Tips for implementing application protocols

This article presents some tips for implementing application protocols such as for web services, multimedia communication, streaming or Internet telephony. The tips are mostly relevant for implementations in the Python programming language.
  1. Keep all blocking operations outside your protocol implementation. This mostly includes sockets, files and timers. If you design your protocol parser and controller to be independent of blocking calls, then it can easily be converted to various asynchronous or synchronous controllers as needed. For example, the module implements core SIP stack using the Stack class. The application supplies API for timer creation, message receiving as well as sending. When the application receives a packet on socket, it invokes a method on the stack. When stack has parsed the received packet and needs to inform an high-level event such as incoming call to the application, it invokes a method on the application. This allows the application such as to provide co-operative multitasking based controller. On the other hand, the built-in HTTPServer in Python includes synchronous and blocking calls for sockets and disks. This makes the built-in class' HTTP implementation hard to use for various high-performance application that cannot afford to block. Due to this, almost every web framework implements its own HTTP, instead of re-using the built-in class. The trade-off is that your implementation may become more involved if you keep blocking operations outside.
  2. Do not use multi-threading in your protocol implementation. Firstly, getting a multi-threaded application right is very hard. Secondly, for CPU intensive tasks or disk I/O bound tasks, the CPython's global interpreter lock (GIL) will prevent efficiency anyway; hence multiprocessing should be used. Thirdly, for network I/O bound applications multi-threading has advantage, but not as much as multiprocessing. Consider using multiprocessing, but beware of cross-platform problems, especially on Windows! In my experience, co-operative multitasking (or green-thread) works best for protocol implementation. If you are worried about efficiency on multi-core CPUs, you should leave that decision to the main application that will use your protocol implementation to present a client or a server application. The main application can decide whether to use multi-threading or multiprocessing and co-ordinate among them.
  3. Decouple the protocol parsing and handling implementation. Sometimes you may need to use just the parser without the handler. For example, if a single incoming TCP connection can have either HTTP, SIP or RTSP messages, then it becomes easier for the application to first parse the message to determine what it is, and then invoke the appropriate handler. Because of NAT and firewall, many application protocols need to be sent via a single port, e.g., 80 or 443. If an application from Flash Player connects to your server on TCP, it will first send a socket policy request, before sending any other actual application protocol message. If your protocol parser is separate from the handler, you can invoke the socket policy request parser as well as protocol parser, to determine what request it is.
  4. Avoid blocking on DNS lookup, if possible. This goes back to first point; do not block in your protocol implementation. Usually it is hard to notice the DNS lookup as blocking. Most built-in libraries provide synchronous and blocking calls for DNS lookup. Consider using some asynchronous DNS library. If that is not possible, move the DNS lookup out of the core protocol implementation, to the main application. Sometimes DNS lookup is done during logging, e.g., to convert client IP address to host name, and may be hard to detect.
  5. Log all warning, errors and exceptions. In server implementations, you may get tempted to handle various exceptions and ignore it, to make your server more "robust". Unfortunately, this practice leads to more headaches later on when some critical bug appears but is hard to detect. If you log all warning, error or exception conditions, even if you ignore them, you may be able to detect such bugs early on. A warning is a suspicious behavior either in your code or external system. An error is a failure case due to some external problem, e.g., file requested by client was not found on server. An exception is most likely a programming mistake, e.g., accessing attribute on "NoneType".
  6. Do not hold on to resources. With automatic reference counting and garbage collection, it becomes your responsibility to free up any unused references. Typically the application protocol defines how long the resources should be kept, e.g., how long a SIP transaction lasts. But there are some resources which can persist for much longer duration, e.g., user contact location. External databases are more suitable for such resources. Secondly, with event driven software architecture such as listener-provider model, it is easy to get in to reference loops, e.g., listener has reference to provider and vice-versa. Similarly, a Message object may have list of Header objects, and each Header may refer back to the Message. Your cleanup code should correctly free up unused references, e.g., "del varname".

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