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Implementing a peer-to-peer network in Elixir - Part 1: The Server

cerqueira profile image João Cerqueira ・6 min read

This post was originally posted on the blog.

In the past week or so I've been implementing a peer-to-peer network using Elixir as part of a project I'm working on. I thought about writing this post series because I haven't found much resources addressing such cases online and second to document the whole process for future reference.

Even if you don't want to implement a peer-to-peer network, this is still a great exercise to learn more and experimenting OTP applications and concepts.

We'll be implementing a peer-to-peer network that allows peers to send a text message to other peers and receive the same message back. Simple enough, right?

This series is split in three parts:

  1. Implementing a peer-to-peer network in Elixir - Part 1: The Server (current)
  2. Implementing a peer-to-peer network in Elixir - Part 2: The Client
  3. Implementing a peer-to-peer network in Elixir - Part 3: Enhancements

In this post we cover our peer-to-peer network server-side logic. In the end, you will have a working TCP server that listens and accepts connections and echoes back every message it receives.

When we're done, you'll be able to connect and test it using Telnet.

Create the project

Use Mix to create a new project with the --sup flag, to generate an OTP application skeleton that includes a supervision tree and the application callback setup. For the sake of simplicity, I'll name this project network:

$ mix new network --sup
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Setup dependencies

For this project, the only dependency that we will need is Ranch1. Update mix.exs to include it:

defp deps do
    {:ranch, "~> 1.4"}
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When done, fetch the dependency:

$ mix deps.get
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Listening for connections

To have have someone connecting to our server, we have to be listening for and accepting them as they arrive. This is where the Ranch1 library comes handy.

Create lib/network/server.ex:

defmodule Network.Server do
  @moduledoc """
  A simple TCP server.

  use GenServer

  alias Network.Handler

  require Logger

  @doc """
  Starts the server.
  def start_link(args) do
    GenServer.start_link(__MODULE__, args, name: __MODULE__)

  @doc """
  Initiates the listener (pool of acceptors).
  def init(port: port) do
    opts = [{:port, port}]

    {:ok, pid} = :ranch.start_listener(:network, :ranch_tcp, opts, Handler, []) ->
      "Listening for connections on port #{port}"

    {:ok, pid}
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On the init/1 function is where the magic happens. We're using the :ranch.start_listener/5 function to create a pool of acceptor processes that will accept incoming connections and, when it does, spawn a new process to handle it with the specified protocol (Network.Handler).

The five arguments the :ranch.start_listener/5 requires are:

  1. :network --- unique name that identifies the listener
  2. :ranch_tcp --- the transport
  3. [{:port, port}] --- transport's options
  4. Network.Handler --- protocol handler
  5. [] --- handler's options

Handling connections

Because Ranch1 makes us abstract the protocol handling into it's own module --- which is very useful because of the fact that it minimizes code complexity --- that's what we'll do now.

Create lib/network/handler.ex:

defmodule Network.Handler do
  @moduledoc """
  A simple TCP protocol handler that echoes all messages received.

  use GenServer

  require Logger

  # Client

  @doc """
  Starts the handler with `:proc_lib.spawn_link/3`.
  def start_link(ref, socket, transport, _opts) do
    pid = :proc_lib.spawn_link(__MODULE__, :init, [ref, socket, transport])
    {:ok, pid}

  @doc """
  Initiates the handler, acknowledging the connection was accepted.
  Finally it makes the existing process into a `:gen_server` process and
  enters the `:gen_server` receive loop with `:gen_server.enter_loop/3`.
  def init(ref, socket, transport) do
    peername = stringify_peername(socket) ->
      "Peer #{peername} connecting"

    :ok = :ranch.accept_ack(ref)
    :ok = transport.setopts(socket, [{:active, true}])

    :gen_server.enter_loop(__MODULE__, [], %{
      socket: socket,
      transport: transport,
      peername: peername

  # Server callbacks

  def handle_info(
        {:tcp, _, message},
        %{socket: socket, transport: transport, peername: peername} = state
      ) do ->
      "Received new message from peer #{peername}: #{inspect(message)}. Echoing it back"

    # Sends the message back
    transport.send(socket, message)

    {:noreply, state}

  def handle_info({:tcp_closed, _}, %{peername: peername} = state) do ->
      "Peer #{peername} disconnected"

    {:stop, :normal, state}

  def handle_info({:tcp_error, _, reason}, %{peername: peername} = state) do ->
      "Error with peer #{peername}: #{inspect(reason)}"

    {:stop, :normal, state}

  # Helpers

  defp stringify_peername(socket) do
    {:ok, {addr, port}} = :inet.peername(socket)

    address =
      |> :inet_parse.ntoa()
      |> to_string()

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There are some particularities about this module that are very interesting. First, you may have noticed we've implemented the GenServer behaviour because of the functions and callbacks defined, although we don't use the GenServer.start_link/3 function and instead use :proc_lib.spawn_link/3.

Before moving into more details on that, let's see the init/3 function. It's all clear at first sight: we acknowledge the connection with :ranch.accept_ack/1, set the connection to be active and then... we enter a loop?

Sure! We need to be in a loop waiting for new messages to arrive from the connection and upon receiving a message we do whatever processing it requires, entering the loop and waiting for new messages again.

As we implement the GenServer behaviour we must use :gen_server.enter_loop/3 which turns our process into a :gen_server process and enters the :gen_server process receive loop.

Now going back, why :proc_lib.spawn_link/3? If you are aware of the GenServer behaviour you know that you must define a start/3 or start_link/3 function to start the server and that once it has started it will call the init callback. So far so good.

The issue happens because of the way that behaviour works. According to the GenServer.start_link/3 documentation:

To ensure a synchronized start-up procedure, this function does not return until c:init/1 has returned.

That would raise a big issue when we need to enter a loop, because when you enter the loop it will never return until something bad happen and an error is returned. Thus why we are using :proc.spawn_link/3, because instead of spawning the process synchronously it will spawn it asynchronously and we won't have any issues.

Actually, the only processes that can use :gen_server.enter_loop/3 are those started with this particular function.

The handle_info/2 callback will receive every TCP event. Those can be:

  • {:tcp, socket, message} --- a normal message sent by the client
  • {:tcp_error, socket, reason} --- any error that occurs with the connection
  • {:tcp_closed, socket} --- when the connection is closed

We've also defined a stringify_peername/1 helper function to give us a friendly name for a given connection. It uses the :inet.peername/1 function to retrieve the address and port of a connection
and returns a string combining both values.

Starting the server

Update config/config.exs to include the server configuration:

use Mix.Config

config :network, :server,
  port: String.to_integer(System.get_env("PORT") || "5555")
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Update lib/network/application.ex to include Network.Server in the application's supervision tree:

defmodule Network.Application do
  @moduledoc false

  use Application

  def start(_type, _args) do
    # Get configuration
    config = Application.get_env(:network, :server)

    children = [
      # Add it to supervison tree
      {Network.Server, config}

    opts = [strategy: :one_for_one, name: Network.Supervisor]
    Supervisor.start_link(children, opts)
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Open a terminal and start the application:

$ mix run --no-halt
00:00:00.000 [info] Accepting connections on port 5555
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Open another terminal and connect using Telnet:

$ telnet 5555
Connected to
Escape character is '^['.
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Nice, we've successfully connected to the server. On the terminal our application is running we should also see a message informing us just that:

00:00:00.000 [info] Peer connecting
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Now try to send any message through the telnet session, and it will be echoed back. On the application's terminal you'll see (for example):

00:00:00.000 [info] Received new message from "Hello,!\r\n". Echoing it back
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And if you close the terminal running Telnet our application also gets notified:

00:00:00.000 [info] Peer disconnected
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In only ~153 LOC we have successfully implemented a TCP server that echoes every message it receives. Pretty neat, isn't it?

On the next part of this series we will be covering how to implement a client to connect to the server in order to achieve a peer-to-peer network.

Stay tunned for updates!


  1. Ranch is a socket acceptor pool for TCP protocols developed by NineNines. For more information visit the library's User Guide or Function Reference 

Discussion (4)

Editor guide
hugecoderguy profile image
Christian Kreiling • Edited

Heyo! You've really helped me understand how to use ranch in Elixir, thanks a ton.

I have one suggestion for you about how you set up your port listening process. Instead of wrapping the Ranch listener in your own GenServer, you can instead use :ranch.child_spec/5 in your application module to setup the listener. Like so:

defmodule Network.Application do
  use Application

  def start(_type, _args) do
    children = [
        [{:port, 8000}], 

    Supervisor.start_link(children, strategy: :one_for_one)

Now all you have to do is write the handler module :) Notice that :ranch.child_spec/5 takes the same arguments as :ranch.start_listener/5.

stefandorresteijn profile image
Stefan Dorresteijn

Always good to have more Elixir content on here. Great article, keep it up!

marutks profile image
Maris Orbidans

awesome, I guess using ranch is better than gen_tcp directly?

seedyrom profile image
Zack Kollar

Did you ever get around to the other parts of this system? Also this and the comments are a great example of using ranch! Thanks for the tidbit even if you never finished this idea.