Flows the Wrong Way: Streaming into Elixir


As part of a new and exciting project, I was faced with the task of ingesting a large amount of more or less homogeneous JSON data into a SQL database for an associate of mine to do some rudimentary business intelligence analysis on it. The context complicated things: the bulk data was a bunch of historical social media data, and in future he would also want to ingest the live API in addition to this archived historical data. The ratio of data in to cleaned SQL data out is pretty massive (approx. 20gb into 30mb, but I’ll get into this later), so most of the processing power was dedicated to filtering and paring down the data, rather than inserting it into the DB, so I figured that the system could probably absorb a lot of data from a lot of different sources at the same time, all the time. This mean the system had to be “online”, and resilient in the face of failure, so I decided to write this program in Elixir (taking advantage of the Flow library) to take advantage of the strong asynchronous IO, concurrent parallelism, and system resilience.

The Data

The data is pretty standard: compressed text files with 1 JSON object per line. The document as a whole isn’t really a valid JSON document, rather a whole bunch of them, but that’s okay, the JSON objects can be dealt with independently. However, between repeated keys, and some repeated values, the data compressed very readily: the compressed files were between 1 and 3 gigabytes, but over 20gb when decompressed. I couldn’t fit this data set into RAM, but that’s okay, this was always going to be a streaming system. However, the entire relevant archive was 20 or so files, and I didn’t have the disk space to hold them all uncompressed. It’s also worth nothing that streaming compressed data from disk is more efficient than streaming uncompressed, so you can get higher effective IO by decompressing the data in memory, and then consuming it with a stream.

The Basic System

This is what the system looked like so far:

File.stream!(name, [], :line)
|> Flow.from_enumerables()
|> Flow.map(&parse_json/1)
|> Flow.filter(&is_map/1)
# ... cleaning ...
|> Flow.each( fn p ->
  post = %Post{}
  changeset = Post.changeset(post, p)
  case Analysis.Repo.insert(changeset) do
    {:ok, _} -> nil
    {:error, reason} -> IO.puts("Encountered error #{inspect(reason)}")

Reading in a file (or files) one line at a time, parsing the JSON, filtering it, cleaning it, and then inserting it into the database. This is pretty efficient and stable, thanks to the speed of Elixir and backpressure of Flow. In particular, Flow is a pull system rather than a push system. In Flow, consumers query up-stream producers (or producer-consumers, as the interstitial steps are termed), expressing their “demand” for additional data, which the producers supply. This integrates with Elixir’s default IO device types well: files can be read from line by arbitrary line, feeding the system without overwhelming it.

Elixir’s IO device type is pretty interesting: it’s a departure from the traditional Erlang method, and supports pretty rich interaction capable of supporting this sort of careful IO work. There are a couple of small problems, and I have a folder full of failed attempts.

Attempt 0: Streaming compressed data with Erlang

Erlang has a zlib library for dealing with compressed data, but converting a stream of compressed to a stream of uncompressed data looks complicated. Also, it supports zip and gzip, but not any of the compression algorithms the data is actually compressed with, so I’d have to re-compress the data, so I figured there had to be a better way.

Attempt 1: Pipes

So we can’t read xz files directly, but we can read STDIN, and we can pipe the decompressed data directly into Elixir.

xz -k -c -d file.xz | mix run --no-halt

So how does Elixir deal with large amounts of data (more than 20gb) of data on STDIN? Does it read it carefully in chunks in response to backpressure, or does it just buffer it all? It just buffers it, and the OOM killer got my Elixir process before it completed. I think this is a flaw in Erlang or Elixir, because this isn’t how most command line programs deal with STDIN. They generally stream it through much smaller buffers. This might be my fault, but I know that most of my code doesn’t “leak” memory per-record, so if there’s a “no-buffer” or “streaming” mode for STDIN that somehow isn’t enabled by IO.stream(:stdio, :line) |> Flow.from_enumerable(), I don’t know where it is.

Attempt 2: Ports

Elixir offers a Port library based on a very similar Erlang feature for calling out to an external program and interacting with it. It has a “controlling process”, and when the Port receives data from the external process, it sends it as a message to its controlling process in a particular message format you can match on. However, it does this constantly, and you can’t stop it, so I used the Erlang :queue library to make an efficient buffer, and implemented GenStage’s handle_demand/2 so the whole thing could plug into the existing Flow system. This approach is probably just as flawed as the pipes approach, because it still doesn’t deal with backpressure–the buffer keeps growing–but at least when lines are consumed, they’re removed from the buffer, and eventually GCed, which didn’t seem to be the case for the STDIN buffer. It’s not entirely clear why this didn’t work, although my theory is that I didn’t implement handle_demand/2 properly. The Flow would get 2 or 3 messages from the Port, then shut everything down with no error message, so I suspect I violated a contract, and should have implemented handle_demand, although I’m not sure how.

Attempt 2: Unix Sockets

Unix Domain Sockets are like normal IO sockets, but instead of being addressed with IPs and ports like TCP or UDP, they use filesystem paths, and act like normal files. You make them, read from them, and write to them. So the plan is to make a socket, set up the external command to write decompressed data to the socket, and then get Elixir to read it. How do you access UNIX domain sockets with Erlang? With :gen_udp, of course. So how does :gen_udp. Did this work? Nope, I could never get :gen_udp to connect to the socket. I could read uncompressed data from it with other tools, but I couldn’t get Erlang to read the socket.

Attempt 3: TCP Connections

So there’s this really cool tool called socat, which lets you connect 2 sockets of arbitrary type together. The 2 sockets can be anything, including STDIN, STDOUT, UNIX domain sockets, exec’d external commands, TCP sockets, UDP sockets, SSH sockets(?), and many others. It can do a number of things with TCP sockets, and one of those things set up a TCP listening socket, and write data from the other socket to clients that connect to the right TCP port. This process has the distinct advantage of having buffers and backpressure built in: Erlang’s :gen_tcp library includes a :passive mode, where you synchronously receive data, but also an {:active, :once} mode, where the TCP socket sends a single message when it receives data, and then switches back to :passive mode, and you have to reset it to {:active, :once} to get the next message, so you’re never swamped. So why didn’t this work? Again, I’m not sure, but I tried to implement it as a GenStage, and if you’re noticing a pattern–that I don’t know how to write GenStages–me too.

At this point, I took a break. Okay, actually I gave up, and resigned myself to inefficiently reading hundreds of gigabytes from disk. After giving myself a couple of days to think, I came up with a similar, but new solution.

Attempt 4: TCP Listener

Instead of making the connection ourselves, what if we just listened on a socket? We accept connections, read data using {:active, :once}, and buffer a small number of messages in an aggregator from all connections, only receiving more when the buffer is drained. With aggressive use of supervisors, we can ensure the entire thing never goes down, and continues to feed the Flow.

The system uses a DynamicSupervisor to handle the individual sockets:

defmodule Analysis.TcpStream.SocketSupervisor do
  use DynamicSupervisor

  def start_link(args) do
    DynamicSupervisor.start_link(__MODULE__, args, name: __MODULE__)

  def start_child do
    spec = %{
      id: Analysis.TcpStream.Socket,
      start: {Analysis.TcpStream.Socket, :start_link, []},
      restart: :transient

    DynamicSupervisor.start_child(__MODULE__, spec)

  @impl true
  def init([lsocket]) do
    DynamicSupervisor.init(strategy: :one_for_one, extra_arguments: [lsocket])

The extra_arguments option to DynamicSupervisor lets us parameterize all the children this supervisor spawns with some argument, which in this case is the listening socket handle. This is because, per this post on erlang-questions, the best way to do this sort of TCP socket listening is to have the socket call accept on the listening socket, and then spawn another socket when it gets a connection. The listening socket is basically handed off to successive sockets. This is in contrast to the traditional model where one process accepts sockets, then spawns or hands off the socket to a worker. However, this Supervisor doesn’t actually create the listening socket, the overall supervisor does. It’s also worth nothing that, like many parts of this system, it’s globally registered under its own module name.

Let’s take a look at the socket itself, which isn’t globally registed, but dynamically created and supervised by the above supervisor.

defmodule Analysis.TcpStream.Socket do
  use GenServer

  def start_link(lsocket) do
    GenServer.start_link(__MODULE__, lsocket)

  def init(lsocket) do
    {:ok, %{lsocket: lsocket, buffer: nil}, 0}

  def handle_info(:timeout, %{lsocket: lsocket} = state) do
    {:ok, socket} = :gen_tcp.accept(lsocket)


    {:noreply, Map.put(state, :socket, socket)}


The Socket is parameterized by the listen socket, and uses a timeout of 0 to immediately attempt to accept a connect on the socket. It uses a this GenServer-internal timeout system because initialization code for GenServers is expected to return promptly, and can error out if it doesn’t.

  def handle_info({:tcp, _sock, data}, state) do
     %{state |
       buffer: if state[:buffer] do
         state[:buffer] <> data

Although the listen socket is in :line mode, it sometimes chunks replies, sending incomplete lines through multiple messages, so we concatenate with the buffer if it’s already present. This may be the source of a bug, which I’ll get to later.

  def handle_info({:tcp_closed, _sock}, state) do
    {:stop, {:shutdown, :tcp_closed}, state}

  def handle_info({:tcp_error, _sock, reason}, state) do
    {:stop, reason, state}

  def terminate(_reason, state) do
    if state[:socket] do

I think this is the proper way to handle the shutdown of the TCP stream, and the application has stopped throwing errors when clients disconnect, but I’m ultimately not sure.

  def handle_call(:get_buffer, _from, %{socket: socket} = state) do
    :inet.setopts(socket, [{:active, :once}])
    if state[:buffer] do
      {:ok, state[:buffer]}
      {:ok, :empty}
     %{state | buffer: nil}}


Reset the TCP socket, and query and reset the internal buffer. This means that the socket won’t read more data than necessary, and effectively passes on the backpressure gained from {:active, :once}.

Let’s take a look at the aggregator.

defmodule Analysis.TcpStream.Aggregator do
  use GenServer
  def start_link(_args) do
    GenServer.start_link(__MODULE__, [[]], name: __MODULE__)

  def register do
    GenServer.call(__MODULE__, :register)

  def get_buffer do
    GenServer.call(__MODULE__, :get_buffer, 10000)

  # Callbacks

  def init(_args) do
    {:ok, []}

Note that this is globally registered. This allows any other piece of the application to read data from this socket. This has some caveats.

  def handle_call(:register, {from, _ref}, pids) do
    IO.inspect({"Registration from ", from})
    {:reply, :ok, [from | pids]}

  def handle_info({:DOWN, _, :process, from, _} = msg, pids) do
    {:noreply, List.delete(pids, from)}

Sockets register themselves with the Aggregator, and the Aggregator monitors them so it can remove them from the list.

  def handle_call(:get_buffer, _from, pids) do
    buffer = Parallel.pmap(pids, fn(pid) ->
      try do
        case GenServer.call(pid, :get_buffer, 1000) do
          {:ok, :empty} -> []
          {:ok, b} -> String.split(b, "\n")
          x ->
            IO.inspect({:unexpected_buffer, x})
      _ -> []
    ) |> List.flatten() |> Enum.filter(&(&1 != ""))

    {:reply, buffer, pids}

This queries all the registered sockets, then manipulates the responses slightly to make subsequent processing easier. In particular, it splits on newlines (because sometimes TCP connections don’t really fully obey the request only for full lines, or maybe they ignore the {:active, :once}, and the socket naively concatenates 2 lines), flattens the buffers (so Sockets can return multiple messages, or you could theoretically chain aggregators, no idea why you’d do that though), and then filters out empty strings, splitting on newlines under normal circumstances tends to produce the line and then an empty string from the other side of the newline. This is reasonably robust, although it’s worth noting that this is called with a timeout of 10000, and it gives the sockets 1000 (ms, I think) to respond, so if more than 10 sockets fail to respond, the Aggregator could itself timeout. Also note that in the case of errors (timeouts throw exceptions, but many other things do to), the Aggregator does absolutely nothing, and relies on the Socket to actually crash itself before removing it from the pid list. Hypothetically, if a Socket crashed but didn’t die, it would sit around in the pid list, taking up 1s of every attempt to get a buffer, until the program was restarted, so I guess we hope that sockets can’t do that.

So given my previous failings to write a correct GenStage, how do I actually use this Aggregator?

    fn -> nil end,
    fn _ -> { Analysis.TcpStream.Aggregator.get_buffer(), nil } end,
    fn _ -> nil

Fun fact, this is actually a spinlock, which means it works, but it’s really really bad. It works though, and ultimately lets you easily stream multiple different data sources directly over TCP using the same interface, and it’ll all get ingested properly by the flow. You can use whatever compression algorithm you want, you can write some other program to send other data, you can do whatever you want, and the flow keeps going.

Because this solution is so obviously bad, and because I’m clearly missing something about GenStage, I’m going to continue to think about this problem, and ultimately create a better solution. Probably one that still listens on TCP sockets, but one that doesn’t spinlock. Ultimately, my colleague was happy with the solution, the application worked out of the box, and the universal interface of plain text JSON objects to a TCP socket was easy for him to understand, interact with, and even automate (he has no idea how the Flow application works, but he has shell experience and can assemble ncat commands.). Spinlocks are bad though, and I think throughput can be increased if I write the GenStages right.

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