Notifications in Zulip

This is a design document aiming to provide context for developers working on Zulip’s email notifications and mobile push notifications code paths. We recommend first becoming familiar with sending messages; this document expands on the details of the email/mobile push notifications code path.

Important corner cases

Here we name a few corner cases worth understanding in designing this sort of notifications system:

  • The Idle Desktop Problem: We don’t want the presence of a desktop computer at the office to eat all notifications because the user has an “online” client that they may not have used in 3 days.

  • The Hard Disconnect Problem: A client can lose its connection to the Internet (or be suspended, or whatever) at any time, and this happens routinely. We want to ensure that races where a user closes their laptop shortly after a notifiable message is sent does not result in the user never receiving a notification about a message (due to the system thinking that client received it).

The mobile/email notifications flow

As a reminder, the relevant part of the flow for sending messages is as follows:

  • do_send_messages is the synchronous message-sending code path, and passing the following data in its send_event call:

    • Data about the message’s content (E.g. mentions, wildcard mentions, and alert words) and encodes it into the UserMessage table’s flags structure, which is in turn passed into send_event for each user receiving the message.

    • Data about user configuration relevant to the message, such as push_notify_user_ids and stream_notify_user_ids, are included alongside flags in the per-user data structure.

    • The presence_idle_user_ids set, containing the subset of recipient users who are mentioned, are PM recipients, have alert words, or otherwise would normally get a notification, but have not interacted with a Zulip client in the last few minutes. (Users who have generally will not receive a notification unless the enable_online_push_notifications flag is enabled). This data structure ignores users for whom the message is not notifiable, which is important to avoid this being thousands of user_ids for messages to large streams with few currently active users.

  • The Tornado event queue system processes that data, as well as data about each user’s active event queues, to (1) push an event to each queue needing that message and (2) for notifiable messages, pushing an event onto the missedmessage_mobile_notifications and/or missedmessage_emails queues. This important message-processing logic has notable extra logic not present when processing normal events, both for details like splicing flags to customize event payloads per-user, as well.

    • The Tornado system determines whether the user is “offline/idle”. Zulip’s email notifications are designed to not fire when the user is actively using Zulip to avoid spam, and this is where those checks are implemented.

    • Users in presence_idle_user_ids are always considered idle: the variable name means “users who are idle because of presence”. This is how we solve the Idle Desktop Problem; users with an idle desktop are treated the same as users who aren’t logged in for this check.

    • However, that check does not handle the Hard Disconnect Problem: if a user was present 1 minute before a message was sent, and then closed their laptop, the user will not be in presence_idle_user_ids, and so without an additional mechanism, messages sent shortly after a user leaves would never trigger a notification (!).

    • We solve that problem by also notifying if receiver_is_off_zulip returns True, which checks whether the user has any current events system clients registered to receive message events. This check is done immediately (handling soft disconnects, where E.g. the user closes their last Zulip tab and we get the DELETE /events/{queue_id} request).

    • The receiver_is_off_zulip check is effectively repeated when event queues are garbage-collected (in missedmessage_hook) by looking for whether the queue being garbage-collectee was the only one; this second check solves the Hard Disconnect Problem, resulting in notifications for these hard-disconnect cases usually coming 10 minutes late.

    • The message-edit code path has parallel logic in maybe_enqueue_notifications_for_message_update for triggering notifications in cases like a mention added during message editing.

    • The business logic for all these notification decisions made inside Tornado has extensive automated test suites; e.g. covers all the cases around editing a message to add/remove a mention.

    • We may in the future want to add some sort of system for letting users see past notifications, to help with explaining and debugging this system, since it has so much complexity.

  • Desktop notifications are the simplest; they are implemented client-side by the web/desktop app’s logic (static/js/notifications.js) inspecting the flags fields that were spliced into message events by the Tornado system, as well as the user’s notification settings.

  • The queue processors for those queues make the final determination for whether to send a notification, and do the work to generate an email (zerver/lib/ or mobile (zerver/lib/ notification. We’ll detail this process in more detail for each system below, but it’s important to know that it’s normal for a message to sit in these queues for minutes (and in the future, possibly hours).

  • Both queue processor code paths do additional filtering before sending a notification:

    • Messages that have already been marked as read by the user before the queue processor runs never trigger a notification.

    • Messages that were already deleted never trigger a notification.

    • The user-level settings for whether email/mobile notifications are disabled are rechecked, as the user may have disabled one of these settings during the queuing period.

    • The Email notifications queue processor, MissedMessageWorker, takes care to wait for 2 minutes (hopefully in the future this will be a configuration setting) and starts a thread to batch together multiple messages into a single email. These features are unnecessary for mobile push notifications, because we can live-update those details with a future notification, whereas emails cannot be readily updated once sent. Zulip’s email notifications are styled similarly to GitHub’s email notifications, with a clean, simple design that makes replying from an email client possible (using the incoming email integration).

    • The Push notifications queue processor, PushNotificationsWorker, is a simple wrapper around the code that actually sends the notification. This logic is somewhat complicated by having to track the number of unread push notifications to display on the mobile apps’ badges, as well as using the Mobile Push Notifications Service for self-hosted systems.

The following important constraints are worth understanding about the structure of the system, when thinking about changes to it:

  • Bulk database queries are much more efficient for checking details from the database like “which users receiving this message are online”.

  • Thousands of users. Zulip supports thousands of users, and we want to avoid send_event() pushing large amounts of per-user data to Tornado via RabbitMQ for scalability reasons.

  • Tornado doesn’t do database queries. Because the Tornado system is an asynchronous event-driven framework, and our Django database library is synchronous, database queries are very expensive. So these queries need to be done in either do_send_messages or the queue processor logic. (For example, this means presence data should be checked in either do_send_messages or the queue processors, not in Tornado).

  • Future configuration. Notification settings are an area that we expect to only expand with time, with upcoming features like following a topic (to get notifications for messages only within that topic in a stream). There are a lot of different workflows possible with Zulip’s threading, and it’s important to make it easy for users to setup Zulip’s notification to fit as many of those workflows as possible.

  • Message editing. Zulip supports editing messages, and that interacts with notifications in ways that require careful handling: Notifications should have the latest edited content (users often fix typos 30 seconds after sending a message), adding a mention when editing a message should send a notification to the newly mentioned user(s), and deleting a message should cancel any unsent notifications for it.