Delphix Session Protocol

DSP aims to simplify development of distributed applications by separating the application "business logic" from the underlying "network issues".

Problem Statement

To write a toy application over a low level abstraction such as socket is trivial; to write an enterprise quality distributed application that is fault resilient, fast, scalable, and secure is anything but. At the center of what drives up the complexity are a variety of failure modes inherent with the network, be it connection loss, client and/or server restart, silent data corruption, or security attacks just to name a few.

Instead of focusing on just the "business logic", an application developer is forced to spend a disproportionate amount of effort to address the "network issues" in the application protocol design itself. Even for experienced protocol designers, this is usually a slow and iterative process. NFSv4.1 and iSCSI are perfect examples, with over 1000 pages in the combined protocol spec and a significant portion dedicated to issues not directly related to file or block access.

For example, a session must be established between the client and server application in order to issue remote operations. Session management is a complicated task that involves endpoint identification, authentication, optional parameter negotiation, connection and session recovery, graceful termination, just to name a few. This is typically addressed in the context of a specific protocol with complex state machines that are both obscure and difficult to get right (f.g., refer to RFC 3720, sections 5-7).

Another example involves the capability to cancel an outstanding remote operation. This is crucial for applications that want to retain control over the course of long running operations or to remain responsive in presence of extended network outage. Unfortunately, this is usually an afterthought in the protocol design if not completely ignored. When baked into the protocol, it is likely to be complex and error prone due to its interaction with the data path.

Rather than trying to solve the same problems over and over for each application, wouldn't it be great if they can be addressed at a lower level once and for all? This common substrate would "tame" the network in such a way that the problems would be addressed before they even bubble up. This is where the Delphix Session Protocol comes in...


Delphix Session Protocol, or DSP, is a communication protocol that operates at the session and presentation layer in the OSI model. DSP is officially registered with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority under the service name of dlpx-sp and port number 8415.


On top of the protocol is a java based service framework with the following features.

  • full duplex remote operation execution and end-to-end cancellation support

  • advanced connectivity model with connection trunking and ordered delivery

  • fault resilience with automatic connection and session recovery, exactly-once semantics, and optional data digest

  • high performance with concurrent execution, session flow control, optional data compression and bandwidth throttling

  • build-in security support with pluggable SASL authentication mechanisms and optional TLS encryption

  • asynchronous model for session management and remote operation

Most of the features above are essential to the proper operation of a distributed application and yet non-trivial to implement. By offering them in the framework, we can significantly simplify the development of enterprise quality distributed applications.

Key Concepts

The foundation of DSP is built on top of a few key abstractions, namely, exchange, task, nexus, and service. For an overview of how DSP works and the features it provides, let's start with these abstractions.

An exchange refers to an application defined protocol data unit which may be a request or a response. DSP supports the request-response pattern for communication. For each request sent, there is a corresponding response which describes the result of the execution. An application protocol is made up of a set of exchanges.

A nexus (a.k.a., session) refers to a logical conduit between the client and server application. In contrast, a transport connection (a.k.a., connection) refers to a "physical" link. A nexus has a separate naming scheme from the connection, which allows it to be uniquely and persistently identified independent of the physical infrastructure. A nexus has a different lifecycle than the connection. It is first established over a leading connection. After it comes into existence, new connections may be added and existing ones removed. It must have at least one connection to remain operational but may live on even after all connections are lost. Nexus lifecycle management actions, such as create, recover, and destroy, are always initiated by the client with the server remaining passive.

A nexus has dual channels, namely, the fore channel and the back channel. The fore channel is used for requests initiated from the client to the server; and the back channel from the server to the client. From a request execution perspective, the nexus is full duplex and the channels are functionally identical, modulo the operational parameters that may be negotiated independently for each channel. A channel supports a number of features for request processing, such as ordered delivery, concurrent execution, remote cancellation, exactly-once semantics, and throughput throttling.

A service refers to a contract that consists of all exchanges (both the requests and the corresponding responses) defined in an application protocol. Given the full duplex nature of request execution in DSP, part of the service is fulfilled by the server and the remaining by the client, where the client and server are from the nexus management perspective.

A task implements a workflow that typically involves multiple requests executed in either or both directions over the nexus. A task is a self-contained building block, available in the form of a sharable module including both the protocol exchanges and implementation, that can be easily integrated into other application protocols. A library of tasks may significantly simplify distributed application development by making it more of an assembly experience.

The following is a diagram that illustrates the key abstractions and how they are related to each other.

key abstractions diagram


Writing an application over DSP is a fairly straightforward process. While it is best illustrated with an example, I would like to defer that to a future blog post. Instead, I will just outline a few major steps involved here.

First of all, one would start with the application protocol design. The application protocol defines the sequence of interactions between the client and server application and is made up of a set of exchanges. Each exchange is a java class that includes a list of properties. The content of the exchanges and the sequence in which they are sent are application specific.

From the set of exchanges, one would then derive two java interfaces, one for the client and the other for the server, with a set of remote operations serviced by each. Together, the two protocol interfaces make up the service contract fulfilled by the distributed application as a whole.

Next, one would provide the implementation of the service contract. Specifically, the client implements the protocol client interface; and the server the protocol server interface. This is where the "business logic" of the application resides.

Finally, one would stand up the application service over DSP. On the server side, one would create an application server instance with a unique service type and register it with the DSP runtime. On the client side, one would create an application connector instance with a unique client ID and register it with the DSP runtime. These boilerplate classes serve as proxy between the application and the DSP runtime. They are minimal in size but highly customizable in terms of protocol features desired.


In summary, DSP aims to simplify development of distributed applications by separating the application "business logic" from the underlying "network issues". It addresses most of the "network issues" in the framework before they bubble up so that application developers only need to focus on the "business logic". It is a significant step closer toward bringing local application development experience to the distributed environment.