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Mixing WebSockets & HTTP endpoints in Elixir with Cowboy + Plug

July 20, 2023

5 min read


Howdy! 🤠

I recently found myself wanting to add a WebSocket endpoint to an existing Plug-based Elixir API I'd built with Cowboy. It seemed like a straightforward task, but I found pretty sparse information online about it. After a weekend spent looking through Hexdocs & Cowboy's documentation, I figured I'd write a short post about my solution.

My reason for using Cowboy in the first place comes partly from stubbornness. Frameworks like Phoenix offer useful abstractions and utilities, but I prefer the lightweight & more minimalist approach provided by libraries like Cowboy. I find it gives more granular control over request handling, and is nicer to work with for smaller-scale applications.

Creating a Custom Dispatcher Structure

Assuming your application follows the typical Elixir structure, we need to define a custom dispatcher structure for the Cowboy child spec in your supervision tree. This dispatcher structure is used for designating a separate module for handling any WebSocket requests we get, keeping that handling separate from any HTTP routes.


defmodule MyApplication do use Application defp dispatcher do [ {:_, [ {"/websocket", MyApplication.SocketRouter, []}, {:_, Plug.Cowboy.Handler, {MyApplication.Router, []}}, ]} ] end @impl true def start _type, _args do children = [ { Plug.Cowboy, scheme: :http, plug: MyApplication.Router, options: [ port: 3000, dispatch: dispatcher, ], } ] opts = [strategy: :one_for_one, name: __MODULE__] Supervisor.start_link children, opts end end

In this minimal example, we define a dispatcher structure that routes requests starting with "/websocket" to the SocketRouter module, while Router handles all other paths. Since the order is hierarchical, the WebSocket route comes first, followed by the :_ catch-all atom for any others.

Stub HTTP Router

For the purpose of this writeup, we'll use a super minimal HTTP router module that simply responds with "Hello, world" to any request:


defmodule MyApplication.Router do use Plug.Router plug :match plug :dispatch match _ do send_resp conn, 200, "Hello, world!" end end

WebSocket Handler


defmodule MyApplication.SocketRouter do @behaviour :cowboy_websocket_handler def init req, _opts do { :cowboy_websocket, req, %{}, %{ # 1 min w/o a ping from the client and the connection is closed idle_timeout: 60_000, # Max incoming frame size of 1 MB max_frame_size: 1_000_000, } } end def websocket_init state \\ %{} do {:ok, state} end # Handle 'ping' frames def websocket_handle {:text, "ping"}, req, state do {:reply, {:text, "pong"}, req, state} end # Ignore all other text frames def websocket_handle {:text, _msg}, req, state do {:ok, req, state} end def websocket_info msg, req, state do {:reply, {:text, msg}, req, state} end def terminate _reason, _req, _state do :ok end end

Here, we specify that the module conforms to the :cowboy_websocket_handler behaviour using @behaviour. This consists of a few callbacks:

  • init/2 initializes the WebSocket handler and specifies any options (in this case, just overriding the default idle_timeout and max_frame_size).
  • websocket_init/1 initializes the specific WebSocket connection and sets up the initial state.
  • websocket_handle/3 handles specific WebSocket frames, such as responding to :ping frames with a :text response of "pong".
  • websocket_info/3 handles any Elixir messages recieved from other parts of the application, and forwards them to the WebSocket client.
  • terminate/3 is called upon termination and allows performing cleanup tasks such as terminating other processes.

Profit (?)

With the demo app running locally, we can see these endpoints in action! First up, the HTTP router:

$ curl -i http://localhost:3000 HTTP/1.1 200 OK Content-Type: text/plain; charset=utf-8 Content-Length: 13 Hello, world!

And next, the WebSocket router:

$ wscat -c ws://localhost:3000/websocket Connected (press CTRL+C to quit)

Once connected, sending a text frame of "ping" yields a response of "pong", as expected:

> ping < pong

So there you have it! I hope this quick overview is useful; I've personally loved working with Cowboy so far and am glad I was able to make it work for this use-case of mine 😁

More resources

The full docs for cowboy_websocket are worth a read: