How routing works in Scotty


In a previous post I introduced a functional approach for decoding protocols.

The main concept was that of so called interpreters, of which there can be defined arbitrarily many, which are tried one after the other until one of them qualifies to handle a certain input. If no interpreter qualifies a default interpreter is used.

Here is the key function once again:

And then I finished the post with a remark about the Scotty Webframework as a real world example of this pattern.

This blog post aims to explain how this pattern is used in Scotty to route requests on a website.


Before we dive into the Scotty code I want to take a moment to give an example of an application of the simpler decodeWithInterpreters function of the above code sample.

Let’s assume we have two interpreters, int1 and int2, an id id and a status s. Further we assume int1 is not able to interpret id, so will return NotInterpreted when given id and s, but int2 does handle the id and returns InterpreterOK “hello example”. Then we can make the following reductions.

This small code run shows that first int1 is tried and because it is not able to interpret the input the next interpreter, int2 in this case, is tried. I hope how this code would work if we had more than two Interpreters.

Top level view of a web server

How does serving a website relate to the above code? What does a web server really need to do deep down the bottom? Well let’s assume our website’s name is Then there might be, or The content of all these pages will be different and the server must return the right content for each of them. This process is called routing. Like in the Linux file system we refer to pages via a path and the website is the so called root, denoted as “/”. All other pages are given relative to this root. So for our examples we have

  • “/home”
  • “/about”
  • “/articles/article42.html”

Every request to the server will contain one of these so called routing patterns (possibly with arguments). So an interpreter would generate a HTML response and the server would send it back to the client.

The we can rewrite the above example like this:

This is a very primitive web server implementation. The errorResponse is the default handler, usually means an error and could generate a 404.

Ok, enough of the “Hello world!” stuff, let’s beam over to the real world!

Scotty, beam me up!


This post is not meant as an introduction to Scotty, so I will glance over many types and aspects. However it is good to know that Scotty uses the Warp server under the hoods and conforms to the Web Application Interface (WAI). As a consequence it also uses the terms Middleware and Application:

Note: The Scotty code in this section is taken from Scotty's github.

An application is a function which knows how to return a request as a response in a monadic context (the m is a Monad). A middleware is meant to interfere with the request/response process. The middleware intercepts the request, does something with it and all follow up code uses the modified value. A possible use case would be a request containing gzipped content. A middleware could be installed to unzip the content. The actual application code can stay more generic, because it doesn’t have to deal with the details of the content type. As a result a middleware is a function which takes an existing application and returns a new application, with the middleware’s functionality baked into it.

The following code shows the main Scotty application, which does the routing, and the functions responsible for adding routes to the definition of the application:

data ScottyState e m =
    ScottyState { middlewares :: [Wai.Middleware]
                , routes :: [Middleware m]
                , handler :: ErrorHandler e m

scottyAppT :: (Monad m, Monad n)
           => (m Response -> IO Response) -- ^ Run monad 'm' into 'IO', called at each action.
           -> ScottyT e m ()
           -> n Application
scottyAppT runActionToIO defs = do
    let s = execState (runS defs) def
    let rapp req callback = runActionToIO (foldl (flip ($)) notFoundApp (routes s) req) >>= callback
    return $ foldl (flip ($)) rapp (middlewares s)

notFoundApp :: Monad m => Scotty.Application m
notFoundApp _ = return $ responseBuilder status404 [("Content-Type","text/html")]
                       $ fromByteString "<h1>404: File Not Found!</h1>"

addRoute :: Middleware m -> ScottyState e m -> ScottyState e m
addRoute r s@(ScottyState {routes = rs}) = s { routes = r:rs }

addroute :: (ScottyError e, MonadIO m) => StdMethod
                                       -> RoutePattern
                                       -> ActionT e m ()
                                       -> ScottyT e m ()
addroute method pat action =
  ScottyT $ MS.modify $ \s -> addRoute (route (handler s) (Just method) pat action) s

route :: (ScottyError e, MonadIO m) => ErrorHandler e m
                                    -> Maybe StdMethod
                                    -> RoutePattern
                                    -> ActionT e m ()
                                    -> Middleware m
route h method pat action app req =
    let tryNext = app req
        methodMatches :: Bool
        methodMatches =
            case method of
                Nothing -> True
                Just m -> Right m == parseMethod (requestMethod req)
    in if methodMatches
       then case matchRoute pat req of
            Just captures -> do
                env <- mkEnv req captures
                res <- runAction h env action
                maybe tryNext return res
            Nothing -> tryNext
       else tryNext

Ok let’s try to connect the dots. The notFoundApp application will the default behaviour if the requested site is unknown. As we can see it generates the well known 404 response.

The scottyAppT will be fed to the Warp web server and constitutes the entry point to the application logic in the WAI architecture. Let’s look at its arguments. The runActionsToIO function can be ignored for our purposes. Its purpose is to do “the dirty work” in the IO Monad, i.e. the actual interaction with the outside world. The defs argument contains the defintion of the server, i.e. the raw information that makes up the server. We can see that the first thing that is done in the do block is to actually evaluate the definition of the server (line 12). The result will be of type ScottyState. In the process of evaluating the definition the routes will be added. This is done via the addRoute function. The addRoute function makes use of a helper function route which serves as constructor for Middleware type. At this point it is maybe not easy to see yet, but route serves a very similar role as the tryRoute function in the entry example. Once the route middleware was created (constructed) it is simple prepended to a list within the ScottyState. This list of routes corresponds to the routes list of our entry example. In line 13 we can see how this list of routes is extracted and used with a left fold. This left fold performs the “routing interpreter lookup” as mentioned earlier in this post. To see how we have to understand the route function first.

The type signature of route is a bit tricky. It takes an error handler, a method specifier, a route pattern and an action to execute and then returns a middleware, i.e. a function that modifies an application. So in total route requires 4 arguments. But in its definition (line 35) we can see it takes actually 6! The additional 2 arguments are the arguments of the resulting middleware, i.e. an application (app) and a request (req). If we jump over the let definitions and directly start at line 42, then we can almost read it out loud and understand what it does:

If the method of the request matches the method that I know how to handle and the pattern of the request matches my own pattern, then I create the necessary environment, run my action over it and save the result. If the result contains meaningful data I return it to my calling context. In all other cases I forward the request to the application I was given.

Now we are ready. In the following I will collect the first 4 arguments in 1 pseudo arguments r, just to keep the code shorter. Just remember that r actually stands for h, method, pat and action in line 35.

Let’s say we have 3 routes r1, r2 and r3. Then

The above code, a few corners cut, shows a possible application of the Scotty code shown above. As we can see this code simply results in the middlewares being applied one after another to the default application notFoundApp. Since the result of applying a middleware to an application is another application we can rewrite the last line like so

These intermediate applications end up as the app argument of the route function in line 35. So for example if we give a request req to this application that can be routed by r1, then this will evaluate to

Remember that rX was a place holder for the 4 arguments h, method, pat and action. As you can see the foldl code in this example turns out to perform the equivalent purpose as the foldr of the entry example: try one possible interpreter of an incoming request until one is found.