Tortoise is a MQTT client application written in Elixir for use in Elixir applications. Its philosophy is to separate the MQTT semantics from the Elixir semantics, attempting to hide the MQTT protocol details from the end-user while still being flexible enough to be able to do just about anything one would like to do with the MQTT protocol.

MQTT overview

MQTT is a lightweight Publish/Subscribe (PubSub) protocol, designed to operate on high-latency networks or unreliable networks. It is a server/client architecture, so a MQTT server (often referred to as a broker) is required for the clients to connect to. All communication happens via the broker, clients cannot see each other, and the capabilities of the MQTT broker can vary depending on its implementation and its configuration.

Being a PubSub protocol the clients can connect to the broker and subscribe to topics, by specifying topic filters, and post messages to topics. Depending on the configuration of the broker the topics can be free-form (any valid topic filter accepted), or restricted to a handful of topics. A topic consist of one or more topic levels, separated by forward slashes such as:


“Topic filters” allow the client to glob on topics, and support wildcards for a single level using a plus sign +; or multiple levels using a hash sign #, which may only be at the last spot of the topic filter. rooms/+/temp would subscribe to messages posted to all the topics in the previous example, and rooms/# would subscribe to every message posted to all topics starting with rooms. The wildcard patterns can be mixed, so +/+/# would be a valid topic.

When publishing a message we cannot use the wildcard functionality, that is strictly for subscribing; Publishing messages needs to be addressed to a specific topic, not a topic filter.

The protocol support three kinds of quality of service (QoS) for both subscriptions and publishing. The three kinds are defined as the following:

  • QoS=0 is a fire and forget. The sender has no guarantee that the receiver will receive the message.

  • QoS=1 where the receiver will respond with an acknowledge message, at which point the sender will stop retransmitting the message. It is possible that a retransmission will arrive after the acknowledge message has been sent, in which case the retransmission will be treated as a new message. In other words, this implements at least once delivery.

  • QoS=2 implements a series of acknowledge and release messages ensuring a message will only get delivered once to the receiver, referred to as exactly once delivery.

The higher quality of service specified the more expensive a publish or a subscription will be bandwidth wise, as a higher QoS will require more protocol messages to fulfill network exchange. That is why some broker administrators choose to configure their broker to refuse a higher quality of service for some topics, or some subscriptions. In the case of subscriptions it can happen that a lower QoS than the one requested is accepted.

Note: Placing a subscription with QoS=2 does not mean that the client will receive messages with QoS=2, it will receive all messages published to that topic regardless of QoS; the message exchange between the broker and the client will use the specified QoS in the subscription.

When a message is published to the broker, the client sending the message can specify that the broker should retain the message; if so the broker will keep the message and dispatch it to clients when they subscribe to the topic.

It is also possible for a client to specify a last will message when connecting to the broker. The broker will keep this message and dispatch it to the specified topic when the client disconnects abruptly from the broker.

The Tortoise MQTT Client

Tortoise aims to hide the MQTT semantics from the user, and expose an interface that should be familiar to an Elixir developer. This means the message exchanges needed to complete a publish or retrieval of a message on a subscription with a QoS>0 should be handled in the background and the details of the protocol should not bleed through to the user.

While the goal of the project is to hide the details of the MQTT protocol from the user, another goal is not to restrict the user in any way. This means Tortoise will attempt to map Elixir semantics to MQTT semantics, which should be possible because both systems deal with message passing:

  • A publish with QoS=0 works like a cast; send and forget.

  • A publish with QoS>0 results in a message exchange between the sender and the receiver; to keep track of these messages the MQTT protocol specifies that these messages should have an identifier assigned, a random 16-bit number. The user of Tortoise will never see this random 16-bit number, but instead an Erlang reference will get returned from the publish function, which makes it possible to await and pattern match for the return.

  • Furthermore, when it comes to publishing messages; the client should make sure that messages with a QoS>0 are delivered, so if the client is offline it should store these messages and send them when the client is back online.

  • A callback behaviour is specified allowing the user to implement custom behavior for when the client connects; disconnects; accepts a subscription; acknowledges an unsubscribe; and receives a message on one of the subscribed topics.

If the design of Tortoise is a hindrance to creating something with MQTT (within reason) it should be considered a bug, and it should be discussed how we should map that behaviour to Elixir semantics.


MQTT is a protocol implementing a PubSub allowing one or multiple clients to subscribe to topics, using topic filters, and clients to publish messages to topics. Tortoise is an MQTT client that aims to map MQTT semantics to Elixir so sending and receiving messages using an MQTT broker feels like any other kind of message passing, and awaiting results feels natural to the Elixir ecosystem.