Distributed computing is a field of computer science that studies distributed systems. A distributed system is a system whose components are located on different networked computers, which communicate and coordinate their actions by passing messages to one another from any system. The components interact with one another in order to achieve a common goal. Three significant characteristics of distributed systems are: concurrency of components, lack of a global clock, and independent failure of components. It deals with a central challenge that, when components of a system fails, it doesn’t imply the entire system fails. Examples of distributed systems vary from SOA-based systems to massively multiplayer online games to peer-to-peer applications.
A computer program that runs within a distributed system is called a distributed program (and distributed programming is the process of writing such programs). There are many different types of implementations for the message passing mechanism, including pure HTTP, RPC-like connectors and message queues.
Distributed computing also refers to the use of distributed systems to solve computational problems. In distributed computing, a problem is divided into many tasks, each of which is solved by one or more computers, which communicate with each other via message passing.
The word distributed in terms such as “distributed system”, “distributed programming”, and “distributed algorithm” originally referred to computer networks where individual computers were physically distributed within some geographical area. The terms are nowadays used in a much wider sense, even referring to autonomous processes that run on the same physical computer and interact with each other by message passing.
While there is no single definition of a distributed system, the following defining properties are commonly used as:
- There are several autonomous computational entities (computers or nodes), each of which has its own local memory.
- The entities communicate with each other by message passing.
A distributed system may have a common goal, such as solving a large computational problem; the user then perceives the collection of autonomous processors as a unit. Alternatively, each computer may have its own user with individual needs, and the purpose of the distributed system is to coordinate the use of shared resources or provide communication services to the users.
Other typical properties of distributed systems include the following:
- The system has to tolerate failures in individual computers.
- The structure of the system (network topology, network latency, number of computers) is not known in advance, the system may consist of different kinds of computers and network links, and the system may change during the execution of a distributed program.
- Each computer has only a limited, incomplete view of the system. Each computer may know only one part of the input.
The use of concurrent processes which communicate through message-passing has its roots in operating system architectures studied in the 1960s. The first widespread distributed systems were local-area networks such as Ethernet, which was invented in the 1970s.
ARPANET, one of the predecessors of the Internet, was introduced in the late 1960s, and ARPANET e-mail was invented in the early 1970s. E-mail became the most successful application of ARPANET, and it is probably the earliest example of a large-scale distributed application. In addition to ARPANET (and its successor, the global Internet), other early worldwide computer networks included Usenet and FidoNet from the 1980s, both of which were used to support distributed discussion systems.
The study of distributed computing became its own branch of computer science in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first conference in the field, Symposium on Principles of Distributed Computing (PODC), dates back to 1982, and its counterpart International Symposium on Distributed Computing (DISC) was first held in Ottawa in 1985 as the International Workshop on Distributed Algorithms on Graphs.
Various hardware and software architectures are used for distributed computing. At a lower level, it is necessary to interconnect multiple CPUs with some sort of network, regardless of whether that network is printed onto a circuit board or made up of loosely coupled devices and cables. At a higher level, it is necessary to interconnect processes running on those CPUs with some sort of communication system.
Distributed programming typically falls into one of several basic architectures: client–server, three-tier, n-tier, or peer-to-peer; or categories: loose coupling, or tight coupling.
- Client–server: architectures where smart clients contact the server for data then format and display it to the users. Input at the client is committed back to the server when it represents a permanent change.
- Three-tier: architectures that move the client intelligence to a middle tier so that stateless clients can be used. This simplifies application deployment. Most web applications are three-tier.
- n-tier: architectures that refer typically to web applications which further forward their requests to other enterprise services. This type of application is the one most responsible for the success of application servers.
- Peer-to-peer: architectures where there are no special machines that provide a service or manage the network resources. Instead all responsibilities are uniformly divided among all machines, known as peers. Peers can serve both as clients and as servers. Examples of this architecture include BitTorrent and the bitcoin network.
Another basic aspect of distributed computing architecture is the method of communicating and coordinating work among concurrent processes. Through various message passing protocols, processes may communicate directly with one another, typically in a master/slave relationship. Alternatively, a “database-centric” architecture can enable distributed computing to be done without any form of direct inter-process communication, by utilizing a shared database. Database-centric architecture in particular provides relational processing analytics in a schematic architecture allowing for live environment relay. This enables distributed computing functions both within and beyond the parameters of a networked database.
Reasons for using distributed systems and distributed computing may include:
- The very nature of an application may require the use of a communication network that connects several computers: for example, data produced in one physical location and required in another location.
- There are many cases in which the use of a single computer would be possible in principle, but the use of a distributed system is beneficial for practical reasons. For example, it may be more cost-efficient to obtain the desired level of performance by using a cluster of several low-end computers, in comparison with a single high-end computer. A distributed system can provide more reliability than a non-distributed system, as there is no single point of failure. Moreover, a distributed system may be easier to expand and manage than a monolithic uniprocessor system.
“Distributed_computing” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, n.d.