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An open-source framework that
provides realtime infrastructure and
in-transit message processing
for web applications.

Easy to Manage & Deploy

Easy to Manage & Deploy

Ekko abstracts away the complexity of working with cloud infrastructure by automating the deployment process.

Modular and Flexible

Modular and Flexible

Ekko Functions are serverless functions that can be customized for your realtime needs and reused across applications.

Case Study

1. Ekko 101

Ekko is an open-source framework that allows developers to easily deploy realtime infrastructure for their applications. Custom serverless functions provide a flexible, modular way to process messages as they pass through the realtime system. It is easy to use our command-line tool to spin up Ekko’s infrastructure, as is deploying serverless functions to process any messages that pass through the realtime system.

In this case study, we describe the engineering problem that Ekko solves, that of realtime in-transit message processing. We demonstrate how Ekko works and explain some of the key technical challenges we encountered. Before we get into those details, we want to explain the problem that we sought to address.

2. Realtime Web Applications

2.1 Realtime Applications are Everywhere

Realtime web applications, or realtime components within bigger monolithic applications, are everywhere.

Any live data dashboards, such as stock prices ticking up and down on a website, are examples of realtime web applications. The same applies if you open the Uber app and you see your driver’s car location moving around on the screen, or to simple chat applications where you’re talking back and forth and you see messages as soon as they’re sent to you.

These are all very common examples of realtime applications that we see and use every day. In short, users want to automatically get information updates (like messages or geo-locations) without requesting those updates. We see more dynamic and responsive applications being created with the use of these realtime technologies, and alongside that we see application users increasingly expecting realtime data.

2.2 Perceived as Instantaneous

In the context of web applications, realtime relates to what the user perceives as happening ‘in real time’.

How fast do interactions need to be in order to be perceived as realtime? "Anything under 100 milliseconds," and "anything within a few hundred milliseconds," are the most common statements you'll find when looking into realtime within the context of web applications. (Both of these statements stem from Robert Miller’s 1968 paper, "Response time in man-computer conversational transactions”.)

As one of the leading service providers in the realtime space, PubNub, has stated:

“In almost all cases, a realtime interaction has a human angle, because one of the collaborators in any realtime data exchange is always a human. Even in a machine to machine interaction, there is a human sitting at the back, receiving feedback. Hence the human perception of a realtime event is very important.”

The meaning of realtime is different in industries such as healthcare and aerospace -- so-called ‘hard’ realtime -- where it is specifically used to refer to systems that human lives can depend on. This is not the type of realtime that we are addressing. Instead, we are focusing on realtime web applications which are specifically concerned with the user’s perception of “instantaneous.”

Next, let's consider some of the most common communication patterns for realtime web applications.

3. How is Realtime Implemented

There are many ways to implement realtime in an application. In this section, we will explore a common way to achieve realtime functionality for an app with many publishers and many subscribers.

3.1 Data Transfer Patterns: Pulling Data

At the bedrock of web communication we have traditional HTTP request response cycles, and along with it the idea of pulling data.

When you pull data, you have data that lives in a database somewhere. This data isn’t retrieved until a client explicitly makes a request for the data, at which point the server responds.

As we mentioned before, realtime applications automatically update users, without the user requesting the update. So, realtime apps tend not to use a data pull pattern.

3.2 Data Transfer Patterns: Pushing Data

The pull pattern is distinct from the push pattern.

In the data push pattern, the client often starts with an initial request but it keeps that connection open. Now whenever new data is generated, it is immediately sent, or “pushed”, to the client over the open connection.

This is the data transfer pattern that realtime applications use: users receive updates automatically, without requesting them.

The Pub/Sub model is commonly used to describe the broad set of behaviors associated with this data push pattern.

The Pub/Sub model is commonly used to describe the broad set of behaviours associated with this data push pattern.

3.3 Messaging Pattern: 1:1 Pub/Sub

Within the Pub/Sub pattern, you will see that we no longer model things in terms of servers and clients. We now have ‘publishers’ and ‘subscribers’, and the pattern is focused specifically on their actual roles in the interaction.

We represent them both as browsers on iPads, but the actual hardware doesn’t really matter. Anything that was traditionally a server or a client can act as a publisher or a subscriber.

Within the Pub/Sub model we no longer talk about data being stored or data being sent. Instead we think about data in terms of messages being sent from publishers to subscribers. Those messages, in turn, are sent or published to ‘channels’; in some contexts these are referred to as ‘topics’, ‘queues’, or ‘rooms’.

Above is an example of a one-to-one Pub/Sub pattern. We have a single publisher generating messages and sending them to a single subscriber. If we take this example one step further, we can see that the Pub/Sub model can also be used for one to many messaging.

3.4 Messaging Pattern: 1:M Pub/Sub

With this new pattern, we still have a single publisher on the left, but now we have three subscribers on the right. Whenever the publisher generates new messages, it sends them over to the subscribers.

We can take this pattern even further, with a many-to-many Pub/Sub messaging pattern.

3.5 Messaging Pattern: M:M Pub/Sub

Looking at this diagram, it is easy to see how things can get complicated very quickly. There are peer-to-peer protocols that are specifically designed to support this many-to-many Pub/Sub pattern. However, a centralized hub is the most common way to manage connections for realtime applications with many publishers and subscribers.

3.6 Messaging Pattern: Pub/Sub Hub

With this pattern, each of the publishers and subscribers have a single realtime connection to the central hub.

When a publisher sends a message it goes to the hub and then it is emitted to all relevant subscribers.

There is one final pattern that we commonly find in the world of Pub/Sub: bi-directional communication.

3.7 Messaging Pattern: Bi-directional Pub/Sub

So far we have only seen examples of clients being a publisher or a subscriber, but within realtime web applications it is very common for devices to be both publishers and subscribers.

If we take the common use case of a chat application, a user is a publisher whenever they send messages, and a subscriber when they receive them. In the above example we show various devices publishing messages. These messages go to the central hub and are then emitted to all relevant subscribers.

Now, we’ll look at why Websockets is the protocol of choice for a realtime applications that use a Pub/Sub hub.

3.8 WebSockets

There are a number of communication protocols that can be used to build a real time application including HTTP derivatives, WebRTC, WebTransport, and WebSockets. But for our use case, realtime applications that have a hub which manages the realtime messages of many publishers and subscribers, WebSockets is the logical, and most common choice.

The need for bi-directional communication rules out the HTTP options; there are some (hacky) workarounds to get these to simulate bi-directional communication, but it would not be considered a typical implementation. WebRTC is a peer-to-peer protocol but isn’t used for a central hub. WebTransport could work, but as of the time of this writing, it is still an emerging technology that is not typically used in production applications.

WebSockets, on the other hand, handle all of the above requirements. This protocol is now supported in essentially every modern browser and there are solid open-source libraries that exist to handle common use cases like SocketIO.

The Pub/Sub hub outlined above has the complicated task of managing WebSocket connections and messages for many publishers and subscribers. In the next section, we will explain why this Pub/Sub hub should be treated as a separate service that is often provided by a third party.

4. Dedicated Infrastructure for Realtime

At first glance, implementing realtime functionality for an application is fairly simple. A library (like SocketIO) can be installed to manage Websocket connections and realtime messages. This works well for a small application, with a small number of publishers and subscribers. But eventually, coupling application code with realtime management code (all on the same server) becomes problematic.

As a realtime application becomes popular, the app server will need to manage an increasing volume of realtime messages. Eventually, the message load will become too great and (potentially) cause the app server to crash.

The initial response might be to vertically scale, adding more compute power to the app server. This works, up to a point, but it eventually becomes evident that these two components -- the app code and the realtime management code -- have different scaling needs. Therefore, they should be treated as two separate services -- with different compute needs -- that exist on two different servers.

Treating realtime as a separate service becomes increasingly important when building multiple realtime applications. If realtime management is not a separate service, both applications will contain a redundant realtime management component. A separate realtime service on the other hand, can manage the realtime messages for both applications, without the need for redundant code.

When realtime applications become more popular, the realtime management component may need to scale at a different rate than the rest of the application. A separate realtime service can scale independently from the applications themselves, eliminating the need to scale up an entire monolithic application.

At first, a realtime service can be scaled vertically, adding more compute power to the existing server. But, at a certain point, vertical scaling reaches a limit and becomes financially infeasible. Now, the only option is to horizontally scale the realtime service.

A horizontally-scaled realtime service introduces new problems as a result of WebSocket connections now being distributed across multiple server instances. (We will explain more about these challenges later.)

It’s at this point that developers often not only need a separate realtime service, but a realtime infrastructure-as-a-service provider. This way, developers can focus on building their realtime applications rather than managing realtime infrastructure.

To summarise, having dedicated infrastructure for realtime offers:

  • Flexibility (by decoupling the realtime needs from that of the application, you can scale each part up and down as needed)
  • Less Complexity (separating out the services means that you have a better sense of what each part is doing; developers can focus on their applications instead of infrastructure)
  • Specialization Benefits (each part is able to do what it does best, without interference from anything else, and you can optimise for each particular service)

4.1 Existing Solutions

Companies like PubNub, Ably and Pusher, three of the major providers of realtime infrastructure-as-a-service, cater to this need for a managed realtime infrastructure. They advocate decoupling realtime infrastructure from your application code “so that product development teams can focus on innovation instead of infrastructure.”

“so that product development teams can focus on innovation instead of infrastructure.” - PubNub

These services host all required infrastructure needed for realtime functionality, managing scaling and all the other concerns that take developers away from focusing on their realtime apps. Developers simply connect to their API endpoints and route all realtime data through that service.

There are also self-deployable options for realtime infrastructure which accordingly offer more control, albeit at the potential expense of more configuration and deployment issues.

5. Realtime Middleware

There’s one last important component of realtime that has not been mentioned. Realtime messages often require in-transit message processing. When a message is published, it might need to undergo some type of analysis or transformation before being received by subscribed clients.

5.1 Realtime Middleware is Everywhere

The general pattern of performing some kind of computation on realtime messages is widespread.

Here are some examples of common realtime middleware uses:

  • Filtering profanity out of chat messages
  • Enriching latitude/longitude coordinates with the demographic information of that area
  • Translating a message in a chat app to a different language
  • Performing sentiment analysis on text with machine learning
  • Routing payment information to third parties such as Stripe
  • Responding to messages with chat bots
  • Sending alerts, given a particular trigger / condition

Some real-world examples of this middleware being used for specific services include:

  • A large beverage company that made a chat app for a big sporting event. They wanted to filter any mention of their competitor out of the chat. So they sent every message down to their servers which they had to spin up and scale, strip out the name of their competitor, replace it with their name, and republish the message back out.
  • Guild, a professional messaging/chat app, uses realtime middleware to handle event-based triggers for their users
  • Onedio, an HQ-trivia app for 1 million players, uses realtime middleware to route messages to AWS’ SQS with extremely low latency, something they likely wouldn’t have been able to support without it.

This need for realtime middleware was recognized by both of the major realtime infrastructure-as-a-service providers, PubNub and Ably. Both companies observed that their customers often needed to perform a small bit of processing on their realtime messages.

“A common requirement in realtime messaging applications is to be able to insert some business logic into a message processing pipeline.” -Ably

5.2 The Realtime Middleware Antipattern

PubNub and Ably recognized the need for realtime middleware when they noticed an interesting anti-pattern emerge with how their customers were using their services.

Recall that PubNub and Ably’s services allow customers to decouple their application infrastructure from their realtime infrastructure as described above. However, they observed the users of their services were sending every single message down to their own app servers to perform some kind of processing or compute on those messages. This reintroduced a lot of the same problems that existed when things were tightly coupled. Now their customers found they had to pay closer attention to the scaling needs of their service as it became overburdened with this increased load.

"You see everyone publishing down to their servers doing a small little bit of processing and then publishing the message right back out... It doesn't make sense to be funneling all of your data back down to a small number of servers, scale those out as needed, process and then republish back out... so, this [PubNub Functions] is absolutely required." (PubNub CEO, Todd Greene)

5.3 Existing Solutions

PubNub and Ably set out to solve this problem by offering realtime middleware as part of their real time infrastructure-as-a-service. To understand the solution that both companies landed on, it helps to understand the requirements that this realtime middleware has.

  1. It needs to be easy for developers to use and update
  2. It needs to exist in a secure environment
  3. Each piece of middleware needs to be modular, reusable, and independently scalable

The reasons for these requirements can be easily understood with an example.

Imagine that a developer is building multiple realtime apps that are completely unrelated, for example a chat app that filters out profanity from all its messages and a geolocation app that transforms GPS coordinates to directions. Later, they find that they have European users and want to translate messages from both apps to several European languages. This developer also plans on building more realtime apps in the future, with either completely new features and/or possibly reusing previously-created middleware.

It is helpful to think of these realtime middlewares as separate services. In the above example, there is a profanity filter service, a directions service, and various language translation services. Each middleware only needs to perform some small amount of processing, but needs to be able to scale up and down, independently, on demand.

There are four places that a realtime infrastructure-as-a-service provider could put realtime middleware:

  1. In the client-side code
  2. In the server-side code
  3. On a dedicated server for realtime middleware
  4. In Serverless Functions
The first option, putting realtime middleware in client-side code, is a non-starter. Putting business logic in client-side code is not a good practice because it introduces performance problems and security concerns. In the words of PubNub founder Stephen Blum
“You want that code to execute in a trusted environment, not on a client mobile device, which is uninterested code execution, because those things are hackable and crackable. You want it to store your business logic in a place that it just can't be tampered with.”

The second option of putting realtime middleware on the realtime server doesn’t work either. This is because it is not feasible to perform these message transformations directly on realtime servers. There are several reasons for this:

  • Customization: Different customers have different business needs for how their messages should be transformed and interacted with. It is not practically possible for clients to create custom code within these service providers’ server codebase, and it is not possible for the service provider to predict all customer needs and create the functions for them.
  • Security: Running customer code directly on the realtime servers would present a significant risk. The service provider would have to guard against both accidental disruptions to the core code base as well as malicious attacks through this access point into the realtime servers.
  • Separation of concerns: Running business logic code on the realtime servers would tightly couple the message delivery architecture to the business logic code. Both the business logic execution and the message delivery performance would be susceptible to decreased performance if it were sharing resources with the other task. Additionally, these two tasks would not necessarily scale in the same way or at the same time.

The third option, to put realtime middleware on a dedicated message processing server wouldn’t be an ideal solution either. Although this solution would decouple realtime management from realtime message processing, all of the realtime middleware would be tightly coupled on one server. Because each middleware should be treated as its own modular service with different scaling needs, it doesn’t make sense to put them all on the same server.

The last option, serverless functions, is a perfect fit for realtime middleware because it is secure, modular, and easy for developers to customize.

Serverless functions are elastic compute hosted by a third party that have several properties that make them ideal to use as realtime middleware.

  1. They usually have small or compact use cases and as such are not designed for persistence, but rather atomic ‘throwaway’ operations, albeit ones that can be readily reused.
  2. They spin up on demand and are independently scalable.
  3. They are easy to package and deploy.
  4. The cost of running them is allocated per unit of time and as a result they are potentially lower cost, since you only pay for what you use.

These properties make them ideal for the purposes of realtime middleware. With serverless functions, developers can easily create and update realtime middleware without posing a security risk to the realtime infrastructure. Each serverless function can be treated as its own separate service that spins up and scales, independently, on demand. Resultantly, they can be used by not just one, but multiple applications for similar messages processing needs. And because serverless functions scale up on demand and charge based on compute time (or invocation frequency in the case of Cloudflare), developers don’t have to worry about paying for idle compute resources.

It’s worth noting the limitations of serverless functions; they aren’t a silver bullet. They aren’t ideal for processes requiring large amounts of compute; there are maximums for length of compute and size of payload. They also add some complexity to the infrastructure and as a result can be harder to test and debug. They live on servers with other people's code so there can be security concerns. Since they are ephemeral, any initial execution can have a slight lag -- the so-called ‘cold start’. Given these limitations, though, the benefits of serverless functions outweigh the disadvantages for this use case.

Although both companies used serverless functions to provide realtime middleware for their customers, they did so in very different ways.

PubNub created PubNub Functions which are proprietary serverless functions, created and deployed within PubNub. They characterized it as “the idea of using an eventive model of programming so that you are rewriting data as it goes through the network and then publishing it out." Elsewhere, PubNub’s CEO stated:

“If there wasn't a concept called serverless, we would still want to go down this path that we went down. Being able to give your customer the control of how the network is involved and shaped is very important, especially since you need somewhere to host your trusted code. You want that code to execute in a trusted environment...”

Ably took a different approach: you create your own serverless functions on one of the major serverless function providers’ infrastructure, and Ably lets you integrate these functions into your Ably pipeline using Reactor Integrations.

We took the solutions proposed by Ably and PubNub as an opportunity to explore the ‘realtime + middleware’ space. There were a number of technical and practical problems that these third-party options had solved, but we found a certain set of use cases where we had something to offer.

6. Why We Built Ekko

Developers building realtime applications can choose between three main options: a third-party service, an open-source solution, or do-it-yourself. The right choice depends on the specific use case.

If easy setup is most important, it’s probably best to go with a third-party solution. There are good open-source solutions, but the extent to which they are easy-to-use depends on each use case.

If complete control over data and infrastructure is important, third-party solutions won't work. In this case, the only options are open-source solutions or custom, self-built solutions.

If applications need realtime middleware, the choices become very limited. Not all major third-party providers offer realtime middleware out of the box, and there are currently no open-source solutions that offer realtime middleware.

A custom built, in house realtime infrastructure is always an option, and provides full control over infrastructure and data, but this is a fairly ambitious undertaking.

We saw an opportunity to fill this gap in the market by building an easy-to-use, open-source framework for self-deployed, realtime infrastructure, with middleware. The result was Ekko: a realtime framework for the in-transit processing of messages.

7. Using Ekko

There are four main parts to Ekko:

  • Ekko Server
  • Ekko Functions
  • Ekko CLI
  • Ekko Client

The Ekko Server manages realtime messages for applications with many publishers and subscribers. It facilitates the processing of realtime messages by invoking Ekko Functions.

Ekko Functions provide realtime middleware for in-transit message processing. These functions are easy to create, update, and deploy with the Ekko CLI tool. For complex workflows, developers can chain multiple Ekko Functions together.

The Ekko CLI tool provides clear and simple commands that a developer can use to manage Ekko Functions as well as spin up and tear down the entire Ekko infrastructure.

Ekko Client enables developers to build realtime applications on top of the Ekko Server. The Ekko Client exposes a handful of methods to the developer, enabling clients to subscribe and unsubscribe to and from channels, publish messages, and handle received messages.

7.1 Deploying Ekko

The Ekko Server infrastructure can easily be deployed to AWS by running the ekko init command using the Ekko CLI tool.

The Ekko CLI prompts for AWS credentials and uses those, along with AWS’ Cloud Development Kit (CDK), to deploy the Ekko infrastructure to AWS.

7.2 Ekko Infrastructure

This is the infrastructure deployed by ekko init.

The Ekko Server is a Node application deployed via container to AWS’ Elastic Container Service (ECS). The Application Load Balancer distributes incoming WebSocket connections to the Ekko Server. We’ll go into more detail on the importance of the S3 bucket and ElastiCache instance in section 8.

7.3 Connecting an Application to Ekko Server

The Ekko Client is used to build realtime applications that make use of the Ekko Server. Ekko Client can be installed with npm or imported via CDN.

Once Ekko Client is installed, it can be used to create a new Ekko Client instance.

This Ekko Client Instance allows an application to connect, and send realtime messages to the Ekko Server. Ekko Client takes a handful of parameters including an app name, a host, a JSON Web Token (JWT), and an optional universally unique identifier (UUID). The app name is the developers choice, and the host and JWT can be generated using the Ekko CLI. The UUID is normally generated and passed in by the developer. But, if a UUID is not passed to the Ekko Client instance, Ekko Client will automatically generate one.

Retrieving the host and generating JWT values can be done by running the ekko jwt command in the Ekko CLI.

The Ekko Server endpoint is retrieved by the CLI from a local environment variable that is generated when the Ekko infrastructure is deployed. This is the URL for the Application Load Balancer that proxies WebSocket connections to the Ekko Server. Passing this value as the host to the Ekko Client, enables it to connect and send realtime messages to the Ekko Server.

The CLI tool generates JWTs using a secret that is generated when the Ekko infrastructure is first deployed. Passing in an admin token, instead of a user token, gives access to status events, including connect, disconnect and error messages.

Once an Ekko Client instance has been created, it exposes several methods that you can use to interact with the Ekko Server. With these methods, the client can subscribe and unsubscribe from channels, publish messages, and handle messages of different types.

This is what it looks like when we have two clients connected to the Ekko Server, subscribed to the same channel, publishing messages on it.

7.4 Deploying Ekko Functions

To process realtime messages in transit, Ekko Functions need to be deployed to AWS Lambda. When the Ekko infrastructure is deployed with the ekko init command, it creates an ekko/ekko_functions directory locally. From this directory, create, update, deploy, and destroy commands can be run to manage Ekko Functions.

Ekko Functions are created with a default file structure and format so that they can be deployed to AWS Lambda. These functions can be as simple as the example below, or a complex program with multiple files. In this example, the demo-angry function exists in an index.js file and simply takes the message payload, capitalizes the text, and adds a few exclamation points.

Once Ekko Functions are created, they can easily be deployed to AWS Lambda with the ekko deploy command. After Ekko Functions have been deployed, the associations.json file in the ekko_functions directory needs to be manually updated.

associations.json informs the server what functions it should use for processing messages published to a specific channel. Once this file has been updated, the ekko update associations.json command can be run which stores the file on the S3 bucket mentioned earlier, and caches it on the Ekko Server.

7.5 Transforming Messages in Realtime

After creating and deploying Ekko Functions, this is what the Ekko infrastructure and message processing flow looks like:

Now, when a client sends a message on the Angry channel, the server forwards that message on to the Angry Lambda for processing. The Angry Lambda sends the processed message back to the Ekko Server which then emits the message out to all subscribed clients on the Angry channel. The same occurs on the other two channels. The server knows which functions are associated with which channels using associations.json.

If you want to teardown your Ekko infrastructure, you can do that with the ekko teardown command. This will tear down your Ekko Infrastructure and all Ekko Functions deployed to AWS Lambda.

As you can see, deploying your own realtime infrastructure and managing realtime middleware is easy to do with Ekko. You have now seen what Ekko is and how it works. In the next section, we show three areas where we faced challenges while building Ekko.

8. Engineering Challenges

We faced several engineering challenges when building Ekko: how to authenticate clients connecting to our server, how to associate individual Ekko Functions with specific realtime channels, and how to scale the infrastructure.

8.1 Authenticating Clients

Once we created an Ekko Server to manage realtime communication and an Ekko Client API that developers could use to build realtime applications, we faced the problem of authentication. With the current design, Ekko Clients send messages to the developer's Ekko Server endpoint. But the problem with this is that anyone can send messages to this public endpoint, including bad actors.

To validate Ekko Clients, we decided to use JSON Web Tokens (JWTs). These are essentially API keys that can have a JSON object encoded into it -- the data isn't private, but you can't change it without breaking the API key. When the Ekko infrastructure is deployed, a secret key is generated and stored as an environment variable on Ekko Server and the CLI tool. When a developer runs the ekko jwt command, the CLI tool uses the secret to generate app specific JWTs that can be passed in to a new Ekko Client instance. The Ekko server uses the same secret to authenticate JWTs and only allows clients with a valid JWT to connect to it.

Since we can encode data into the JWT, we used it to specify if the connecting client was an admin or a normal user, and what app they were allowed to access. This gave us basic app- and role-level security.

8.2 Ekko Function Management

Like PubNub and Ably, we decided to use serverless functions to run our realtime middleware code. But, we still needed to figure out how to coordinate message processing. How would Ekko Server know which messages needed to be processed by which functions?

8.2.1 Linking Ekko Functions with Messages

Since clients publish and subscribe to channels, it made sense to link specific channels with specific Ekko functions. So if you’re making a chat app that uses a profanity filter, you can create a channel and all messages published to that channel get processed with the profanity filter middleware. All subscribers to that channel will receive the processed message.

We created an associations.json file to store these associations between channels and functions.

associations.json is organized by application. Each application has an array of channels, and each of those channels contain an array of Ekko Functions to be used for that channel. With this file, the Ekko Server routes messages from a specific channel to the Ekko Functions associated with that channel. Once processed, messages are returned to the Ekko server and emitted to all subscribed clients.

It’s worth noting that multiple functions can be chained together and the Ekko Server will route messages to all of the functions, in order, before emitting the processed message back out to subscribers.

8.2.2 Storing associations.json

The associations.json file is stored in an S3 bucket and the developer is responsible for updating it locally and then uploading it with the Ekko CLI tool.

8.2.3 Updating associations.json

We opted to cache the associations data on the server since we want to minimize the amount of time it takes to process messages. But we needed to figure out how to update the server nodes when a change was made to the JSON file.

We looked at two ways for pushing the data to the Ekko Server. The first option was to use the AWS service CloudWatch to send a message through Simple Notification Service (SNS), another AWS service, every time the S3 bucket registered an upload event.

The second option was to update the Ekko Server directly at the same time that we upload the new JSON file to the S3. This would involve sending a PUT request to the Ekko Server with the JSON object as the payload. We could just add this behind the scenes in our CLI tool when the developer uses the ekko update command. This was the option we chose since it didn’t add any complexity to our infrastructure. The associations.json file is sent as a JSON Web Token, and the code for the PUT route on the server verifies it is a valid token (in addition to decoding it and using that payload as the new function-channel associations data.

8.3 Scaling Ekko

The final engineering challenge we needed to handle was around scaling Ekko. We wanted the deployed infrastructure to be able to scale up and down as needed. If there were more users connecting to the realtime server, we needed to be able to support those simultaneous connections, and if there was an increased volume of messages passing through the server, we needed to be able to support the speedy transmission of those messages as well as any transformations or in-transit processing.

8.3.1 Deploying to AWS using CDK

Most of our scaling needs were handled by the choices we made when deploying our infrastructure to AWS. We used AWS' Cloud Development Toolkit (CDK) which synthesizes CloudFormation templates and then deploys those constructs to AWS.

We didn't want to have to deploy our scalable infrastructure manually, using the AWS web interface. Options available to us included something platform agnostic like Terraform or the AWS homegrown equivalent, CloudFormation templates. CDK is a way to define those CloudFormation templates using ordinary JavaScript code; it was appealing not to have to handle the complexity of writing extremely long CloudFormation templates from scratch and instead to define the infrastructure 'constructs' we wanted to provision.

8.3.2 Scaling the Ekko Server

The main part of Ekko that needed to be able to scale was the Ekko server. We needed to support a flexible number of users connecting to the realtime service as well as an increased volume of messages being published.

In order to be able to scale flexibly, an attractive option for horizontal scaling was to package up our server application as a Docker container and then use AWS Fargate to scale those server 'tasks' up and down according to how taxed the particular task instance became.

Fargate scales according to rules defined to account for how much CPU and memory each container instance is using. We can specify minimum and maximum boundary values to constrain how many containers AWS can run. Fargate is not always completely transparent to use, but it does handle our core problem of wanting to horizontally scale our Ekko Server.

8.3.3 Establishing WebSocket Connections

Our next challenge came from the way our load balancer was routing incoming connections and how that disrupted our need for persistent WebSocket connections.

Socket.IO makes one request to set a connection ID, and a subsequent upgrade request to establish the long lived WebSocket connection. These two requests must go to the same backend process, but by default our load balancer — AWS' Application Load Balancer — may send the two requests to different Fargate container instances, so the connection may not be successful.

When we first tried out Ekko on AWS infrastructure we could not establish WebSocket connections for this reason.

The fix for this was to enable sticky sessions as a policy for our Fargate task definition. We updated our CDK code to specify this sticky property. Now each Ekko client gets routed to the same server instance to which it was initially assigned and WebSocket connections work as they should.

8.3.4 Scaling WebSocket Connections

Once our infrastructure was deployed, we wanted to make sure our original server code continued to function as designed. Scaling to multiple instances of the Ekko server presented an immediate problem: how would all server instances know which messages were being published on the various other instances?

This animation illustrates the problem of scaling WebSockets:

If we have two instances of the Ekko server, the load balancer is going to connect one user to server instance A and the other to server instance B. In this scenario, they are both subscribed to the same channel so that they can chat with each other. Alice has a WebSocket connection to server A and when she publishes her message, server A receives it and publishes that message to the channel so that all subscribers will receive it. However, only the WebSockets connected with server A will get that message, so Bob won’t receive it since he’s connected to server B.

In order to solve this problem, we used the Socket.IO Redis adapter library. This library uses a Redis instance to broadcast events to all of the Socket.IO server nodes.

Alice’s message, published to server node A, is automatically published to server node B and emitted out to all subscribers.

8.3.5 Syncing Associations Data

A final engineering challenge we encountered was figuring out how to synchronise state between all our Ekko Server instances. Specifically, we needed to ensure that all server instances had the latest version of the associations.json data (which pairs channels with the Ekko Functions that will execute on all associated messages passing through).

When updates are made to the associations.json file, we use the CLI tool to upload these updates to the S3 bucket for storage. We also let the Ekko Server know by sending a PUT request with the new associations data as the payload. In this way, the current server uses the data sent via the PUT request, and new server instances spinning up will use the latest version of the associations data in the S3 bucket.

However, we had a problem. The request will be routed to just one of the Ekko Server instances. We need to be able to notify all of the Ekko Server instances with the updated data. As you can see from the animation, our PUT request does update one of our server container instances, but this update isn't shared with the others.

Our solution to this was to use the standard Redis package. The server that receives the message publishes the file to the Redis / ElastiCache cluster, and all the other server instances in turn are subscribed to the Redis cluster and receive a copy of the new associations data. This allowed us to keep our server instances synchronised.

Solving these various engineering challenges allowed us to build Ekko out such that it was working as we hoped, and it was also able to scale. At this point, we wanted to make sure that the service as a whole could function under realistic use loads.

9. Load Testing Ekko

We wanted Ekko to be able to manage thousands of WebSocket connections to be viable as a realtime message processing framework. In addition, we wanted it to handle and route hundreds of thousands of messages in a short amount of time, all while invoking Lambda functions for in-transit message processing. To test all of this, we used the load testing library.

We set out to see how many WebSocket connections Ekko could handle. We ran into a hard limit of 65,000 connections per Ekko Server container. Attempting to establish more than 65,000 connections resulted in WebSocket errors. We subsequently learned that other developers had come across this unwritten AWS limit in their own projects. Although Ekko -- and the underlying infrastructure -- could almost certainly be modified to remove this limit, we decided that 65,000 connections was enough for our use case.

Next, we wanted to test a common use case for a realtime message processing service: many connected devices sending messages to a realtime service for some kind of data processing or monitoring. Note that in this scenario, there are many publishers generating data for processing, but they are not subscribers. So, there is no data being published back out to the connected devices from the server.

In this test, we established 50,000 concurrent WebSocket connections. Each connection published one message per minute for ten minutes. Each of these messages were processed by an Ekko Function deployed on AWS Lambda. The result was 50,000 concurrent WebSocket connections sending a total of 500,000 messages to the Ekko Server which transformed them -- a total of 500,000 Lambda invocations over the course of ten minutes. During the test, AWS’ ECS spun up two additional Ekko Server containers to deal with this load.

Finally, we wanted to test Ekko’s ability to handle the many publisher, many subscriber use case that you would find with chat apps. We started by testing 300 connections that all subscribed to the same channel. Each connection sent 10 messages over the course of a minute, for a total of 3,000 published messages.

Ekko Server was able to handle this without issues, only reaching 15% of its maximum CPU usage at peak. When we ran the same test with 900 connections, it maxed out the CPU before ECS and Fargate could scale up. We realized that we were seeing a quadratic increase in load with each additional subscriber. In the first test, Ekko Server had to send 3000 messages to 300 subscribed clients, totaling 900,000 messages sent from the server. In the second test, it had to send 9000 messages to 900 clients, totaling 8,100,000 messages.

Seeing how quickly load was increasing with additional connected clients, we thought more about our use case. If you consider a chat app like Slack, you realize that it is not common for users to be continually sending messages. Instead, over the course of a day, a user might send a few dozen messages. On average, a user might receive a message a minute.

With this updated use case, we ran another test. We connected 10,000 clients that all subscribed to the same channel. We then connected one client that published one message per second to all 10,000 clients. This resulted in Ekko Server sending 10,000 messages per second for 100 seconds, totalling in 1,000,000 messages. This was more than enough to justify the chat app use case and Ekko Server only reached 50% CPU usage so we remained within reasonable ranges.

During our tests, ECS did scale up Ekko Server instances according to the scaling policies defined by our CDK code. However, it became apparent that different applications have different scaling needs. A developer using Ekko will therefore most likely want to customize their ECS scaling policies to suit their needs. For example, if you anticipate consistently having over 100,000 connected clients, you may want ECS to run a minimum of two or three Ekko Server containers by default.

10. Future Work

Ekko is designed to solve the current use case we envisioned, however we did notice some areas that we'd like to improve for future iterations.

10.1 Message Persistence

Messages sent through Ekko are currently not stored anywhere. Ekko simply acts as a hub and passes them on to whichever clients are subscribed to the service. This was a design choice for our current version: we chose to prioritise the message transmission speed and the transformation functionality over any attempts to provide durability or redundancy of the data passing through the Ekko Server.

Simply storing every message somewhere on AWS infrastructure — S3 buckets or even DynamoDB — would be relatively easy to implement, but using those within the context of the realtime service is a more difficult problem. Which is to say, message persistence for the purpose of simply logging message content is a much less problematic planned feature than message persistence for the purpose of handling dropped connections and the redelivery of messages missed while a client was offline (for example). The exact scope of implementing message persistence therefore depends quite a bit on what message persistence is being used for.

10.2 Message Encryption

The Ekko Server currently has access to all messages sent through it (providing they weren't already encrypted on the client side). Encryption of user data is largely recognised as something that should happen by default and not be offered as an afterthought.

For our use case, encryption of realtime data was not the core problem we set out to solve, but in order to fill out the features of Ekko we think that it is among the more important parts to address. We would like to add TLS connection security by default, the encryption of messages passing through the Ekko system as well as more fine-grained access controls for users and developers.

10.3 In-order Delivery of Messages

Ekko currently prioritises the speedy — realtime — delivery of messages rather than making sure those messages are delivered in order. This is a tradeoff that most of the major realtime companies concede, suggesting that users of their services add an incrementing serial number to each incoming message so as to be able to ascertain the order in which they were received.

For Ekko, messages can and will often be transformed in some way. This means sending them off to an AWS Lambda function to be transformed or acted upon, which can take a variable amount of time. This is above all what might be responsible for causing messages to be delivered out of order.

Developers using Ekko could implement their own variant of incrementing message serial ids (as recommended by Pubnub and Ably), but we would like to provide an option for in-order message delivery, backed by whatever extra infrastructure is necessary.

11. Conclusion

Ekko is an open-source framework allowing developers to easily add realtime infrastructure and in-transit message processing to web applications.

We hope you have seen how flexible Ekko is to work with. The possibilities available to you are many, as you can see from some of the following examples.

The combination of a realtime server with serverless functions as a kind of middleware for in-transit processing of messages offers a rich palette of options from the very start. We look forward to hearing what you build with Ekko!


Meet our team

We are currently looking for opportunities. If you liked what you saw and want to talk more, please reach out!

  • Alex Strick van Linschoten

    London, UK

  • Dorey Miller

    Seattle, WA, USA

  • Drew Holbrook

    Crested Butte, CO, USA

  • Will Lotherington

    Chicago, IL, USA