bandit is the name of an HTTP server I’ve been writing over the past several months. It is written entirely in Elixir and supports HTTP/1.x and HTTP/2 over both secure and unsecure connections. As of version 0.3.2 (released today!), it should support almost all HTTP client connections, although full HTTP/2 compliance is still a work in progress (it currently scores 75% on the h2spec suite, with plans for 100% compliance by the end of the 0.3.x release train).

As I’ve talked about before, bandit was originally created out of necessity to sit in between Thousand Island and HAP. The 0.1.x releases of bandit were very much works in progress, with little testing and rough edges aplenty. It really only implemented the barest of requirements to satisfy the HTTP/1.1 needs of the HomeKit Accessory Protocol, with Thousand Island providing the custom socket-level encryption required. Now that HAP has more or less reached completion, I’m turning my attention back to bandit to focus on its usefulness as a general purpose Plug-centric HTTP server.

How bandit Works

Like almost any server, bandit has a pretty straightforward job:

  1. Wait for connections from clients
  2. Handle each connection to completion
  3. Do the above as efficiently as possible

Fortunately for us, steps 1 and 3 are largely addressed by the underlying Thousand Island library. As a socket server, its job is to listen for connections on a TCP port (with optional SSL/TLS security) and pass each separate client connection to a handler module for processing. Thousand Island doesn’t concern itself with what a handler module actually does with the connection; the handler could be an HTTP server or any other protocol, custom or otherwise. A socket server’s only job is to accept client connections as they come in and to efficiently pass them up to whatever handler module is configured.

I’ll have lots more to say about Thousand Island in a future post, but for now it’s sufficient to understand that every client connection ends up as a distinct Elixir process; one TCP connection equals one Elixir process. Each such process is handled in complete isolation from one another, so a handler module implementation only needs to concern itself with how to handle a single connection. A handler process is free to take as long as it needs to properly handle its single connection, without regard for the overall (network) scalability of the server.

When it comes to implementing a handler module to actually handle an HTTP client connection and see it through to completion, the particular details of HTTP as a protocol come into play. The atomic unit of an HTTP connection is a request. If you’ve ever connected to an HTTP server via telnet or nc you’ve likely seen something like the following:

$ nc 80
> GET /hello_world HTTP/1.1
< HTTP/1.1 200 OK
< Content-Length: 12
< Hello, World

This is the simplest example of an HTTP/1.1 request from start to finish; a client connects, asks to undertake a specific action on a specific resource (to GET the /hello_world resource in this example), and the server responds with the result.

In the case of bandit and other Plug based servers, the actual business logic of fulfilling a request is carried out by an application by means of the Plug API. Each client HTTP request is translated into a Plug.Conn struct and passed to the application via the Plug behaviour. The Plug API provides functionality to enable application code to render responses back to the client, which again is mediated back to a server implementation via the Plug API (the Plug.Conn.Adapter behaviour in this case). At its core, even a complex application framework such as Phoenix is ‘just’ a Plug application1.

Putting all this together, we have a stack that looks something like this:

Protocol stack diagram

The job of a Plug based HTTP server is to accept client connections and convert every request within that connection into a Plug call. With HTTP/1.x clients such as the previous example, this is fairly straightforward. HTTP/1.x connections can only make a single request at a time (and in fact often only ever issue a single request before closing the connection). From a process perspective things are simple; since Thousand Island provides us each connection in its own process, and since only a single request can be in progress at a given time within that connection, it is a natural fit to simply host the Plug call in the same process that Thousand Island provides us. It’s a simple process model that completely captures the needs of the protocol while also being scalable.

Supporting HTTP/2 is a bit trickier. The primary benefit of HTTP/2 over previous versions is that it supports making multiple concurrent requests within a single connection (in HTTP/2, these separate requests are called streams). At any given time, an HTTP/2 connection may have zero, one, or hundreds of concurrent streams on the go, and the job of an HTTP server becomes much more complicated as a result. Various failures and error conditions are local to the stream (in which case other streams within the connection are unaffected), while some are fatal to the connection as a whole. Moreover, since each stream contains its own request and each request maps directly onto a Plug call, we need to devise a way to run each stream within its own process but still be subservient to the overall connection process.

As it turns out, this isn’t actually all that difficult thanks to the wonders of OTP’s process model. I’ll be covering the bandit HTTP/2 process model in detail in a future post, but the implementation is actually pretty straightforward; we end up with a single process to manage the overall connection (this is the same process that is handed to us by Thousand Island), as well as one process per stream. The individual stream processes are essentially thin wrappers around a Plug call, and exist mostly to allow streams to be processed concurrently. Meanwhile, the connection process takes care of marshalling the stream processes, ensuring synchronization of network communication, and managing the overall connection life cycle.

Current Status

As of 0.3.2 (released today), bandit should be usable for almost everything you can throw at it from common HTTP/1.x and HTTP/2 clients. There are a number of HTTP/2 features still to implement, but most interactions should be able to hobble along in their absence. The general roadmap forward is as follows:

  • Implement HTTP/2 support in the 0.3.x release train (targeting a Q321 completion)
  • Re-implement HTTP/1.x support in the 0.4.x release train (the current implementation is somewhat patchwork as it dates from my earliest 0.1.x work)
  • Add WebSocket support in the 0.5.x release train (details TBD)
  • Improve overall documentation, configurability & telemetry support in the 0.6.x release train
  • Integrate with Phoenix’s adhoc Cowboy support in the 0.7.x release train
  • Roughly targeting Q122 for a bandit / Thousand Island 1.0 release

A primary goal of bandit is strict protocol conformance. Throughout the 0.3.x release train, I have been making extensive use of the h2spec test suite, and have wired it up into the bandit test suite. This is actually a pretty neat little bit of test tooling (due credit to Ace’s h2spec test which was the inspiration for this). This setup makes it possible for me to develop features while testing directly against an external conformance suite, even narrowing the tests down to a particular section of the HTTP/2 spec:

# Let's test some stream state transitions...
$ H2SPEC=http2/5.1 mix --only external_conformance

These tests are in addition to exhaustive protocol and Plug API conformance testing, both done using more conventional ExUnit testing. The combination is proving to be both comprehensive and efficient, and I’m hoping to set something similar up for the upcoming HTTP/1.x and WebSockets work.

Wrapping It Up

Over the next several months I’ll have lots more to say about bandit, Thousand Island, and HAP. I’m planning on doing a series of long-form articles diving into the details of each library and also some shorter pieces covering current development progress along the way towards 1.0 releases of bandit and Thousand Island. Please check out the Thousand Island and bandit projects, kick the tires on them and let me know what you think (and of course, PRs are always welcome!)

  1. In truth, Phoenix is tied a bit more strongly to the Cowboy HTTP server than it should be, mostly due to the lack of a Plug-like behaviour to abstract WebSocket connections. Refactoring this interface so that Phoenix can work just as well on bandit (or any other compliant HTTP server) is a primary goal of the bandit project.