IMDb for live performance. I am Frankenstein, this is one of my monsters.
Branch: master
Clone or download
Fetching latest commit…
Cannot retrieve the latest commit at this time.
Type Name Latest commit message Commit time
Failed to load latest commit information.



Ghostlight is a web application written in Erlang meant to be the 'IMDb for live performance': it would be a searchable, linked catalogue of all the information in a show's program. My primary use case was for theater and musicals, but there's no reason it couldn't be used for concerts, magic shows, opera, modern dance…

It's incomplete, the engineering unpolished, and butt-ugly, but it was a learning experience as much as anything else, and done entirely by me in spare time when I wasn't going to the 60-80ish shows I went to that year.

I might resurrect it, but in case I don't, it's here for the world to see/pick apart.

See the blog, or visit the running instance, bugs and all.


I tried using rebar3 for everything (rather than the rebar-but-also-a-Makefile of times previous), so you should ostensibly be able to just invoke

$ rebar3 compile

But merl you to jump into the _build director and run make in it, because the Erlang ecosystem is great.

Note also that erlydtl can also trip you up by requires you to have about a gig of memory to run its compile step. I learned this when I hit an out-of-memory error building this on a tiny Joyent instance.

To run, you can rebar3 shell, or just do what I did and build a full release with

$ rebar3 release

then running ./_build/default/rel/ghostlight/bin/ghostlight console. It's nasty.

Config is done in config/sys.config. It's not checked in, but copy sys.config.sample and fill in the blanks.

App Descriptions and Architecture

This is structured as an Erlang "umbrella" project, so you can build all the components from the toplevel, and each directory under apps/ is it's own OTP application. The apps more or less map to packages in other languages.

That said, because the Erlang VM maps everything to a global namespace, it's irresponsible to not prefix your app's name to every module, which is why every Module takes the form <app_name>_file.erl. It makes filenames (and fully-qualified function calls) very long 😩

Here are the apps and a description of them:


This is, naturally, the top-level app, which has the other apps as dependencies. This mostly sets up the Cowboy server, sets up routing, and handles other shared logic around request handling REST.

Note that in name of separating concerns, it communicates to other apps solely with the records defined in apps/ghostlight/include/ghostlight_data.hrl. It's responsible for parsing JSON representations of the resources and rendering their HTML templates, but those details are obscured away from the other apps, as are the details of the other apps (i.e. persistent backend choice and data format) from it.


This app handles persistent data, using (as mentioned elsewhere) Postgres. It handles saving, updating, and retrieving the data.


One of my Trello items is to remove this from being its own app: it could probably just be a module in top-level ghostlight. This serves as a way to get config information we don't check in (i.e. through the sys.config file and/or environment variables).


Handles parsing Markdown. See below, in "Jinterface, C Ports" to see why this is both the best and worst app in this project.


Also arguably should be a single module, this is the interface for making a full-text search of the data for user search queries.


Preliminary, unshipped code for Twitter auth, could be expanded for other providers like Google or FB.


The Ghostiest app in Ghostlight, this was tearfully abandoned like Daniel Day-Lewis' son in There Will Be Blood. The intention of this app was to be a module that watches the source directory and reloads modules, as well as adding a "productionizing" step to the ErlyDtl templates and frontend code. I got most of the way there, but left it to die when I figured I'd rather work on features and sank a few weeks into it already.


We use Cowboy as our HTTP router, the Amazing and Wretched ErlyDtl for HTML templates, epgsql to connect to Postgres. jsx is our JSON parser of choice, because crack is whack NIFs are for Noobs, sorry jiffy.

Frontend uses Foundation for responsive CSS, and I hadn't really picked a JS framework because this isn't supposed to be a Rich Client app, it is what the Internet used to be: a collection of linked documents rich in data, so the less dynamic doohickery, the better.

Dependencies, making a mess

If it isn't clear, I didn't invest a whole lot in the build system or ops of this. Here some irregularities/WTFs:


Ghostlight uses Postgres for the Source Of Truth and most real data, because it's just the best database. Fight me. Migrations that describe the data model are in scripts/sql. One of the more fun, and I'd argue, successful, parts of this project was modelling shows and their components relationally.

I didn't put any real work into carefully adding indices or anything, so there are easy wins there.

This uses ElasticSearch as something of searchable cache: this lets us do full-text search on user queries without bending Postgres, as well as a fairly straightforward way to do dynamic queries. There are no config parameters for ES because I was running it locally; it obviously wouldn't be too hard to remedy this.

Jinterface, C ports

Part of the fun of this was learning about the Jinterface and Ports. Part of the hell in developing and maintaining this was using the Jinterface and Ports. Here's the short summary:

  • Both ghostlight_markdown and ghostlight_devtools use the Jinterface for specific functionality, and ghostlight_markdown has a C port.

  • This means for the app to function properly, you need to ensure that the C and Java sources are compiled. C uses the CommonMark C implementation shared library, Java uses a few JARs that should be checked in.

  • After the app starts up, you need to ensure the connection of the Jinterface nodes. This is a bear and a half: refer to Learn You Some Erlang for instructions on how to set up a cluster of the several nodes.

  • If you want to make sure everything that needs to be connected is, run ghostlight_healthchecks:run() in a connected erlang shell.

  • I can't guarantee some of the names of nodes aren't defined in sources. Grep around.

If I'm a little jaded here, it's because I am! But this was a genuinely rewarding part of the project.

Sidebar: rationale for this shit, because who chooses this?

My favorite web apps that include any level of sophisticated text use Markdown, but Markdown implementations are notoriously inconsistent, and Erlang doesn't have many implementations. The main one appears to be this erlware one, which, guess what!? Is home-rolled! So you get the efficiencies of Erlang with the unpredictability of Markdown!

So I went with CommonMark, our Best Last Hope at some standardization of Markdown, and their C implementation, since if I was going to call a port, why not the fastest one? That's the reason for the C port.

As for Jinterface: once we allow users to submit content that we will display back, we become vulnerable to XSS, and as in Markdown, I don't want to write the sanitization code myself (mostly a function of laziness, but also because I'm bound to get it wrong and expose a security vulnerability). So I relied on the OWASP Sanitizer to scrub user input, which relies on a way to "speak Java."

ghostlight_devtools is usually never connected because it's an app that I never really finished, but the libraries it's talking to are the Google Closure Compiler and the YUI Compressor for JS and CSS concatenation/minification, respectively.

There will/should be a whole lot more…

…as there were a million terrible design decisions, compromises, lessons learned, and Delightful Hacks, but those probably belong in blog posts or on the wiki, which I'll Totally Write™. Still, this was a few months of passionate work, so let this be a first step in Sharing.