Understanding a Phoenix application and it's lifecycle

It is a post for beginners in Elixir and Phoenix. Has intention to help understanding how a Phoenix application works and a bit of its lifecycle.

I started the day thinking in write an chat application to apply what I have learned so far of Elixir. But even after reading the whole Elixir - Getting Started and Phoenix - Up And Running. I was not really feeling prepared to write an application on my own.

P.S. I didn’t read the Phoenix framework documentation before start the application. I’m sure if I had read the docs, everything would makes sense. But I was just too excited to start coding :D.

So instead of writing a chat app from scratch. What we gonna do is understand how the chat app built by Chris McCord works.

Before understanding, lets see the application running:

Now you can visit localhost:4000 from your browser.


Contains the definition for all dependencies and configures the OTP application.

Check out elixir/Application to understand what is an OTP application. And the presentation OTP Has Done It - by Nick DeMonner also gives an idea about it.

defmodule Chat.Mixfile do
  use Mix.Project

  def project do
    [app: :chat,
     version: "0.0.1",
     elixir: "~> 1.0",
     elixirc_paths: ["lib", "web"],
     compilers: [:phoenix] ++ Mix.compilers,
     deps: deps]

  # Configuration for the OTP application
  # Type `mix help compile.app` for more information
  def application do
    [mod: {Chat, []},
     applications: [:phoenix, :phoenix_html, :cowboy, :logger]]

  # Specifies your project dependencies
  # Type `mix help deps` for examples and options
  defp deps do
    [{:phoenix, "~> 1.0.0"},
     {:phoenix_html, "~> 2.1"},
     {:phoenix_live_reload, "~> 1.0", only: :dev},
     {:phoenix_ecto, "~> 1.1"},
     {:postgrex, ">= 0.0.0"},
     {:cowboy, "~> 1.0"}]

In the application function is defined the Chat as the startup module. And also is defined all applications your application depends on at runtime.


defmodule Chat do
  use Application

  # See http://elixir-lang.org/docs/stable/elixir/Application.html
  # for more information on OTP Applications
  def start(_type, _args) do
    import Supervisor.Spec, warn: false

    children = [
      # Start the endpoint when the application starts
      supervisor(Chat.Endpoint, []),
      # Start the Ecto repository
      worker(Chat.Repo, []),
      # Here you could define other workers and supervisors as children
      # worker(Chat.Worker, [arg1, arg2, arg3]),

    # See http://elixir-lang.org/docs/stable/elixir/Supervisor.html
    # for other strategies and supported options
    opts = [strategy: :one_for_one, name: Chat.Supervisor]
    Supervisor.start_link(children, opts)

  # Tell Phoenix to update the endpoint configuration
  # whenever the application is updated.
  def config_change(changed, _new, removed) do
    Chat.Endpoint.config_change(changed, removed)

In lib/chat.ex is defined the OTP Application. As we can see the Chat.Endpoint is started as supervisor. Which will start the endpoint when the application starts and it will be restarted in case it crashes.

And Chat.Repo is started as worker. Which will run the repository in a different process. Allowing this way to keep the state (e.g. connection pool) between different requests. Otherwise would be necessary establish a new DB connection for every request.


defmodule Chat.Endpoint do
  use Phoenix.Endpoint, otp_app: :chat

  # Requests coming at "/socket" path will be handled by
  # UserSocket (web/channels/user_socket.ex)
  socket "/socket", Chat.UserSocket

  # Serve at "/" the given assets from "priv/static" directory
  plug Plug.Static,
    at: "/", from: :chat,
    only: ~w(css images js favicon.ico robots.txt)

  # Code reloading will only work if the :code_reloader key of
  # the :phoenix application is set to true in your config file.
  if code_reloading? do
    socket "/phoenix/live_reload/socket", Phoenix.LiveReloader.Socket
    plug Phoenix.CodeReloader
    plug Phoenix.LiveReloader

  # Log the requests
  plug Plug.Logger

  # Configure parsers
  plug Plug.Parsers,
    parsers: [:urlencoded, :multipart, :json],
    pass: ["*/*"],
    json_decoder: Poison

  plug Plug.MethodOverride
  plug Plug.Head

  plug Plug.Session,
    store: :cookie,
    key: "_chat_key",
    signing_salt: "LH6XmqGb",
    encryption_salt: "CIPZg4Qo"

  # Only after passing through all the previous Plug
  # the request will be handled by the Chat.Router (web/router.ex)
  plug Chat.Router

In lib/chat/endpoint.ex is used a lot Plug. It allows compose modules between web applications. With Plug is possible to change the request and response data through the connection lifecycle. It is comparable to a middleware in Node JS.

Check out understanding-plug and plug project.


defmodule Chat.Router do
  use Phoenix.Router

  pipeline :browser do
    plug :accepts, ["html"]
    plug :fetch_session
    plug :fetch_flash
    plug :protect_from_forgery

  pipeline :api do
    plug :accepts, ["json"]

  scope "/", Chat do
    pipe_through :browser # Use the default browser stack

    get "/", PageController, :index

In Chat.Router we see the definition of pipeline. Which is a simple way to pipe a series of plug before passing the request ahead to a controller. That can be used for different type of requests. For example: an API request must be handled differently of a browser (page) request.

Once a request arrives at the Phoenix router, it performs a series of transformations through pipelines until the request is dispatched to a desired end-point.

Such transformations are defined via plugs, as defined in the Plug specification. Once a pipeline is defined, it can be piped through per scope.



defmodule Chat.PageController do
  use Chat.Web, :controller

  def index(conn, _params) do
    render conn, "index.html"

After a request passing through all previous plug. It will be handled by the controller. For instance a GET / will respond with index.html page.


As we saw before in the Chat.Endpoint the socket connections will be handled by the Chat.UserSocket.

defmodule Chat.UserSocket do
  use Phoenix.Socket

  channel "rooms:*", Chat.RoomChannel

  transport :websocket, Phoenix.Transports.WebSocket
  transport :longpoll, Phoenix.Transports.LongPoll

  def connect(_params, socket) do
    {:ok, socket}

  def id(_socket), do: nil

Basically the Chat.UserSocket creates a channel for topics matching rooms:*. And add support for both web socket and log pool connections.


defmodule Chat.RoomChannel do
  use Phoenix.Channel
  require Logger

  @doc """
  Authorize socket to subscribe and broadcast events on this channel & topic

  Possible Return Values

  `{:ok, socket}` to authorize subscription for channel for requested topic

  `:ignore` to deny subscription/broadcast on this channel
  for the requested topic
  def join("rooms:lobby", message, socket) do
    # Exit signals arriving to a process are converted to {'EXIT', From, Reason} messages,
    # which can be received as ordinary messages
    Process.flag(:trap_exit, true)
    :timer.send_interval(5000, :ping)
    send(self, {:after_join, message})

    {:ok, socket}

  def join("rooms:" <> _private_subtopic, _message, _socket) do
    {:error, %{reason: "unauthorized"}}

  def handle_info({:after_join, msg}, socket) do
    broadcast! socket, "user:entered", %{user: msg["user"]}
    push socket, "join", %{status: "connected"}
    {:noreply, socket}
  def handle_info(:ping, socket) do
    push socket, "new:msg", %{user: "SYSTEM", body: "ping"}
    {:noreply, socket}

  def terminate(reason, _socket) do
    Logger.debug"> leave #{inspect reason}"

  def handle_in("new:msg", msg, socket) do
    broadcast! socket, "new:msg", %{user: msg["user"], body: msg["body"]}
    {:reply, {:ok, %{msg: msg["body"]}}, assign(socket, :user, msg["user"])}

Pretty simple, it handles:

Check out Phoenix.Channel for a further explanation.

The rest is just a HTML page loading a CSS script (source in Sass) and a Javascript script (source in ES6) which consumes the socket provided by the Chat channel.

P.S. I have just started learning Elixir and Phoenix. Let me know if I had misunderstood something.