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WebSockets for Web Development

27
Oct
2023

Many Web Developers are interested in enabling real-time communication for their web applications because it lets them exchange data with a server without needing to refresh the page. One excellent choice and effective way to do this is by using WebSockets. This post explains everything you need to know, from how they work to their benefits and challenges. Let’s learn about them to enhance and improve our development skills!

What are WebSockets?

WebSockets allow real-time communication between a web product and a server. Unlike HTTP, which communicates with a request-response model, WebSockets enable a persistent and bidirectional connection to send and receive messages anytime. They’re useful for web applications that require fast and interactive data exchange, such as chatbots, online games, or live feeds.

To establish a WebSocket connection, the browser and the server perform a handshake over HTTP, using special headers to indicate that they want to switch protocols. After the handshake, the connection stays open and can transfer data in either direction. They use a specific URI scheme, ws for unencrypted connections and wss for encrypted connections.

How Do WebSockets Work?

The WebSocket protocol comprises an opening handshake and basic message framing layered over TCP. The protocol not only defines how the messages are formatted and the connection is closed but also handles ping and pong frames, which work to keep the connection alive and measure latency. WebSocket messages mentioned before can be text or binary data and split into multiple frames for transmission.

Most modern web browsers and web servers support WebSockets, as they provide a standardized way for the server to send content to the client without being first requested by the client and allowing messages to pass back and forth while keeping the connection open. This way, a two-way, ongoing conversation happens between the client and the server.

How To Set Up a Server-Client WebSocket?

To set up a WebSocket server and client, you need to follow these steps:

1. Choose a server-side programming language that supports Berkeley sockets, such as C++, Python, PHP, or JavaScript. You must also install a WebSocket library or framework that simplifies development, such as Socket.IO or ws.

2. Create a server file that listens for incoming socket connections on a specific port and URL. You can use any port you want, but if you choose a port other than 80 or 443, you may have problems with firewalls or proxy servers. Unless you are testing locally, you must also use a secure connection (wss) for WebSockets.

3. Implement a handler function that handles the WebSocket handshake request and the message framing. The handshake is switching from HTTP to WebSockets using special headers. The message framing is the way of formatting and sending data over the WebSocket connection.

4. Choose a client-side programming language that supports WebSockets, such as JavaScript or Python. You must also create an HTML file that loads the client script and provides a User Interface for the web application.

5. Create a WebSocket object using the ws or wss URI scheme and the server URL. For example: const ws = new WebSocket('wss://example.com/chat')

6. Add event listeners for the open, message, close, and error events. The connection establishes and fires the open event. The server fires the message event when it receives a message. The connection fires the close event when it closes.

7. Use the send method to send data to the server. For example: ws.send('Hello world')

8. Use the close method to close the connection when needed. For example: ws.close()

What are the Challenges of WebSocket Development?

Although WebSockets are great for Web Development, they also pose some challenges. Some of them are:

Browser Compatibility. Modern browsers support WebSockets; however, some older browsers do not support them or have partial or buggy implementations. For example, Internet Explorer 9 and below do not support them, and Internet Explorer 10 and 11 have issues with binary data and security. Therefore, developers must use fallback mechanisms or polyfills to ensure their applications work across browsers and platforms.

Server-Side Scalability. The main challenge is that connections to your WebSocket server must be persistent, meaning that each connection consumes some resources on the server, such as memory and file descriptors. As concurrent connections increase, the server may run out of resources or become overloaded. To overcome this challenge, developers need to scale their server nodes vertically (adding more CPU and RAM) and horizontally (adding more servers or load balancers). However, scaling out also introduces new challenges, such as sharing data and state between the nodes, handling connection failures and network partitions, and ensuring consistent and reliable message delivery.

Client-Side Reliability. Another challenge is that WebSocket connections may be interrupted or closed for various reasons, such as network errors, server failures, firewall restrictions, or user actions. For example, some mobile networks may drop WebSocket connections after a period of inactivity, or some proxies may interfere with WebSocket traffic. Therefore, developers must implement mechanisms to detect and handle connection errors, such as reconnecting automatically, retrying failed messages, or notifying the user about the connection status.

Security. WebSockets use the same security model as HTTP, meaning they inherit the same risks and vulnerabilities. For example, WebSockets are susceptible to Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF), Cross-Site Scripting (XSS), Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) attacks, and Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks. To mitigate these risks, developers must use secure protocols (such as HTTPS and WSS), validate and sanitize user input, implement authentication and authorization schemes, encrypt sensitive data, and monitor and audit WebSocket traffic.

Why are WebSockets Important for Web Development?

WebSockets are useful to enable real-time capabilities because they offer several advantages, such as:

Low Latency. With a persistent connection, data transmits instantly, making WebSockets ideal for real-time applications that require fast and seamless communication, such as chat applications, online games, or live feeds.

Bidirectional Communication. WebSockets allow simultaneous data flow in both directions, enabling seamless interaction between clients and servers. That allows the server to push data to the client without the client's request, such as notifications, updates, or alerts.

Network Overhead. WebSockets reduce the amount of data that needs to be transferred over the network, as they only send the relevant data, not the entire HTTP header. That improves the performance and efficiency of the web application.

Conclusion

WebSockets are a technology that facilitates real-time communication between web applications and servers. The traditional HTTP protocol functions based on a request-response model, but WebSockets differ from it and require a new connection for each interaction. WebSockets facilitate a persistent and bidirectional connection that can transmit and receive data anytime without the overhead of frequently opening and closing connections.