popular cross-platform GUI-building language. There are others out there and no doubt more in development.

JavaScript is probably the most commonly supported. It comes built into both Netscape Navigator and the Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE). In addition, there are probably more JavaScript books out than for the other languages, and some tools automatically create pages using JavaScript. However, if you’re already fluent in Visual Basic or Tcl/Tk, you’ll be more productive using those scripting languages rather than learning a new one. (You’ll have your hands full dealing with the Web issues already.)

If a scripting language can solve 80 percent of the client-side programming problems, what about the other 20 percent – the “really hard stuff?” The most popular solution today is Java. Not only is it a powerful programming language built to be secure, cross-platform and international, but Java is being continuously extended to provide language features and libraries that elegantly handle problems that are difficult in traditional programming languages, such as multithreading, database access, network programming and distributed computing. Java allows client-side programming via the applet.

An applet is a mini-program that will run only under a Web browser. The applet is downloaded automatically as part of a Web page (just as, for example, a graphic is automatically downloaded). When the applet is activated it executes a program. This is part of its beauty – it provides you with a way to automatically distribute the client software from the server at the time the user needs the client software, and no sooner. They get the latest version of the client software without fail and without difficult re-installation. Because of the way Java is designed, the programmer needs to create only a single program, and that program automatically works with all computers that have browsers with built-in Java interpreters. (This safely includes the vast majority of machines.) Since Java is a full-fledged programming language, you can do as much work as possible on the client before and after making requests of the server. For example, you won’t need to send a request form across the Internet to discover that you’ve gotten a date or some other parameter wrong, and your client computer can quickly do the work of plotting data instead of waiting for the server to make a plot and ship a graphic image back to you. Not only do you get the immediate win of speed and responsiveness, but the general network traffic and load upon servers can be reduced, preventing the entire Internet from slowing down.

One advantage a Java applet has over a scripted program is that it’s in compiled form, so the source code isn’t available to the client. On the other hand, a Java applet can be decompiled without too much trouble, and hiding your code is often not an important issue anyway. Two other factors can be important. As you will see later in the book, a compiled Java applet can comprise many modules and take multiple server “hits” (accesses) to download. (In Java 1.1 this is minimized by Java archives, called JAR files, that allow all the required modules to be packaged together for a single download.) A scripted program will just be integrated into the Web page as part of its text (and will generally be smaller and reduce server hits). This could be important to the responsiveness of your Web site. Another factor is the all-important learning curve. Regardless of what you’ve heard, Java is not a trivial language to learn. If you’re a Visual Basic programmer, moving to VBScript will be your fastest solution and since it will probably solve most typical client/server problems you might be hard pressed to justify learning Java. If you’re experienced with a scripting language you will certainly benefit from looking at JavaScript or VBScript before committing to Java, since they might fit your needs handily and you’ll be more productive sooner.

To some degree, the competitor to Java is Microsoft’s ActiveX, although it takes a completely different approach. ActiveX is originally a Windows-only solution, although it is now being developed via an independent consortium to become cross-platform. Effectively, ActiveX says “if your program connects to its environment just so, it can be dropped into a Web page and run under a browser that supports ActiveX.” (IE directly supports ActiveX and Netscape does so using a plug-in.) Thus, ActiveX does not constrain you to a particular language. If, for example, you’re already an experienced Windows programmer using a language such as C++, Visual Basic, or Borland’s Delphi, you can create ActiveX components with almost no changes to your programming knowledge. ActiveX also provides a path for the use of legacy code in your Web pages.

Automatically downloading and running programs across the Internet can sound like a virus-builder’s dream. ActiveX especially brings up the thorny issue of security in client-side programming. If you click on a Web site, you might automatically download any number of things along with the HTML page: GIF files, script code, compiled Java code, and ActiveX components. Some of these are benign; GIF files can’t do any harm, and scripting languages are generally limited in what they can do. Java was also designed to run its applets within a “sandbox” of safety, which prevents it from writing to disk or accessing memory outside the sandbox.

ActiveX is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Programming with ActiveX is like programming Windows – you can do anything you want. So if you click on a page that downloads an ActiveX component, that component might cause damage to the files on your disk. Of course, programs that you load onto your computer that are not restricted to running inside a Web browser can do the same thing. Viruses downloaded from Bulletin-Board Systems (BBSs) have long been a problem, but the speed of the Internet amplifies the difficulty.

The solution seems to be “digital signatures,” whereby code is verified to show who the author is. This is based on the idea that a virus works because its creator can be anonymous, so if you remove the anonymity individuals will be forced to be responsible for their actions. This seems like a good plan because it allows programs to be much more functional, and I suspect it will eliminate malicious mischief. If, however, a program has an unintentional bug that’s destructive it will still cause problems.

The Java approach is to prevent these problems from occurring, via the sandbox. The Java interpreter that lives on your local Web browser examines the applet for any untoward instructions as the applet is being loaded. In particular, the applet cannot write files to disk or erase files (one of the mainstays of the virus). Applets are generally considered to be safe, and since this is essential for reliable client-server systems, any bugs that allow viruses are rapidly repaired. (It’s worth noting that the browser software actually enforces these security restrictions, and some browsers allow you to select different security levels to provide varying degrees of access to your system.)

You might be skeptical of this rather draconian restriction against writing files to your local disk. For example, you may want to build a local database or save data for later use offline. The initial vision seemed to be that eventually everyone would be online to do anything important, but that was soon seen to be impractical (although low-cost “Internet appliances” might someday satisfy the needs of a significant segment of users). The solution is the “signed applet” that uses public-key encryption to verify that an applet does indeed come from where it claims it does. A signed applet can then go ahead and trash your disk, but the theory is that since you can now hold the applet creator accountable they won’t do vicious things. Java 1.1 provides a framework for digital signatures so that you will eventually be able to allow an applet to step outside the sandbox if necessary.

Internet vs. Intranet
The Web is the most general solution to the client/server problem, so it makes sense that you can use the same technology to solve a subset of the problem, in particular the classic client/server problem within a company. With traditional client/server approaches you have the problem of multiple different types of client computers, as well as the difficulty of installing new client software, both of which are handily solved with Web browsers and client-side programming. When Web technology is used for an information network that is restricted to a particular company, it is referred to as an Intranet. Intranets provide much greater security than the Internet, since you can physically control access to the servers within your company. In terms of training, it seems that once people understand the general concept of a browser it’s much easier for them to deal with differences in the way pages and applets look, so the learning curve for new kinds of systems seems to be reduced.

The security problem brings us to one of the divisions that seems to be automatically forming in the world of client-side programming. If your program is running on the Internet, you don’t know what platform it will be working under and you want to be extra careful that you don’t disseminate buggy code. You need something cross-platform and secure, like a scripting language or Java.

If you’re running on an Intranet, you might have a different set of constraints. It’s not uncommon that your machines could all be Intel/Windows platforms. On an Intranet, you’re responsible for the quality of your own code and can repair bugs when they’re discovered. In addition, you might already have a body of legacy code that you’ve been using in a more traditional client/server approach, whereby you must physically install client programs every time you do an upgrade. The time wasted in installing upgrades is the most compelling reason to move to browsers because upgrades are invisible and automatic. If you are involved in such an Intranet, the most sensible approach to take is ActiveX rather than trying to recode your programs in a new language.

Server-side programming

This whole discussion has ignored the issue of server-side programming. What happens when you make a request of a server? Most of the time the request is simply “send me this file.” Your browser then interprets the file in some appropriate fashion: as an HTML page, a graphic image, a Java applet, a script program, etc. A more complicated request to a server generally involves a database transaction. A common scenario involves a request for a complex database search, which the server then formats into an HTML page and sends to you as the result. (Of course, if the client has more intelligence via Java or a scripting language, the raw data can be sent and formatted at the client end, which will be faster and less load on the server.) Or you might want to register your name in a database when you join a group or place an order, which will involve changes to that database. These database requests must be processed via some code on the server side, which is generally referred to as server-side programming . Traditionally, server-side programming has been performed using Perl and CGI scripts, but more sophisticated systems have been appearing. These include Java-based Web servers that allow you to perform all your server-side programming in Java by writing what are called servlets.

A separate arena: applications

Most of the brouhaha over Java has been about applets. Java is actually a general-purpose programming language that can solve any type of problem, at least in theory. And as pointed out previously, there might be more effective ways to solve most client/server problems. When you move out of the applet arena (and simultaneously release the restrictions, such as the one against writing to disk) you enter the world of general-purpose applications that run standalone, without a Web browser, just like any ordinary program does. Here, Java’s strength is not only in its portability, but also its programmability. As you’ll see throughout this book, Java has many features that allow you to create robust programs in a shorter period than with previous programming languages.

[8] The material in this section is adapted from an article by the author that originally appeared on Mainspring, at www.mainspring.com. Used with permission.

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