We’ve been using the Lift web framework for a lot of web development work recently, and we’re very impressed some of its features. Lift’s Comet support, in particular, is a blessing for the kind of data-crunching back-end web sites we typically get involved in.
Importing data from uploaded files, for example, frequently causes trouble. An import can take from a few seconds to a few minutes depending on the size of the file and the complexity of the data processing and validation involved. If the import takes more than a few seconds there is an increasing risk that the web browser will time out. If this happens we fail, because the user won’t know whether the import succeeded or not. Lift’s Comet actors provide a simple way around this problem. But before describing how they work, let’s quickly go over Comet and actors.
Comet is a way of doing push notifications over HTTP, which on the face of it appears to only support pull. Without the jargon, this means a way of allowing the server to send information to the web browser when that information is ready, not when the web browser checks for it. This gives us a better interface, as the UI can instantly reflect new data, and better resource consumption, as the client doesn’t have to continuously poll the server.
There are two or three common ways of implementing Comet. Lift uses a mechanism called “long polling”, which implements Comet using plain old AJAX. As soon as the web page loads, the web browser sends an XMLHTTP request to the server. Instead of replying immediately the server keeps the connection around until it has information to push back. When information is available, the web server responds to the HTTP request, and the browser processes the response and immediately makes another request. In other words, long polling uses HTTP’s pull mechanism to simulate push communication. This is all well and good, but it immediately raises two issues: how do we manage a large number of open, but idle, connections without swamping the server, and what programming model do we use to manage the additional complexity of Comet applications.
Handing many idle open connections is relatively simple. The traditional model is to use one thread per request, but this doesn’t scale when many requests are idle for long periods. All modern operating systems provide a scalable event notification system, such as epoll or kqueue, allowing a single thread to simultaneously monitor many connections for data. The JVM provides access to these systems via the Selector abstraction in the NIO package. All this is taken care of in the web framework, so the application programmer does not need to be aware of it. (Note that other languages present the same facilities in different ways. Erlang, for example, presents all IO operations as blocking, but the implementation uses the same scalable non-blocking OS services as the JVM. Erlang can do this as it doesn’t use as many resources per thread as the JVM does. This is an appealing choice as it provides a uniformity not found on the JVM, but impacts how Erlang handles multicore.)
More relevant to the application programmer is the programming model used for Comet, and this is where actors come in. An actor is basically a thread with the important restriction that it only communicates with the outside world via messages. To ask an actor to do something, you send it a message. This is rather like a method call, except that the actor queues the message and processes it asynchronously. When an actor wants to communicate with another resource, it sends that resource a message. Since actors never share state with each other, there is never a need to lock resources to avoid concurrent access. This is a great model because all the complexities of programming with locks disappear. If you are interested in more information on the actor model in Scala try here for the original papers, here for the Akka framework and here for a bit on Lift’s actors.
Actors are a natural fit for Comet. On the server each Comet connection is handled by a Comet actor, whose job it is to manage communication with a connected browser. Each actor is bound to a single user’s session, but actors persist across web requests. We can asynchronously send an actor messages (whether the user is looking at the web page or not), and have the actor buffer them for transmission to the browser. This means we’ve got almost all of our file upload functionality straight out of the box, without having to do any particularly tricky development.
We put a proof-of-concept of the file uploader on Github. The basic structure of the code is:
- When a file is uploaded it is handed off to a thread for processing, and a Comet actor is started to communicate with the client.
- The processing thread periodically sends messages to the actor, informing it of progress on the file upload.
- The Comet actor in turn communicates progress to the client.
The great thing about this arrangement is that the user can navigate away from the page without aborting the file upload, and if they later return to the page they will get a progress update. It makes for a very pleasant UI.