Blog: Bringing the Matrix Protocol to Elixir

Niklas Long

Backend Engineer, author of the Matrix Elixir SDK

@niklas_long

Matrix is an open-source, end-to-end encrypted, real-time, open standard communication protocol designed to protect people's privacy. The technology has applications not only in messaging and Voice over IP (VoIP) but similarly in Internet of Things (IoT), Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR).

Bringing the Matrix Protocol to Elixir

Introduced in 2014, Matrix is backed by Element (formerly New Vector), the company behind the Element Matrix client (formerly Riot). Adopters include the French government, the US government, Mozilla, Purism, Germany's Ministry of Defence and the German education system.

In May of this year, I began work on a Matrix SDK for Elixir with the aim of simplifying the process of Matrix-enabling Elixir applications. It is early days for the project but if you are interested in contributing (all skill levels welcome) or using the SDK as a foundation for another project, please let me know!

Federation of homeservers

Matrix is structured around the federation of homeservers, that is to say the continuous synchronisation of event history between homeservers via the Server-Server API.

The Matrix Architecture

Each user is registered on a single homeserver, ideally hosted by themselves, and can join rooms to communicate with others. A room is a shared history of events associated with its members. The history is copied in full on each member's homeserver and all copies are synchronised in real-time. Fundamentally, a room is a decentralised data store with no single point of control or failure.

Matrix was designed from the start to exchange data with other platforms such as WhatsApp, Slack, iMessage, Email, Discord, IRC and many more. This is known as bridging and makes Matrix an attractive one-stop solution to interface with these services. As an example, Alice on Matrix, could seamlessly communicate with Bob on Freenode and Chris on Slack. Crucially, bridges connect separate communities and as such represent a workable migration path from walled garden networks.

Getting started with the SDK

As mentioned above, all changes in a room's state are described by events. They can represent any data, from users joining a room or sending messages, to image uploads and VoIP call setup. Let's dip our toes into Matrix by creating a guest account on matrix.org and reading events from the #elixirsdktest:matrix.org room.

I've written an example script to do this and will be going through the crucial parts below. If you'd like to try it out yourself, clone the repo and run (assuming you have Elixir installed):

mix deps.get
mix run examples/guest_login.exs

Creating a guest account

The first step is creating an account on matrix.org:

# examples/guest_login.exs

alias MatrixSDK.Client
alias MatrixSDK.Client.Request

url = "https://matrix.org"

{:ok, response} =
  url
  |> Request.register_guest()
  |> Client.do_request()

The Request.register_guest/1 call returns a struct:

%MatrixSDK.Client.Request{
  base_url: "https://matrix.org",
  body: %{},
  headers: [],
  method: :post,
  path: "/_matrix/client/r0/register?kind=guest",
  query_params: []
}

The SDK was designed to be modular and is structured with the Request module at its core. The module does no IO on its own and returns a struct used by the HTTP client to make the requests. This allows users to leverage only the functionality they need and are not tied into any unnecessary dependencies. By default the SDK uses Tesla configured with Mint but this approach makes it very easy to use any other HTTP client with a small amount of glue code.

To execute the request, Client.do_request/1 is called with the struct and the response looks something like this:

%Tesla.Env{
  body: %{
    "access_token" => "MDAxOGxvY2F0aW9",
    "device_id" => "guest_device",
    "home_server" => "matrix.org",
    "user_id" => "@56440647111:matrix.org"
  },
  method: :post,
  status: 200,
  url: "https://matrix.org/_matrix/client/r0/register?kind=guest"
}

It returns an access token (shortened for brevity). This token can be used to authenticate most Matrix endpoints (some don't require authentication at all). Likewise, standard user accounts, not covered here, use tokens as authentication once a login flow has been completed.

Naming for all user accounts follows the convention of @name:server.url. For guest accounts, the name is a number generated by the server, e.g., user_id above.

Joining a room

Once we have an access token, we can attempt to join a room allowing guest access, such as #elixirsdktest:matrix.org:

# examples/guest_login.exs

token = response.body["access_token"]
room = "#elixirsdktest:matrix.org"

{:ok, response} =
  url
  |> Request.join_room(token, room)
  |> Client.do_request()

The first request should return a 403 and a link to accept the Matrix terms and conditions. Let's open the link in a browser, read and accept the terms (if we agree with them), and give it another go. If you're using the script, it will prompt you to do exactly this before trying the request again. If all is well, the response should be similar to this:

%Tesla.Env{
  body: %{"room_id" => "!shAQDWZCviggxGBINv:matrix.org"},
  method: :post,
  status: 200,
  url: "https://matrix.org/_matrix/client/r0/join/%23elixirsdktest%3Amatrix.org"
}

The call returns a 200 and the room_id. You may have noticed this isn't the same as #elixirsdktest:matrix.org used to make the request. The latter is an alias. They allow users to refer to rooms more conveniently instead of using long IDs such as !shAQDWZCviggxGBINv:matrix.org. Both are valid, however, and can be used interchangeably with most endpoints.

Reading events

The next step is to read events from the homeserver. This can be achieved with a call to sync/2.

# examples/guest_login.exs

{:ok, response} =
  url
  |> Request.sync(token)
  |> Client.do_request()

Syncing is complex and I won't be going into any great detail here. At a high level, all events from a user's joined rooms will be included in the response. These are categorised in the payload. For simplicity here is the structure of the information returned:

%{
  "ephemeral" => %{
    "events" => [...] # read-receipts, ...
  },
  "state" => %{
    "events" => [...] # messages, ...
  },
  "timeline" => %{
    "events" => [...], # everything together in a timeline
    "limited" => true,
    "prev_batch" => "t74742-1449340357_757284957"
  }
}

In essence, the response is a linear event history for a user and can be used by a client to reconstruct a room's state. Pagination is handled by way of pagination tokens like prev_batch and can be leveraged in subsequent sync calls.

Events look like this:

%{
  "content" => %{
    "displayname" => "56440647111",
    "kind" => "guest",
    "membership" => "join"
  },
  "event_id" => "$4JCQ2rGqzD7uhXzXEN5KVa1Mj_MQOY1g11APLcAtb84",
  "origin_server_ts" => 1603620301736,
  "sender" => "@56440647111:matrix.org",
  "state_key" => "@56440647111:matrix.org",
  "type" => "m.room.member",
  "unsigned" => %{"age" => 5068277}
}

This is the join event for the account used in this example. It has some content, a type, and some other associated meta-data.

This is where I'll end this short introduction, however, please check the documentation for more information on the currently implemented endpoints.

What's next?

The Elixir SDK currently wraps part of the Client-Server API and v0.1 was released to allow interested parties to begin experimenting. However, work continues as there are a number of endpoints waiting to be implemented. There are discussions underway about introducing a parse response stack and structural changes to the library. Additionally, Olm will soon be added as a dependency to the SDK in order to support encryption.

Olm is an implementation of the Double Ratchet Algorithm written in C/C++ and exposed as a C API. It is used by Matrix to implement encryption, both for individual and group messaging. The Elixir/Erlang bindings are a first step towards implementing end-to-end encryption in the SDK. I started it as a separate project as it could conceivably be used in non-Matrix based applications. The library is implemented using C NIFs and currently lacks support for group sessions (coming soon). The first release candidate has been published to hex.

The long-term goal is to provide all the tools necessary to build Matrix-enabled applications in Elixir, from clients to homeservers. Matrix is experimenting with P2P by bundling clients and homeservers together on the user's device. This could lead to interesting implementations in Elixir, potentially targeting WebAssembly thanks to Lumen.

It is my belief that Elixir can be a powerful tool in decentralising the web. Projects like Matrix are vitally important and I hope the SDK will encourage creators to start projects in this problem space.

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