websocket is a WebSocket client package for R backed by the websocketpp C++ library.

WebSocket clients are most commonly used from JavaScript in a web browser, and their use in R with this package is not much different. The experience of using websocket is designed to be similar to the experience of using WebSockets in a browser.

Like WebSockets in a browser, websocket makes it easy to asynchronously process data from a WebSocket server. In the context of an R or Shiny application, this functionality is useful for incrementally consuming data from an external data source presented as a WebSocket server.

Creating WebSockets

WebSockets are represented as instances of an R6 object, and are created with $new():

ws <- WebSocket$new("ws://echo.websocket.org/")

By default, and similarly to how WebSockets in JavaScript work, constructing a WebSocket with $new() will automatically initiate the WebSocket connection. In normal usage, such as in a Shiny app or from within a function, this default behavior is ideal. When run interactively from the R console however, the default behavior is problematic. The reason is that the connection will open before the user is given an opportunity to register any event handlers, meaning messages from the server could be dropped.

So, in the console, WebSockets should be created like this:

ws <- WebSocket$new("ws://echo.websocket.org/", autoConnect = FALSE)

Interaction with later

The technical reason that autoConnect = FALSE is necessary at the console has to do with how later works. later is a package for scheduling functions to run in the future used by websocket to continuously check for WebSocket events.

Functions scheduled for future execution with later will not be run until after the function in which the scheduling occurred has returned. Internally, $new() schedules a function with later that connects to the WebSocket server.

Because $new() only schedules the work of connecting — it does not perform it immediately — it’s safe within a code block to attach handlers, because none of them can possibly run until after the enclosing block returns.

Adding handlers

After a WebSocket object is created, you have an opportunity to associate handler functions with various WebSocket events using the following R6 methods:

  1. $onOpen(): Invoked when the connection is first opened
  2. $onMessage(): Invoked when a message is received from the server
  3. $onClose(): Invoked when the client or server closes the connection
  4. $onError(): Invoked when an error occurs

For example, the following code instantiates a WebSocket, installs an onOpen handler, and prints a message once the WebSocket is open:

{
  ws <- WebSocket$new("ws://echo.websocket.org/")
  ws$onOpen(function(event) {
    cat("connected\n")
  })
}

Note that because the $new() and $onOpen() calls are within the same code block, autoConnect does not need to be FALSE.

Event environment

Every handler function is passed an event environment. This environment contains at least the entry target, which is a reference to the WebSocket object on which the event occurred.

In addition to target, other entries are available depending on the handler type:

  • $onMessage()
    • data: Text or binary data received from the server, as a character vector or raw vector, respectively
  • $onClose()
    • code: The numeric close code
    • reason: Character vector, the reason for closing
  • $onError()
    • message: Character vector, an error message

Removing handlers

Multiple handler functions for the same event type can be added to the WebSocket by repeatedly calling a handler registration method such as $onMessage().

The return value of every registration method is a zero-argument function that may be invoked to deregister the handler function.

The following is an example of an $onMessage() handler that immediately removes itself:

{
  ws <- WebSocket$new("ws://echo.websocket.org/")
  removeThis <- ws$onMessage(function(event) {
    cat("this is the last time i'll run\n")
    removeThis()
  })
  ws$onOpen(function(event) {
    ws$send("one")
    ws$send("two")
  })
}

Even though ws$send() is called twice in the $onOpen() handler function, the $onMessage() handler function is only run once.