Chapter 18

Using CORBA IDL with Java

By Mark Wutka


What Is CORBA?

In Chapter 17, "Creating CORBA Clients," you learned how to create a CORBA client using the OrbixWeb client. If this is your first exposure to CORBA, you may not realize what CORBA actually is.

The Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA) is a tremendous vision of distributed objects interacting without regard to their location or operating environment. CORBA is still in its infancy, with some standards still in the definition stage, but the bulk of the CORBA infrastructure is defined. Many software vendors are still working on some of the features that have been defined.

CORBA consists of several layers. The lowest layer is the Object Request Broker, or ORB. The ORB is essentially a remote method invocation facility. The ORB is language-neutral, meaning you can create objects in any language and use the ORB to invoke methods in those objects. You can also use any language to create clients that invoke remote methods through the ORB. There is a catch to the "any language" idea. You have to define a language mapping between the implementation language and CORBA's Interface Definition Language (IDL).

When you go from IDL to your implementation language, you generate a stub and a skeleton in the implementation language. The stub is the interface between the client and the ORB; the skeleton is the interface between the ORB and the object (or server). Figure 18.1 shows the relationship between the ORB, an object, and a client wishing to invoke a method on the object.

Figure 18.1 : COBRA clients use the ORB to invoke methods on a COBRA server.

While the ORB is drawn conceptually as a separate part of the architecture, it is often just part of the application. A basic ORB implementation might include a naming service (see the following discussion) and a set of libraries that facilitate communications between clients and servers. Once a client locates a server, it communicates directly with that server, not going through any intermediate program. This permits efficient CORBA implementations.

The ORB is both the most visible portion of CORBA and the least exciting. CORBA's big benefit comes in all the services that it defines. Among the services defined in CORBA are

These services are a subset of the full range of services defined by CORBA. The Lifecycle and the Naming services crystallize Sun's visionary phrase, "The network is the computer." These services allow you to instantiate (create) new objects without knowing where the objects reside. You might be creating an object in your own program space, or you might be creating an object halfway around the world, and your program will never know it.

The Lifecycle service enables you to create, delete, copy, and move objects on a specific system. As an application programmer, you would prefer not to know where an object resides. As a systems programmer, you need the Lifecycle service to implement this location transparency for the application programmer. One of the hassles you frequently run into in remote procedure call systems is that the server you are calling must already be up and running before you can make the call. The Lifecycle service removes that hassle; you can create an object, if you need to, before invoking a method on it.

The Naming service enables you to locate an object on the network by name. You want the total flexibility of being able to move objects around the network without having to change any code. The Naming service gives you that ability by associating an object with a name instead of a network address.

The Persistence service lets you save objects somewhere and retrieve them later. This might be in a file, or it might be on an object database. The CORBA standard doesn't specify which. That is left up to the individual software vendors.

The Event service is a messaging system that allows more complex interaction than a simple message call. You could use the Event service to implement a network-based Observer-Observable model, for instance. There are event suppliers that send events, and event consumers that receive them. A server or a client is either push or pull. A push server sends events out when it wants to (it pushes them out), while a push client has a push method and automatically receives events through this method. A pull server doesn't send out events until it is asked; you have to pull them out of the server. A pull client does not receive events until it asks for them. It might help to use the term poll in place of pull. A pull server doesn't deliver events on its own; it gives them out when it is polled. A pull client goes out and polls for events.

The Transaction service is one of the most complex services in the CORBA architecture. It enables you to define operations across multiple objects as a single transaction. This kind of transaction is similar to a database transaction. It handles concurrency, locking, and even rollbacks in case of a failure. A transaction must comply with a core set of requirements that are abbreviated ACID:

The transaction service usually relies on an external Transaction Processing (TP) system.

The Object Querying service lets you locate objects based on something other than name. For instance, you could locate all ships registered in Liberia, or all Krispy Kreme donut locations in Georgia. This feature is usually used when your objects are stored in an object database.

The Properties service lets objects store information on other objects. A property is like a sticky-note. An object writes some information down on a sticky-note and slaps it on another object. This has tremendous potential because it lets information be associated with an object without the object having to know about it.

The beauty of the whole CORBA system is that all of these services are available through the ORB interface, so once your program can talk to the ORB, you have these services available. Of course, your ORB vendor may not have implemented all of these services yet.

Sun's IDL to Java Mapping

In order to use Java in a CORBA system, you need a standard way to convert attributes and methods defined in IDL into Java attributes and methods. Sun has proposed a mapping and released a program to generate Java stubs and skeletons from an IDL definition.

Defining interfaces in IDL is similar to defining interfaces in Java, since you are defining only the signatures (parameters and return values) of the methods and not the implementation of the methods.

IDL Modules

A module is the IDL equivalent of the Java package. It groups sets of interfaces together in their own namespace. Like Java packages, IDL modules can be nested.

Here is an example IDL module definition (shown without any definitions, which are discussed later in this chapter):

module MyModule {
     // insert your IDL definitions here, you must have at least
     // one definition for a valid IDL module

This module would be generated in Java as a package called MyModule:

package MyModule;

When you nest modules, the Java packages you generate are also nested. For example, consider the following nested module definition:

module foo {
     module bar {
          module baz {
// insert definitions here

Don't forget to put a semicolon (;) after the closing brace (}) of a module definition. Unlike Java, C, and C++, you are required to put a semicolon after the brace in IDL.

The Java package definition for interfaces within the baz module is


IDL Constants

As in Java, you can define constant values in IDL. The format of an IDL constant definition is

const type variable = value;

The type of a constant is limited to boolean, char, short, unsigned short, long, unsigned long, float, double, and string.

Constants are mapped into Java in an unusual way. Each constant is defined as a class with a single, static, final, public variable, called value, that holds the value of the constant. This is done because IDL lets you define constants within a module, but Java
requires that constants belong to a class.

Here is an example IDL constant definition:

module ConstExample {
     const long myConstant = 123;

This IDL definition produces the following Java definition:

package ConstExample;
public final class myConstant {
     public static final int value = (int) (123L);

IDL Data Types

IDL has roughly the same set of primitive data types as Java except for a few exceptions:

Enumerated Types

Unlike Java, IDL lets you create enumerated types that represent integer values. The JavaIDL system turns the enumerated type into a class with public, static, final values.

Here is an example IDL enumerated type:

module EnumModule {
     enum Medals { gold, silver, bronze };

This definition produces the Java class shown in Listing 18.1:

Listing 18.1  Java Definition of Enumerated Types
package EnumModule;
public class Medals {
 public static final int gold = 0,
                silver = 1,
                bronze = 2;
 public static final int narrow(int i) throws sunw.corba.EnumerationRangeException {
     if (gold <= i && i <= bronze) {
      return i;
     throw new sunw.corba.EnumerationRangeException();

Since you can also declare variables of an enumerated type, JavaIDL creates a holder class that is used in place of the data type. The holder class contains a single instance variable called value that holds the enumerated value. The holder for the Medals enumeration looks like the definition in Listing 18.2:

Listing 18.2  Java Definition of Holder Class for Enumerated Types
package EnumModule;
public class MedalsHolder
 //     instance variable
 public int value;
 //     constructors
 public MedalsHolder() {
 public MedalsHolder(int __arg) {
     value = EnumModule.Medals.narrow(__arg);

You can create a MedalsHolder by passing an enumerated value to the constructor:

MedalsHolder medal = new MedalsHolder(Medals.silver);

The narrow method performs range checking on values and throws an exception if the argument is outside the bounds of the enumeration. It returns the value passed to it, so you can use it to perform passive bounds checking. For example:

int x = Medals.narrow(y);

assigns y to x only if y is in the range of enumerated values for Medals, otherwise it throws an exception.


An IDL struct is like a Java class without methods. In fact, JavaIDL converts an IDL struct into a Java class whose only methods are a null constructor and a constructor that takes all the structure's attributes.

Here is an example IDL struct definition:

module StructModule {
     struct Person {
          string name;
          long age;

This definition produces the Java class declaration shown in Listing 18.3 (with some JavaIDL-specific methods omitted):

Listing 18.3  Java Definition of IDL Struct
package StructModule;
public final class Person {
 //     instance variables
 public String name;
 public int age;
 //     constructors
 public Person() { }
 public Person(String __name, int __age) {
     name = __name;
     age = __age;

Like the enumerated type, a struct also produces a holder class that represents the structure. The holder class contains a single instance variable called value. Listing 18.4 shows the holder for the Person structure:

Listing 18.4  Java Definition of Holder Class for IDL Struct
package StructModule;
public final class PersonHolder
 //     instance variable
 public StructModule.Person value;
 //     constructors
 public PersonHolder() {
 public PersonHolder(StructModule.Person __arg) {
     value = __arg;


The union is another C construct that didn't survive the transition to Java. The IDL union actually works more like the variant record in Pascal, since it requires a discriminator value. An IDL union is essentially a group of attributes, only one of which can be active at a time. The discriminator indicates which attribute is in use at the current time. A short example should make this a little clearer. Listing 18.5 shows an IDL union declaration:

Listing 18.5  An IDL Union Declaration
module UnionModule {
     union MyUnion switch (char) {
          case 'a':      string aValue;
          case 'b':     long bValue;
          case 'c':      boolean cValue;
          default:     string defValue;

The character value in the switch, known as the discriminator, indicates which of the three variables in the union is active. If the discriminator is 'a', the aValue variable is active. Because Java doesn't have unions, a union is turned into a class with accessor methods for the different variables and a variable for the discriminator. The class is fairly complex. Listing 18.6 shows a subset of the definition for the MyUnion union:

Listing 18.6  Subset of Java Definition for an IDL Union
package UnionModule;
public class MyUnion {
//     constructor
 public MyUnion() {
//     only has a null constructor
 //     discriminator accessor
 public char discriminator()
     throws sunw.corba.UnionDiscriminantException {
//     returns the value of the discriminator
 //     branch constructors and get and set accessors
 public static MyUnion createaValue(String value) {
//     creates a MyUnion with a discriminator of 'a'
 public String getaValue()
     throws sunw.corba.UnionDiscriminantException {
//     returns the value of aValue (only if the discriminator 
//     is 'a' right now)
 public void setaValue(String value) {
//     sets the value of aValue and set the
//	discriminator to 'a'
 public void setdefValue(char discriminator, String value)
     throws sunw.corba.UnionDiscriminantException {

//     Sets the value of defValue and sets the discriminator.
//	Although every variable has a method in this form, it 
//	is only useful when you have a default value in the
//	union.

The holder structure should be a familiar theme to you by now. JavaIDL generates a holder structure for a union. The holder structure for MyUnion would be called MyUnionHolder and would contain a single instance variable called value.

Sequences and Arrays

IDL sequences and arrays both map very neatly to Java arrays. Sequences in IDL can be either unbounded (no maximum size) or bounded (a specific maximum size). IDL arrays are always of a fixed size. Since Java arrays have a fixed size, but the size isn't known at compile-time, the JavaIDL system performs runtime checks on arrays to make sure they fit within the restrictions defined in the IDL module.

Here is a sample IDL definition containing an array, a bounded sequence and an unbounded sequence:

module ArrayModule {
     struct SomeStructure {
          long longArray[15];
          sequence <boolean> unboundedBools;
          sequence <char, 15> boundedChars;

The arrays are defined in Java as:

public int[] longArray;
public boolean[] unboundedBools;
public char[] boundedChars;


CORBA has the notion of exceptions. Unlike Java, however, exceptions are not just a type of object, they are separate entities. IDL exceptions cannot inherit from other exceptions. Otherwise, they work like Java exceptions and may contain instance variables.

Here is an example IDL exception definition:

module ExceptionModule {
     exception YikesError {
          string info;


This definition creates the Java file shown in Listing 18.7 (with some JavaIDL-specific methods removed):

Listing 18.7  Java Definition of IDL Exception
package ExceptionModule;
public class YikesError
     extends sunw.corba.UserException {
 //     instance variables
 public String info;
 //     constructors
 public YikesError() {
 public YikesError(String __info) {
     info = __info;


Interfaces are the most important part of IDL. An IDL interface contains a set of method definitions, just like a Java interface. Like Java interfaces, an IDL interface can inherit from other interfaces. Here is a sample IDL interface definition:

module InterfaceModule {
     interface MyInterface {
          void myMethod(in long param1);

IDL classifies method parameters as being either in, out, or inout. An in parameter is identical to a Java parameter; it is a parameter passed by value. Even though the method can change the value of the variable, the changes are discarded when the method returns.

An out variable is an output-only variable. The method is expected to set the value of this variable, which is preserved when the method returns, but no value is passed in for the variable (it is uninitialized).

An inout variable is a combination of the two; you pass in a value to the method. If the method changes the value, the change is preserved when the method returns.

The fact that Java parameters are in-only poses a small challenge when mapping IDL to Java. Sun has come up with a reasonable approach, however. For any out or inout parameters, you pass in a holder class for that variable. The CORBA method can then set the value instance variable with the value that is supposed to be returned.


IDL lets you define variables within an interface. These translate into get and set methods for the attribute. An attribute can be specified as readonly, which prevents the generation of a set method for the attribute. For example, if you defined an IDL attribute as

attribute long myAttribute;

your Java interface would then contain the following methods:

int getmyAttribute() throws omg.corba.SystemException;
void setmyAttribute() throws omg.corba.SystemException;

Using CORBA in Applets

Although the full CORBA suite represents a huge amount of code, the requirements for a CORBA client are fairly small. All you really need for a client is the ORB itself. You can access the CORBA services from another location on the network. This enables you to have very lightweight CORBA clients. In other words, you can create applets that are CORBA clients.

The only real restriction on applets using CORBA is that an applet can only make network connections back to the server it was loaded from. This means that all the CORBA services must be available on the Web server (or there must be some kind of proxy set up).

Since an applet cannot listen for incoming network connections, an applet cannot be a CORBA server in most cases. You might find an ORB that gets around this restriction by using connections made by the applet. Most Java ORBs available today have the ability to run CORBA servers on an applet for a callback object. For a callback, an applet might create a server object locally and then pass a reference for its server object to a CORBA server running on another machine. That CORBA server could then use the reference to invoke methods in the applet as a client. Figure 18.2 illustrates how an applet might act as a CORBA server.

Figure 18.2 : An applet can act as a server by passing a reference to a local COBRA server.

Choosing Between CORBA and RMI

CORBA and RMI each has its advantages and disadvantages. RMI will be a standard part of Java on both the client and server side, making it a good, cheap tool. Since it is a Java-only system, it integrates cleanly with the rest of Java. RMI is really only a nice remote procedure call system, however.

CORBA defines a robust, distributed environment, providing almost all the necessary features for distributed applications. Not all of these features have been implemented by most vendors, yet. Most CORBA clients are offered free, but you must pay for the server software. This is the typical pricing model for most Internet software nowadays. If you don't need all the neat features of CORBA and don't want to spend a lot of money, RMI might be the right thing for you.

Your company may feel that Java is not yet ready for prime time. If this is the case, but you believe that Java is the environment of the future, you should start working CORBA into your current development plans, if possible.

CORBA is a language-independent system. You can implement your applications in C++ today using many of the Java design concepts. Specifically, keep the application and the user interface separated and make the software as modular as possible. If you use CORBA between the components of your system, you can migrate to Java by slowly replacing the various components with CORBA-based Java software.

If you are a programmer trying to convince your skeptical management about the benefits of Java, use CORBA to make a distributed interface into one of your applications (hopefully you have a CORBA product for the language your application is written in). Next, write a Java applet that implements the user interface for your application using CORBA to talk to the real application. You have instantly ported part of your application to every platform that can run a Java-enabled browser. Hopefully, your applet will perform as well as the old native interface to the application.

This same technique opens up your existing CORBA applications to non-traditional devices like cell-phones and PDAs. If you aren't ready to support those devices yet, at least you now have a pathway.

Creating CORBA Clients with JavaIDL

The JavaIDL system consists of an IDL-to-Java converter, a lightweight ORB, and a simple naming service. The JavaIDL interface is intended to be an interface to multiple ORBs, much the same way that JDBC interfaces with multiple databases.

There are two simple steps in creating a CORBA client in JavaIDL:

  1. Create a reference to a stub using the createRef method in the particular stub.
  2. Use the sunw.corba.Orb.resolve method to create a connection between the stub and a CORBA server.

For example, suppose you had the IDL definition for a banking interface, as shown in Listing 18.8.

Listing 18.8  Source Code for Banking.idl
module banking {

     enum AccountType {

     struct AccountInfo {
          string id;
          string password;
          AccountType which;

     exception InvalidAccountException {
          AccountInfo account;

     exception InsufficientFundsException {

     interface Banking {

          long getBalance(in AccountInfo account)
               raises (InvalidAccountException);

          void withdraw(in AccountInfo account, in long amount)
               raises (InvalidAccountException,

          void deposit(in AccountInfo account, in long amount)
               raises (InvalidAccountException);

          void transfer(in AccountInfo fromAccount,
               in AccountInfo toAccount, in long amount)
               raises (InvalidAccountException,

You create a reference to a stub for the banking interface with the following line:

BankingRef bank = BankingStub.createRef();

Next, you must create a connection between the stub and a CORBA server by resolving it. Since JavaIDL is meant to be the standard Java interface for all ORBs, it requires an ORB-independent naming scheme. Sun decided on a URL-type naming scheme of the format


The early versions of JavaIDL shipped with an ORB called the Door ORB, which is a very lightweight ORB containing little more than a naming scheme. To access a CORBA object using the Door ORB, you must specify the host name and port number used by the CORBA server you are connecting to and the name of the object you are accessing. The format of this information is


If you want to access an object, named Bank, via the Door ORB, running on a server at port 5150 on the local host, you resolve your stub this way:


Remember that the bank parameter is the BankingRef returned by the BankingStub.createRef method. Once the stub is resolved, you can invoke remote methods in the server using the stub.

Listing 18.9 shows the full JavaIDL client for the banking interface. As you can see, once you have connected the stub to the server, you can invoke methods on the stub just like it was a local object.

Listing 18.9  Source Code for
import banking.*;

// This program tries out some of the methods in the BankingImpl
// remote object.

public class BankingClient

     public static void main(String args[])

// Create an Account object for the account we are going to access.

          Account myAccount = new Account(
               "AA1234", "1017", AccountType.CHECKING);

          AccountInfo myAccountInfo = myAccount.toAccountInfo();
          try {

// Get a stub for the BankingImpl object

               BankingRef bank = BankingStub.createRef();

// Check the initial balance
               System.out.println("My balance is: "+

// Deposit some money
               bank.deposit(myAccountInfo, 50000);

// Check the balance again
               System.out.println("Deposited $500.00, balance is: "+

// Withdraw some money
               bank.withdraw(myAccountInfo, 25000);

// Check the balance again
              System.out.println("Withdrew $250.00, balance is: "+


          } catch (Exception e) {
               System.out.println("Got exception: "+e);

Creating CORBA Clients with VisiBroker

VisiBroker, formerly known as Black Widow, is very similar to JavaIDL in its mapping from IDL to Java. Both JavaIDL and VisiBroker map the IDL data types and data structures the same way, and both handle inout and out parameters the same way.

Netscape and VisiBroker recently announced that future versions of the Netscape Navigator would contain the VisiBroker CORBA client. You will soon be able to write applets for Netscape that don't have to download the ORB software before they run.

The only difference between the two ORBs on the client side is in the way you connect a stub to a server.

Under VisiBroker, you must first initialize the ORB with the following line:

CORBA.ORB orb = CORBA.ORB.init();

You only need to initialize the ORB once, no matter how many stubs you create. Next, you connect the stub to the server using the bind method. For example, to connect your stub to an object named Bank, you would use the following call:

Banking bank = Banking_var.bind("Bank");

You'll often see the terms bind and resolve used in network programming. Bind refers to attaching two things together, like you bind a port number to a socket, meaning you assign that port number to the socket. In the VisiBroker context, you bind a stub to a server object, meaning you connect them together. Resolve is another word for lookup. When you resolve a name, you find the object the name refers to. When you resolve a stub, you find the named object the stub should be connected to.