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An aglet is a Java-based autonomous software agent. (For more information, see Bret Sommers's explanation of agents.) As used here, a software agent is a program that can halt itself, ship itself to another computer on the network, and continue execution at the new computer. The key feature of this kind of software agent is that both its code and state are mobile.
Aglets are autonomous because once you start them, they decide where they will go and what they will do. They can receive requests from external sources, but each individual aglet decides whether or not to comply with external requests. Also, aglets can decide to perform actions, such as travel across a network to a new computer, independent of any external request.
People use the term "software agent" to talk about more than just mobile agents. Two other meanings of the term are intelligent agents and representatives. Intelligent agents are endowed to some degree with artificial intelligence. They may be mobile as well as intelligent, but they don't have to be mobile. A representative is a piece of software that represents you, like an attorney or an assistant. Representatives stand in for you in your absence. Depending on your instructions to them, representatives can make decisions or even consummate deals on your behalf. Representative agents can be mobile or intelligent or both, but they don't have to be mobile.
Aglets can potentially be endowed with artificial intelligence or serve as representatives, but they need not be either. Fundamentally, they are mobile agents: Java programs that can halt execution, travel across the network (with both code and state in tact), and continue execution at another host.
Once an infrastructure of mobile agent hosts is established, mobile agents undoubtedly will be built to populate the infrastructure. But what will those mobile agents do? What will justify building the infrastructure in the first place?
Imagine for a moment that a widespread infrastructure of mobile agent hosts has been established on a network near you. How might you use it?
There are many applications for which mobile agents are claimed to be well-suited. Most of these applications tend to involve searching for information on behalf of a user and possibly performing some kind of transaction when appropriate information is encountered.
Here is a list of some of the more commonly mentioned applications for mobile agents:
An example of this kind of application is a network backup tool that periodically must look at every disk attached to every computer hooked to a network. Here, a mobile agent could roam the network, collecting information about the backup status of each disk. It could then return to its point of origin and make a report.