7th October 2019

Server Sent Events

The Server-Sent Events specification describes a built-in class EventSource, that keeps connection with the server and allows to receive events from it.

Similar to WebSocket, the connection is persistent.

But there are several important differences:

WebSocket EventSource
Bi-directional: both client and server can exchange messages One-directional: only server sends data
Binary and text data Only text
WebSocket protocol Regular HTTP

EventSource is a less-powerful way of communicating with the server than WebSocket.

Why should one ever use it?

The main reason: it’s simpler. In many applications, the power of WebSocket is a little bit too much.

We need to receive a stream of data from server: maybe chat messages or market prices, or whatever. That’s what EventSource is good at. Also it supports auto-reconnect, something we need to implement manually with WebSocket. Besides, it’s a plain old HTTP, not a new protocol.

Getting messages

To start receiving messages, we just need to create new EventSource(url).

The browser will connect to url and keep the connection open, waiting for events.

The server should respond with status 200 and the header Content-Type: text/event-stream, then keep the connection and write messages into it in the special format, like this:

data: Message 1

data: Message 2

data: Message 3
data: of two lines
  • A message text goes after data:, the space after the colon is optional.
  • Messages are delimited with double line breaks \n\n.
  • To send a line break \n, we can immediately send one more data: (3rd message above).

In practice, complex messages are usually sent JSON-encoded. Line-breaks are encoded as \n within them, so multiline data: messages are not necessary.

For instance:

data: {"user":"John","message":"First line\n Second line"}

…So we can assume that one data: holds exactly one message.

For each such message, the message event is generated:

let eventSource = new EventSource("/events/subscribe");

eventSource.onmessage = function(event) {
  console.log("New message", event.data);
  // will log 3 times for the data stream above
};

// or eventSource.addEventListener('message', ...)

Cross-origin requests

EventSource supports cross-origin requests, like fetch any other networking methods. We can use any URL:

let source = new EventSource("https://another-site.com/events");

The remote server will get the Origin header and must respond with Access-Control-Allow-Origin to proceed.

To pass credentials, we should set the additional option withCredentials, like this:

let source = new EventSource("https://another-site.com/events", {
  withCredentials: true
});

Please see the chapter Fetch: Cross-Origin Requests for more details about cross-origin headers.

Reconnection

Upon creation, new EventSource connects to the server, and if the connection is broken – reconnects.

That’s very convenient, as we don’t have to care about it.

There’s a small delay between reconnections, a few seconds by default.

The server can set the recommended delay using retry: in response (in milliseconds):

retry: 15000
data: Hello, I set the reconnection delay to 15 seconds

The retry: may come both together with some data, or as a standalone message.

The browser should wait that many milliseconds before reconnecting. Or longer, e.g. if the browser knows (from OS) that there’s no network connection at the moment, it may wait until the connection appears, and then retry.

  • If the server wants the browser to stop reconnecting, it should respond with HTTP status 204.
  • If the browser wants to close the connection, it should call eventSource.close():
let eventSource = new EventSource(...);

eventSource.close();

Also, there will be no reconnection if the response has an incorrect Content-Type or its HTTP status differs from 301, 307, 200 and 204. In such cases the "error" event will be emitted, and the browser won’t reconnect.

Please note:

When a connection is finally closed, there’s no way to “reopen” it. If we’d like to connect again, just create a new EventSource.

Message id

When a connection breaks due to network problems, either side can’t be sure which messages were received, and which weren’t.

To correctly resume the connection, each message should have an id field, like this:

data: Message 1
id: 1

data: Message 2
id: 2

data: Message 3
data: of two lines
id: 3

When a message with id: is received, the browser:

  • Sets the property eventSource.lastEventId to its value.
  • Upon reconnection sends the header Last-Event-ID with that id, so that the server may re-send following messages.
Put id: after data:

Please note: the id is appended below message data by the server, to ensure that lastEventId is updated after the message is received.

Connection status: readyState

The EventSource object has readyState property, that has one of three values:

EventSource.CONNECTING = 0; // connecting or reconnecting
EventSource.OPEN = 1;       // connected
EventSource.CLOSED = 2;     // connection closed

When an object is created, or the connection is down, it’s always EventSource.CONNECTING (equals 0).

We can query this property to know the state of EventSource.

Event types

By default EventSource object generates three events:

  • message – a message received, available as event.data.
  • open – the connection is open.
  • error – the connection could not be established, e.g. the server returned HTTP 500 status.

The server may specify another type of event with event: ... at the event start.

For example:

event: join
data: Bob

data: Hello

event: leave
data: Bob

To handle custom events, we must use addEventListener, not onmessage:

eventSource.addEventListener('join', event => {
  alert(`Joined ${event.data}`);
});

eventSource.addEventListener('message', event => {
  alert(`Said: ${event.data}`);
});

eventSource.addEventListener('leave', event => {
  alert(`Left ${event.data}`);
});

Full example

Here’s the server that sends messages with 1, 2, 3, then bye and breaks the connection.

Then the browser automatically reconnects.

Result
server.js
index.html
let http = require('http');
let url = require('url');
let querystring = require('querystring');

function onDigits(req, res) {
  res.writeHead(200, {
    'Content-Type': 'text/event-stream; charset=utf-8',
    'Cache-Control': 'no-cache'
  });

  let i = 0;

  let timer = setInterval(write, 1000);
  write();

  function write() {
    i++;

    if (i == 4) {
      res.write('event: bye\ndata: bye-bye\n\n');
      clearInterval(timer);
      res.end();
      return;
    }

    res.write('data: ' + i + '\n\n');

  }
}

function accept(req, res) {

  if (req.url == '/digits') {
    onDigits(req, res);
    return;
  }

  fileServer.serve(req, res);

}


if (!module.parent) {
  http.createServer(accept).listen(8080);
} else {
  exports.accept = accept;
}
<!DOCTYPE html>
<script>
let eventSource;

function start() { // when "Start" button pressed
  if (!window.EventSource) {
    // IE or an old browser
    alert("The browser doesn't support EventSource.");
    return;
  }

  eventSource = new EventSource('digits');

  eventSource.onopen = function(e) {
    log("Event: open");
  };

  eventSource.onerror = function(e) {
    log("Event: error");
    if (this.readyState == EventSource.CONNECTING) {
      log(`Reconnecting (readyState=${this.readyState})...`);
    } else {
      log("Error has occured.");
    }
  };

  eventSource.addEventListener('bye', function(e) {
    log("Event: bye, data: " + e.data);
  });

  eventSource.onmessage = function(e) {
    log("Event: message, data: " + e.data);
  };
}

function stop() { // when "Stop" button pressed
  eventSource.close();
  log("eventSource.close()");
}

function log(msg) {
  logElem.innerHTML += msg + "<br>";
  document.documentElement.scrollTop = 99999999;
}
</script>

<button onclick="start()">Start</button> Press the "Start" to begin.
<div id="logElem" style="margin: 6px 0"></div>

<button onclick="stop()">Stop</button> "Stop" to finish.

Summary

EventSource object automatically establishes a persistent connection and allows the server to send messages over it.

It offers:

  • Automatic reconnect, with tunable retry timeout.
  • Message ids to resume events, the last received identifier is sent in Last-Event-ID header upon reconnection.
  • The current state is in the readyState property.

That makes EventSource a viable alternative to WebSocket, as it’s more low-level and lacks such built-in features (though they can be implemented).

In many real-life applications, the power of EventSource is just enough.

Supported in all modern browsers (not IE).

The syntax is:

let source = new EventSource(url, [credentials]);

The second argument has only one possible option: { withCredentials: true }, it allows sending cross-origin credentials.

Overall cross-origin security is same as for fetch and other network methods.

Properties of an EventSource object

readyState
The current connection state: either EventSource.CONNECTING (=0), EventSource.OPEN (=1) or EventSource.CLOSED (=2).
lastEventId
The last received id. Upon reconnection the browser sends it in the header Last-Event-ID.

Methods

close()
Closes the connection.

Events

message
Message received, the data is in event.data.
open
The connection is established.
error
In case of an error, including both lost connection (will auto-reconnect) and fatal errors. We can check readyState to see if the reconnection is being attempted.

The server may set a custom event name in event:. Such events should be handled using addEventListener, not on<event>.

Server response format

The server sends messages, delimited by \n\n.

A message may have following fields:

  • data: – message body, a sequence of multiple data is interpreted as a single message, with \n between the parts.
  • id: – renews lastEventId, sent in Last-Event-ID on reconnect.
  • retry: – recommends a retry delay for reconnections in ms. There’s no way to set it from JavaScript.
  • event: – event name, must precede data:.

A message may include one or more fields in any order, but id: usually goes the last.

Tutorial map

Comments

read this before commenting…
  • If you have suggestions what to improve - please submit a GitHub issue or a pull request instead of commenting.
  • If you can't understand something in the article – please elaborate.
  • To insert a few words of code, use the <code> tag, for several lines – use <pre>, for more than 10 lines – use a sandbox (plnkr, JSBin, codepen…)