Binder Overview

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The Binder defines and implements a distributed component architecture similar in broad strokes to COM on Windows and CORBA on Unix. That is, the system is defined as a set of abstract interfaces, operations on those interfaces, and implementations of them. As long as you are using these interfaces, the actual object behind them can be written in any language with Binder bindings, and exist anywhere your own address space, in another process, or even (eventually) on another machine.

Where did the name come from?
The Binder derives its name from its common use as a backbone to which you can attach a variety of separate pieces, creating a cohesive whole where the individual pieces all fit together.
This ability generally centers around the IBinder interface, the lingua franca of the Binder Kit, but begins with the Support Kit (providing common threading and memory management facilities) and extends up to the Binder Data Model (a rich language for describing complex, active data structures).
The Binder is a distributed architecture, so you generally don't worry about processes or IPC between them. The Binder infrastructure takes care of making all objects look like they exist in the local process, and dealing with IPC and other issues as needed. It also takes care of resource management between processes, so you are guaranteed that, as long as you have a handle on an object in another process, that the object will continue to exist. (Barring catastrophic situations such as a process crashing, but allowing other processes to deal gracefully with such the event.)

Unlike most other component architectures, the Binder is system oriented rather than application oriented. That is, the Binder is designed to support a new kind of component-based system-level development, and the current focus of its distributed architecture is on processes and IPC between them rather than cross-network communication. Indeed, network communication is not currently implemented, though that is not because of limitations in the architecture: it simply has not been the focus of development so far.

The Binder provides component/object representations of various basic system services, such as processes (through IProcess) and shared memory (through IMemory), allowing you to use them in new and more powerful ways. Unlike many attempts at rethinking how a system is designed, the Binder does not replace or hide these kinds of traditional concepts in operating systems, but instead attempts to embrace and transcend them. This allows the full Binder programming model to sit on top of any traditional operating system, and indeed in addition to Linux it has in the past run on BeOS, Windows, and Palm OS Cobalt.

The Binder is mostly implemented in C++, and currently that is the language you will do most of your programming in. However the Binder Shell can serve as another Binder language (you can even write Binder components with it), and because it exposes those same Binder facilities in a scripting language it can be a good way to learn about basic Binder concepts. The Binder Shell Tutorial provides such an introduction to the shell and Binder.

There are also many rich facilities for doing multithreaded programming with the Binder, though the Binder itself does not impose a particular threading model (in COM parlance, it is purely free threaded), It allows you to implement whatever threading model is appropriate for your situation, though we do use various Threading Conventions in our code built on top of the Binder. In addition, calls from one Binder object to another are always executed by having the thread in the first object simply hop over to the second. This model is extended to cross-process operations, providing the foundation for the rich Binder Process Model.

The Binder has been used to implement a wide variety of commercial-quality system-level services. A primary example is the implemention of a distributed user interface framework, where every node in the view hierarchy (including windows, layout managers, and controls) is a Binder object, allowing them to be distributed across processes as needed. It has also been used to implement a rich media framework (where the media graph is composed of Binder objects), an application manager, a font cache and font engines (where font engines are components for easy replacement and allowing applications to provide their own font engine of data for temporary use by the system), power management services, a rich list view control that sits on top of the Binder Data Model as a data source, etc.

Why Binder?

The Binder architecture was developed to address specific issues that were encountered while developing BeIA at Be, Inc and then Palm OS Cobalt at PalmSource, Inc. Both of these platforms were designed to run on small handheld or dedicated devices, an environment that imposes some specific requirements on system software that are not an issue in a more traditional desktop environment.

Hardware Scalability

The mobile device world tends to have a much broader range of hardware capabilities, for various reasons. For example, size and battery life are extremely important issues, so a new device may use less powerful hardware than an older device in order to meet these goals. This places a burden on system software, where one would like to be able to run on anything from a 50MHz ARM 7 CPU (without memory protection) up to a 400MHz ARM 9 CPU and beyond.

The Binder helps to address this situation by allowing for the creation of system designs that have much more flexibility in how they use hardware. In particular, memory protection and process communication is a significant overhead in modern operating systems, so the Binder strongly supports system design that is not tied to process organization. Instead, the Binder can assign various parts of the system to processes at run time, depending on the particular speed/size/stability/security trade-offs that make sense.

System Customization

Mobile and dedicated devices are unlike desktop machines in that, instead of the "one size fits all" world of the desktop, their user experience and functionality can vary widely between different devices. Both hardware manufacturers and phone carriers want to deeply customize their behavior, partly to support their branding, but also because these devices need to provide an experience that is more specific to the problems they are trying to solve rather than having a general purpose user interface.

The Binder's component model, applied to system design, makes it much easier to support this kind of customizability in a manageable way. The Palm OS Cobalt system architecture takes advantage of this by including separable components for things like font engines, key input handlers, power management, window management, and even UI focus indication. This has allowed, for example, a hardware vendor to customize how input focus is managed on-screen without having to write fragile code that is deeply tied to the implementation of the system software.

Robust Applications

The display and usage pattern of dedicated and mobile devices is also very different than it is on desktops. Desktop-style window management is generally not practical or, if there is no touch screen, even impossible. Because of the limited amount of space on the screen, the currently active application generally wants to consume as much of the available space as possible, essentially becoming the user experience.

This usage of the screen can become a significant problem for more complicated applications, such as web browsers. Often a web browser will need to rely on various third party code to display rich content such as movies, code that is itself quite complicated and not under complete control of the browser. If that code happens to crash in a traditional system design, it will at the very least take with it the window it is in which on a mobile device usually means the entire user experience goes away.

The Binder helps address this issue by making it easy for one application to sandbox other parts of itself. For example, a web browser using the Binder could decided to create components for displaying movies and other complicated content in another process, so that if those components crash they will not disrupt the containing browser experience. At the same time, the Binder can easily revert back to using a single process (or only a few) depending on the capabilities of the hardware it is running on.

Binder Compared To...

Though the Binder is similar in broad strokes to most component-based systems, the one it is most like is probably Microsoft's COM. If you a familiar with COM, many of the concepts used in the Binder will also be very familiar, though the details can be quite different. Since COM is the most popular component system around, it makes sense to describe the Binder in terms of its differences from COM.