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What is a "Service"?... in a computer system

Filename: s0WhatIsService.htm

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Page contents © TK Boyd, 5/20 Sheepdog Software.

Before we start on servers...

If you came here because for some reason you thought you need to install a server to use LibreOffice Base or Open Office Base: You don't. It you want to install, say, a MySQL database server, then this is the place to start! But you don't NEED to, to use either of those database managers.

You don't, I hope, have to think about your pancreas?

Your pancreas is "a part of you". It "does stuff"... but you don't have to think about it.

There are many, MANY, "little bits and pieces" in your computer's software that "do stuff". Most of them run without you even being aware of them. Many are "services".

If you're using a Windows machine, open Task Manager (Win 10: Ctrl-alt-delete... don't be alarmed by what happens, if you haven't seen it before). Go to the "Services" tab. My not very fancy system lists 240 services, about 120 of them currently running.

Now... most users will never need to become involved in the services running on their machines. Be happy. Be very happy. But I have created this page in support of some of my tutorials about various things-computery, and for some of them, you need to know about services.

This page deals with "the big picture", and heads towards how you can use MySQL. If you already have a good idea about servers, and are more interested in specific ideas for things a hobbyist can have fun with, I commend my old "introduction to servers" page, which had an overhaul 5/20.

A hypothetical "service"- Time Server

I suspect that one of the services running on my computer, although I don't know that this particular thing is done by a service, is a service to supply the date and time of day to "anyone" (e.g. anything else running in the computer) on demand. Don't let the fact that it may... or may NOT... from time to time consult another source of date/time information, ANOTHER "time server" out there in internet land.

Service/ Server?.. and "Client"

I'm not sure that every "server" provides what I speak of here as a "service"... but I suspect it does. And I suspect that every "service" comes from a "server"... although the "server" may just be a bit of software doing it's thing on the same hardware as the requesting software is running on. However, the server may also be on separate hardware.

A "server", for our wants today, is just something that provides a "service".

(Oh, if only!... If only I could now say "A service is what a server provides", and be done... but I fear that might leave you un-helped.)

A "service" is pretty well what we mean in everyday life. Someone/ something does something for you. Or in our context, for a piece of software (or hardware!) that is doing something for you.

Most people will have heard of "web servers"? That's just short for "something on the WEB which can, at the least, SERVE up some "stuff" when you "go to it" with a web browser.

By the way: The entity that asks for something from a server is called a "client". (Clients can sometimes send commands to servers, too.)

As far as I am aware... though I am very much the "one-eyed king", and my awareness is incomplete, most servers are passive. They "sit quietly", not doing very much "to" the clients, until they are asked to provide something. The "something" is usually some data, or "stuff" the client wants to have. It's a (server) "speak" when "spoken to" (by a client) sort of world. That's not to say that the information flow is always just server-to-client. In the olden days, before automatic mechanisms were invented, when you turned a computer on, you had to tell the time server what the time of day, and the date, were. After that, the service kept track of the passage of time, and would give you the TOD on demand.

"Mail servers" are the same sort of thing.

Before I go on, you need to know something: When someone sends you an email, it doesn't go directly to your computer or smartphone. It goes to a mail server. Think of it like a post office box.

Your mail server, as far as I am aware, cannot, by itself, cause the nasty "you have mail" "ping" to happen, interrupting what you are doing. What many people have is a mail CLIENT, in their computer or phone, which goes to the mail server, several times a minute, and says "does my master have mail?" If the answer is yes, then the client causes that "ping".

I do worry a bit as I write all of that, because there are "notifications" and "push transactions", both of which I have avoided learning about. They may come from servers, and may do exactly the sort of thing I said servers don't do.

But I'm not worried! I can get a great deal done with my limited skills. Go further than your teacher as soon as you are able, by all means! But do it carefully. My computer gets tangled quite easily enough, without more things pushing commands at it.

You might thing that servers must be able to "push", or else why do we have those wretched updates from...everybody.. to contend with all of the time? Many of those arise because, behind the scenes, software in our computer goes off from time to time, like the email client, and asks some sever "Do you have updates for me?"

Who cares?

Well, I suspect you care, though maybe you don't know it. Some of the things I write about involve creating servers/ services, even if they aren't the "everyday" sort of server/ service you may be using all the time, albeit unconsciously.

"Use server unconsciously?": I know my car has a carburetor... but I don't know a lot about it, nor do I often think about it. (Learning to fly a plane, where a failed engine entails a little more than just steering to the side of the road, heightens your interest in How Engines Work.)

One set of pages I have is about setting up a database SERVER. Once it is available, a SERVICE becomes available. In a limited set-up, the service is available just on the PC that has the database server, but it isn't a huge step to make the service available to other PCs on the same LAN, and from there service to "the world", across the internet isn't hard... but both steps entail security risks. Being ready to understand an manage those vulnerabilities is the big matter... not the actual process of making the service available.

Why were Servers/ Services invented?

Going back to the date/ time of day service I talked about: Many programs need the time of day (TOD). Would it be sensible to make all of them have all the "bits and pieces" necessary to take care of knowing the TOD "from scratch"? No, of course not.

And WHAT is needed is pretty straightforward. It is easy to build a TOD server that interfaces with everything else using just a small set of pre-defined "conversations". There needs to be an agreed way to say "This is the time now, please reset the "clock" you are running". (Even when the computer has automatic ways to know the time, you usually have to tell it what time zone you are in.) There needs to be an agreed way to ask "What is the time now"? And an agreed format for how the data will be put into the reply. If those simple things are defined, USERS of the system don't need to know anything about our the MAKERS of the system managed to get the "seconds" number to go up once a second... until it reaches 59, after which the "next" number is zero, etc, etc. (Try writing a program that shows time of day, given only a subroutine that returns an ever increasing number that changes once per second.)

This "packaging up" of complicated thing, and making their control and product easily available to other systems is why services were invented.

The end.. for this page

I'm going to stop there, for this page.

One or more of the following may be on your list of "Things I want to know more about":

Nota Bene: You do not have to set up a database server to use the database packages which are part of the free LibreOffice and OpenOffice productivity suites. Not for the HSQLB embedded in both of them, or the embedded Firebird that LibreOffice users are moving to.

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