Rodrigo Rosenfeld Rosas

The sad state of streaming in Ruby web applications

Sat, 02 Jul 2016 11:57:00 +0000 (Updated at Mon, 04 Jul 2016 21:40:00 +0000)

This article is basically a copy of this project's README. You may read it there if you prefer. It's a sample application demonstrating the current streaming state with Devise or Warden.

Devise is an authentication library built on top of Warden, providing a seamless integration with Rails apps. This application was created following the steps described in Devise's Getting Started section. Take a look at the individual commits and their messages if you want to check each step.

Warden is a Rack's middleware and authentication is handled using a "throw/catch(:warden)" approach. This works fine with Rails until streaming is enabled with ActionController::Live.

José Valim pointed out that the problem is ActionController::Live's fault. This is because the Live module changes the "process" method so that it runs inside a spawn thread, so that it can return to finish processing the remaining middlewares in the stack. Nothing is sent to the connection before leaving that method due to the Rack issue I'll describe next. But the "process" method will also handle all filters (before/around/after action hooks). Usually the authentication happens in a before action filter and if the user is not authentication Devise will "throw :warden" but since this is running in a spawn thread, the Warden middleware doesn't have the chance to catch this symbol and handle it properly.

The Rack issue

I find it amusing that after so many years of web development with Ruby, Rack doesn't seem to have evolved much to better handling streamed responses, including SSE and why not websockets. The basic blocks are basically the same as when Rack was first created in a successful attempt to add a standard API web servers and frameworks could agree and build on top of it. This is a great achievement but Rack should evolve to better handle streamed responses.

Aaron Patterson has tried to work on another API for Rack that would improve support for streaming but it seems it would break middlewares, and currently it seems the metal is dead. Sounds like HTTP 2.0 multiplexing requires yet more changes, so maybe we'll get proper support in Rack 3.0, which should be backward compatible and keep supporting existing middlewares, by providing alternative APIs, but that seems like it could take years to get there. He has also written about the issues with Rack API over 5 years ago.

Currently, the way Rack applications handle streaming is by implementing an object that responds to each that will yield a chunk at a time until the stream is finished, which is usually implemented by providing the user an API similar to a proper stream object as properly implemented in other languages. A few years ago an alternative system has been suggested, which became known as the hijacking API. The Phusion team covered it when it was introduced but I think the "partial hijacking" section is no longer valid.

Rack was designed on top of a middleware stack which means any response will only start after all middlewares have been called and returned (except if hijacking is used), since middlewares don't have access to the socket stream. That's why Rails had to resort to using threads to handle streamed/chunked responses. But it can offer other alternative implementations that would be more friendly to how Warden and Devise work as demonstrated in this application, which I'll discuss in the next section.

Before talking about Rails current options, I'd like to stress a bit more the problem with Rack without hijacking, and consequently how it affects web development in Ruby in a negative way, when compared to how this is done in most other languages.

If we compare to how streaming is handled in Grails (and most JVM based frameworks) , or most of the main web frameworks in other languages, it couldn't be any simpler. Each request thread (or process) has access to a "response" object that accepts a "write" call that goes directly to the socket's output (or after a "flush" call).

There's no need to flag a controller as capable of streaming. They are just regular controllers. The request thread or process does not have to spawn another thread to handle streaming, so there's nothing special with such controllers.

It would be awesome if Ruby web applications had the option to use a more flexible API, more friendly to streamed responses, including SSE and websockets. Hijacking currently seems to be considered a second-class citizen since they are usually ignored by major web frameworks like Rails itself.

The Rails case (or how to work around the current state in Rack apps)

So, with Rails one doesn't flag an action as one requiring streaming support. They have to flag the full controller. In theory all other actions not taking advantage of the streaming API should work just like regular controllers not flagged with ActionController::Live.

The obvious question is then, "so, why isn't Live always included?". After all, the Rails users wouldn't have to worry about enabling streaming, it would be simply enabled by default for when you want it. One might think that it would be related to performance concerns but I suspect that the main problem is that this is not issues free.

Some middleware assume that the inner middlewares have finished (some of them actually depend on them to be finished) so that they can modify the original response or headers. This kind of post-processing middlewares do not work well with streamed responses.

This includes caching middlewares (handling ETag or last-modified headers), monitoring middlewares injecting some HTML (like NewRelic does automatically by default for example) and many other. Those middlewares will block the stack until the response is fully finished which breaks the desired streamed output. Some of them will check some conditions and skip this blocking behavior under certain circumstances but some will still cause some hard to debug issues or they may be even conceptually broken.

There are also some middlewares that expect the controller's action code to run in the same thread due to the implementation details surrounding them. For example, if a sandboxed database environment is implemented as a middleware that runs the following layer inside a transaction block that will be rolled back, and if the connection is automatically fetched using the current thread id as the access key, then spawning a new thread would run in a different connection and out of the middleware's transaction, breaking the sandboxed environment. I think ActiveRecord fetches the connection from thread locals and since ActionController::Live will copy those locals to the new spawned thread it probably works, but I'm just warning that spawning threads may break several middlewares in unexpected ways.

This includes the behavior of Warden communication. So, enabling Live in all Rails controllers would have the immediate effect of breaking most current Rails applications as Devise is the de facto authentication standard for Rails apps. Warden assumes the code handling authentication checks is running in the same thread. It could certainly offer another strategy to inform about failed authentication, but this is not how it currently works.

Even though José Valim said there's nothing they could do because it's Live's fault, this is not completely true. I guess he meant that it would be too much work to make it work. After all, we can't simply put the fault on Live since the fault actually lies in Rack itself, so streaming is fundamentally broken.

Devise could certainly subclass Warden::Manager and use this subclass as its middleware and overwrite "call" to add some object to env, for example, that would listen to reported failures and they could replace "throw :warden" in its own code with a more higher level API that would communicate to warden properly. But I agree this is a mess and probably doesn't worth, specially because it couldn't be called exactly Warden compatible. Another option could be to change Warden itself so that it doesn't expect the authentication checks to happen in the same thread. Or it could replace the "throw-catch" approach with a "raise/rescue" one, which should work out of the box to how Rails currently handles it. It shouldn't be hard for Devise itself to wrap Warden and use Exceptions rather than throw-catch, but again, I'm not sure if this is really worthy.

So, let's explore other options, which adds other API options to Rails itself.

A suggestion to add a new API to Rails

The Warden case is a big issue since Devise is very popular among Rails apps and shouldn't be ignored. Usually the authentication is performed in filters rather than in the action itself. Introducing a new API would give the user the chance of performing authentication in the main request thread before spawning the streamed thread. This works even if the authentication check is done directly in the action rather than in the filters. The API would work something like:

def my_action
  # optionally call authenticate_user! here, if not using filters
  streamed do |stream|
    3.times{stream.write "chunk"; sleep 1}

This way, the thread would only be spawned after the authentication check is finished. Or "streamed" could use "env['rack.hijack']" when available instead of spawning a new thread.

Use Rack hijacking

Another alternative might be to support streaming only for web servers supporting Rack hijacking. This way, the stream API could work seamless, without requiring "ActionController::Live" to be included. When "" is used, it would use "env['rack.hijack_io']" if available or either buffer the responses and send them at once or raise some error, based on some configuration accordingly to the user's preferences, as sometimes streaming is not only an optimization but a requirement that shouldn't be silently ignored. The same behavior would apply when HTTP 1.0 is used for example.

Or another module such as "ActionController::LiveHijacking" could be created so that Rails users would have that option for a while until Rails thinks this approach is stable enough to be enabled by default.


I'd like to propose two discussions around this issue. One would be a better solution for Rack applications to get to talk directly to the response ( or discussing an strategy for making Rack hijacking a first-class citizen and probably call it something better than hijack). And the other solution would be for Rails to improve support for streaming applications by better handling cases like the Warden/Devise issue. I've copied this text with some minor changes to my site so that it could be discussed in the Disqus' comments section or we could discuss it in the issues section of this sample project or in the rails-core mailing list, your call.

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