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My name is Wayne Robinson and I'm a web applications developer from Queensland, Australia. In August 2005 I discovered Ruby on Rails and instantly fell in love. From that point forward, Ruby on Rails has been my language of choice for new projects however, I still use PHP to maintain some legacy applications.

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Efficiency of HTTP Push Vs Pull

I'm working on a new application ( that requires the ability to stream live data from a server to the client web application via JavaScript. There are two methods that I could approach this.

The first (and simplest) involves polling a script on the server every x-number of seconds to see if the data has changed. This is the traditional way most web applications retrieve status updates from the server but it has two nasty side affects:

  1. Every active client sends a request to the server every x-seconds whether there is changed data or not. Therefore, if there are 1,000 users on the website and you want the data to be updated every second, then those users will generate 1,000 hits to your application back-end (and that's 1,000 times whatever database reads/writes you do per hit).
  2. Every hit uses bandwidth whether it contains data or not. A blank request/response will still contain many hundreds of bytes. Therefore, using the example of 1,000 active users polling every second at a 200 byte payload we would be using 200KB/s (1.2mbps - almost 500GB per month) of bandwidth.

Of course this situation could be improved by decreasing the frequency of polls, and some empirical testing with end-users of our prototypes show that anything below 4 seconds for an update feels instantaneous. However, bandwidth for this type of solution is still using 300kbps (125GB per month) for 1,000 users. Also, advanced caching techniques will be required as there is no way MySQL can handle the authorization & status checks required for much more than 1,000 hits per second. Maybe it's time to investigate other options.

The other type of client/server communication is via server-push. So, instead of the client requesting the server for a new status with 90% of the responses being, "NOT YET!!" The client connects once to the server and the server sends the clients updates on what the client is listening for. At this point I hear you all telling me that HTTP and the web just doesn't work this way. It is a PULL-only based technology. Well, some of you might be surprised to know that server-PUSH functionality has existed since Netscape 1.1 in the form of the content-type multipart/x-mixed-replace. The trouble is, Internet Explorer doesn't seem to support this content-type anymore (it did in 3.0) and it is very hard to use with JavaScript. However, there are ways in which JavaScript may be pushed to the client using modern browsers.

Now, the trouble with most web servers is (especially when utilizing dynamic content creation) that they don't really like pushing data to the browser without caching it first (large static files are the exception). Luckily for me, it is relatively easy today to roll your own web server. For this proof of concept I shall be using Ruby and WEBrick.

Of course, WEBrick by default follows the same pattern of, "lets cache all the data before sending it to the client." Luckily, due to the object-oriented nature of Ruby, that assumption is very easy to override. As a proof of concept, I've created a web server that dynamically adds lines to the page every 3 seconds with the use of JavaScript. One of the tricky things to remember is that the browser is expecting regular data. If it doesn't receive it within it's timeout window (usually 60 seconds), then it will think the connection has been closed. This example sends a single space character every second as a KeepAlive packet. The code is a little long, so you can download it here (push_server.rb).

Now, of course, this doesn't solve the problem of working out when there are new statuses to update the client with, but it does provide an example of a highly efficient server that can easily handle tens of thousands of connections (with the correct file-descriptor permissions on your server) with very little load when the data-set isn't changing. Also, it reduces the bandwidth usage down to the KeepAlive packets (1 byte per 10 seconds for 1,000 users is 12.5kbps or 250MB per month).

To start the server just run ruby push_server.rb. The server will start on port 2000 and you can access the example page via http://localhost:2000/hold.

The next article will be about putting a scalable observer/listener layer on top of this HTTP push server connected to our back-end status database.

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Reader Comments (7)

I was recently up north in Vancouver at the Canada on Rails conference, and saw a new approach to server push. Basically you are using a small flash socket to keep the connection alive and sending javascript to the socket to rewrite the dom or do whatever. At first it seems kinda hackish... but thinking about it, and how much flash there is deployed in the wild, I can get behind this approach.

This thread ( ) talks about how you solve the server side implications of this.
They are calling this stuff 'Armageddon', cannot wait to dig into this kind of thing, exciting!
May 26, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterHedley Robertson
Well, the method posted above does the same thing, without requiring flash. Also, because WEBrick already has non-blocking IO built-in, it solves the issues of scalability that would exist if you used Rails by itself (20 FCGI processes taking up 300MB of RAM only allows 20 concurrent users).

Of course, a default kernel compilation has some limits on maximum open file handles (and sockets count as files) and I've run into limits of 1,000 concurrent users per WEBrick session but this is a reasonably easy problem to overcome by recompiling the kernel.
May 26, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterWayne Robinson
Great post, this is exactly what I need.
Is the 'push server' that you made better than the one implemented in 'RealTime on Rails' ( )? I'm thinking of doing this with flash as more browsers support it than your comet technique (at the moment only firefox fully supports comet) and it doesn't crash you browser over a period of time.
That said google uses it for their gtalk implementation in gmail which seems to work fine.
The problem with flash is that you can only make a xmlsocket to ports over 1000, therefore people behind firewalls can't reach it. The other alternative I suppose is Flex Data Services, something to look into, but I don't think it will be free.
Anyways, thanks for the great article and am looking forward to part 2. I've blogged about 'reverse ajax' ( if you’re interested.
June 13, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterAlex MacCaw
Hi Alex

I can't say I've benchmarked my server against the RealTime on Rails one however, I can say that theirs seems very light-weight and therefore probably faster.

However, I think mine is a little simpler in implementation, and therefore extension, as it is implemented using WEBrick which has been tested in many situations and is even used to serve up static content for 43Things (and associates).

Anyway, thanks for pointing me in the direction of RealTime on Rails, I will definitely study it a little deeper and see if I can improve on things in my own push server.
June 13, 2006 | Registered CommenterWayne Robinson
Hi Wayne, I had a deeper look into the WEBrick sources and found that the socket is stored in thread local storage Thread.current[:WEBrickSocket]. I thought you might find this helpfull.
August 8, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterTorsten Robitzki
This was exactly what I was looking for! Thanks much for showing how it's done, and so simply!
September 20, 2006 | Unregistered Commenterejstacey
Thanks - I've been looking for a good ruby implementation of http push. I've been using StreamHub (, which is pretty good at handling streaming to IE and FF etc... but they don't support ruby at the moment and I have to write the streaming code in Java.

I'll give this a try - does it work in Chrome too?
July 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMartin Saunders

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