URL hashes and deep linking


The Zulip web application has a nice system of hash (#) URLs that can be used to deep-link into the application and allow the browser’s “back” functionality to let the user navigate between parts of the UI. Some examples are:

  • /#settings/your-bots: Bots section of the settings overlay.

  • /#channels: Channels overlay, where the user manages channels (subscription etc.)

  • /#channels/11/announce: Channels overlay with channel ID 11 (called “announce”) selected.

  • /#narrow/channel/42-android/topic/fun: Message feed showing channel “android” and topic “fun”. (The 42 represents the id of the channel.)

The main module in the frontend that manages this all is web/src/hashchange.js (plus hash_util.js for all the parsing code), which is unfortunately one of our thorniest modules. Part of the reason that it’s thorny is that it needs to support a lot of different flows:

  • The user clicking on an in-app link, which in turn opens an overlay. For example the channels overlay opens when the user clicks the small cog symbol on the left sidebar, which is in fact a link to /#channels. This makes it easy to have simple links around the app without custom click handlers for each one.

  • The user uses the “back” button in their browser (basically equivalent to the previous one, as a link out of the browser history will be visited).

  • The user clicking some in-app click handler (e.g. “Channel settings” for an individual channel), that potentially does several UI-manipulating things including e.g. loading the channels overlay, and needs to update the hash without re-triggering the open animation (etc.).

  • Within an overlay like the channels overlay, the user clicks to another part of the overlay, which should update the hash but not re-trigger loading the overlay (which would result in a confusing animation experience).

  • The user is in a part of the web app, and reloads their browser window. Ideally the reloaded browser window should return them to their original state.

  • A server-initiated browser reload (done after a new version is deployed, or when a user comes back after being idle for a while, see notes below), where we try to preserve extra state (e.g. content of compose box, scroll position within a narrow) using the /#reload hash prefix.

When making changes to the hashchange system, it is essential to test all of these flows, since we don’t have great automated tests for all of this (would be a good project to add them to the Puppeteer suite) and there’s enough complexity that it’s easy to accidentally break something.

The main external API lives in web/src/browser_history.js:

  • browser_history.update is used to update the browser history, and it should be called when the app code is taking care of updating the UI directly

  • browser_history.go_to_location is used when you want the hashchange module to actually dispatch building the next page

Internally you have these functions:

  • hashchange.hashchanged is the function used to handle the hash, whether it’s changed by the browser (e.g. by clicking on a link to a hash or using the back button) or triggered internally.

  • hashchange.do_hashchange_normal handles most cases, like loading the main page (but maybe with a specific URL if you are narrowed to a channel or topic or direct messages, etc.).

  • hashchange.do_hashchange_overlay handles overlay cases. Overlays have some minor complexity related to remembering the page from which the overlay was launched, as well as optimizing in-page transitions (i.e. don’t close/re-open the overlay if you can easily avoid it).

Server-initiated reloads

There are a few circumstances when the Zulip browser window needs to reload itself:

  • If the browser has been offline for more than 10 minutes, the browser’s event queue will have been garbage-collected by the server, meaning the browser can no longer get real-time updates altogether. In this case, the browser auto-reloads immediately in order to reconnect. We have coded an unsuspend callback (based on some clever time logic) that ensures we check immediately when a client unsuspends; grep for watchdog to see the code.

  • If a new version of the server has been deployed, we want to reload the browser so that it will start running the latest code. However, we don’t want server deploys to be disruptive. So, the backend preserves user-side event queues (etc.) and just pushes a special restart event to all clients. That event causes the browser to start looking for a good time to reload, based on when the user is idle (ideally, we’d reload when they’re not looking and restore state so that the user never knew it happened!). The logic for doing this is in web/src/reload.js; but regardless we’ll reload within 30 minutes unconditionally.

    An important detail in server-initiated reloads is that we desynchronize when browsers start attempting them randomly, in order to avoid a thundering herd situation bringing down the server.

Here are some key functions in the reload system:

  • reload.preserve_state is called when a server-initiated browser reload happens, and encodes a bunch of data like the current scroll position into the hash.

  • reload_setup.initialize handles restoring the preserved state after a reload where the hash starts with /#reload.

All reloads

In addition to saving state as described above when reloading the browser, Zulip also does a few bookkeeping things on page reload (like cleaning up its event queue, and saving any text in an open compose box as a draft).