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Prototype port of webmachine to clojure/java for API developers

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Clothesline is a port of the popular HTTP service framework WebMachine in Clojure, with provisions for use in Scala and Java. It is currently a naive port; it closely mimics the WebMachine module signature (as a Java interface) and execution mode, even down to the graph model and node names.

What Does It Do?

Clothesline offers a modular way to provide HTTP services that behave correctly according to the HTTP 1.1 specification. It is particularly useful for services that heavily leverage the HTTP spec, headers, and behaviors. But, it can be useful even for simple services because of the fine-grained control it gives over the decision-making process for web requests.

Clothesline uses Ring and Clout to provide an abstract base over a variety of web servers. The default web server is Jetty. Much like other Ring-based libraries, Clothesline takes a routing table which routes paths to handler functions. Unlike other libraries which simply pass the request to a naive handler function, Clothesline traverses a graph of HTTP 1.1 behavior, using your request and the routed handler to make decisions about how to proceed. The final product of the request is ultimately determined by this graph and the intermediate products of this interrogation.

Why Are You Making It?

We are using it to build RESTful services for our internal APIs. Clojure and Scala both have excellent web framework options, but none of them are specifically oriented towards designing APIs with correct HTTP 1.1 behavior. WebMachine, while slightly more awkward than some web frameworks for content delivery, is superb for designing RESTful interfaces without having to worry about correctness.

BankSimple's stack is also multi-lingual, using Scala, Clojure, and JRuby. It's important for our development efforts to have a plays-well-with-others project where code can be shared between languages. We think that JVM language crosstalk is going to be a major asset for us, and increasingly you see other companies talking about similar experiments. Maybe we're on to something. Clothesline is a way of finding out.

A Simple Example

Using the defsimplehandler in clothesline.service.helpers we can quickly make a simple hello-world service:

(ns example1
  (:use clothesline.core
        [clothesline.service.helpers :only [defsimplehandler]])

;; A default handler that only cares about content-types.
;; This not only defines a type, but actually instantiates
;; example1-server. defsimplehandler is not meant for anything
;; but the simplest use.
(defsimplehandler example1-simple
  "text/plain" (fn [request graphdata] "Hello World."))

;; Request is the ring request, passed through.
;; graphdata is the accumulated data about the response.
(defsimplehandler example1-params
"text/plain" (fn [request graphdata]
                 (str "Your params: " (:params request))))
;; A traditional clout routing table. Note the colon-params in the
;; service are provided and placed in
(def routes {"/" example1-simple, "/:gratis" example1-params})

;; This is our server instance:
(defonce *server*
  (produce-server routes {:port 9999 :join? false}))

defsimplehandler is actually a very simple macro. It expands our form to the relatively simple handler form that overrides content-types-provided for that specific instance.

Format of a Handler

Two specifications exist for handlers, in clothesline/service.clj and clothesline/interop/iservice.clj. The former is considered canonical and the later is maintained as a way to support handlers written in other Java languages. These functions are identical in application to the functions detailed in the WebMachine Resource Documentation, with a few key exceptions. The most obvious is the naming convention, any method with "is-" to specify boolean return is instead appended with a "?".

The most important exception is that, unlike WebMachine's handlers which use the Erlang Process dictionary to accumulate state, Clothesline prefers using annotated return values to allow the accumulated state to be arbitrarily extended. To this end, if you wish to extend the "graphdata" (Clothesline's name for the extended state) you should use the record class defined in clothesline.interop.nodetest, TestResult. This class contains two cells, one is the :result cell which should contain your normal result value. The other is an :annotations cell, which should contain a Map. The map respects two keys:

  • annotate: (should contain a dictionary with Clojure keyword keys). Any key placed in this dictionary will be carried over to the graphdata as request. See later in the documentation for some keys of interest for annotation.
  • headers: (should contain a dictionary of string to string). This dictionary will be appended to the graphdata response headers outside of the normal HTTP logic, in (:headers graphdata). The most common header values to insert are responses like "Location".

Please note that some common headers such as Content-Length and Content-Type should be automatically generated for you, unless your handler is unusual. Content-Length, in particular, can be disastrous to modify since most browsers hang when confronted with an over-large Content-Length header.

Expected Usage: Where Logic Lives

All handler calls receive 2 arguments, the Ring request and the accumulated graphdata structure thus far. Many are expected to return simply boolean values, and those that are have a "?" at the end of their name in the Clojure protocol.

When organizing a handler, it makes sense to use handler functions based off intent; a practice which makes them much easier to read. For example, many authorization schemes take authorization credentials and return permission lists. While the authorized? handler function is asked only to return a boolean, it makes sense from an architectural perspective to fill the graphdata (via annotations) with all the salient permission data for this request's authorization.

When architecting your restful services, try and keep your logic organized around these functions. If you do so, it will result in higher code re-usability and a cleaner, clearer architecture.

Departures from WebMachine

There are a few key departures from WebMachine's model that should be noted. The most obvious is the content-types-provided and content-types-accepted. These are maps of content-type-string to function, but the functions are different. They must take two arguments: the ring request and the current graphdata. The must return a simple string or a function that evaluates to a simple string. There are plans to allow for other return types (in particular: threads, streams, delay and future objects, etc), but they are currently not supported.

allowed-methods should return a Set as opposed to a List.

finish-request's return values are ignored.

Meaningful Keys For Annotation

Annotation keys are stored in the graphdata structure, which is passed amongst states and passed to every handler test.

The graphdata structure contain annotations and the sum of the headers that should be explicitly added. These values can be directly specified with annotations. If a test called later in the graph specifies a value that contradicts an earlier value, the later specification overrides the earlier one. It is important to note that these values are special, but not the only allowed values. Any key and value is a valid annotation!

:headers This is a string-string map of header values. Please note that headers are case-sensitive. The headers map is used by the graph logic to store values such as Content-Type.

:body This value is the current body computation. Currently, it must be function evaluating to a string or just a string. If the body is a function, it will be passed the request and graphdata objects (much like the content-types-provided elements will be. If an explicit body entry is set, it will override implicit body generation when applicable.

:content-encoder The content encoding function is not currently used, but is set. In future releases it will work.

:content-converter The content converting function is not currently used.

Further Work Towards Completeness

  • There are some outstanding issues the Accept header. If you're having problems with spurious 204s on clients, advise them to set their "Accept" header to exactly the content type they want for now.

  • Currently, date-related states in the HTTP graph do not work properly.

  • Encoding and charset changes also do not work correctly. All charsets should be utf-8 for now.

  • Data from content-types-provided and content-types-accepted is not checked during header generation.

  • This implementation was spiked, so per-state tests are forthcoming.

  • Currently accept headers do not handle */* properly; you can write a */* provider but you cannot specify a real content type for the result. Obviously, this is an oversight.

  • The graphdata requires some updates for consistency.


See test/clothesline/complex-server.clj for a more complete demonstration. clothesline.core has functions for generating servers and handlers as necessary.

Inter-operation With Other Languages

As stated, one of our goals with Clothesline is to allow most JVM languages to express Clothesline handlers. The simple way to do this is to provide instances of objects that conform to clothesline.interop.IService. To make this easier, there is a base class named clothesline.service.BaseService that provides the same default behaviors that the default protocol provides.


You struggle through for now with a hand-managed jar. Soon we'll have a BankSimple open source Maven Repo and we'll make sure to have an entry in Clojars.

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