Benjamin Milde

Bare Websockets

While phoenix used websocket connections for a long time for its Phoenix.Channel abstraction there wasn’t really a good way to use websocket directly up until phoenixs latest major release (1.7).

Before that release working with bare websocket connections meant directly calling into the underlying webserver beneight phoenix – :cowboy or more recently Bandit.

Before 1.7 the implementation for channels within phoenix also directly integrated with :cowboy, so there wasn’t really a way for Bandit to replace cowboy as an alternative webserver completely. So Mat Trudel (the creator of Bandit) stepped in and together with the phoenix/plug team build out all the necessary new abstractions to make it possible for Bandit to power websockets and therefore channels as well.

New Abstractions

The result of that work have been two new libraries, both now maintained by the phoenix team:

  • WebSock – This library includes just a behaviour for handlers of a websocket connection. The equivalent for http would be the Plug behaviour.
  • WebSockAdapter – This library includes the actual implementations for upgrading a http connection to a websocket connection for webservers (currently :cowboy and Bandit), which use WebSock handlers. The http level equivalent here would be PlugCowboy or the included plug integration of Bandit.

With all the low level bits taken care of it doesn’t take much more code to make use of that in a phoenix or plug application.

Upgrading a http request

WebSockAdapter does directly integrate with Plug, so any applicable request conns can be upgrated using WebSockAdapter.upgrade/4. This doesn’t need to be called in any special place – contrary to the Phoenix.Endpoint.socket/3 macro, which only works in endpoints. This means a request can be routed by routers, run through authentication plugs or whatever necessary before being upgraded.

Be aware that websocket requests do have distinct constraints to http though, so be sure to inform yourself when trying to implement any security features. There are valid reasons why e.g. you cannot access cookies and you might want to deal with the check_origin config for phoenix channels.

To add a custom websocket endpoint into phoenix we’ll be using a plug, that’s then added to the apps router:

defmodule MyAppWeb.WebsocketUpgrade do
  @moduledoc """
  Plug to upgrade request to websocket connection and starting `WebSock` handler.
  @behaviour Plug

  @impl Plug
  def init(handler), do: handler

  @impl Plug
  def call(%Plug.Conn{} = conn, handler) do
    |> WebSockAdapter.upgrade(handler, %{path_params: conn.path_params}, [])
    |> Plug.Conn.halt()
defmodule MyAppWeb.Router do
  use MyAppWeb, :router


  scope "/ws", MyAppWeb do
    get "/connection_timer/:name", WebsocketUpgrade, MyAppWeb.ConnectionTimer

This is pretty straight forward. The plug takes the handler as an plug option, and it’s then forwarded to the websocket upgrade in the plug body. The 3rd parameter for the upgrade is the initial state passed to the handler and the last one allows for passing some options for how the webserver should deal with the connection.

The upgrade/4 call itself as well as the webserver implementations will make sure only actual websocket connection requests will be upgraded. So no additional checks needed. But you can use WebSockAdapter.UpgradeValidation.validate_upgrade/1 to manually use the checks WebSockAdapter does e.g. if you want to know if a request is a websocker request in advance of doing the upgrade.

The websocket connection handler

Once the http connection is successfully upgraded the handler takes over. It needs to implement the WebSock behaviour to handle sending and receiving data on the connection.

As an example this server will provide information around how long a connection has been open and it does so automatically as well as when explicitly requested.

There are three required callbacks and two optional ones to implement. For the optional ones please refer to the WebSock documentation.

  • init/1 – Received the state passed from the http upgrade. In this case it receives path parameters from the initial conn.
  • handle_in/2 – Handle incoming websocket messages.
  • handle_info/2 – Handle elixir messages.

All callbacks may return messages to be sent to the client to complete the bi-directional nature of a websocket connection.

defmodule MyAppWeb.ConnectionTimer do
  use MyAppWeb, :verified_routes
  @behaviour WebSock

  @impl true
  def init(%{path_params: %{"name" => name}}) do
    path = ~p"/ws/connection_timer/#{name}"
    {:ok, %{start: now(), path: path}}

  @impl true
  def handle_in({"request_timer", opcode: :text}, state) do
    {:push, {:text, "Connected to #{state.path} for #{diff(state.start)}s."}, state}

  def handle_in(_, state) do
    {:ok, state}

  @impl true
  def handle_info(:alert, state) do
    {:push, {:text, "Alert for #{state.path} after #{diff(state.start)}s."}, state}

  def handle_info(_, state) do
    {:ok, state}

  defp now, do: System.monotonic_time()
  defp schedule_alert, do: Process.send_after(self(), :alert, :timer.seconds(15))
  defp diff(start), do: System.convert_time_unit(now() - start, :native, :second)

This is a short implementation, which sends back a message when receiving a "request_timer" message, as well as sending a similar one ever 15 seconds automatically (to show of the usage of handle_info).

Interactive Example


    Comparison to Phoenix.Channels

    The above certainly is a bit more low level than Phoenix.Channels, but also on first glance not that different. Therefore a reasonable question is why one would use one or the other.

    A plain websocket connection is very simple. It allows a client and server to exchange binary or text messages. That’s it. Any websocket supporting client can connect and start sending messages.

    Phoenix.Channels are quite a bit more than that. They extend the pubsub functionality of Phoenix.PubSub to clients external to the elixir server(s) hosting it. So you get a bunch of semantics around how and with whom to share messages out of the box with channels. Channels also come with predefined message formats on the wire, where it actually doesn’t even matter what transport powers the “wire”. Could be websocket, but could be many other protocols. These differences however mean that the client needs to understand that encoding and generally also wants to understand the pubsub nature and what topics mean in a channels context. That’s what you need phoenix.js for on a phoenix website to talk to channels.

    Comparing this to other ecosystems it might be comparable to, which also uses a custom message protocol on top of different transport layers including websockets.

    So to me there are two reasons for using bare websockets on a phoenix project:

    • The client does only support websockets, but nothing higher level can be added on top
    • The pubsub nature of channel is not actually needed or useful for the provided functionality

    Additionally this allows for websockets on plain plug applications as well, where channels aren’t available in the first place.

    Bonus: Elixir based websocket client

    Are you also interested in how to connect to a websockets server from elixir? @chgeuer did provide a gist on how to connect to the websocket endpoint of this blogpost with an elixir based client. Feel free to check his gist.