Introducing routr - Routing of HTTP and WebSocket in R

Aug 22, 2017 00:00 · 1612 words · 8 minutes read R routr fiery webserver

routr is now available on CRAN, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s release marks the completion of an idea that stretches back longer than my attempts to bring network visualization and ggplot2 together (see this post for ref). While my PhD was still concerned with proteomics a began developing GUI’s based on shiny for managing different parts of the proteomics workflow. I soon came to realize that I was spending an inordinate amount of time battling shiny itself because I wanted more than it was meant for. Thus began my idea of creating an expressive and powerful web server framework for R in the veins of express.js and the likes that could be made to do anything. The idea lingered in my head for a long time and went through several iterations until I finally released fiery in the late summer of 2016. fiery was never meant to stand alone though and I boldly proclaimed that routr would come next. That didn’t seem to happen. I spend most of the following year developing tools for visualization and network analysis while having guilty consciousness about the project I’d put on hold. Fortunately I’ve been able to put in some time for taking up development for the fiery ecosystem once again, so without further ado…

routr

While I spend some time in the introduction to talk about the whole development path of fiery, I would like to start here with saying that routr is a server agnostic tool. Sure, I’ve build it for use with fiery but I’ve been very deliberate in making it completely independent of it, except for the code that is involved in the fiery plugin functionality. So, you’re completely free to use routr with whatever server framework you wish (e.g. hook it directly to an httpuv instance). But how does it work? read on…

The design

routr is basically build up of two different concepts: routes and route stacks. Routes are a collection of handlers attached to specific HTTP request methods (e.g. GET, POST, PUT) and paths. When a request lands at a route one of the handlers is chosen and called, based on the nature of the request. A route stack is a collection of routes. When a request lands at a route stack it will pass it through all the routes it contains sequentially, potentially stopping if one of the handlers signals it. In the following these two concepts will be discussed in detail.

Routes

In its essence a router is a decision mechanism for redirection HTTP requests into the correct handler function based on the request URL. It makes sure that e.g. requests for http://example.com/info ends up in a different handler than http://example.com/users/thomasp85. This functionality is encapsulated in the Route class. The basic use is illustrated below:

library(routr)
route <- Route$new()
route$add_handler('get', '/info', function(request, response, keys, ...) {
  response$status <- 200L
  response$body <- list(h1 = 'This is a test server')
  TRUE
})
route$add_handler('get', '/users/thomasp85', function(request, response, keys, ...) {
  response$status <- 200L
  response$body <- list(h1 = 'This is the user information for thomasp85')
  TRUE
})
route
## A route with 2 handlers
## get: /users/thomasp85
##    : /info

Let’s walk through what happened here. First we created a new Route object and then we added two handlers to it, using the eponymous add_handler() method. Both of the handlers responds to the GET method, but differs in the path they are listening for. routr uses reqres under the hood so each handler method is passed a Request and Response pair (we’ll get back to the keys argument). Lastly, each handler must return either TRUE indicating that the next route should be called, or FALSE indicating no further routes should be called. As the request and response objects are R6 objects any changes to them will be kept outside of the handler and there is thus no need to return them.

Now, consider the situation where I have build my super fancy web service into a thriving business with millions of users - would I need to add a handler for every user? No. This would be a case for a parameterized path.

route$add_handler('get', '/users/:user_id', function(request, response, keys, ...) {
  response$status <- 200L
  response$body <- list(h1 = paste0('This is the user information for ', keys$user_id))
  TRUE
})
route
## A route with 3 handlers
## get: /users/thomasp85
##    : /users/:user_id
##    : /info

As can be seen, prefixing a path element with : will make it into a variable, matching anything that is put in there and adds it as an element to the keys argument. Paths can contain as many variable elements as wanted in order to reuse handlers as efficiently as possible.

There’s a last piece of path functionality left to discuss: The wildcard. While parameterized path elements only matches as single element (e.g. /users/:user_id will match /users/johndoe but not /users/johndoe/settings) the wildcard matches anything. Let’s try one of these:

route$add_handler('get', '/setting/*', function(request, response, keys, ...) {
  response$status_with_text(403L) # Forbidden
  FALSE
})
route$add_handler('get', '/*', function(request, response, keys, ...) {
  response$status <- 404L
  response$body <- list(h1 = 'We really couldn\'t find your page')
  FALSE
})
route
## A route with 5 handlers
## get: /users/thomasp85
##    : /users/:user_id
##    : /setting/*
##    : /info
##    : /*

Here we add two new handlers, one preventing access to anything under the /settings location, and one implementing a custom 404 - Not found page. Both returns FALSE as they are meant to prevent any further processing.

Now there’s a slight pickle with the current situation. If I ask for /users/thomasp85 it can match three different handlers: /users/thomasp85, /users/:user_id, and /*. Which to chose? routr decides on the handler based on path specificity, where handlers are prioritized based on number of elements in the path (the more the better), number of parameterized elements (the less the better), and existence of wildcards (better with none). In the above case it means that the /users/thomasp85 will be chosen. The handler priority can always be seen when printing the Route object.

The request method is less complicated than the path. It simply matches the method used in the request, ignoring the case. There’s one special method: all. This one will match any method, but only if a handler does not exist for that specific method.

Route Stacks

Conceptually, route stacks are much simpler than routes, in that they are just a sequential collection of routes, with the means to pass requests through them. Let’s create some additional routes and collect them in a RouteStack:

parser <- Route$new()
parser$add_handler('all', '/*', function(request, response, keys, ...) {
  request$parse(reqres::default_parsers)
})
formatter <- Route$new()
formatter$add_handler('all', '/*', function(request, response, keys, ...) {
  response$format(reqres::default_formatters)
})

router <- RouteStack$new()
router$add_route(parser, 'request_prep')
router$add_route(route, 'app_logic')
router$add_route(formatter, 'response_finish')
router
## A RouteStack containing 3 routes
## 1: request_prep
## 2: app_logic
## 3: response_finish

Now, when our router receives a request it will first pass it to the parser route and attempt to parse the body. If it is unsuccessful it will abort (the parse() method returns FALSE if it fails), if not it will pass the request on to the route we build up in the prior section. If the chosen handler returns TRUE the request will then end up in the formatter route and the response body will be formatted based on content negotiation with the request. As can be seen route stacks are an effective way to extract common functionality into well defined handlers.

If you’re using fiery. RouteStack objects are also what will be used as plugins. Whether to use the router for request, header, or message (WebSocket) events is decided by the attach_to field.

app <- fiery::Fire$new()
app$attach(router)
app
## 🔥 A fiery webserver
## 🔥  💥   💥   💥
## 🔥           Running on: 127.0.0.1:8080
## 🔥     Plugins attached: request_routr
## 🔥 Event handlers added
## 🔥              request: 1

Predefined routes

Lastly, routr comes with a few predefined routes, which I will briefly mention: The ressource_route maps files on the server to handlers. If you wish to serve static content in some way, this facilitates it, and takes care of a lot of HTTP header logic such as caching. It will also automatically serve compressed files if they exist and the client accepts them:

static_route <- ressource_route('/' = system.file(package = 'routr'))
router$add_route(static_route, 'static', after = 1)
router
## A RouteStack containing 4 routes
## 1: request_prep
## 2: static
## 3: app_logic
## 4: response_finish

Now, you can get the package description file by visiting /DESCRIPTION. If a file is found it will return FALSE in order to simply return the file. If nothing is found it will return TRUE so that other routes can decide what to do.

If you wish to limit the size of requests, you can use the sizelimit_route and e.g. attach it to the header event in a fiery app, so that requests that are too big will get rejected before the body is fetched.

sizelimit <- sizelimit_route(10 * 1024^2) # 10 mb
reject_router <- RouteStack$new(size = sizelimit)
reject_router$attach_to <- 'header'
app$attach(reject_router)
app
## 🔥 A fiery webserver
## 🔥  💥   💥   💥
## 🔥           Running on: 127.0.0.1:8080
## 🔥     Plugins attached: request_routr
## 🔥                       header_routr
## 🔥 Event handlers added
## 🔥               header: 1
## 🔥              request: 1

Wrapping up

As I started by saying, the release of routr marks a point of maturity for my fiery ecosystem. I’m extremely happy with this, but it is in no way the end of development. I will pivot to working on more specialized plugins now concerned with areas such as security and scalability, but the main approach to building fiery server side logic is now up and running - I hope you’ll take it for a spin.