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<title>Simple Erlang Browser Graphics</title>
<p>Simple Erlang Browser Graphics
<p>Using web sockets and SVG and a bit of Javascript it is pretty easy
to make an impressive GUI in a a few hundred lines of code.
<p>This example contains a complete web server, which supports
web-sockets and shows how to interface web-sockets with jquery and
the Raphael SVG javascript library. Using this we make a simple
interactive graphics demo program.
<p><font color="red">Note: This is known to work with Google Chrome and Safari
browsers on Mac OS-X and with Chromium on Ubuntu. It does not work with
Firefox. Other browsers are untested</font></p>
<p>The code here is also intended an an intermediate example for new
Erlang programmers to study and extend. The code is entirely
self-contained, there are no dependence on any other modules, so you
don't need to know about OTP applications or generic servers or
anything. As such it is suitable for a beginner and for self-study.
<p>I have also included a number of suggestions for small projects
based on this code. We often get questions asking for suggestions for
projects that are suitable for learning Erlang. I have added a <a
href="#problems">list of possible projects</a> based on this code at
the end of this page.
<p><i>If you are running on mac os-x then all you have to do is type
make. On other platforms start erlang, give the command
<b>segb:start()</b> in the shell. Then view the page
<a href="http://localhost:1234/index.html">http://localhost:1234/index.html
</a> in your browser.</i>
<p>Once you have started the brower
click on <p><a
<p>In the page <b>generic.html</b> click on the <b>start_simulation</b>
link. You should see a red draggable circle, a blue clickable rectangle and
a number of randomly generated colored rectangles. The colored rectangles
are being pushed to the browser through the web socket.
<p>Actually what gets pushed is a fragment of Javascript. The Javascript
in the browser just waits for a Javascript fragment, evaluates it,
then waits for the next fragment. It's very easy to understated.
<p>The server itself is a small 300 line program that communicates
with a web socket. Once a web socket has been opened the web server
spawns a handler process to communicate with the web socket and turns
itself into a web socket middleman.
<p>The handler process sends javascript expression to the web
socket. At the client end of the web socket (ie in the server) all we
do is a javascript <b>eval</b> of the data received from the web
socket. The server acts as a middle man taking cars or the framing
protocol between the browser and the server.
<p>The client page in the server in in a sense "universal." All it has
is the ability to execute code, which comes in the form of javascript
<p>In practise this is somewhat inconvenient. So instead of being
entire universal and only opening a socket and eval'ing data it
receives. The client does a few more thing. It turns the web page red
if the socket connection is broken, and it preloads the jquery. jquery
is so useful that I consider it to almost be a part of javascriopt.
<p>The handler process <b>svg_demo.erl</b> shows how to communicate with
the browser. The first thing </b>svg_demo.erl</b> does, is to send a
request to load the Javascript library <b>raphael-min.js</b>. Raphael
is a <a href="">well
documented</a> javascript SVG library.
<p>Having loaded Raphael. I create a draggable circle, and a clickable
blue box. Nothing fancy. I deliberately don't want to make the
example too complicated. You should at this stage be able to read and
understand <b>svg_demo.erl</b> and <b>sebg.erl</b> in their
<p>Using websockets, we can create a direct message passing channel
between Erlang and a web server. Once the channel is established we
can asynchronous messages between the an Erlang process and a browser
window. Sending these message has a tidy overhead of 2 bytes per
<p>This demo has only two Erlang modules. <a
href="sebg.erl">sebg.erl</a> and <a
href="svg_demo.erl">svg_demo.erl</a>. The example is completely
self-contain, so makes no use of any Erlang libaries at all.
<p>The work flow is:</p>
<li>Start a web server.
<li>Load a single web page <b>generic.html</b>
<li><b>generic.html</b> requests a web-socket connection to the Erlang web server.
<li>When the javascript <b>generic.html</b> has established a web socket
it then changes it's mode of operation, waiting for messages on the web socket.
<li>Each message is assumed to contain a javascript expression.
<li>All the generic web page does is to <b>eval</b> the java script expressions
received from the web socket.
The crucial code in the generic web page is the part which sets up the
web socket. This code was inspired by the example taken from the
examples at <a href=""></a>
function start_session(mod){
websocket = new WebSocket(wsUri);
websocket.onopen = function(evt) { onOpen(evt, mod) };
websocket.onclose = function(evt) { onClose(evt) };
websocket.onmessage = function(evt) { onMessage(evt) };
websocket.onerror = function(evt) { onError(evt) };
function onOpen(evt, mod) {
websocket.send("start:" + mod + ":");
function onClose(evt) {
function onMessage(evt) {
One small detail of the code that might not be obvious:
<p>Variables created within an javascript eval are not exported. So
if we say <b>eval("var x = ...");</b> the the scope of <b>x</b> is
limited to within the eval. For this reason a global array <b>glob</b>
is defined outside the scope of the function performing the <b>eval</b>.
We define <b>glob</b> as follows:
<p><b>var glob = new Array();</b>
<p>To persist a variable outside the scope of eval we can
evaluate: <b>eval('var glob[Name] = ...');</b> since <b>glob</b> is
defined outside of the scope of eval its value will be persisted
outside the scope of eval.
<h2>The Handler API</h2>
<p>Writing a handler is trivial. Use the following pattern:
start(Pid) ->
loop(Pid) ->
{browser, N, Str} ->
Then launch the handler by filling in the name in the generic web
page. <i>The handlers is always started by the borwser.</i></p>
<p>In the above code <b>Pid</b> is a process that represents the
<p><b>Pid ! {send, Msg}</b> sends <b>Msg</b> to the
browser. <b>Msg</b> must contain a valid Javascript expression which
is evaluated in the browser.
<p>Javascript code executing in the browser can evaluate the Javascript
function <b>send(Str)</b> this will emerge as a <b>{browser,N,Str}</b>
message in the handler. <b>N</b> is a sequence number that increases
by one for every message sent.
<a name="problems"></a>
<p>Here are few suggestions for improvements and exercises.
<li>Make the start script <b>openchome</b> generic so it works on
all platforms.
<li>Add native controls to the Raphael canvas, controls like
buttons entries etc.
<li>Make a simulated canvas button in Raphael. When you press the button it
should change color and send an event to Erlang. Attach an Erlang fun to the button
so that the fun is evaluated when then then button is clicked.
<li>Write a chat client and server.
<li>Write a performance monitor. You'll need to call the bif
<b>processes()</b> every few seconds, and then call process_info(Pid,
...) om all processes to collect the relevant information.
<p>Stare at the code for the function <b>etop_collect/2</b> in the
module <b>observer_backend.erl</b> which you will find in the standard
distribution. <p>Note: cut pates and minimise the code you need from
the library, don't just call the library cut and paste when you need
and understand every line.</p>
<li>Write a chat widget like interface to the system. Assume that the
users that pop up in the right hand users tab of a chat widget are
global processes. Use the entry in the chat lib to connect to and
send message to a global process. Write a gen server that is
controlled from a chat widget, so that it appears like a person that
you chat to.
<li>Interface the <a href="">InfoVis</a>
library to the system. Compute an xref graph of the Erlang module
structure (hint use <b>xref.erl</b>) and display it with one of the
methods in VisLib.
<li>Write a parser for GedCom (look it up) interface with InfoVis
<li>Add JSON support.
<li>Make a plugin for google chrome what works with web
sockets. Extend the message passing to cross-tab messaging, so Erlang
can send an receive messages to any tab. <li>Download the chrome
plugin called "snippy" stare at the code. With snippy you can grab
fragments of a web page. Modify snippy (or write your own extension)
that can grab a portion of a web page and send it to a web
socket. Make a database at the end of the web socket to store and
analyse the data.