Thursday, December 08, 2011

Mobile Application Architecture, Part 2

This is the second post about mobile architecture. In the first post, I talked about how the evolution from web applications has led to architecture's centered around asynchronous access to remote resources using HTTP. I also mentioned how Android applications are able to benefit from cloud-to-device messaging (C2DM) to push new data to apps. The most common use for this is for push notifications, but C2DM is not limited to push notifications. The key to pushing data via C2DM is that it uses a persistent socket connection to the C2DM servers. So whenever any new data is sent to those servers, they can send it over this connection to mobile apps. Now you might think that there is something magical or even worse, proprietary, about using sockets within a mobile application. This is not the case at all. Any application can make use of sockets, not just ones written by Google. Actually that's not true. Any native applications on iOS and Android can use sockets. Socket support was recently added to Windows Phone 7 as well. For web apps there is the Web Socket API, but it is not yet implemented across platforms.

So what are the benefits of using sockets? Well there is the data-push capability that you see in C2DM. In general you can make a much faster app by using sockets. There is a lot of wasted time and overhead in making HTTP connections to a server. This wasted time and overhead gets multiplied by the number of HTTP calls used in your application. There is also overhead in creating a socket connection to a server, but you only pay it one time. The extra speed and server push-iness allows for very interactive apps. Sounds great, but how does this affect the application architecture? Here's an updated diagram.

Event driven architecture

The big difference here is that instead of requests and corresponding responses, we have events being sent from client to server and back again. Now obviously some of these events may be logically correlated, but our communication mechanism no longer encodes this correlation. The "response" to an event from the app does not come immediately and may not be the next event from the server. Everything is asynchronous. Now in our traditional architecture we also had "asynchronous things" but it was different. Each request/response cycle could be shoved off on their own thread or in their own AsyncTask for example. This is a lot different.

Let's take a simple example. One of the first things that many applications require a user to do is to login, i.e. send a combination of name and password and get some kind of authenticated materials in response (token). In a traditional architecture you would send a login request to the server, wait for the response, and then either get the token or display an error if there was a problem with the username+password combination. In an event driven architecture, your application fires a login event that contains the username+password. There is no response per se. Instead at some point in the future the server will fire an event indicating a successful login that includes a token, or an error that may contain a reason as well. You don't know when this will happen, and you may receive other events from the server before getting a "login response" event.

Logging in is just one example. There are numerous other things that are easy to think of in terms of request/response. The whole idea of REST architectures are built around this request/response cycle and HTTP. Doing a search, getting user information, posting a comment, the list goes on and on. Now of course it is possible to recreate the illusion of a request/response cycle -- just fire your request event and block until you get the response event. But clearly that is Doing It Wrong.

So maybe these event driven architectures are not right for all applications. Yes they are sexier, but don't try to put a square peg in a round hole. This kind of architecture is best suited for apps where you are interacting with somebody else. Let's say you are bidding on an auction. Somebody else bids on the same auction and ideally you will see this happen very quickly. Or maybe you sent a message to a friend on some type of social network, and you can't wait to see their response. Social games are also a great example of the types of apps that would benefit from an event driven architecture. Even if the game doesn't have to be real-time, it would probably still benefit from "lower latency" between moves.
Hopefully you have a better idea now on if your application should use a traditional architecture or an event driven one. Of course there is a lot of room in between. You could easily have an architecture that uses both, picking the right interaction model depending on the use case within your app. Maybe most things use a classical model, but then on certain screens you switch to an event-driven one. Or vice versa. Either way you'll want to read my next post where I will talk about the nuances of implementing an event driven architecture.

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