Zulip architectural overview¶
The core Zulip application is at https://github.com/zulip/zulip and is a web application written in Python 2.7 (soon to also support Python 3) and using the Django framework. That codebase includes server-side code and the web client, as well as Python API bindings and most of our integrations with other services and applications (see the directory structure guide).
We maintain several separate repositories for integrations and other glue code: a Hubot adapter; integrations with Phabricator, Jenkins, Puppet, Redmine, and Trello; node.js API bindings; and our full-text search PostgreSQL extension.
Our mobile clients are separate code repositories: Android, iOS (stable), and our experimental React Native iOS app. Our legacy desktop application (implemented in QT/WebKit) and our new, alpha cross-platform desktop app (implemented in Electron) are also separate repositories.
We use Transifex to do translations.
In this overview we’ll mainly discuss the core Zulip server and web application.
Usage assumptions and concepts¶
Zulip is a real-time web-based chat application meant for companies and similar groups ranging in size from a small team to more than a thousand users. It features real-time notifications, message persistence and search, public group conversations (streams), invite-only streams, private one-on-one and group conversations, inline image previews, team presence/buddy list, a rich API, Markdown message support, and numerous integrations with other services. The maintainer team aims to support users who connect to Zulip using dedicated iOS, Android, Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X clients, as well as people using modern web browsers or dedicated Zulip API clients.
A server can host multiple Zulip realms (organizations) at the same domain, each of which is a private chamber with its own users, streams, customizations, and so on. This means that one person might be a user of multiple Zulip realms. The administrators of a realm can choose whether to allow anyone to register an account and join, or only allow people who have been invited, or restrict registrations to members of particular groups (using email domain names or corporate single-sign-on login for verification). For more on scalability and security considerations, see the security section of the production maintenance instructions.
The default Zulip home screen is like a chronologically ordered inbox; it displays messages, starting at the oldest message that the user hasn’t viewed yet (for more on that logic, see the guide to the pointer and unread counts). The home screen displays the most recent messages in all the streams a user has joined (except for the streams they’ve muted), as well as private messages from other users, in strict chronological order. A user can narrow to view only the messages in a single stream, and can further narrow to focus on a topic (thread) within that stream. Each narrow has its own URL.
Zulip’s philosophy is to provide sensible defaults but give the user fine-grained control over their incoming information flow; a user can mute topics and streams, and can make fine-grained choices to reduce real-time notifications they find irrelevant.
Tornado and Django¶
Django is the main web application server; Tornado runs the server-to-client real-time push system. The app servers are configured by the Supervisor configuration (which explains how to start the server processes; see “Supervisor” below) and the nginx configuration (which explains which HTTP requests get sent to which app server).
Tornado is an asynchronous server and is meant specifically to hold open tens of thousands of long-lived (long-polling or websocket) connections – that is to say, routes that maintain a persistent connection from every running client. For this reason, it’s responsible for event (message) delivery, but not much else. We try to avoid any blocking calls in Tornado because we don’t want to delay delivery to thousands of other connections (as this would make Zulip very much not real-time). For instance, we avoid doing cache or database queries inside the Tornado code paths, since those blocking requests carry a very high performance penalty for a single-threaded, asynchronous server.
The parts that are activated relatively rarely (e.g. when people type or click on something) are processed by the Django application server. One exception to this is that Zulip uses websockets through Tornado to minimize latency on the code path for sending messages.
nginx is the front-end web server to all Zulip traffic; it serves static
assets and proxies to Django and Tornado. It handles HTTP requests
according to the rules laid down in the many config files found in
zulip/puppet/zulip/files/nginx/zulip-include-frontend/app is the most
important of these files. It explains what happens when requests come in
- In production, all requests to URLs beginning with
/static/are served from the corresponding files in
/home/zulip/prod-static/, and the production build process (
tools/build-release-tarball) compiles, minifies, and installs the static assets into the
prod-static/tree form. In development, files are served directly from
/static/in the git repository.
- Requests to
/sockjsare sent to the Tornado server. These are requests to the real-time push system, because the user’s web browser sets up a long-lived TCP connection with Tornado to serve as a channel for push notifications. nginx gets the hostname for the Tornado server via
- Requests to all other paths are sent to the Django app via the UNIX
puppet/zulip/files/nginx/zulip-include-frontend/upstreams). We use
zproject/wsgi.pyto implement FastCGI here (see
We use supervisord to start server processes, restart them automatically if they crash, and direct logging.
The config file is
zulip/puppet/zulip/files/supervisor/conf.d/zulip.conf. This is where
Tornado and Django are set up, as well as a number of background
processes that process event queues. We use event queues for the kinds
of tasks that are best run in the background because they are
expensive (in terms of performance) and don’t have to be synchronous
— e.g., sending emails or updating analytics. Also see the queuing
memcached is used to cache database model objects.
zerver/lib/cache_helpers.py manage putting things into memcached,
and invalidating the cache when values change. The memcached
configuration is in
Redis is configured in
zulip/puppet/zulip/files/redis and it’s a
pretty standard configuration except for the last line, which turns off
# Zulip-specific configuration: disable saving to disk. save ""
memcached was used first and then we added Redis specifically to implement rate limiting. We’re discussing switching everything over to Redis.
RabbitMQ is a queueing system. Its config files live in
zulip/puppet/zulip/files/rabbitmq. Initial configuration happens in
We use RabbitMQ for queuing expensive work (e.g. sending emails triggered by a message, push notifications, some analytics, etc.) that require reliable delivery but which we don’t want to do on the main thread. It’s also used for communication between the application server and the Tornado push system.
Two simple wrappers around
pika (the Python RabbitMQ client) are in
zulip/server/lib/queue.py. There’s an asynchronous client for use in
Tornado and a more general client for use elsewhere.
zerver/lib/event_queue.py has helper functions for putting events into
one queue or another. Most of the processes started by Supervisor are
queue processors that continually pull things out of a RabbitMQ queue
and handle them.
Also see the queuing guide.
PostgreSQL (also known as Postgres) is the database that stores all persistent data, that is, data that’s expected to live beyond a user’s current session.
In production, Postgres is installed with a default configuration. The
directory that would contain configuration files
puppet/zulip/files/postgresql) has only a utility script and a custom
list of stopwords used by a Postgresql extension.
In a development environment, configuration of that postgresql
extension is handled by
tools/postgres-init-dev-db (invoked by
tools/provision.py). That file also manages setting up the
development postgresql user.
tools/provision.py also invokes
to create the actual database with its schema.
Nagios is an optional component used for notifications to the system administrator, e.g., in case of outages.
zulip/puppet/zulip/manifests/nagios.pp installs Nagios plugins from
This component is intended to install Nagios plugins intended to be run
on a Nagios server; most of the Zulip Nagios plugins are intended to be
run on the Zulip servers themselves, and are included with the relevant
component of the Zulip server (e.g.
puppet/zulip/manifests/postgres_common.pp installs a few under