1    Introduction and Terminology

This chapter provides an overview of the technologies that make up the ActiveX Core Technologies. These technologies, including reference documentation and source code to reference implementations are being handed over to The Open Group by Microsoft. Each of these technologies is specified in detail in Part II of this document.

The ActiveX Core Technologies comprises:

Each of these sub-technologies is described below. Lists of relevant interfaces and APIs are provided for each.

1.1    The Component Object Model

The Component Object Model (COM) is an object-based, distributed programming model designed to promote software interoperability. COM allows two or more applications or ``components'' to easily cooperate with one another, even if they were written by different vendors at different times, in different programming languages, or if they are running on different machines running different operating systems. COM is based on the Distributed Computing Environment's (DCE) Remote Procedure Call (RPC). Microsoft's implementation of DCE RPC is called MS-RPC and is described in detail later in this document.

Figure 1-1:  COM Client and Object Communicate Directly

To support its interoperability features, COM defines and implements mechanisms that allow applications to connect to each other as ``component objects''. A component object is a collection of related function (or intelligence) and the function's associated state. In other words, COM, like a traditional system service API, provides the operations through which a client of some service can connect to multiple providers of that service in a polymorphic fashion. But once a connection is established, COM drops out of the picture. COM serves to connect a client and an object, but once that connection is established, the client and object communicate directly without having to suffer overhead of being forced through a central piece of API code as illustrated in Figure 1-1.

COM is not a prescribed way to structure an application; rather, it is a set of technologies for building robust groups of services in both systems and applications such that the services and the clients of those services can evolve over time. In this way, COM is a technology that makes the programming, use, and uncoordinated/independent evolution of binary objects possible.

This is a fundamental strength of COM: COM solves the ``deployment problem,'' the versioning/evolution problem where it is necessary that the functionality of objects can incrementally evolve or change without the need to simultaneously and in lockstep evolve or change all existing clients of the object. Objects/services can easily continue to support the interfaces through which they communicated with older clients as well as provide new and better interfaces through which they communicate with newer clients.

To solve the versioning problems as well as providing connection services without undue overhead, the Component Object Model builds a foundation that:

At the core the Component Object Model is reference documentation (hence ``Model'') for how objects and their clients interact through interfaces. As a such it defines a number of other standards for interoperability:

COM provides security along several crucial dimensions. First, COM uses standard operating system permissions to determine whether a client (running in a particular user's security context) has the right to start the code associated with a particular class of object. Second, with respect to persistent objects (class code along with data stored in a persistent store such as file system or database), COM uses operating system or application permissions to determine if a particular client can load the object at all. COM's security model supports multiple simultaneous security providers. Security providers are plugged in to the system using the Security Service Provider Interface (SSPI). Finally, COM's security architecture is based on the design of the DCE RPC security architecture, an industry-standard communications mechanism that includes fully authenticated sessions. COM provides cross-process and cross-network object servers with standard security information about the client or clients that are using it so that a server can use security in more sophisticated fashion than that of simple OS permissions on code execution and read/write access to persistent data.

In general, only one vendor needs to, or should, implement a COM Library for any particular operating system.

1.1.1    COM Infrastructure

COM provides more than just the fundamental object creation and management facilities: it also builds an infrastructure of other core system components.

The combination of the foundation and the infrastructure COM components reveals a system that describes how to create and communicate with objects, how to store them, how to label to them, and how to exchange data with them. These four aspects of COM form the core of information management. Furthermore, the infrastructure components not only build on the foundation, but monikers and uniform data transfer also build on storage. The result is a system that is not only very rich, but also deep, which means that work done in an application to implement lower level features is leveraged to build higher level features.

From a technology perspective, the interfaces and APIs that make up COM can be broken down into sub-technologies. Each of these sub-technologies is briefly described below.

1.1.2    ORPC

Object RPC, or ORPC, refers to the layer of code which separates the component object model from the base RPC runtime. ORPC can be broken into the following major components: Interface Marshaling, Message Filter/Call Control, and Proxy/Stub management. Interface marshaling, as its name implies is concerned with how COM marshals object interface pointers. The MessageFilter/Call control component deals with reentrancy concerns and call categories. Proxy/Stub component ensures that for each remoted interface, correct proxy and stubs are generated which marshal/unmarshal all parameters.

1.1.3    Service Control Manager

The Service Control Manager (SCM) is the component of the COM Library responsible for locating class implementations and running them. The SCM ensures that when a client request is made, the appropriate server is connected and ready to receive the request. The SCM keeps a database of class information based on the system registry that the client caches locally through the COM library.

The SCM uses DCE RPC interfaces to communicate with SCM implementations on other machines.

1.1.4    Security

Using the network for distributing an application is challenging not only because of the physical limitations of bandwidth and latency. It also raises new issues related to security between and among clients and components. Since many operations are now physically accessible by anyone with access to the network, access to these operations has to be restricted at a higher level.

Without security support from the distributed development platform, each application would be forced to implement its own security mechanisms. A typical mechanism would involve passing some kind of username and password (or a public key)--usually encrypted--to some kind of logon method. The application would validate these credentials against a user database or directory and return some dynamic identifier for use in future method calls. On each subsequent call to a secure method, the clients would have to pass this security identifier. Each application would have to store and manage a list of usernames and passwords, protect the user directory against unauthorized access, and manage changes to passwords, as well as dealing with the security hazard of sending passwords over the network.

A distributed platform must thus provide a security framework to safely distinguish different clients or different groups of clients so that the system or the application has a way of knowing who is trying to perform an operation on a component. COM uses an extensible security framework (SSPI) that supports multiple identification and authentication mechanisms, from traditional trusted-domain security models to non-centrally managed, massively scaling public-key security mechanisms. A central part of the security framework is a user directory, which stores the necessary information to validate a user's credentials (user name, password, public key). Most COM implementations on non-Windows NT platforms provide a similar or identical extensibility mechanism to use whatever kind of security providers is available on that platform. Most UNIX-implementations of COM will include a Windows NT-compatible security provider.

1.1.5    Error Handling

COM interface member functions and COM Library API functions use a specific convention for error codes in order to pass back to the caller both a useful return value along with an indication of status or error information. For example, it is highly useful for a function to be capable of returning a Boolean result (true or false) as well as indicate failure or success. Returning true and false means that the function executed successfully, and true or false is the answer whereas an error code indicates the function failed completely.

In addition, for those programming languages that support exception handling, COM provides mechanisms where the client can obtain very rich exception information.

1.1.6    Uniform Data Transfer

COM provides a standard mechanism for transferring structured data between components. This mechanism is the data object, which is simply any COM object that implements the IDataObject() interface. Some data objects, such as a piece of text copied to the clipboard, have IDataObject() as their sole interface.

By exchanging pointers to a data object, providers and consumers of data can manage data transfers in a uniform manner, regardless of the format of the data, the type of medium used to transfer the data, or the target device on which it is to be rendered.

1.1.7    Structured Storage

Traditional file systems face challenges when they try to efficiently store multiple kinds of objects in one document. COM provides a solution: a file system within a file. COM structured storage defines how to treat a single file entity as a structured collection of two types of objects, storages and streams, that act like directories and files. This scheme is called structured storage. The purpose of structured storage is to reduce the performance penalties and overhead associated with storing separate objects in a flat file.

A storage object is analogous to a file system directory. Just as a directory can contain other directories and files, a storage object can contain other storage objects and stream objects. Also like a directory, a storage object tracks the locations and sizes of the storage objects and stream objects nested beneath it.

A stream object is analogous to the traditional notion of a file. Like a file, a stream contains data stored as a consecutive sequence of bytes.

Although an application or component developer can implement the structured storage objects, COM provides a standard implementation called Compound Files. The ActiveX Core Technologies includes a reference implementation of Compound Files. This implementation has the following features:    Persistent Property Sets

Persistent Property Sets directly addresses the need to attach structured information to objects which have been stored via structured storage. This information could include other objects, files (structured, compound, etc.), directories, document properties, and summary catalogs.

Structured Storage defines both a standard serialized format, and a set of interfaces and functions that allow you to create and manipulate persistent property sets. The reference implementation of Structured Storage includes full support for these interfaces.

Persistent properties are stored as sets, and one or more sets may be associated with a file system entity. These persistent property sets are intended to be used to store data that is suited to being represented as a collection of fine-grained values. They are not intended to be used as a large database. They can be used, for example, to store summary information about an object on the system, which can then be accessed by any other object that understands how to interpret that property set.

1.1.8    Persistent Objects

COM objects can save their internal state when asked to do so by a client. COM defines standards through which clients can request objects to be initialized, loaded, and saved to and from a data store (for example an HTML <OBJECT> tag, structured storage, or memory). It is the client's responsibility to manage the place where the object's persistent data is stored, but not the format of the data. COM objects that adhere to these standards are called persistent objects.

1.1.9    Monikers

Monikers are best described as ``Persistent, Intelligent Names''. To set the context for why ``Persistent, Intelligent Names'' are an important technology in COM, think for a moment about a standard, mundane filename. That filename refers to some collection of data that happens to be stored on disk somewhere. The filename describes the somewhere. In that sense, the filename is really a name for a particular ``object'' of sorts where the object is defined by the data in the file.

The limitation is that a filename by itself is unintelligent; all the intelligence about what that filename means and how it gets used, as well as how it is stored persistently if necessary, is contained in whatever application is the client of that filename. The filename is nothing more than some piece of data in that client. This means that the client must have specific code to handle filenames. This normally isn't seen as much of a problem--most applications can deal with files and have been doing so for a long time.

Now introduce some sort of name that describes a query in a database. Then introduce others that describe a file and a specific range of data within that file, such as a range of spreadsheet cells or a paragraph is a document. Introduce yet more than identify a piece of code on the system somewhere that can execute some interesting operation. In a world where clients have to know what a name means in order to use it, those clients end up having to write specific code for each type of name causing that application to grow monolithically in size and complexity. This is one of the problems that COM was created to solve.

[Footnote 1] In COM, therefore, the intelligence of how to work with a particular name is encapsulated inside the name itself, where the name becomes an object that implements name-related interfaces. These objects are called monikers. [Footnote 1] A moniker implementation provides an abstraction to some underlying connection (or ``binding'') mechanism. Each different moniker class (with a different CLSID) has its own semantics as to what sort of object or operation it can refer to, which is entirely up to the moniker itself. A section below describes some typical types of monikers. While a moniker class itself defines the operations necessary to locate some general type of object or perform some general type of action, each individual moniker object (each instantiation) maintains its own name data that identifies some other particular object or operation. The moniker class defines the functionality; a moniker object maintains the parameters.

With monikers, clients always work with names through an interface, rather than directly manipulating the strings (or whatever) themselves. This means that whenever a client wishes to perform any operation with a name, it calls some code to do it instead of doing the work itself. This level of indirection means that the moniker can transparently provide a whole host of services, and that the client can seamlessly interoperate over time with various different moniker implementations which implement these services in different ways.

Monikers provide the perfect model for allowing applications to integrate with new name services. For example, a logical next step to the integration of ActiveX Core Technologies with DCE RPC would be to design and implement a DCE CDS moniker class.

1.1.10    Connectable Objects

The COM technology known as Connectable Objects (also called ``connection points'') supports a generic ability for any object, called in this context a ``connectable'' object, to express these capabilities:

1.1.11    Component Categories

Being able to group COM classes based on their capabilities is extremely useful. Building lists of available classes for a particular task which the user may choose from, an object which automatically chooses to aggregate in the closest/smallest/most-efficient class from those available, and type browsers for COM development tools are just some examples of using such categorization information.

1.1.12    Licensing

In a component software industry, vendors need a fine level of control over the licensing of their components. The COM Licensing protocol allows vendors to support machine, application, and user level licensing. This protocol makes it possible for vendors, for example, to ship a component that can be used in a development environment without royalty but only with a royalty on the end-users machine. Or the vendor may choose to make the component available to software developers at a relatively large fee, but allow it to be freely redistributable as part of the developers application.

1.1.13    Type Libraries

Type libraries are COM's ``interface repository''. A type library is a database that contains details about interfaces. COM uses type libraries for data driven cross process and cross-machine marshaling. COM development tools use type libraries to provide graphical object browsers and code generators.

The contents of type libraries (type information) are exposed to programmers through interfaces. The actual binary file format is opaque.

1.1.14    Automation

Automation allows COM objects to expose functionality to high-level programming environments such as visual development tools. Scripting languages such as JScript and VBScript can make use of COM components that support automation.

Automation adds the following capabilities to COM:

1.2    MS-RPC

MS-RPC is an implementation of The Open Group's Distributed Computing Environment (DCE) Remote Procedure Call (RPC) system.

The design and technology behind DCE RPC is just one part of a complete environment for distributed computing defined by The Open Group.

In selecting the RPC standard, The Open Group cited the following rationale:

The DCE remote procedure call standards define not only the overall approach, but the language and the specific protocols to use for communications between computers as well, down to the format of data as it is transmitted over the network[CAE RPC]. The Component Object Model adds to this definition by specifying an object oriented, programming language independent programming model.

Microsoft's implementation of DCE RPC is compatible with The Open Group standard with the exception of some minor differences. Client or server applications written using Microsoft RPC will interoperate with any DCE RPC client or server whose run-time libraries run over a supported protocol.

MS-RPC includes the following major components:

1.3    Registry

The registry is a database that ActiveX components use to store and retrieve configuration data. The registry stores data in opaque binary files. To manipulate registry data, a component must use the registry API functions. The ActiveX Core Technology runtime uses the registry to map COM class identifiers to the implementation of that class, among other things.

1.4    Security Support Provider Interface

The Security Support Provider Interface (SSPI) is a common interface to security support providers. Security support providers export a set of functions that can be used to gain a certain level of security support. This interface is supported by MS-RPC.

The Security Support Provider Interface provides a common interface from a transport provider, such as Microsoft RPC, and security providers, such as Windows NT Distributed Security (NTLM).

The functions defined fall into the following major categories:

1.5    Windows NT Distributed Security Provider

The Windows NT Distributed Security Provider is the primary security provider used by Windows NT. It is also called the NTLM security provider. It is a Security Support Provider Interface (SSPI) ``package''.

The NTLM SPP provided in source code form as part of the PST project supports ``pass-through'' security to a Windows NT domain.

ActiveX provides a developer with a well integrated set of technologies that can be used for building applications and components at all levels right from desktop applications, ActiveX controls for the internet, right up to distributed enterprise class applications that integrate with Microsoft Transaction Server. COM and Distributed COM are pieces of infrastructure that underlies all of the ActiveX technologies and ties them together. DCOM is a key piece of infrastructure that makes it easier to build distributed applications. This section provides information on how software vendors and corporations have benefited from using ActiveX technologies particularly DCOM when building software solutions.