A little over six months ago, I completed my thesis on WebSocket server performance. I’ve had a chance to use them in (global) production, and lemme tell you, this technology kicks ass!

The Past

The model of the internet is request -> response. You send a request for a page by typing an address in your URL bar -> a web server then responds with data. The information you sent, and the information you received, has what’s called a header, the rest (what you see on the page) is called the body.

These headers contain critical information about the data transfer. However, as we’ll see later on, these headers and this request/response cycle can be problematic when we want to do things in real-time.

The Present

We’ve been discussing the HTTP protocol. WebSockets refer to the WebSocket protocol. Like http:// and https://, we have ws:// and wss:// for WebSockets. (The S stands for secure). WebSockets are bidirectional. This means that messages can be sent both ways. There doesn’t need to be a request and a message doesn’t need to be a response. Once a connection has been made, you can sling data whichever way you wish. (Under the hood, here we’re talking about data frames).

It all starts with the handshake. When you type in your developer console,

    new WebSocket('ws://example.com:3000');

a special HTTP/S request is sent. It’s special because, among other quirks, the header contains Upgrade: WebSocket and Connection: Upgrade. The server, should it accept your hand in bidirectional matrimony, sends back a response with a similar header with the same two header key/values. At this point, the security you’ll be using is negotiated. Both sides are saying Okay, let’s do this.

On the client, opening a WebSocket connection looks like this.

const socket = new WebSocket('ws://example.com:3000');

// Print incoming messages to the page
socket.onmessage = (msg) => document.body.innerText += msg;

socket.onclose = (event) => alert('uh oh');

On the server, we need to listen for these connections. We’ll use the unofficial standard WebSockets library for Node.js called websockets/ws or ws for short.

// Include the library
const WebSocket = require('ws');

// Listen 👂
const wss = new WebSocket.Server({ port: 8080 });

// Every time we get a new connection
wss.on('connection', (ws) => {
  
  // Add a listener to it, log any messages
  ws.on('message', (msg) => {
    console.log('received: %s', msg);
  });

  // After the handshake, say Hi!
  ws.send('howdy');
});

Why is this technology useful? Seems like a pretty complicated way to send a message. Let’s imagine that a financial website wants to show a stock ticker that updates every two seconds. Before WebSockets, you had to use polling. This meant requesting new information every X seconds, even if the information hadn’t changed since the last update. Without performing frequent checks, it was impossible to stay in sync.

Clientside, it looked like this.

const poller = (time) => {

// Make a request for some JSON (Instead of Fetch, we used to use `XML HttpRequest`!)
fetch('http://example.com/stocks.json')

  // A response will come
  .then((response) => {

    // Parse the data, continue down the chain
    return response.json();
  })
  .then((stockData) => {

    // Pass the fresh data to another function
    updateStocks(stockData);

    // Now, start it all over again - begin polling
    poller(time);
  });
}

This is called short-polling. There is an alternative called long-polling where the request is held paused at the server until new data is available or the request is about to timeout, in which case a blank response is sent and the cycle restarts. With long-polling, the data is sent back with low-latency and less bandwidth is used — it’s a little more complex to setup though.

With polling, every request and response costs processing, memory, and bandwidth — think of the thick header sections for every cycle! With WebSockets, you perform a handshake and wait for new information — this uses exponentially less processing, memory, and bandwidth for both sides! The underlying TCP pipe that carries the data back and forth doesn’t sit perfectly idle though, for a good reason. The WebSocket protocol allows pings and pongs. These are heartbeats, or, keep-alive messages. Tiny data frames that shoot through the dark pipes under the seabed between computers to say hello! I’m still here.

The server pings and the client responds (by the spec, as soon as possible) with a pong. Websockets/ws has this built in. You can call ws.ping() at any point after the connection has been made. The endpoint pongs back which triggers the pong event. Your browser’s WebSocket class does this automatically.

The Future

Next time you see Twitter has new posts for you, consider the hardworking sockets — and their little heartbeats — which brought you this information, and say thank you to RFC 6455 ❤️

@healeycodes for more personification of technology 🖲️