Pusher notifications with EventMachine

August 30, 2011 code 5 min read has been a fun exercise in building an app to scale from the start. John Nunemaker previously posted about our quest to send live updates to the browser without slowing down the request cycle.


We use Pusher to send realtime updates of stats to the dashboard. We started out on Heroku–which uses Thin, which runs on EventMachine–so we could just use EventMachine and Pusher’s trigger_async method to queue the Pusher update on the next tick, thus not affecting response times. But then we moved from Heroku to RailsMachine and their Passenger stack, so we wanted to find a way to keep the Pusher update out of the request cycle but still “realtime”.

So John devised a genius plan of starting up a thread in Passenger that runs EventMachine. We can still use the trigger_async method and take advantage of EventMachine’s IO goodness, and only suffer hits in response time occasionally when Ruby’s naive thread scheduling interrupts the passenger process in the middle of a request.

It didn’t did work

This ran great in production for a few weeks. But as our traffic started to increase thanks to launching several new features, we started to run into problems. Passenger processes frequently started hanging and gobbling up ungodly amounts of CPU. The only way to recover was to snipe the processes with the friendly kill -9.

So we tried to concoct a theory: since most of our hits are ridiculously fast (5-10ms), and we were running multiple threads but weren’t doing anything fancy to set priority or control scheduling, the passenger thread must be handling requests faster than the EventMachine thread can send them to Pusher, causing the Event Machine thread to get backed up to the point where it has so many IO connections open that it thrashes the CPU.

It turns out our theory was wrong (we were actually hitting a crazy bug with the regex engine in all major versions of Ruby), but we didn’t know that at the time. So we concluded that we had to take the Pusher notification out of the request cycle.

Redis and EventMachine to the rescue

With help from Chris Gaffney, I came up with a different approach that pushes hits on a Redis list and uses a separate EventMachine process to send them to Pusher.

In our Sinatra application, we just push JSON from the notification onto a list.

Gauges.redis.rpush('notifications', notification.to_json)

Redis list operations are fast, even with a decent-sized blob of text. Now our app doesn’t have to worry about the overhead of sending the notifications.

Next we needed background process to process the Redis list and communicate with Pusher. EventMachine is well-suited for all of this IO, so we wrote this simple script:

module Gauges
  module Pusher
    def self.redis
      @redis ||= EM::Hiredis.connect("redis://localhost:6379")

      redis.blpop('notifications', 0).callback do |list, data|
        notification = JSON.parse(data)
        channel = notification.delete('channel')
        ::Pusher[channel].trigger_async('hit', notification)
end do

It uses em-hiredis to connect to Redis and run a blocking left pop, which will wait until there is an item on the list and then send the notification to Pusher with trigger_async. It then re-schedules itself to run on the next tick, causing it to continuously loop.

This has been working really well for us in production for a couple months now. The biggest disadvantage currently is if the process ever dies and notifications start to build up, Pusher will get inundated with requests form us because it will send them as fast as Redis can pop them off the list. We will eventually look into adding some rate-limiting.

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avatar of Brandon Keepers I am Brandon Keepers, and I work at GitHub on making Open Source more approachable, effective, and ubiquitous. I tend to think like an engineer, work like an artist, dream like an astronaut, love like a human, and sleep like a baby.