A modern Python stack for a real-time web application

June 08, 2012

Earlier today I wrote a detailed answer on Stack Overflow about a suggested Python stack for building a modern real-time web application. This is based upon the work I did over the past several months with PlantAComment.com, which I've also written about recently.

In any case, I've found this stack to be pretty damn solid. Since we were doing real-time WebGL rendering, and synching that data on a multi-client landscape, we actually were sending dozens of messages per seconds (granted, small messages) and that also worked out surprisingly well.

Anyway, enough with the talk, here's the stack. For starters, the entire app is served on the Tornado web server, which is a non-blocking web server that excels in this kind of stuff, and also has some nice "classic" web app support such as authentication, templates, etc., so we also used it for serving up the entire app itself, and not only the real-time evented stuff.

Next up is the messaging protocol. We started out using socket.io, which has a default implementation in Node.js, and is supported on Tornado via tornadio2. This worked out fine, but following a conversation with MrJoes (tornadio2 maintainer), we decided to switch and use sock.js, which also has a Tornado server implementation, sockjs-tornado. In essence, socket.io's protocol is known to have some defects, and the fact that anything other than the Node.js implementation is a second-class citizen just feels awkward. Sock.js is a fully-tested protocol, and generally feels more solid, so we decided to go with it.

Most messaging examples in Tornado involve using a class-level variable that maintains all connections to all connected clients. This is a horrible setup and should never be used for anything beyond trivial applications. It's like maintaining data inside your web server because you're too lazy to spin up a database.

So for all the messaging stuff, we decided to use Redis' pub-sub capabilites. And since we're in the context of Tornado, we're also going to need a proper asynchronous interface - which is done beautifully by the brukva library. As a side note, I should mention that brukva is implemented using adisp, and does not employ any of the Tornado async building blocks. There is another project, tornado-redis, which claims to do just that, but I haven't got around to actually using it. You might have more luck with that, though. In any case, brukva works just fine.

(Update: Since the original post, tornado-redis has proven to be the superior option, as it uses the standard async tools provided by Tornado.)

And that's pretty much it. We can bring it all together with this ConnectionHandler which has all the functionality we need:

class ConnectionHandler(SockJSConnection):
    def __init__(self, *args, **kwargs):
        super(ConnectionHandler, self).__init__(*args, **kwargs)
        self.client = brukva.Client()

    def on_open(self, info):

    def on_message(self, msg):
        # this is a message broadcast from the client
        # handle it as necessary (this implementation ignores them)

    def on_chan_message(self, msg):
        # this is a message received from redis
        # send it to the client

    def on_close(self):

And that's how you do real-time messaging with Python.