Implement a chat server

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This page describes how to implement a simple chat server which can be connected to with telnet for basic chatting functionality. The server should support multiple connected users. Messages sent to the server are broadcast to all currently connected users. For this tutorial we'll use Network.Socket, which provides low-level bindings to the C-socket API.

Ultimately, our cabal file will hinge on an executable section which might look like the following:

executable chat-server-exe
   hs-source-dirs:      app
   main-is:             Main.hs
   ghc-options:         -threaded -rtsopts -with-rtsopts=-N
   build-depends:       base, network
   default-language:    Haskell2010

Simple socket server

We start with a simple server. The structure of this server begins with a main method which will create a reusable socket, open up a TCP connection on port 4242 which will allow a maximum of two queued connections.

-- in Main.hs
module Main where

import Network.Socket

main :: IO ()
main = do
    sock <- socket AF_INET Stream 0   -- create socket
    setSocketOption sock ReuseAddr 1  -- make socket immediately reusable - eases debugging.
    bind sock (SockAddrInet 4242 0)   -- listen on TCP port 4242.
    listen sock 2                     -- set a max of 2 queued connections
    mainLoop sock                     -- unimplemented

In our main loop we'll build out the socket-server equivalent of a "Hello World!" example. For a given socket we'll: accept a connection, relay a simple "Hello World!", close the connection, and recurse on the original socket.

-- in Main.hs
{-# LANGUAGE OverloadedStrings #-}

import Network.Socket.ByteString (send)

mainLoop :: Socket -> IO ()
mainLoop sock = do
    conn <- accept sock     -- accept a connection and handle it
    runConn conn            -- run our server's logic
    mainLoop sock           -- repeat

runConn :: (Socket, SockAddr) -> IO ()
runConn (sock, _) = do
    _ <- send sock "Hello!\n"
    close sock

Notice that accepting a socket has a return type of (Socket, SockAddr) — this corresponds to a new socket object which can be used to send and receive data for a given connection. This socket object is then closed at the end of our runConn method.

The SockAddr, as you can see from the runConn method, is largely uninteresting for this use-case and will simply be the initial socket address of 4242.

Using System.IO for sockets

Network.Socket incorrectly represents binary data in send and recv and, as a result, use of these functions is not advised and may lead to bugs. Network.Socket actually recommends using these same methods defined in the ByteString module. However, to keep things simple, we'll stick to System.IO for input and output.

Importing our new module and turning our Socket into a Handle now looks like the following:

-- in the imports our Main.hs add:
import System.IO

-- and we'll change our `runConn` function to look like:
runConn :: (Socket, SockAddr) -> IO ()
runConn (sock, _) = do
    hdl <- socketToHandle sock ReadWriteMode
    hSetBuffering hdl NoBuffering
    hPutStrLn hdl "Hello!"
    hClose hdl


So far the server can only handle one connection at a time. This is enough if all we want to do is have a read stream of messages, but it won't be enough if we want to have our server handle chat.

Control.Concurrent is a library in Prelude which does an excellent job of lightweight thread creation and context switching. You are encouraged to check out the hackage page. To handle each user in our chat client, we'll use forkIO to create a new thread for each connection. Notice that the signature of forkIO is:

forkIO :: IO () -> IO ThreadId

However, as we don't need the thread's id, we'll ignore the result.

-- add to our imports:
import Control.Concurrent

-- and in our mainLoop function...
mainLoop sock = do
    conn <- accept sock
    forkIO (runConn conn)   -- split off each connection into its own thread
    mainLoop sock

Adding communication between threads

We'll need some way for two connections, which we've just split into separate threads, to communicate. At first, this might seem a hard problem — requiring us to manage our own event handler / pub-sub implementation as well as start to cover topics such as MVar, TVar, TMVar, and their use-cases. However, we'll let you delve into that at your own pace and will stick to using the Control.Concurrent.Chan module which can take care of all of this for us.

Control.Concurrent.Chan provides exactly what we need: unbounded FIFO channels with a single write and multiple read ends. It's a very simple module where we'll take advantage of the abstract Chan datatype: data Chan a

Notice that this datatype has a kind of * -> *. To make this datatype concrete, we'll need to decide on a message type. This can be anything serializable, so to keep things simple we'll use String and create a type alias of Msg to make things a little more semantic.

-- in Main.hs
type Msg = String

We do not need to explicitly import the module because it is imported by Control.Concurrent. To ensure that all of our socket connections are running in the same channel, we'll have main create it and pass it to mainLoop which will, in turn, pass the channel to each thread in runConn. We'll adjust our code as follows:

main = do
    -- [...]
    chan <- newChan        -- notice that newChan :: IO (Chan a)
    mainLoop sock chan     -- pass it into the loop

-- later, in mainLoop:

mainLoop :: Socket -> Chan Msg -> IO ()   -- See how Chan now uses Msg.
mainLoop sock chan = do
    conn <- accept sock
    forkIO (runConn conn chan)  -- pass the channel to runConn
    mainLoop sock chan

At this point, we want to have runConn duplicate the channel in order to communicate with it. First, we'll need a couple of helpers, fmap and fix. In short, fmap allows us to elegantly lift a function over some structure, while fix allows us to define a Monadic fixpoint.

-- at the top of Main.hs
import Control.Monad.Fix (fix)

From Control.Concurrent.Chan we'll use some simple functions which are self-explanatory: writeChan, readChan, and dupChan. Of note, dupChan will create a new channel which will start empty and have any data written to either it or the original be available from both locations. This creates a way to broadcast messages.

runConn :: (Socket, SockAddr) -> Chan Msg -> IO ()
runConn (sock, _) chan = do
    let broadcast msg = writeChan chan msg
    hdl <- socketToHandle sock ReadWriteMode
    hSetBuffering hdl NoBuffering
    commLine <- dupChan chan

    -- fork off a thread for reading from the duplicated channel
    forkIO $ fix $ \loop -> do
        line <- readChan commLine
        hPutStrLn hdl line

    -- read lines from the socket and echo them back to the user
    fix $ \loop -> do
        line <- fmap init (hGetLine hdl) 
        broadcast line

Notice how runConn, running in a separate thread from our main one, now forks another worker thread for sending messages to the connected user.

Cleanups and final code

There are two major problems left in the code. The first is the fact that the code has a memory leak because the original channel is never read by anyone. We can fix this by adding another thread just so that people have access to this channel.

The second issue is that we do not gracefully close our connections. This will require exception handling. Next we'll fix the first issue, handle the second case to a larger extend, and add the following cosmetic improvements:

  • Make messages get echoed back to the user that sent them.
  • Associate each connection with a name.
  • Change Msg to alias (Int, String) for convenience.

We'll import Control.Exception and handle exceptions in our final code, below:

-- Main.hs, final code
module Main where

import Network.Socket
import System.IO
import Control.Exception
import Control.Concurrent
import Control.Monad (when)
import Control.Monad.Fix (fix)

main :: IO ()
main = do
  sock <- socket AF_INET Stream 0
  setSocketOption sock ReuseAddr 1
  bind sock (SockAddrInet 4242 0)
  listen sock 2
  chan <- newChan
  _ <- forkIO $ fix $ \loop -> do
    (_, _) <- readChan chan
  mainLoop sock chan 0

type Msg = (Int, String)

mainLoop :: Socket -> Chan Msg -> Int -> IO ()
mainLoop sock chan msgNum = do
  conn <- accept sock
  forkIO (runConn conn chan msgNum)
  mainLoop sock chan $! msgNum + 1

runConn :: (Socket, SockAddr) -> Chan Msg -> Int -> IO ()
runConn (sock, _) chan msgNum = do
    let broadcast msg = writeChan chan (msgNum, msg)
    hdl <- socketToHandle sock ReadWriteMode
    hSetBuffering hdl NoBuffering

    hPutStrLn hdl "Hi, what's your name?"
    name <- fmap init (hGetLine hdl)
    broadcast ("--> " ++ name ++ " entered chat.")
    hPutStrLn hdl ("Welcome, " ++ name ++ "!")

    commLine <- dupChan chan

    -- fork off a thread for reading from the duplicated channel
    reader <- forkIO $ fix $ \loop -> do
        (nextNum, line) <- readChan commLine
        when (msgNum /= nextNum) $ hPutStrLn hdl line

    handle (\(SomeException _) -> return ()) $ fix $ \loop -> do
        line <- fmap init (hGetLine hdl)
        case line of
             -- If an exception is caught, send a message and break the loop
             "quit" -> hPutStrLn hdl "Bye!"
             -- else, continue looping.
             _      -> broadcast (name ++ ": " ++ line) >> loop

    killThread reader                      -- kill after the loop ends
    broadcast ("<-- " ++ name ++ " left.") -- make a final broadcast
    hClose hdl                             -- close the handle

Run the server and connect with telnet

Now that we have a functional server, after building your executable and firing up the server we can start chatting! After running your server, connect to it with telnet like so:

$ telnet localhost 4242

Connected to localhost.
Escape character is '^]'.
Hi, what's your name?

Remember that to quit telnet, you need to ^] and run quit after dropping into the telnet prompt.

Fire up two clients and have fun chatting!