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spacer gif Lab 3: Distibuted, Multi-Party Chat
Due: 11:00am, Thursday, April 28th, 2011


I'm sure you've all used some form of Internet chat program before, perhaps AOL, Google Talk, or even IRC. Have you ever stopped to think about how they are designed? In this lab, you'll be implementing a distributed, multi-party chat server. We'll provide you with a simple client program; you'll only need to build the server. Each server can handle multiple clients, but, for increased scalability, there will be multiple servers as well.

The chief difficulty with multiple servers is enforcing an ordering on the messages in the absence of synchronized clocks. In order not to confuse the members of the chat, the participants' messages should appear in the same order at every client. A naive implementation would likely have clients at different servers see messages in a different order due to the variation in network latencies between servers. Your task for this assignment is to implement a protocol between the servers that ensures a uniform ordering. We'll make several assumptions about the network to make the problem more tractable, however. Doing it for real would be considerably more difficult.


Your server will take a set of command-line arguments including its ID number (which is guaranteed to be unique in the system), a port number to use for network communication, and a list of hostnames and ports for the other servers in the network. It will then forward messages from any clients connected to it to any other directly-connected clients and all other servers. Similarly, it should forward any messages received from other servers to its own clients.

We provide a sample client program that takes three command-line parameters: a hostname and port of a server to connect to, and a name or handle to use during the chat. The client supports Emacs line editing commands through the GNU readline library, so you should find it easy to use. The client communicates with its server over a TCP connection using a very simple protocol. Note the client does not echo messages locally---it sends messages entered at the client on to the server and displays them only when the server sends them back. This allows the server(s) to control the order in which all messages are displayed at each client. You don't need to modify the client for this lab, although you might find it useful to automate the client for testing purposes. Note: Please ensure that, regardless of which language you use to implement your chat server, it must be compatible with the provided chat client!

The sample server we provide simply broadcasts any messages received from a client to all the attached clients. You need to extend the server so that it passes the message on to all other servers. It does not need to forward messages to its clients immediately upon receipt, and, most likely, should buffer them for some period of time to allow reordering. How all of this happens is entirely up to you, but we recommend you use UDP as a transport protocol to avoid any unexpected delays due to TCP retransmissions or timeouts.

You are responsible for the following requirements:

  • (Added to be explicit) All live clients must display all messages from live clients in the same order.
  • Your server may not fork() or create additional threads for handling connections. You should implement a non-blocking event loop similar what you used for your MTA in lab 2.
  • Servers can join or fail at any time.
  • Messages from any particular client must be displayed in the order in which they were submitted.
  • Each server must forward any received messages to all its (live) clients.
  • All (currently live) servers must forward all messages from a local client to all other (currently live) servers in addition to locally attached clients.
  • The chat should continue despite the failure of one or more servers. Any clients connected to a dead server may not be able to send or receive further messages, but clients connected to live servers must continue to be able to send and receive messages. What happens to messages previously sent (but not yet displayed) by clients of failed servers is up to you, but any clients that do display such messages must all display them in the same order. In particular, you are free to display messages from clients of dead servers more than two seconds after they were submitted.
  • Your server must work both with servers running on the same machine (on a different port) and different machines.
  • Every server must display a message within two seconds of its original submission at an initial server---assuming the original server is still alive. Servers who join after a message is submitted need not display the message at their clients.
  • While you may edit the client for testing purposes, I will grade your server using my own client, so you must not depend on any client behavior other than immediate, FIFO printing of received messages.
  • You cannot depend on the local server clocks to be synchornized.
You are allowed to assume the following (non-realistic) things:
  • All servers will have a globally unique identifier, specified at startup.
  • Every server will be provided with the location of all other servers at startup. No servers other than those specified on the command line will join the network. Specified servers may join at arbitrary points in time, however, and, indeed, may never actually join.
  • A server may die, but will never return with the same identifier during the lifetime of the system. In other words, you can assume fail-stop behavior.
  • The maximum propagation delay between any two servers is 100 ms.
  • The delay between any client and its server is negligible.
  • The network never drops any packets.
Obviously, the last one is not likely to be true in any real network, including the class virtual cluster. However, the chances of a packet drop on the virtual cluster network are extremely small. The behavior of your servers in the face of packet loss is undefined.

Starting off

You may implement your lab using C/C++, Java, or Python. For C/C++, we have provided an initial skeleton directory to get you started. It is available as /cse223b/sp11/labs/lab3/lab3.tgz on the course machines. You should copy this file to your working directory. The following sequence of commands should extract the files and build the initial (useless) executable:
% tar xzf lab3.tgz
% cd lab3
% gmake
The tarball contains three files: chat-client.C, Makefile, and chat-server.C. chat-server.C contains some initial code to get you started. Currently, it accepts client connections and broadcasts any received messages to all its attached clients. It does not yet communicate with any other servers. You can run a server with the following command line:
% ./chat-server 1 2255 localhost 2256
Where 1 is the globally unique ID of this server, and 2225 is the port you want it to listen on. localhost and 2256 are the hostname and port of another server in the network. You can have as many hostname:port pairs as you'd like. During development you're likely to want to use something other than 2225 so it doesn't conflict with other students working on their projects. For the sake of discussion, start another server in a separate window with a similar command:
% ./chat-server 2 2256 localhost 2255
You can connect to a server with the provided client from another window in the following fashion:
% ./chat-client localhost 2255 Client1
In a fourth window, you should start up another client with a slightly different command line:
% ./chat-client localhost 2255 Client2
Any messages typed at either client should appear at both. You can exit from the provided client by typing CTRL-D by itself at the prompt.

If, on the other hand, you connect the second client to the other server, with the following command,

% ./chat-client localhost 2256 Client2
you'll see that the messages are not passed between the servers. For your assignment, you'll need to fix that up. An obvious first step is to simply have each server send any messages from its clients to all other servers. The hard part is making sure they're displayed in the same order at all clients.

Testing your chat server

In order to ease testing, we've made it possible for you to drive the client from a file. You should pass the -i flag to the client when redirecting standard input so that it disables line editing. Here's one possible way to test your servers:

First, create a file, say foo, such as the one below:

This is message one.
This is message two.
This is message three.
This is message four.
This is message five.
You can then use this file to drive two clients simultaneously, like so:
./chat-client -i localhost 2255 bot1 < foo > o1 &; ./chat-client -i localhost 2255 bot2 < foo > o2 &
This will cause two clients, called 'bot1' and 'bot2', to simultaneously connect to the server at localhost:2255 and send the set of messages contained in foo. The output of each will go into files o1 and o2, respectively.

If you try this, you'll see that the order is the same. Once you can issue the same command, but connect the clients to different servers, and the order still comes out the same, you're well on your way. Keep in mind I'll be testing with a lot more than two servers, and killing some off in the middle. You might find that reading [BJ87] provides you with significant insight into this assignment.

Collaboration policy

All code for this assignment must be written individually. You are not allowed to look at anyone else's solutions or solutions to similar assignments you may find for courses at UCSD or other institutions. You may discuss the assignment with fellow students, but all code you submit must be either yours alone or code that was provided to you as part of the assignment.

Turnin procedure

The turnin procedure is the same as for the previous labs. When you're ready to submit your code, you can execute the following command:
% gmake turnin
which will copy your tarball to the submission directory.

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