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4. DISCUSSION Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia
4. DISCUSSION

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Next: 5. THE XDR LANGUAGE SPECIFICATION

4. DISCUSSION

4. DISCUSSION

  1. Why use a language for describing data? What's wrong with diagrams?

    There are many advantages in using a data-description language such as XDR versus using diagrams. Languages are more formal than diagrams and lead to less ambiguous descriptions of data. Languages are also easier to understand and allow one to think of other issues instead of the low-level details of bit-encoding. Also, there is a close analogy between the types of XDR and a high-level language such as C or Pascal. This makes the implementation of XDR encoding and decoding modules an easier task. Finally, the language specification itself is an ASCII string that can be passed from machine to machine to perform on-the-fly data interpretation.

  2. Why is there only one byte-order for an XDR unit?

    Supporting two byte-orderings requires a higher level protocol for determining in which byte-order the data is encoded. Since XDR is not a protocol, this can't be done. The advantage of this, though, is that data in XDR format can be written to a magnetic tape, for example, and any machine will be able to interpret it, since no higher level protocol is necessary for determining the byte-order.

  3. Why is the XDR byte-order big-endian instead of little-endian? Isn't this unfair to little-endian machines such as the VAX(r), which has to convert from one form to the other?

    Yes, it is unfair, but having only one byte-order means you have to be unfair to somebody. Many architectures, such as the Motorola 68000* and IBM 370*, support the big-endian byte-order.

  4. Why is the XDR unit four bytes wide?

    There is a tradeoff in choosing the XDR unit size. Choosing a small size such as two makes the encoded data small, but causes alignment problems for machines that aren't aligned on these boundaries. A large size such as eight means the data will be aligned on virtually every machine, but causes the encoded data to grow too big. We chose four as a compromise. Four is big enough to support most architectures efficiently, except for rare machines such as the eight-byte aligned Cray*. Four is also small enough to keep the encoded data restricted to a reasonable size.

  5. Why must variable-length data be padded with zeros?

    It is desirable that the same data encode into the same thing on all machines, so that encoded data can be meaningfully compared or checksummed. Forcing the padded bytes to be zero ensures this.

  6. Why is there no explicit data-typing?

    Data-typing has a relatively high cost for what small advantages it may have. One cost is the expansion of data due to the inserted type fields. Another is the added cost of interpreting these type fields and acting accordingly. And most protocols already know what type they expect, so data-typing supplies only redundant information. However, one can still get the benefits of data-typing using XDR. One way is to encode two things: first a string which is the XDR data description of the encoded data, and then the encoded data itself. Another way is to assign a value to all the types in XDR, and then define a universal type which takes this value as its discriminant and for each value, describes the corresponding data type.


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