The following paper was originally published in the
Proceedings of the USENIX Fourth Annual Tcl/Tk Workshop
Monterey, California, July 1996.
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This paper describes TeamRooms, a Tcl-based real time groupware application that provides
"network places" for users to collaborate. TeamRooms is significantly more complex
than previous groupware applications, providing not only generic tools such as shared whiteboards, but also custom groupware applets running within an OpenDoc-style
embedded window. As well as describing TeamRooms itself, the paper relates the use
of several Tcl programming techniques -- meta-architectures, multiple interpreters,
and embedded windows -- that are used to manage the resulting complexity of the system.
This paper describes a novel groupware application called TeamRooms, written using
Tcl/Tk. Groupware systems provide a means for several users to work together, even
though they may be separated by distance. TeamRooms approaches this problem by providing
"network places" on the Internet, where users can gather to meet in real-time or can
asynchronously leave information for each other. The metaphor is based on the physical
team rooms used by many co-located work groups .
Previously, we had developed a number of applications in GroupKit, a Tcl/Tk extension
or toolkit we had developed for building groupware . TeamRooms was somewhat of
a departure from these applications, demanding a different network architecture,
more provisions for security and robustness, and needed to go cross platform. The user interface
was to move from the relatively straightforward model of "one tool per window" to
a model where several tools could exist in a single window, as found in compound
document architectures such as OpenDoc or OLE .
In developing TeamRooms, we were faced with the following constraints: there was not
enough time or resources to just completely rewrite everything, and it was important
to keep the ease of building applications found in the original GroupKit. Even though
the entire system was becoming much more complex, that added complexity had to be
carefully managed and controlled.
This paper consists of two parts. The first part provides some background on real-time
groupware and GroupKit, and then carries on to describe TeamRooms and its user interface.
The discussion emphasizes the novel aspects of TeamRooms as a Tcl/Tk program: it is multi-user, multi-process, and an example of a highly-interactive Internet application.
Its combination of several smaller Tcl programs with a compound document interface
is also new.
The second part of the paper describes how TeamRooms was constructed, while still
keeping our investment in existing GroupKit code and its straightforward API. The
techniques used include meta-architectures, multiple interpreters, and embedded windows.
Because some of these techniques may be applicable to managing the complexity in other
Tcl/Tk programs, some problems that were faced along the way are also described.
About Groupware and GroupKit
Before delving into TeamRooms, some background is necessary. For those unfamiliar
with the domain, this section first introduces real-time groupware applications.
It then describes our GroupKit extension, and in particular the scope of applications
which it has been possible to create with GroupKit.
Groupware is software that helps two or more people collaborate. It is a pretty general
category that includes applications like e-mail or Usenet bulletin boards. Workflow
and document management systems like Lotus Notes are the most commonly known groupware applications today.
Real-time groupware is groupware that lets people work together at the same time.
A common example is the "talk" facility in Unix. Another example is a "shared whiteboard"
program, that let people across a network draw together -- any drawings marks made
by one user on their computer are seen by all other users working on the shared drawing.
Other examples are text editors that allow editing the same document at the same
time (usually with some form of locking so users don't conflict), brainstorming or
voting tools for distributed meetings, card games, and so on.
Groupware can be both productive and fun to use. It is not, however, much fun to write.
Even ignoring the considerable technical hurdles of network infrastructures and concurrency,
there are many human factors issues that have to get worked out for anyone to be willing to use it. We developed GroupKit to make it easier for programmers to
build real-time groupware applications. GroupKit is a toolkit or extension that relies
on lower level support from Tcl, Tk, and Tcl-DP. Some of the facilities it provides
to groupware developers are message passing, shared data structures, session management,
and high-level multi-user interface widgets.
Figure 1 shows some typical applications constructed with GroupKit. The session manager
is used to start each tool, which runs as its own process in its own window. When
several users join a groupware session (for example, a shared whiteboard tool), each
user's process makes a socket connection to every other user's process, which is known
as a replicated architecture. Though GroupKit supports many different tools and even
different session managers, the basic run-time architecture is always the same.
Just as Tcl/Tk have made single-user applications easy to build, GroupKit has made
groupware applications easy to build. The toolkit's learning curve is quick to climb,
making it suitable when time is limited, such as for university class projects. It
has been used at a large number of sites, and a number of substantial systems have been
built using it. Its design has also made it easy to transform many existing single-user
Tcl/Tk programs into groupware. The toolkit has also served well in supporting our
own research interests of exploring groupware user interface issues. The combination
of high-level programming constructs and ease of learning have made GroupKit one
of the most popular groupware development platforms available today.
Figure 1. Some GroupKit applications, including (a) the open registration session manager, (b) information on a user, (c) a brainstorming tool, (d) a shared whiteboard, and (e) a multi-user text editor.
Still, there were areas we wanted to explore where we were hindered, particularly
as we started focusing more on interesting applications. Besides running on Unix,
we wanted to be able to deploy applications across platforms like Macintosh and Windows.
Our fully replicated network architecture worked well in a world of stable workstations
and networks, but can be problematic with unreliable machines and modem connections.
Finally, we wanted to explore richer, more integrated environments, where several
groupware tools were closely tied together, for example embedded inside other applications,
documents or web pages.
TeamRooms is our most ambitious groupware application to date. Unlike most of our
tools which support isolated real-time meetings, the system provides a fully persistent
environment for collaboration, whether in real-time or asynchronously. TeamRooms
is modelled after physical team rooms, which provide a place for teams to meet, work, leave
things for other team members, add comments and changes to shared documents, and
so on. Our goal is to provide an electronic equivalent for teams whose members may
be distributed. TeamRooms is a "network place" that hosts a team's collaborations.
This metaphor is not new; Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) also provide a persistent shared
space, where people can meet in rooms containing various objects . As with MUDs,
TeamRooms uses a central server to hold information on rooms and their objects, and
a separate client provides the user interface -- but rather than a telnet client, TeamRooms
has a full graphical interface (on Unix/X or Macintosh, with Windows under development).
We wanted to move beyond the limited text-based interfaces of today's MUDs, and provide "useful" fully interactive groupware applications as tools in the room.
We stopped short of full audio/video support to keep network requirements reasonable,
though an external system could be added.
Figure 2 illustrates the user interface of the TeamRooms client, where the user (Mark)
is in a room called "Mark Roseman's Room" with two other users (Carl and Saul).
Along the bottom of the screen are a text-based chat tool and different colored pens
for drawing on the "walls" of the room (a shared whiteboard). User snapshots show who
else is in the current room or on the server, and if a video camera is available,
these pictures are periodically updated. Also shown are six different applets: a
URL reference, an image, a concept map, a postit note, an outliner, and a tetrominoes game.
Figure 2. TeamRooms user interface, showing (a) available rooms; (b) connected users; (c) business card; (d) radar overview of room; (e) URL reference applet; (f) users in room; (g) concept map applet; (h) outliner applet; (i) whiteboard pens; (j) text chat area; (k) image applet; (l) telepointer; (m) postit applet; (n) tetrominoes applet.
Each applet is embedded in its own frame, in a similar fashion as OpenDoc or OLE components.
Users select new applets from the Tools menu, as well as delete, move and resize
them. All changes are immediately visible to all users in the room. TeamRooms also allows users to retrieve earlier versions of applets, to compare changes over time.
Applets can be practically any groupware application, such as meeting tools (e.g.
for brainstorming ideas or voting), shared document editors, drawing tools, or games.
Some specific examples we built include:
The ubiquitous yellow sticky note allows users to leave text messages in the room
for other users, as reminders, or to comment on other room objects.
. A hierarchical outline tool lets users organize a set of notes or ideas. Users can
add or delete ideas, drag existing ideas to rearrange them in the outline, and collapse
or expand portions of the outline.
. As a way to decorate rooms, we created the image applet, which displays a GIF image
fetched from an HTTP server.
. The tetrominoes applet is one simple groupware game; others could include card games,
chess or checkers, and so on.
. To help tie in external information, this applet lets users leave pointers in the
form of a URL for others. Clicking on the applet loads the requested URL into their
web browser. Another applet uses Stephen Uhler's infamous HTML parsing library to
display a web page inside TeamRooms for discussion.
Applets differentiate TeamRooms from most groupware tools that provide only simple
facilities such as chat rooms or shared whiteboards. Applets allow the environment
to be customized to suit the team's specific needs. Because we expected many users
to want custom applets, we needed to make it easy to construct new ones, ideally as easy
as constructing normal GroupKit applications.
TeamRooms provides a shared "network place" on the Internet where team members can
collaborate, either in real-time or asynchronously. As a Tcl/Tk based Internet application,
it is novel because of its multi-user, highly interactive nature, and its use of
OpenDoc-style custom applets embedded inside the application.
Strategies for Managing Complexity
TeamRooms represents a rather significant challenge for a GroupKit application. Its
architecture is centralized, not replicated; it requires user authentication; it
demands a very robust, multi-versioned persistence facility; it needs to be multi-platform; and several groupware applications need to be embedded in the same toplevel window.
This section describes three techniques that were used to build TeamRooms while still
leveraging the existing GroupKit code base and API where possible: meta-architectures,
multiple interpreters, and embedded windows. After a description of these techniques, some of the particular issues that were encountered in building TeamRooms are addressed.
Meta-architectures provide a way to change the underlying behavior of a software system
while still retaining an existing interface or API. For example, we wanted to provide
a centralized network architecture (new behavior), though still allowing developers to view the system as having direct connections to other processes for passing messages
(a key component of the API).
In a meta-architecture, the user level API calls a small number of well-defined underlying
primitives. The meta-architecture provides hooks to allow replacing those primitives.
In GroupKit, we had primitives for opening, accepting and closing sockets, and passing messages. The existing primitives supporting a replicated architecture were
replaced with new ones for a centralized architecture, and the user level routines
continued to do the right thing. When it came time to add authentication (i.e. logins),
we could again use the hooks to add the new behavior.
Building good meta-architectures comes down to good software design. It happens that
highly dynamic languages like Tcl make them easy to implement. A more in-depth discussion
on meta-architectures in Tcl is provided in .
The main problem for TeamRooms is dealing with all the different pieces: locating
and navigating rooms, tools such as the shared whiteboard in the room itself, and
then the numerous applets. Everything needs to be kept fairly separate and modular,
while still being bundled together in the same application process.
Our first approach was to use an object system. A prototype of TeamRooms was built
using [incr Tcl], where each applet was a mega-widget with groupware facilities added.
While this worked, for this particular application it was not the ideal solution
for two main reasons.
New Programming Model
. Using an object system introduced a new programming model, where each groupware
tool was an object. This added an extra level of complexity that we thought would
be an obstacle to our target audience, most of whom are not experienced programmers
or familiar with languages like C++. GroupKit's existing message passing paradigm was hard
to resolve with objects, and imposing a particular structure on applications would
impede the ability to adapt single-user applications.
. Surprisingly, modularity was also a concern. The burden was on the object's developer
to ensure it did not use globals or otherwise interfere with other objects running
in the application (despite interacting with its equivalent objects in other users'
processes). This also had implications for security; though we were not immediately
concerned with applets being downloaded over the network, the need to "trust" each
object to interact nicely with the system seemed to preclude the possibility.
For the final version of TeamRooms, we abandoned objects and implemented the system
with multiple interpreters, using the "stcl" extension that was added to the core
in Tcl 7.5. Multiple interpreters allow us to view each piece as a completely separate
groupware application that looks almost exactly like standard GroupKit code.
The TeamRooms client application consists of several GroupKit interpreters, as shown
in Figure 3. The overall application interpreter
is logically connected (via the central server) to all other users on the server,
and deals with navigating between rooms, finding who is logged in to the server,
and what rooms are available. When the user enters a room, a room interpreter
is created to manage the overall room. Logically connected to all users in the room,
this interpreter manages the chat tool, shared whiteboard, creates and resizes applets,
etc. Finally, each applet runs in its own applet
. Some advantages of this technique are noted below.
Figure 3. Structure of TeamRooms client, showing use of multiple interpreters.
Standard Tcl Programs
. The main advantage is that each component looks just like a standard "run-on-its-own"
Tcl application (or in this case, GroupKit application). There are no extra constructs,
and no special considerations to worry about. This perfectly addressed our concerns with learning curve, and preserved our investment in existing applications.
Modularity and Security
. Unlike with objects, programmers using multiple interpreters must explicitly go
out of their way to access code out of the program's scope. This meant no accidental
interference between applications. By providing a clear dividing line between pieces,
it also makes it easy to replace pieces, such as the program for the room interpreter.
Finally, this left open the possibility to enforce security restrictions on applets,
using the model supported in Safe Tcl .
. Multiple interpreters were used to share resources across the entire application.
For example, a single socket connection is shared between all interpreters. When
an applet sends a message to its counterpart running in another user's client, the
message is first routed to the application interpreter. It is then sent over the network to
the server, which relays it to the application interpreter of the other user's client.
From there, it is routed to the interpreter managing the specific applet. The actual
mechanism was implemented by having the application interpreter set up an alias in
the applet interpreter to intercept communications. Of course, the flexible routing
scheme was specified using GroupKit's meta-architecture.
Though multiple interpreters give TeamRooms the needed lower level functionality,
all those interpreters still had to be able to share the screen somehow. Luckily,
Steve Ball had already done most of the work for us in his SurfIt! web browser ,
which features Tcl applets running in their own subinterpreters and having access to Tk features.
The basic approach is to carve off a piece of the Tk window hierarchy for the application
interpreter, alias that to "." in the applet interpreter, and use aliases to redefine all Tk commands in the applet to run in the application interpreter, with
appropriate changes to window names, etc.
We made several changes to this code. First, we allowed the window hierarchy of child
interpreters to be rooted at an internal frame widget rather than only at a toplevel,
so that interpreters could share the same toplevel window. We removed many of the
security limitations enforced by SurfIt!, since at this point we wanted full access
to Tk facilities. Finally, we moved several pieces of the code from Tcl into C to
improve performance in critical areas.
The frame surrounding each applet is constructed as a standard Tk mega-widget (itself
containing 20 small frames for the different pieces of the border), whose inside
frame is the root of the applet's window hierarchy. We followed the practice found
in the OpenDoc compound document framework  that the parent determines the layout of
the child, so all resize decisions etc. are managed by the parent.
The previous section describes some of the techniques that we used in building TeamRooms.
Because these may be applied to managing complexity in other Tcl/Tk applications,
we now look at some of the obstacles that were faced in applying these techniques
in TeamRooms, as well as the solutions we found.
The first difficulty had to do with startup time. Because each interpreter acts like
its own application, starting up several different interpreters is like starting
up several applications. While a two second initial application startup time may
be reasonable, if it takes two seconds for every single applet to be created, the time it takes
to enter a room in TeamRooms holding five or ten applets can seem like an eternity.
It took a lot of profiling (mostly using Tcl's "time" command) and subsequent performance
tuning to get the time it took to create an applet interpreter and its frame down
from about 2.5 seconds to a more reasonable .2 seconds. Some of the changes we made
are described below. Note that most are common sense optimizations that were just
never an issue before, and that the typical "if its slow, recode it in C" would only
address a small number of the problems in this case.
Do the minimum amount of work
. Our subinterpreters took a lot of time initializing code they didn't need. For example,
we'd originally initialized Tcl-DP even though the applets used the application interpreter's
socket facilities (removing this saved about .15 seconds). We used to read one large Tcl configuration file, which included much information used only by
other parts of TeamRooms; this was moved into a different file (saving about .2 seconds).
Obviously, minimizing work is especially important if the work is done at the slower Tcl level, rather than C.
. While autoloading is a very convenient way to load Tcl source code, it is extremely
slow! We explicitly sourced all scripts rather than relying on unknown handlers and
auto-loading (total saving around .5 seconds, depending on the applet).
Identify special cases
. One data structure we use is created and maintained mostly through Tcl code. When
creating a new instance, the programmer may specify a number of different options,
which requires a lot of slow Tcl code to parse. We identified a frequently-used special
case and handled that separately. These types of optimizations saved about .2 seconds.
Use smarter Tcl constructs
. We found many improvements here. Our best example is a construct like "lsearch
[info commands] foo" rather than "info commands foo" which runs about forty times
faster. While Tcl is great to "glue" primitives together, its worth checking the
manual pages to see if your favourite Tcl command will do the work for you itself.
Most of the embedded window issues we faced were performance issues, not surprising
given that the code to do the embedding was written in Tcl. In this case, profiling
identified some special cases which were rewritten (e.g. there is no need to search
through a command using an expensive regular expression search to find window pathnames
if the character "." doesn't appear anywhere in the command), or some general routines
which were used everywhere where it was worth it to rewrite just those routines in
Using mega-widgets was another issue. Both the mega-widget framework we used and the
mega-widgets themselves were written in Tcl. Given the overhead of the window embedding
code, both creating and using mega-widgets that run in the child interpreter was
very slow. Moving them into the parent interpreter (and making them available in the
child interpreter with an alias, as is done with the built-in Tk widgets) improved
that situation considerably (creating the mega-widget for the applet's object frame
took .5 seconds when run in the child interpreter, and just under .1 seconds when run in
the parent interpreter).
There were a few other difficulties, such as not being able to access the "-variable"
associated with some widgets in a subinterpreter (which was resolved by a set of
variable traces). Deciding how images were shared between interpreters is also an
issue (we let child interpreters have full access to the parent's images, though this decision
may have to be revised if we allow untrusted applets). These will need to be resolved
as the "safe Tk" code is redone and integrated into the Tk core.
Interpreters need to communicate with each other to share facilities, such as sockets,
information on users, and so on. The multiple interpreter package in Tcl uses a "parent/child"
paradigm for interpreters, which we followed closely. Shared facilities were always supplied by the parent (the application interpreter) to the child (the room
or applet interpreters), using interpreter aliases. This resulted in the application
interpreter program needing extra code, while the code used in the room and applet
stayed quite simple, which worked well for our need of simplifying applets.
Though it is possible to use hierarchical interpreters, after some brief experimentation
we rejected them. With the applet interpreters being a child of the room interpreter
(rather than the application interpreter), and even at one point with applets as
children of other applets, things got out of control quickly. Speed was an issue (mainly
in the interface code), and responsibilities were spread over many pieces. When possible,
a shallow hierarchy of interpreters seems to be more effective.
Another decision we had to make was about menu sharing, so that applets could have
access to the main menubar. We chose to add a single menu to the menubar for each
applet (available via an alias), and the application interpreter packed and unpacked
the menu as the focus changes. An alternative would be to clone the entire menubar for each
Because our audience is not only developers but also people who just want to use the
system, we needed to package a binary that would not require users to compile their
own Tcl, Tk, GroupKit, etc. Existing solutions need some changes to work for applications using multiple interpreters. Typically these systems "compile" Tcl code into arrays
of C strings, and load them via Tcl_Eval() at the start of the program. But multiple
interpreters are not always created at the program's start, and interpreters may
use different files.
The solution we used in TeamRooms was to use an existing package (Joe Touch's "tcl2array"
package) to generate C arrays of the Tcl code. We then created a hash table containing
pointers to these arrays, indexed by their original Tcl filename. We replaced Tcl's standard "source" command with a new version that first checks if the requested
filename is in the table. If so, the code is read from the array, otherwise the file
is read from disk.
While TeamRooms now runs on several flavours of Unix, Macintosh, and Windows, at the
time of writing we have little to report in terms of cross platform issues that were
difficult to resolve. Most difficulties have to do with missing native functionality
(e.g. proper menus and dialog boxes), differences with fonts (which are important if
we want identical views of the room across platforms), and so on. Other common cross-platform
issues such as layout, naming conventions and so on have not been significant issues with TeamRooms. This is likely because the system relies on a very customized,
direct-manipulation interface built using Tk's canvas widget, rather than using a
more conventional forms based interface.
This paper has described TeamRooms, a Tcl/Tk groupware application built with our
GroupKit toolkit. TeamRooms provides "network places" on the Internet for collaborators,
who can interact with generic tools like shared whiteboards. They can also customize
their electronic rooms by using applets, which are full groupware applications that
run embedded in the room's window, OpenDoc style. TeamRooms is a good illustration
of a highly interactive Tcl-based Internet environment.
To accomplish this while still keeping the application's complexity reasonable, TeamRooms
relies heavily on a number of techniques. Meta-architectures provide the flexibility
to support new run-time architectures. Multiple interpreters allow us to structure the system so that each component acts as its own self-contained application, without
requiring extra knowledge about the overall environment. Finally, embedded windows
extend the power of multiple interpreters to Tk. Our experiences with these techniques should prove useful as other Tcl/Tk applications begin to use these newer features.
Thanks go to early users, in particular Saul Greenberg, Carl Gutwin, Gordon Paynter
and Simon Gianoutsos, who braved early versions of the system, and offered many useful
suggestions and improvements. Various bits of code have been borrowed from Steve
Ball (applet embedding), Stephen Uhler (HTML library), and Shannon Jaeger (megawidget
framework). The financial support provided by Intel Corporation and NSERC is gratefully
More information about TeamRooms, including software availability, related projects,
and publications, can be obtained on the World Wide Web at:
1. Ball, S. SurfIt! A WWW Browser. In Proc. of Tcl/Tk Workshop. 1996. .
2. Borenstein, N. EMail with a Mind of its Own: The Safe-Tcl Language for Enabled
Mail. In Proc. of ULPAA.
3. Curtis, P. and Nichols, D. MUDs Grow Up: Social Virtual Reality in the Real World. In Proc. of the Third International Conference on Cyberspace . May 1993.
4. Johansen, R., Sibbet, D., Benson, S., Martin, A., Mittman, R. & Saffo, P. Leading Business Teams
. Addison-Wesley. 1991.
5. Orfali, R., Harkey, D. and Edwards, J. The Essential Distributed Objects Survival Guide.
John Wiley and Sons. 1996.
6. Roseman, M. When is an object not an object? In Proc. of Tcl/Tk Workshop
7. Roseman, M. and Greenberg, S. Building Real Time Groupware with GroupKit, a Groupware
Toolkit. ACM TOCHI .