Web programming with the Gerbil http server


In this tutorial we illustrate web programming with the embedded Gerbil http server.

The source code for the tutorial is available at src/tutorial/httpd. You can build the code using the build script:

$ cd gerbil/src/tutorial/httpd
$ gerbil build

A Simple Web Server

The server binds by default to localhost:8080 and handles 3 request URLs:

  • / which greets the requestor
  • /echo which echoes back the body of the request
  • /headers[?json] which echoes back the request headers
  • /self which prints the source code of the program

The main function

The server main function uses getopt to parse arguments and then calls the run function. It starts an http server using the default handler multiplexer, and registers handlers using http-register-handler for the various paths we want to handle:

(def (main . args)
  (call-with-getopt simpled-main args
    program: "simpled"
    help: "A simple httpd server"
    (option 'address "-a" "--address"
      help: "server address"
      default: "")))

(def (simpled-main opt)
  (run (hash-ref opt 'address)))

(def (run address)
  (let (httpd (start-http-server! address mux: (make-default-http-mux default-handler)))
    (http-register-handler httpd "/" root-handler)
    (http-register-handler httpd "/echo" echo-handler)
    (http-register-handler httpd "/headers" headers-handler)
    (http-register-handler httpd "/self" self-handler)
    (thread-join! httpd)))

Request Handlers

Request handlers are functions that accept two arguments: a request and a response object. The request object bundles the request together, while the response object offers an interface to write the response. Request handlers are dispatched in a new thread.

The / handler

The root handler simply prints a hello message:

(def (root-handler req res)
  (http-response-write res 200 '(("Content-Type" . "text/plain"))
    (string-append "hello, " (inet-address->string (http-request-client req)) "\n")))

The /echo handler

The echo handler echoes back the body of the request:

(def (echo-handler req res)
  (let* ((content-type
          (assget "Content-Type" (http-request-headers req)))
          (if content-type
            [["Content-Type" . content-type]]
    (http-response-write res 200 headers
      (http-request-body req))))

The /headers handler

The headers handler responds with the headers of the request, either in plain text or in json if requested so with a ?json parameter. The plain text handler uses the chunked response interface.

(def (headers-handler req res)
  (let (headers (http-request-headers req))
    (if (equal? (http-request-params req) "json")
      (write-json-headers res headers)
      (write-text-headers res headers))))

(def (write-json-headers res headers)
  (let (content
         (list->hash-table headers)))
    (http-response-write res 200 '(("Content-Type" . "application/json"))

(def (write-text-headers res headers)
  (http-response-begin res 200 '(("Content-Type" . "text/plain")))
  (for ([key . val] headers)
    (http-response-chunk res (string-append key ": " val "\n")))
  (http-response-end res))

The /self handler

The self handler responds by printing the server source code. The handler uses the http-response-file procedure, which sends a file as an http response using fast raw device I/O.

(def (self-handler req res)
  (http-response-file res '(("Content-Type" . "text/plain")) "simpled.ss"))

The default handler

The default handler is invoked when there is no matching handler. If no default handler is registered with the multiplexer, then the server simply responds with a 404.

Here, we registered a slightly friendlier handler that uses the force to print an informative message:

(def (default-handler req res)
  (http-response-write res 404 '(("Content-Type" . "text/plain"))
    "these aren't the droids you are looking for.\n"))


Here are some example interactions with the server using curl:

## in one terminal
$ gerbil env simpled

## in another terminal
$ curl http://localhost:8080/

$ curl --data-binary "hello gerbil" http://localhost:8080/echo
hello gerbil

$ curl http://localhost:8080/headers
Host: localhost:8080
User-Agent: curl/7.45.0
Accept: */*

$ curl http://localhost:8080/headers?json

$ curl -i http://localhost:8080/bogus
HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found
Date: Tue Aug 22 16:16:19 2017
Content-Length: 45
Content-Type: text/plain

these aren't the droids you are looking for.

Deploying with nginx

A developed application can be deployed on a server, such as a VPS, using nginx as a reverse proxy. This tutorial assumes you're using a linux server with systemd. Steps involved include:

  1. Compiling your server into a binary
  2. Installing necessary prerequisites
  3. Configuring nginx as a reverse proxy
  4. Using systemd (or similar) to run your binary as a service

Install and configure nginx

Check out the nginx installation documentation for detailed instructions on how to install engine x. Typically this can be done with your distribution's package manager.

Once installed, create an nginx profile at /etc/nginx/sites-available. If you're only using one such profile, consider editing the default profile at /etc/nginx/sites-available/default to include the following:

server {
    listen 80;
    listen [::]:80;
    server_name www.example.com;

location / {
        # Forward requests to Gerbil production port
        proxy_pass http://localhost:8080;
        proxy_buffering off; # Single page apps work faster with it
        proxy_set_header X-Real-IP $remote_addr;


  • www.example.com should be replaced with your domain name or server IP address. Note that multiple values are supported, such as server_name domain1.com www.domain1.com;
  • The line proxy_pass http://localhost:8080; should be set to the appropriate port as determined in your Gerbil getopt configuration. Replace 8080 with the port number that Gerbil's httpd will be listening on.

If you have edited the file /etc/nginx/sites-available/default, you are ready to go. If you've created another profile, you will need to symlink to this file in /etc/nginx/sites-enabled.

By default, nginx is typically set to start at boot. However, after changing this config file, you will need to restart the service:

sudo systemctl restart nginx

Create systemd service

The following assumes you have a project called my-server, with a Gerbil binary called my-server.

Create a systemd service file at /etc/systemd/system/my-server for your application. A minimal working example is:

Description=my-server website



In the above example:

  • Replace my-server website with an appropriate description.
  • Replace /srv/my-server with an appropriate working directory, possibly the directory of your project on the server.
  • Replace /srv/my-server/my-server with the path to your compiled Gerbil binary.
  • Replace web with an existing user and group (as created with useradd). Systemd will run your server with the privileges of this user. Note that this user must have read and execute privileges for your binary and workingDirectory.

This service can be manually started with sudo systemctl start my-server. Once running, you can view Gerbil's responses with sudo journalctl -f -u my-server.

Once confirmed, set the Gerbil server to run automatically, including persistence after reboot:

sudo systemctl enable my-server