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Play Framework's WebSocket API: from imperative events to functional streams

25 Dec 2013

Play Framework's Scala WebSocket API makes you deal with functional abstractions for stream-oriented processing: Iteratees and Enumerators. They allow to have an unified stream API across the whole framework (HTTP body parsing, Comet, WebSockets...).

As pointed out in the discussion that followed the article Play, Scala, and Iteratees vs. Node.js, JavaScript, and Socket.io, Iteratees are very powerful, actually too powerful for some basic WS use cases, which leads to a not-so-simple API for those use cases. They are also stream-oriented, whereas some WS use cases are more naturally event-oriented. What I mean by event-oriented is that all messages are independent and concurrent, whereas streams (in the Iteratee sense) corresponds to a sequential flow of messages (all messages goes through the same pipe one after the other).

In this post, I'll show how to obtain a simple event-oriented imperative API from Iteratees, and then I'll show when and how to use a stream-oriented approach with back-pressure (one of the main advantages of the stream-oriented Iteratee approach).

A simple event-oriented example

This approach is the simplest if you come from the imperative world and/or you think that the WS part of your app if more event-oriented than stream-oriented (the fact that the processing of message N has not ended does not prevent to finish the processing of message N+1). Below is a simple imperative example:

def ws = ImperativeWebsocket.using[String](
  onOpen = channel => {
    channel.push("Hello from server")
    // optionally send channel to an actor that pushes some events
    PusherActor ! channel

  onMessage = (message, channel) => {
    message match {
      case "event1" =>
        val future1 = // call service 1
        future1 foreach (result => channel.push(result))
      case "event2" =>
        val future2 = // call service 2
        future2 foreach (result => channel.push(result))
      case "event3" =>
        SomeActor ! SomeMessage

  onClose = Logger.info("disconnected")

ImperativeWebsocket is a helper object that can be defined on top of the Iteratee API like this:

object ImperativeWebsocket {

  def using[E: WebSocket.FrameFormatter](
          onOpen: Channel[E] => Unit, 
          onMessage: (E, Channel[E]) => Unit, 
          onClose: => Unit,
          onError: (String, Input[E]) => Unit = (_: String, _: Input[E]) => ()
  ): WebSocket[E] = {
    val promiseIn = promise[Iteratee[E, Unit]]

    val out = Concurrent.unicast[E](
      onStart = channel => {
        val in = Iteratee.foreach[E] { message =>
          onMessage(message, channel) 
        } map (_ => onClose) 
      onError = onError

    WebSocket.using[E](_ => (Iteratee.flatten(promiseIn.future), out))


The internal definition may look like quite complex, but it's because we are twisting Iteratees to get an imperative API from them. We'll see than in stream-oriented use cases, the Iteratee code becomes much more natural and straight-forward.

If you want to go further in the event/message-oriented approach, take a look at play-actor-room library which uses actors to hide the Iteratees stuff and exposes a very simple message-oriented API with built-in rooms, broadcasts and more.

As said before, it is important to notice that unlike stream-oriented processing, our imperative event-oriented code handles all messages concurrently. While we are waiting for the future to be fulfilled in event1, event2 can be fully processed and the result of future2 can be sent to the client before future1. As a consequence, we can not control the possible congestions of messages in the server.

A stream-oriented use case

Sometimes, the IO that you want to model is more stream-like. You have a flow of sequential data chunks going through a stream pipe (Enumerator(s) -> Enumeratee(s) -> Iteratee(s) in Play). In this case, it is very important for performance to handle back-pressure to avoid congestion of data chunks everywhere in the pipe. Back-pressure allows the slowest part of your stream to impose its speed to the whole stream so that there are no accumulation of data chunks in your server memory (potentially causing performance degradations and out-of-memory exceptions).

It turns out that Iteratees are perfect for that job. They handle back-pressure transparently and they have a lot of tools to modify and compose streams (see Enumeratee and Concurrent).

As an example, we suppose that your WS clients need to continuously send big data chunks (say String-encoded here) to the server, then the server has to call an external service to process each chunk, and then it sends them back to the client in the same order. Here is how we can implement it:

def ws = WebSocket.using[String] { httpReq =>
  val (in, inStream) = Concurrent.joined[String]

  val asyncTransformer = Enumeratee.mapM[String] { data =>
    val futureProcessedData = // call a webservice to process data

  val out = inStream through asyncTransformer

  (in, out)

Concurrent.joined allows to transform the in Iteratee (data coming from the client) to an Enumerator (stream source). Enumeratee.mapM allows to map a data chunk asynchronously by returning a Future (the M stands for Monad, as Future is a Monad).

Now suppose that the external web service suddenly crashes and recovers only 5 s after. Back-pressure prevents the Web client to push more data into asyncTransformer before the current data chunk has been transformed, so incoming data chunks won't be stuck in your server filling up your memory while waiting for the external service to recover.

Note that here we do a circle with the stream (from the Web client back to the Web client), but we could also have send the out stream to a database for example. Using a reactive (back-pressure enabled) driver like ReactiveMongo, we get back-pressure all along the way from the Web client to the database! So if the database is temporary slow, the clients' web browsers will automatically push data slowly!

Furthermore, functional composition enables to very simply plug different strategies for back-pressure using Enumeratees (stream transformers). Maybe we want to be able to buffer 20 data chunks maximum before going through asyncTransformer (in case this one is sometimes slow):

val buffer = Concurrent.buffer[String](20)
val out = inStream through buffer through asyncTransformer

Note that through has an alias &>:

val out = inStream &> buffer &> asyncTransformer

Or we want to simply drop data server-side after a timeout:

val dropper = Concurrent.dropInputIfNotReady[String](1, TimeUnit.SECONDS)
val out = inStream &> dropper &> asyncTransformer

And we want before to re-chunk to bigger chunks (concatenating 10 chunks into one):

val reChunker = Enumeratee.grouped[String] {
  Enumeratee.take(10) transform Iteratee.consume()
val out = inStream &> reChunker &> dropper &> asyncTransformer

Check Play's Iteratee/Enumerator/Enumerator doc, API and extra for more possibilities, and some Web apps that use a lot of this: Zound (with an example of stream broadcast) and Ztream. There are also some very interesting blog posts on the subject, for example on Klout's engineering blog and on LinkedIn's engineering blog.

Of course, we can also mix the two approaches. For example, we could handle the in-coming WS client messages in an imperative way with Iteratee.foreach but return a functional Enumerator for out-coming messages (so we have back-pressure from the server to the client).

Sub-streams composition with back-pressure

For the following example, we suppose that each message (chunk) sent by a WS client contains information to fetch a stream. So each chunk of the main stream produces a stream of messages (a sub-stream). We'll see 3 alternatives to compose sub-streams.

NB: composing several streams (Enumerators) into one is very easy with Enumerator's operators andThen and interleave, but here we want to dynamically compose sub-streams inside the main out WS stream depending on the in stream chunks.

Sequential sub-streams

If a chunk of a stream produces a sub-stream, then we want the whole sub-stream to be processed before processing the next chunk of the main stream. All of this with back-pressure, so the chunks from the main stream will not fill up server memory while waiting for a sub-stream to end!

Sub-streams are Enumerators that can come from databases, WebService's HTTP chunked responses... But here, for testing purposes, I've defined a function chunkToStream that takes a chunk and returns a stream that sends each 2 seconds a numbered message with the original chunk (it sends 3 messages in total, and then the stream ends):

val chunkToStream: String => Enumerator[String] = { chunk =>
  Enumerator.unfoldM[Int, String](1) {
    case i if i <= 3 =>
      Promise.timeout(Some((i + 1, chunk + " " + i.toString)), 2 seconds)
    case _ =>

The WS code is very straight-forward:

def ws = WebSocket.using[String] { httpReq =>
  val (in, inStream) = Concurrent.joined[String]
  val out = inStream &> Enumeratee.mapFlatten(chunkToStream)
  (in, out)

Yep, that's it! Iteratees really shine in these kinds of use cases.

Replaceable sub-streams

Now, when a new chunk comes from the client, we want to replace the old sub-stream (even if it wasn't ended) with a new one. For this use case, we use Concurrent.patchPannel which allows precisely to do that. It has an imperative signature, so we will define a helper function to keep our code clean.

The WS code is:

def ws = WebSocket.using[String] { httpReq =>
  replaceableOutStream { inChunk =>
    // we replace the previous stream with the one returned by chunkToStream
    val newOutStream = chunkToStream(inChunk) 

I defined this helper function:

def replaceableOutStream[E](handler: E => Enumerator[E]): (Iteratee[E, Unit], Enumerator[E]) = {
  val promiseIn = promise[Iteratee[E, Unit]]

  val out = Concurrent.patchPanel[E] { patcher =>
    val in = Iteratee.foreach[E] { chunk =>
      // patchIn stash the previous stream, and plug the new one returned by handler

  (Iteratee.flatten(promiseIn.future), out)

And we still have back-pressure from the server to the client!

Mixable sub-streams

As you may have understood with the title, now we just want the new stream returned by chunkToStream to interleave with the previous stream of sub-streams. Sub-streams will end by themselves.

WS code:

def ws = WebSocket.using[String] { httpReq =>
  mixableOutStream { inChunk =>
    val newSubstream = chunkToStream(inChunk) 

Helper function:

def mixableOutStream[E](handler: E => Enumerator[E]): (Iteratee[E, _], Enumerator[E]) = {
  val promiseIn = promise[Iteratee[E, Enumerator[E]]]

  val out = Concurrent.patchPanel[E] { patcher =>
    val in = Iteratee.fold[E, Enumerator[E]](Enumerator.empty) { (currentStream, chunk) =>
      val substream = handler(chunk)
      val newStream = Enumerator.interleave(currentStream, substream)

  (Iteratee.flatten(promiseIn.future), out)

Using Concurrent.patchPanel, you can of course define many others ways of dealing with sub-streams in a WS out stream.

Final thoughts

We saw that in stream-oriented functional use cases, the Iteratee code stays simple and clear while handling efficiently complex problems. Iteratees are perfect for stream-oriented use cases of WebSocket, but I think Play should propose a built-in API for simple event-oriented use cases. As you saw in my ImperativeWebsocket definition, it is quite easy to provide an imperative API on top of Iteratees once you understand them, but maybe not for new-comers.

NB: Play's Java Websocket API is event-oriented by default.

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