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Message-Centric Vs. Data-Centric


The slide below, plagiarized from a recent webinar presented by RTI Inc’s CEO Stan Schneider, shows the evolution of distributed system middleware over the years.

At first, I couldn’t understand the difference between the message-centric pub-sub (MCPS) and data-centric pub-sub (DCPS) patterns. I thought the difference between them was trivial, superficial, and unimportant. However, as Stan’s webinar unfolded, I sloowly started to “get it“.

In MCPS, application tier messages are opaque to to the middleware (MW). The separation of concerns between the app and MW tiers is clean and simple:

In DCPS systems, app tier messages are transparent to the MW tier – which blurs the line between the two layers and violates the “ideal” separation of concerns tenet of layered software system design. Because of this difference, the term “message” is superceded in DCPS-based technologies (like the OMG‘s DDS) by the term “topic“. The entity formerly known as a “message” is now defined as a topic sample.

Unlike MCPS MW, DCPS MW supports being “told” by the app tier pub-sub components which Quality Of Service (QoS) parameters are important to each of them. For example, a publisher can “promise” to send topic samples at a minimum rate and/or whether it will use a best-effort UDP-like or reliable TCP-like protocol for transport. On the receive side, a subscriber can tell the MW that it only wants to see every third topic sample and/or only those samples in which certain data-field-filtering criteria are met. DCPS MW technologies like DDS support a rich set of QoS parameters that are usually hard-coded and frozen into MCPS MW – if they’re supported at all.

With smart, QoS-aware DCPS MW, app components tend to be leaner and take less time to develop because the tedious logic that implements the QoS functionality is pushed down into the MW. The app simply specifies these behaviors to the MW during launch and it gets notified by the MW during operation when QoS requirements aren’t being, or can’t be, met.

The cost of switching from an MCPS to a DCPS-based distributed system design approach is the increased upfront, one-time, learning curve (or more likely, the “unlearning” curve).

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