Elixir: Do you have HTTP requests? You are doing them wrong!

  • Dmitry Rubinstein
  • 06 April 2018
  • Comments

The process of making HTTP requests in Elixir seems to be obvious for every developer: one should take HTTPoison (3,5M downloads from Hex.pm), and do whatever he wants! But… Have you ever thought about alternatives? If not - follow this article, and get the answer to the question:

How to make HTTP request?


Why Elixir ships without HTTP client?

It is obvious: because Erlang/OTP has HTTP client included! And you can call it from any Elixir application with easy, using Erlang modules as atoms.

This client is called httpc. It’s simple enough, easy usable and don’t require modifications of your mix.exs.

You can find how to use in docs.

I’ll show you small example of get HTTP request:

# First, we should start `inets` application.
# `httpc` is part of it:
Application.ensure_all_started(:inets)

# We should start `ssl` application also,
# if we want to make secure requests:
Application.ensure_all_started(:ssl)

# Now we can make request:
{:ok, {{'HTTP/1.1', 200, 'OK'}, _headers, _body} =
  :httpc.request(:get, {'http://google.com', []}, [], [])

# `httpc` will follow redirect from `http` to `https` without
# additional config.

Thus, why people don’t use httpc? There are several reasons:

  • HTTPC doesn’t have caching system
  • It doesn’t use connection pools
  • It has no streaming out of the box
  • It doesn’t ship with MIME types support
  • Well. Fairly saying, it has nothing in it. It’s dumb simple.

But! The question is:

Do I need all this stuff in my project? Or my requests are really simple?

Let’s for example look at very popular Hex package - tzdata. It has only one dependency - Hackney. Let’s investigate a bit, how it’s used.

We can search repo by :hackney query, and find all places where it is used. Except for mix.exs and mix.lock, it’s used in only one place: Tzdata.DataLoader.

DataLoader is used to retrieve new timezone data. This data is stored in tar.gz archive on remote server, and is fetched via :hackney.get method.


tzdata/data_loader.ex

def download_new(url \\ @download_url) do
  Logger.debug("Tzdata downloading new data from #{url}")
  set_latest_remote_poll_date()
  {:ok, 200, headers, client_ref} = :hackney.get(url, [], "", [follow_redirect: true])
  {:ok, body} = :hackney.body(client_ref)
  content_length = byte_size(body)
  {:ok, last_modified} = last_modified_from_headers(headers)

  new_dir_name =
    "#{data_dir()}/tmp_downloads/#{content_length}_#{:random.uniform(100_000_000)}/"

  File.mkdir_p!(new_dir_name)
  target_filename = "#{new_dir_name}latest.tar.gz"
  File.write!(target_filename, body)
  extract(target_filename, new_dir_name)
  release_version = release_version_for_dir(new_dir_name)
  Logger.debug("Tzdata data downloaded. Release version #{release_version}.")
  {:ok, content_length, release_version, new_dir_name, last_modified}
end

What do you think, can you fetch one small file in a single day, using httpc? I can!

Fairly saying, I don’t know why tzdata maintainers are using Hackney for this task. May be they know something, that I don’t know. But this is a good example of a place in code, where you can think about what to do - get side package with bench of dependencies, or use Erlang’s batteries, because it’s just enough.

HTTPC alternatives

As we know now, HTTPC has one big benefit - it’s included into OTP, and a lot of limitation. So, great developers created there own HTTP clients, and shared them into open source. In Hex registry we can find some good examples of HTTP client alternatives. Two gigants:

and banch of specific clients:

All of them have almost the same user experience and differs in bench of small and very useful features.

We’ll not cover small libraries in this article, and probably in our projects because of simple open source law:

With big popularity comes big quality

This quality comes from common cookbooks, solutions, documentation and issues on Github, and answered questions on StackOverflow.

That’s why, lets try to compare a bit our gigant!

Performance

The main thing, that is important for developer - library performance. Everybody loves benchmarks (even if they don’t know what to do with them)!

I’ve found interesting repo - httpcbench, which has some information about performance comparison of main HTTP clients.

I’ll bring the Results table here:


Client runtime wall_clock mem failures
hackney (default pool) 38560 30912 16.110 0
httpc 34080 27913 54.083 0
httpc (optimized) 33540 26981 55.402 0
ibrowse 212720 112853 14.567 0
ibrowse (optimized) 22410 21029 59.849 0
lhttpc 27820 29276 12.893 0

Unfortunately, the repo’s last commit was mad 3 years ago. But it’s not a problem for us! We can fix these test with all modern versions of these libraries.

You can find rewritten into Elixir code in this repo.

I’ll bring this table also:


Client Runtime Wall clock Memory (MB) Failures
Hackney (default pool) 59691 50888 14.837 0
HTTPC 47906 42531 27.059 0
HTTPC Optimized 50802 45300 28.631 0
LHTTPC 46361 38610 80.735 0
IBrowse 58724 49948 15.141 0
IBrowse (optimized) 58199 49791 11.781 0

Of course all benchmarks are synthetic. But they show, that there is almost no difference between our libraries.

Conclusion: they both performs almost the same. And we move next.

Security

The second (and sometimes - the first) parameter - security. We should be sure, that our requests goes to right domains, can’t be penetrated, nobody can steal our tokens and keys.

Here comes SSL comparison.

There is great article about security, and no sense to say something more.

Conclusion: Only Hackney validates SSL by dafault, using certifi library, but you can use this library in every other HTTP client. But:

  • you can forget to do this
  • you should create additional amount of code by yourself to implement this.

So, from security point of view, Hackney looks the most considered.

Secondary parameters

Fairly saying, Hackney has some secondary advantages:

  • 3.5M on Hex versus IBrowse’s 0.5M
  • Binary strings with Unicode support, which is more common in Elixir, against charlists, that are more common in Erlang world
  • Hackney’s last release was 1 day ago versus IBrowse’s previous year release (don’t blame me for falsifications with this article’s posting time :) )

Results

Both IBrowse and Hackeny are great instruments to make good HTTP communication for your application. But, as for me, I’ll choose Hackney for these reason:

  • I have 5 time bigger chance to have it already installed in my project’s deps.
  • I don’t need to think about HTTP client’s security

No more reasons. Really… But these two should be enough!

What about pure Elixir implementations?

I don’t want to disappoint you, but there is no famous Elixir HTTP client. All Elixir’s HTTP client packages are just wrappers for Erlang written libraries. For example

  • HTTPoison - is based on Hackney, and inspired by…
  • HTTPotion, which is based on IBrowse
  • Tesla - has adapters for both Hackney and IBrowse, and even to httpc
  • simplehttp (you’ve never heard about it, yeah?) - based only on httpc

After getting this information, one should ask himself:

Why should I wrap Erlang library into Elixir library, when I can call it directly?

This question have several possible answers:

  • Wrapper makes the using experience smoother
  • Wrapper brings additional functionality

Let’s observe these reasons one by one.

Smoother experience

When one says:

This library makes my coding experience smoother

in terms of Erlang and Elixir, the meaning of this statement is:

  1. Native calls. In Elixir, we have common way to call functions, that looks something like:
     MyNamespace.MyModule.my_function(arg_1, ..., arg_n)
    

    As you see, MyModule is CamelCased word, that can be prefixed with MyNamespace (also CammelCased), followed by function name with function arguments in brackets.

    In comparison, Erlang functions will be called somthing like this:

     :erlang_module.my_function(arg_1, ..., arg_n)
    

    Elixir modules can be aliased, imported and required:

    • alias - simplifies module calles by removing namespace prefixes
    • import - imports module’s functions in current scope
    • require - brings macroses from module into current scope

    You can also import Erlang modules

     iex> import :erlang
     iex> time() # here goes :erlang.time() call
    

    while requiring and aliasing has no sense here.

    Erlang calls even have autocomplition in IEx, the same as Elixir functions

     iex> :timer.sl[Tab]
     # goes to
     iex> :timer.sleep
    

    Conclusion: There is almost no difference between these calls, so the experience should be almost the same.

  2. Documentation. During development process, you can get documentation for your Elixir functions in two common different ways:

    • Using IEx, one can call h/1 function to get documentation on given function:
        iex> h Enum.at
        iex(7)> h Enum.at
                          def at(enumerable, index, default \\ nil)
      
            @spec at(t(), index(), default()) :: element() | default()
      
        Finds the element at the given index (zero-based).
        ...
      
    • This functionality can be included into you IDE.

    None of this works for Erlang functions for the moment. You can be lucky and get spec, but also not for every function:

     iex> h :timer.sleep
                                       :timer.sleep/1
    
         @spec sleep(time) :: :ok when Time: timeout(), time: var
    
     Documentation is not available for non-Elixir modules. Showing only specs.
    

    This can be a big problem, when you shouldn’t go googling with Elixir library, but need to do this for Erlang one. But this seems not to be working for wrappers.

    For example, this is the line in HTTPosion documentations:

    :ssl - SSL options supported by the ssl erlang module

    Well, this mean that developer should go into Erlang’s ssl module documentation to understand what the parameters should be used in Elixir’s HTTPoison library.

    And both HTTPoison and HTTPotion lay on docs to Hackney and IBrowse, thus to make something more complicated then simple get you should read there docks also.

    Conclusion: in both versions you probably will go into google or docks via Internet, so the experience should also be almost the same.

Additional functionality

Our Elixir wrappers comes with some portion of additional functionality:

  • HTTPoison and HTTPotion wraps errors into Elixir structs.
  • They both also bring some metaprogramming magic to build API wrappers
  • Tornado entirely changes the way of building request and wrappers.

The question is the same again:

Do I need all this stuff in my project?

Let’s also make some investigations upon bench of libraries from Hex. We will do the same process, as with tzdata:

  • Search for HTTPoison calls in repo.
  • Analyze, can it be simplified by pure Erlang’s Hackney calls
  1. Recaptacha - performs communication with recaptcha’s servers to make captcha validation.
    • Search results can be find here. As we see, there is only one HTTP request (POST).
    • We can change HTTPoison into :hackney just in code with almost zero remaking. HTTPoiso.Base is not used here, HTTPoison.Error.t() - also. May be we even can use :httpc here, what do you think about that?
  2. random_user_api - communicates with server to get random user.
    • Search results can be find here. As we see, there is only one HTTP request (GET).
    • The same as previous library, nothing to add.
  3. pubnux - communicates with PubNub server.
    • Search results can be find here. It’s really hard to find library with HTTPoison.Base, as you see :)
    • The same as previous, no sense to continue here anymore.
  4. And so on, and so on… You can investigate them by yourself using for example this list (yes, HTTPoison dependents).

Conclusion

People are very lazy creatures. And software developers are the laziest people :)

It’s very easy to bring ten dependencies into your project just to make single HTTP request. Harder - to deal with possible depndency hell, when your project grows. Harder - to track and support in OSS N+1 library then N

I think, that after reading this article, you will think a bit before planning your API communication. And this will simplify your development experience bigger, that no use of erlang ibraries in elixir.

And if you need concrete solutions, here they are:

  1. If you need to make single call in your small pet project, use :httpc. It’s enough to do the task, while not bringing a lot of deps in code.
  2. If you develop your own API wrapper, either for your project use, or for publishing in Hex, Hackney should be just enough to do this. Moving from Elixir wrappers to pure library will reduce your deps folder, and will help to avoid adapter bugs.

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to maintainers and contributors of dissected libraries. They are doing really great job and bring our Elixir community higher.

Dmitry Rubinstein

Elixir Developer, Architect and Evangelist. Has more then 3 years in Elixir production development, and half a dozen Hex packages under maintaining