Channels

Channels are a really exciting and powerful part of Phoenix that allow us to easily add soft-realtime features to our applications. Channels are based on a simple idea - sending and receiving messages. Senders broadcast messages about topics. Receivers subscribe to topics so that they can get those messages. Senders and receivers can switch roles on the same topic at any time.

Since Elixir is based on message passing, you may wonder why we need this extra mechanism to send and receive messages. With Channels, neither senders nor receivers have to be Elixir processes. They can be anything that we can teach to communicate over a Channel - a JavaScript client, an iOS app, another Phoenix application, our watch. Also, messages broadcast over a Channel may have many receivers. Elixir processes communicate one to one.

The word “Channel” is really shorthand for a layered system with a number of components. Let’s take a quick look at them now so we can see the big picture a little better.

JS Documentation

Phoenix ships with a JavaScript client that is available when generating a new Phoenix project. The documentation for the JavaScript module is available at https://hexdocs.pm/phoenix/js/

The Moving Parts

Socket Handlers

Phoenix holds a single connection to the server and multiplexes your channel sockets over that one connection. Socket handlers, such as lib/hello_web/channels/user_socket.ex, are modules that authenticate and identify a socket connection and allow you to set default socket assigns for use in all channels.

Channel Routes

These are defined in Socket handlers, such as lib/hello_web/channels/user_socket.ex, which makes them distinct from other routes. They match on the topic string and dispatch matching requests to the given Channel module. The star character * acts as a wildcard matcher, so in the following example route, requests for sample_topic:pizza and sample_topic:oranges would both be dispatched to the SampleTopicChannel.

channel "sample_topic:*", HelloWeb.SampleTopicChannel

Channels

Channels handle events from clients, so they are similar to Controllers, but there are two key differences. Channel events can go both directions - incoming and outgoing. Channel connections also persist beyond a single request/response cycle. Channels are the highest level abstraction for realtime communication components in Phoenix.

Each Channel will implement one or more clauses of each of these four callback functions - join/3, terminate/2, handle_in/3, and handle_out/3.

PubSub

The Phoenix PubSub layer consists of the Phoenix.PubSub module and a variety of modules for different adapters and their GenServers. These modules contain functions which are the nuts and bolts of organizing Channel communication - subscribing to topics, unsubscribing from topics, and broadcasting messages on a topic.

It is worth noting that these modules are intended for Phoenix’s internal use. Channels use them under the hood to do much of their work. As end users, we shouldn’t have any need to use them directly in our applications.

If your deployment environment does not support distributed Elixir or direct communication between servers, Phoenix also ships with a Redis Adapter that uses Redis to exchange PubSub data. Please see the Phoenix.PubSub docs for more information.

Messages

The Phoenix.Socket.Message module defines a struct with the following keys which denotes a valid message. From the Phoenix.Socket.Message docs.

  • topic - The string topic or topic:subtopic pair namespace, for example “messages”, “messages:123”
  • event - The string event name, for example “phx_join”
  • payload - The message payload
  • ref - The unique string ref

Topics

Topics are string identifiers - names that the various layers use in order to make sure messages end up in the right place. As we saw above, topics can use wildcards. This allows for a useful “topic:subtopic” convention. Often, you’ll compose topics using record IDs from your application layer, such as "users:123".

Transports

The transport layer is where the rubber meets the road. The Phoenix.Channel.Transport module handles all the message dispatching into and out of a Channel.

Transport Adapters

The default transport mechanism is via WebSockets which will fall back to LongPolling if WebSockets are not available. Other transport adapters are possible, and we can write our own if we follow the adapter contract. Please see Phoenix.TransportsWebSocket for an example.

Client Libraries

Official

3rd Party

Tying it all together

Let’s tie all these ideas together by building a simple chat application. After generating a new Phoenix application we’ll see that the endpoint is already set up for us in lib/hello/endpoint.ex:

defmodule Hello.Endpoint do
  use Phoenix.Endpoint, otp_app: :hello

  socket "/socket", Hello.UserSocket
  ...
end

In lib/hello_web/channels/user_socket.ex, the Hello.UserSocket we pointed to in our endpoint has already been created when we generated our application. We need to make sure messages get routed to the correct channel. To do that, we’ll uncomment the “room:*” channel definition:

defmodule Hello.UserSocket do
  use Phoenix.Socket

  ## Channels
  channel "room:*", HelloWeb.RoomChannel
  ...

Now, whenever a client sends a message whose topic starts with "room:", it will be routed to our RoomChannel. Next, we’ll define a HelloWeb.RoomChannel module to manage our chat room messages.

Joining Channels

The first priority of your channels is to authorize clients to join a given topic. For authorization, we must implement join/3 in lib/hello_web/channels/room_channel.ex.

defmodule HelloWeb.RoomChannel do
  use Phoenix.Channel

  def join("room:lobby", _message, socket) do
    {:ok, socket}
  end
  def join("room:" <> _private_room_id, _params, _socket) do
    {:error, %{reason: "unauthorized"}}
  end
end

For our chat app, we’ll allow anyone to join the "room:lobby" topic, but any other room will be considered private and special authorization, say from a database, will be required. We won’t worry about private chat room for this exercise, but feel free to explore after we finish. To authorize the socket to join a topic, we return {:ok, socket} or {:ok, reply, socket}. To deny access, we return {:error, reply}. More information about authorization with tokens can be found in the Phoenix.Token documentation.

With our channel in place, let’s get the client and server talking.

Phoenix projects come with Brunch built in, unless disabled with the --no-brunch option when you run mix phx.new.

If you are using brunch, there’s some code in assets/js/socket.js that defines a simple client based on the socket implementation that ships with Phoenix.

We can use that library to connect to our socket and join our channel, we just need to set our room name to “room:lobby” in that file.

// assets/js/socket.js
...
socket.connect()

// Now that you are connected, you can join channels with a topic:
let channel = socket.channel("room:lobby", {})
channel.join()
  .receive("ok", resp => { console.log("Joined successfully", resp) })
  .receive("error", resp => { console.log("Unable to join", resp) })

export default socket

After that, we need to make sure assets/js/socket.js gets imported into our application JavaScript file. To do that, uncomment the last line in assets/js/app.js.

...
import socket from "./socket"

Save the file and your browser should auto refresh, thanks to the Phoenix live reloader. If everything worked, we should see “Joined successfully” in the browser’s JavaScript console. Our client and server are now talking over a persistent connection. Now let’s make it useful by enabling chat.

In lib/hello_web/templates/page/index.html.eex, we’ll replace the existing code with a container to hold our chat messages, and an input field to send them:

<div id="messages"></div>
<input id="chat-input" type="text"></input>

Now let’s add a couple of event listeners to assets/js/socket.js:

...
let channel           = socket.channel("room:lobby", {})
let chatInput         = document.querySelector("#chat-input")
let messagesContainer = document.querySelector("#messages")

chatInput.addEventListener("keypress", event => {
  if(event.keyCode === 13){
    channel.push("new_msg", {body: chatInput.value})
    chatInput.value = ""
  }
})

channel.join()
  .receive("ok", resp => { console.log("Joined successfully", resp) })
  .receive("error", resp => { console.log("Unable to join", resp) })

export default socket

All we had to do is detect that enter was pressed and then push an event over the channel with the message body. We named the event “new_msg”. With this in place, let’s handle the other piece of a chat application where we listen for new messages and append them to our messages container.

...
let channel           = socket.channel("room:lobby", {})
let chatInput         = document.querySelector("#chat-input")
let messagesContainer = document.querySelector("#messages")

chatInput.addEventListener("keypress", event => {
  if(event.keyCode === 13){
    channel.push("new_msg", {body: chatInput.value})
    chatInput.value = ""
  }
})

channel.on("new_msg", payload => {
  let messageItem = document.createElement("li");
  messageItem.innerText = `[${Date()}] ${payload.body}`
  messagesContainer.appendChild(messageItem)
})

channel.join()
  .receive("ok", resp => { console.log("Joined successfully", resp) })
  .receive("error", resp => { console.log("Unable to join", resp) })

export default socket

We listen for the "new_msg" event using channel.on, and then append the message body to the DOM. Now let’s handle the incoming and outgoing events on the server to complete the picture.

Incoming Events

We handle incoming events with handle_in/3. We can pattern match on the event names, like "new_msg", and then grab the payload that the client passed over the channel. For our chat application, we simply need to notify all other room:lobby subscribers of the new message with broadcast!/3.

defmodule HelloWeb.RoomChannel do
  use Phoenix.Channel

  def join("room:lobby", _message, socket) do
    {:ok, socket}
  end
  def join("room:" <> _private_room_id, _params, _socket) do
    {:error, %{reason: "unauthorized"}}
  end

  def handle_in("new_msg", %{"body" => body}, socket) do
    broadcast! socket, "new_msg", %{body: body}
    {:noreply, socket}
  end

  def handle_out("new_msg", payload, socket) do
    push socket, "new_msg", payload
    {:noreply, socket}
  end
end

broadcast!/3 will notify all joined clients on this socket’s topic and invoke their handle_out/3 callbacks. handle_out/3 isn’t a required callback, but it allows us to customize and filter broadcasts before they reach each client. By default, handle_out/3 is implemented for us and simply pushes the message on to the client, just like our definition. We included it here because hooking into outgoing events allows for powerful message customization and filtering. Let’s see how.

Intercepting Outgoing Events

We won’t implement this for our application, but imagine our chat app allowed users to ignore messages about new users joining a room. We could implement that behavior like this where we explicitly tell Phoenix which outgoing event we want to intercept and then define a handle_out/3 callback for those events. (Of course, this assumes that we have a Accounts context with an ignoring_user?/2 function, and that we pass a user in via the assigns map). It is important to note that the handle_out/3 callback will be called for every recipient of a message, so more expensive operations like hitting the database should be considered carefully before being included in handle_out/3.

intercept ["user_joined"]

def handle_out("user_joined", msg, socket) do
  if Accounts.ignoring_user?(socket.assigns[:user], msg.user_id) do
    {:noreply, socket}
  else
    push socket, "user_joined", msg
    {:noreply, socket}
  end
end

That’s all there is to our basic chat app. Fire up multiple browser tabs and you should see your messages being pushed and broadcasted to all windows!

Socket Assigns

Similar to connection structs, %Plug.Conn{}, it is possible to assign values to a channel socket. Phoenix.Socket.assign/3 is conveniently imported into a channel module as assign/3:

socket = assign(socket, :user, msg["user"])

Sockets store assigned values as a map in socket.assigns.

Using Token Authentication

When we connect, we’ll often need to authenticate the client. Fortunately, this is a 4-step process with Phoenix.Token.

Step 1 - Assign a Token in the Connection

Let’s say we have an authentication plug in our app called OurAuth. When OurAuth authenticates a user, it sets a value for the :current_user key in conn.assigns. Since the current_user exists, we can simply assign the user’s token in the connection for use in the layout. We can wrap that behavior up in a private function plug, put_user_token/2. This could also be put in its own module as well. To make this all work, we just add OurAuth and put_user_token/2 to the browser pipeline.

pipeline :browser do
  # ...
  plug OurAuth
  plug :put_user_token
end

defp put_user_token(conn, _) do
  if current_user = conn.assigns[:current_user] do
    token = Phoenix.Token.sign(conn, "user socket", current_user.id)
    assign(conn, :user_token, token)
  else
    conn
  end
end

Now our conn.assigns contains the current_user and user_token.

Step 2 - Pass the Token to the JavaScript

Next we need to pass this token to JavaScript. We can do so inside a script tag in web/templates/layout/app.html.eex, as follows:

<script>window.userToken = "<%= assigns[:user_token] %>";</script>

Step 3 - Pass the Token to the Socket Constructor and Verify

We also need to pass the :params to the socket constructor and verify the user token in the connect/2 function. To do so, edit web/channels/user_socket.ex, as follows:

def connect(%{"token" => token}, socket) do
  # max_age: 1209600 is equivalent to two weeks in seconds
  case Phoenix.Token.verify(socket, "user socket", token, max_age: 1209600) do
    {:ok, user_id} ->
      {:ok, assign(socket, :current_user, user_id)}
    {:error, reason} ->
      :error
  end
end

In our JavaScript, we can use the token set previously when to pass the token when constructing the Socket:

let socket = new Socket("/socket", {params: {token: window.userToken}})

We used Phoenix.Token.verify/4 to verify the user token provided by the client. Phoenix.Token.verify/4 returns either {:ok, user_id} or {:error, reason}. We can pattern match on that return in a case statement. With a verified token, we set the user’s id as the value to :current_user in the socket. Otherwise, we return :error.

Step 4 - Connect to the socket in JavaScript

With authentication set up, we can connect to sockets and channels from JavaScript.

let socket = new Socket("/socket", {params: {token: window.userToken}})
socket.connect()

Now that we are connected, we can join channels with a topic:

let channel = socket.channel("topic:subtopic", {})
channel.join()
  .receive("ok", resp => { console.log("Joined successfully", resp) })
  .receive("error", resp => { console.log("Unable to join", resp) })

export default socket

Note that token authentication is preferable since it’s transport agnostic and well-suited for long running-connections like channels, as opposed to using sessions or authentication approaches.

Fault Tolerance and Reliability Guarantees

Servers restart, networks split, and clients lose connectivity. In order to design robust systems, we need to understand how Phoenix responds to these events and what guarantees it offers.

Handling Reconnection

Clients subscribe to topics, and Phoenix stores those subscriptions in an in-memory ETS table. If a channel crashes, the clients will need to reconnect to the topics they had previously subscribed to. Fortunately, the Phoenix JavaScript client knows how to do this. The server will notify all the clients of the crash. This will trigger each client’s Channel.onError callback. The clients will attempt to reconnect to the server using an exponential back off strategy. Once they reconnect, they’ll attempt to rejoin the topics they had previously subscribed to. If they are successful, they’ll start receiving messages from those topics as before.

Resending Client Messages

Channel clients queue outgoing messages into a PushBuffer, and send them to the server when there is a connection. If no connection is available, the client holds on to the messages until it can establish a new connection. With no connection, the client will hold the messages in memory until it establishes a connection, or until it receives a timeout event. The default timeout is set to 5000 milliseconds. The client won’t persist the messages in the browser’s local storage, so if the browser tab closes, the messages will be gone.

Resending Server Messages

Phoenix uses an at-most-once strategy when sending messages to clients. If the client is offline and misses the message, Phoenix won’t resend it. Phoenix doesn’t persist messages on the server. If the server restarts, unsent messages will be gone. If our application needs stronger guarantees around message delivery, we’ll need to write that code ourselves. Common approaches involve persisting messages on the server and having clients request missing messages. For an example, see Chris McCord’s Phoenix training: client code and server code.

Presence

Phoenix ships with a way of handling online users that is built on top of Phoenix.PubSub and Phoenix channels. The usage of presence is covered in the presence guide.

Example Application

To see an example of the application we just built, checkout the project phoenix_chat_example.

You can also see a live demo at http://phoenixchat.herokuapp.com/.