Streaming Pub/Sub messages over WebSockets

This tutorial illustrates a way for a frontend app—in this case, a web page—to handle high volumes of incoming data when you use Google Cloud. The tutorial describes some of the challenges of high-volume streams. An example app is provided with this tutorial that illustrates how to use WebSockets to visualize a dense stream of messages published to a Pub/Sub topic, processing them in a timely manner that maintains a performant frontend.

This tutorial is for developers who are familiar with browser-to-server communication over HTTP and with writing frontend apps using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The tutorial assumes that you have some experience with Google Cloud and are familiar with Linux command-line tools.


  • Create and configure a virtual machine (VM) instance with the necessary components to stream the payloads of a Pub/Sub subscription to browser clients.
  • Configure a process on the VM to subscribe to a Pub/Sub topic and output the individual messages to a log.
  • Install a web server to serve static content and to stream shell command output to WebSocket clients.
  • Visualize the WebSocket stream aggregations and individual message samples in a browser using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.


In this document, you use the following billable components of Google Cloud:

To generate a cost estimate based on your projected usage, use the pricing calculator. New Google Cloud users might be eligible for a free trial.

Before you begin

  1. Sign in to your Google Cloud account. If you're new to Google Cloud, create an account to evaluate how our products perform in real-world scenarios. New customers also get $300 in free credits to run, test, and deploy workloads.
  2. In the Google Cloud console, on the project selector page, select or create a Google Cloud project.

    Go to project selector

  3. Make sure that billing is enabled for your Google Cloud project.

  4. In the Google Cloud console, on the project selector page, select or create a Google Cloud project.

    Go to project selector

  5. Make sure that billing is enabled for your Google Cloud project.

  6. Open Cloud Shell to execute the commands listed in this tutorial.

    GO TO Cloud Shell

    You run all the terminal commands in this tutorial from Cloud Shell.

  7. Enable the Compute Engine API and Pub/Sub API:
    gcloud services enable compute pubsub

When you finish this tutorial, you can avoid continued billing by deleting the resources you created. See Cleaning up for more detail.


As more apps embrace event-driven models, it's important that frontend apps are able to make simple, low-friction connections to the messaging services that form the cornerstone of these architectures.

There are several options for streaming data to web browser clients; the most common of these is WebSockets. This tutorial takes you through installing a process that subscribes to a stream of messages being published to a Pub/Sub topic, and route those messages to through the web server enroute to clients connected over WebSockets.

For this tutorial, you work with the publicly available Pub/Sub topic used in the NYC Taxi Tycoon Google Dataflow CodeLab. This topic provides you with a real-time stream of simulated taxi telemetry based on historical ride data taken in New York City from the Taxi & Limousine Commission's trip record datasets.


The following diagram shows the architecture of the tutorial that you build in this tutorial.

Architecture of the tutorial

The diagram shows a message publisher that's outside the project that contains the Compute Engine resource; the publisher sends messages to a Pub/Sub topic. The Compute Engine instance makes the messages available over WebSockets to a browser that runs a dashboard based on HTML5 and JavaScript.

This tutorial uses a combination of tools to bridge Pub/Sub and Websockets:

  • pulltop is a Node.js program that you install as part of this tutorial. The tool subscribes to a Pub/Sub topic and streams received messages to standard output.
  • websocketd is a small command-line tool that wraps an existing command-line interface program and allows it to be accessed using a WebSocket.

By combining pulltop and websocketd, you can have messages that are received from the Pub/Sub topic streamed to a browser using WebSockets.

Adjusting Pub/Sub topic throughput

The NYC Taxi Tycoon public Pub/Sub topic generates 2000 to 2500 simulated taxi ride updates per second—up to 8 Mb or more per second. The built-in flow control in Pub/Sub slows down a subscriber's message rate automatically if Pub/Sub detects a growing queue of unacknowledged messages. Therefore, you might see high message-rate variability across different workstations, network connections, and front-end processing code.

Effective browser message processing

Given the high volume of messages coming over the WebSocket stream, you need to be thoughtful in writing the frontend code that processes this stream. For example, you might dynamically create HTML elements for each message. But at the expected message rate, updating the page for each message could lock up the browser window. Frequent memory allocations that result from dynamically creating HTML elements also extend garbage collection durations, degrading the user experience. In short, you don't want to call document.createElement() for each of the approximately 2000 messages arriving each second.

The approach taken by this tutorial for managing this dense stream of messages is as follows:

  • Calculate and continually update a set of stream metrics in real time, displaying the majority of information about the observed messages as aggregate values.
  • Use a browser-based dashboard to visualize a small sample of individual messages on a predefined schedule, showing only dropoff and pickup events in real time.

The following figure shows the dashboard that's created as part of this tutorial.

Dashboard created on the web page by the code in this tutorial

The figure depicts a last-message latency of 24 milliseconds at a rate of nearly 2100 messages per second. If the critical code paths for processing each individual message don't complete in time, the number of observed messages per second decrease as the last message latency increases. The ride sampling is done using the JavaScript setInterval API set to cycle once every three seconds, which prevents the frontend from creating an enormous number of DOM elements over its lifetime. (The overwhelming majority of those are practically unobservable at rates higher than 10 per second anyway.)

The dashboard starts processing events in the middle of the stream, so rides already in progress are recognized as new by the dashboard unless they've been seen before. The code uses an associative array to store each observed ride, indexed by the ride_id value, and removes the reference to a particular ride when the passenger has been dropped off. Rides in an "enroute" or "pickup" state add a reference to that array unless (for the case of "enroute") the ride has been previously observed.

Install and configure the WebSocket server

To begin, you create a Compute Engine instance that you'll use as the WebSocket server. After you create the instance, you install tools on it that you need later.

  1. In Cloud Shell, set the default Compute Engine zone. The following example shows us-central1-a, but you can use any zone that you want.

    gcloud config set compute/zone us-central1-a
  2. Create a Compute Engine instance named websocket-server in the default zone:

    gcloud compute instances create websocket-server --tags wss
  3. Add a firewall rule that allows TCP traffic on port 8000 to any instance tagged as wss:

    gcloud compute firewall-rules create websocket \
        --direction=IN \
        --allow=tcp:8000 \
  4. If you're using an existing project, make sure that TCP port 22 is open to allow SSH connectivity to the instance.

    By default, the default-allow-ssh firewall rule is enabled in the default network. However, if you or your administrator removed the default rule in an existing project, TCP port 22 might not be open. (If you created a new project for this tutorial, the rule is enabled by default, and you don't need to do anything.)

    Add a firewall rule that allows TCP traffic on port 22 to any instance tagged as wss:

    gcloud compute firewall-rules create wss-ssh \
        --direction=IN \
        --allow=tcp:22 \
  5. Connect to the instance using SSH:

    gcloud compute ssh websocket-server
  6. At the terminal command of the instance, switch accounts to root so that you can install software:

    sudo -s
  7. Install the git and unzip tools:

    apt-get install -y unzip git
  8. Install the websocketd binary on the instance:

    cd /var/tmp/
    wget \
    mv websocketd /usr/bin

Install Node.js and the tutorial code

  1. In a terminal on the instance, install Node.js:

    curl -sL | bash -
    apt-get install -y nodejs
  2. Download the tutorial source repository:

    cd ~
    git clone
  3. Change permissions on pulltop to allow execution:

    cd solutions-pubsub-websockets
    chmod 755 pulltop/pulltop.js
  4. Install pulltop dependencies:

    cd pulltop
    npm install
    sudo npm link

Test that pulltop can read messages

  1. On the instance, run pulltop against the public topic:

    pulltop projects/pubsub-public-data/topics/taxirides-realtime

    If pulltop is working, you see a stream of results like the following:

  2. Press Ctrl+C to stop the stream.

Establish message flow to websocketd

Now that you've established that pulltop can read the Pub/Sub topic, you can start the websocketd process to begin sending messages to the browser.

Capture topic messages to a local file

For this tutorial, you capture the message stream that you get from pulltop and write it to a local file. Capturing message traffic to a local file adds a storage requirement, but it also decouples the operation of the websocketd process from the streaming Pub/Sub topic messages. Capturing the information locally allows scenarios where you might want to temporarily halt Pub/Sub streaming (perhaps to adjust flow control parameters) but not force a reset of currently connected WebSocket clients. When the message stream is reestablished, websocketd automatically resumes message streaming to clients.

  1. On the instance, run pulltop against the public topic, and redirect message output to the local taxi.json file. The nohup command instructs the OS to keep the pulltop process running if you log out or close the terminal.

    nohup pulltop \
      projects/pubsub-public-data/topics/taxirides-realtime > \
      /var/tmp/taxi.json &
  2. Verify that JSON messages are being written to the file:

    tail /var/tmp/taxi.json

    If the messages are being written to the taxi.json file, the output is similar to the following:

  3. Change to the web folder of your app:

    cd ../web
  4. Start websocketd to begin streaming the contents of the local file using WebSockets:

    nohup websocketd --port=8000 --staticdir=. tail -f /var/tmp/taxi.json &

    This runs the websocketd command in the background. The websocketd tool consumes the output of the tail command and streams each element as a WebSocket message.

  5. Check the contents of nohup.out to verify that the server started correctly:

    tail nohup.out

    If everything is working properly, the output is similar to the following:

    Mon, 25 Mar 2019 14:03:53 -0400 | INFO   | server     |  | Serving using application   : /usr/bin/tail -f /var/tmp/taxi.json
    Mon, 25 Mar 2019 14:03:53 -0400 | INFO   | server     |  | Serving static content from : .

Visualizing messages

Individual ride messages published to the Pub/Sub topic have a structure like this:

  "ride_id": "562127d7-acc4-4af9-8fdd-4eedd92b6e69",
  "point_idx": 248,
  "latitude": 40.74644000000001,
  "longitude": -73.97144,
  "timestamp": "2019-03-24T00:46:08.49094-04:00",
  "meter_reading": 8.40615,
  "meter_increment": 0.033895764,
  "ride_status": "enroute",
  "passenger_count": 1

Based on these values, you calculate several metrics for the dashboard's header. The calculations are executed once per inbound ride event. The values include the following:

  • Last message latency. The number of seconds between the timestamp of the last observed ride's event timestamp and the current time (derived from the clock on the system that's hosting the web browser).
  • Active rides. The number of rides currently in progress. This number can grow rapidly, and the number decreases when a ride_status value of dropoff is observed.
  • Message rate. The average number of ride events processed per second.
  • Total metered amount. The sum of the meters from all active rides. This number decreases as rides are dropped off.
  • Total number of passengers. The number of passengers across all rides. This number decreases as rides are completed.
  • Average number of passengers per ride. The total number of rides, divided by the total number of passengers.
  • Average metered amount per passenger. The total metered amount divided by the total number of passengers.

In addition to the metrics and individual ride samples, when a passenger is picked up or dropped off, the dashboard shows an alert notification above the grid of ride samples.

  1. Get the external IP address of the current instance:

    curl -H "Metadata-Flavor: Google" http://metadata/computeMetadata/v1/instance/network-interfaces/0/access-configs/0/external-ip; echo
  2. Copy the IP address.

  3. On your local machine, open a new web browser and enter the URL:


    You see a page that shows the dashboard for this tutorial:

    Dashboard created by code in this tutorial, with welcome message and before any data is displayed.

  4. Click the taxi icon at the top to open a connection to the stream and begin processing messages.

    Individual rides are visualized with a sample of nine active rides being rendered every three seconds:

    Dashboard showing active rides.

    You can click the taxi icon at any time to start or stop the WebSocket stream. If the WebSocket connection is severed, the icon turns red, and updates to metrics and individual rides are halted. To reconnect, click the taxi icon again.


The following screenshot shows the Chrome Developer Tools performance monitor while the browser tab is processing around 2100 messages per second.

Browser performance monitor pane showing CPU usage, heap size, DOM nodes, and style recalculations per second. The values are relatively flat.

With message dispatch happening at a latency of approximately 30ms, the CPU utilization averages at around 80%. Memory utilization is shown at a minimum of 29 MB, with 57 MB in total being allocated, and growing and shrinking freely.

Clean up

Remove firewall rules

If you used an existing project for this tutorial, you can remove the firewall rules you created. It's good practice to minimize open ports.

  1. Delete the firewall rule you created to allow TCP on port 8000:

    gcloud compute firewall-rules delete websocket
  2. If you also created a firewall rule to allow SSH connectivity, delete the firewall rule to allow TCP on port 22:

    gcloud compute firewall-rules delete wss-ssh

Delete the project

If you don't want to use this project again, you can delete the project.

  1. In the Google Cloud console, go to the Manage resources page.

    Go to Manage resources

  2. In the project list, select the project that you want to delete, and then click Delete.
  3. In the dialog, type the project ID, and then click Shut down to delete the project.

What's next