Understanding node streams, back-pressure ... the hard way

17 Jul 2014


Recently, I began using NodeJS for a small project. (see here)

The idea was to build an http proxy for live iptv streams (in a follow up post, I'll explain its purpose in more details). Node seemed particularly well suited for this :

  • It natively speaks http
  • Its data handling APIs build upon the concept of streams, making it easy to "connect" a data source (an iptv stream) and a sink (a client application, typically your video player).

I quickly found out however, that some of my requirements were a bit exotic : given that the focus is on live streams, reliability of the transport is of little interest. Actually it's the exact opposite : the proxy needs to send data out as fast as possible, potentially to multiple clients. If some of these clients are requesting the same stream and one of them is too slow to keep up with the data rate, it must experience packet loss. This way fast clients always read a correct stream, while slow clients will see choppy playback and / or dropped audio/video frames (but this will enable them to keep to stay in sync with the source).

The issue is, the philosophy around NodeJS streams is the exact opposite : they are pull based. This basically means that if you attempt to pipe some data into multiple destinations, it will only flow as fast as the slowest client can handle. Worse even, since NodeJS streams implement back-pressure, this will go up the chain and the slowest client will impose its read rate on the source, which means you don't even get a chance to drop packets by implementing a lossy "pipe" in-between (spoiler: that's unless you understand node's internals correctly).

It took me a little while to wrap my head around how these mechanisms are managed by NodeJS (and how to bypass them for my particular use case). This article attempts to document various findings I've made along the way.

Streams 101

NodeJS basically builds upon two elementary types of stream :

  • Writable streams (streams you can send data to)
  • Readable streams (streams you can read data from)

A stream that's writable only is basically a sink, while a stream that's readable only is a source.

Anything in-between must be a Duplex stream (both Readable and Writable). A Transform stream is a special kind of Duplex stream, where the output is computed directly from the source. A PassThrough stream is a Duplex/Transform stream that does nothing but let data flow, untouched. (see here for the full picture)

NodeJS provides a native way to build chains of streams linking a source to its sink thanks to the pipe method. This makes building data processing pipeline easy.

Here is a basic example of using and connecting streams :

/* process.stdin is a Readable stream
 * process.stdout is a Writable stream
 * We pipe stdin to stdout, this is similar
 * to the cat unix command

/* We could insert a duplex stream in-between,
 * for instance to implement "grep"
process.stdin.pipe(new FilterStream_Grep(".*hello.*")).pipe(process.stdout)

Back to our use case, how do you proxy one source http stream to several clients ? With NodeJS that's as simple as :

request = http.request("http://....", function(http_source_stream) {

A simple, leaky stream attempt

Back to our unreliable streaming problem.

What was so hard ?

As previously discussed, the issue is that NodeJS streams are reliable by default. How do break this reliability and start losing chunks along the way ?

My first though was : Ok, let's write a dummy "leaky" stream. It will let data flow, just like a PassThrough stream, but that's unless its destination refuses to take more data in. Should that happen our stream will simply drop chunks until the sink becomes available again.

Simple enough right ?

Here is what it looked like after a fair amount of time hacking around (in terrible inline object creation style as I was just trying to figure out this stuff as I wrote it) :

/* our leaky stream is a transform stream, output is exactly the input, unless
 * we need to drop some chunks */
var leaky = new require('stream').Transform();

/* We're using the ringbuffer npm package:
 * http://www.npmjs.org/package/ringbufferjs
 * basically:
 *  * enq: push data in buffer
 *  * dec: pull data from buffer
 * if the buffer is full enq will overwrite the oldest
 * element in the ring
leaky.rb = new ringbuffer(10);

/* keep track of the sink's current status */
leaky.target_ready = true;

/* implement a leaky passthrough using a transform stream that lossily
 * stores chunks in a ringbuffer by implementing a _transform method.
 * see: http://nodejs.org/api/stream.html#stream_class_stream_transform 
leaky._transform = function(chunk, encoding, done) {
        /* Push data to ringbuffer, eventually overwritten some older
         * queued samples */

        if (this.target_ready) {
                /* if the destination is ready to receive,
                 * grab a chunk from buffer ... */
                var send = this.rb.deq();

                /* ... and push that data out
                 * note: this.pipes contains an handle to a piped (.pipe())
                 * destination stream */
                if (!this.push(send.data) && this.pipes) {
                        /* push returns false:
                         * the destination is getting overwelmed
                         * (we're back-pressured) */

                        /* update sink status: not ready anymore */
                        this.target_ready = false;

                        /* catch the drain event which tells us when the
                         * destination is ready to receive again */
                        this.pipes.once('drain', this.got_drain.bind(this));


/* handle drain event :
 * resume sending data to the destination after
 * flushing any pending data we had hanging
leaky.got_drain = function() {
        var go = true;

        while (!this.rb.isEmpty() && go) {
                go = this.push(this.rb.deq());

        if (!go) {
                /* we're stuck again ! */
                this.pipes.once('drain', this.got_drain.bind(this));
        } else {
                /* we don't have anything left to send, resume regular
                 * operation */
                this.target_ready = true;

/* insert our leaky passthrough stream attempt in-between
 * the source and our destination */

So basically we have created a transform stream. It pushes data chunks in a circular buffer. As long as the piped destination is not overwhelmed, it also immediately pulls a data chunk out of that buffer and pushes it downstream. When the destination signals it can't handle more data, we let the circular buffer get filled and potentially overflowed. We only resume sending new chunks once the destination stream sends us a 'drain' (= starving, send me more) event.

Notice the two logs that have been inserted here. One would print 'full' as soon as the destination signals a buffer overrun and the other 'drain' as soon as the destination is back to a nicer buffering level.

To my surprise, when running the code above with a slow client, these two logs are never displayed.

Show me that back-pressure

Initially I though that push() returning false was node's way of propagating back-pressure. After all, if you look at the (evasive) documentation on the subject back-pressure is mentioned once in an example using write that shows how to interact with Writable streams correctly. It therefore seemed only natural that using the internal push() call when connecting two streams natively would have the same semantics, especially since according to the doc :

        // if push() returns false, then we need to stop reading from source

Which sounds a lot like back-pressure handling to me !

Therefore my initial conclusion was that back-pressure is actually handled at a lower level, and it can't be bypassed by a custom stream unless we start messing with its deep internals.

Working around back-pressure : fake fast drain

Since the dummy transform stream approach failed, I turned to a second solution. This time I'd write a fake destination stream, that can receive data at full speed by implementing a sink. Then I'd manually handle the transport to the real destination by calling the higher level write method, which is used by non-streamy clients in order to to push data to anything streamy.

The advantage of this second method is that since the destination and the source are not linked through a sequence of pipes, nodejs can't back-pressure the source stream against our will.

What does it look like ? Here is a leaky stream relay. It does essentially the same thing than our previous transform stream (hence I did not heavily comment it), only one API level above.

Ringbuffer = new require('ringbufferjs');
Writable = new require('stream').Writable;

util = require('util');

util.inherits(Leaky, Writable);

/* The destination stream must be provided (first argument) when
 * instanciating this "leaky" stream relay
 * instead of using 
 *   $ source.pipe(leaky).pipe(destination);
 * which creates a global chain "source => leaky => destination"
 * we'd use here :
 *  $ source.pipe(new Leaky(destination));
 * which creates two chains :
 *   + source => leaky
 *   + leaky => destination
 * ie: destination is "hidden" behind leaky
function Leaky(writable, opt) {
        Writable.call(this, opt);

        this._rb = new Ringbuffer(5);
        this._target_ready = true;
        this._target_stream = writable;

/* The streamy part, implement a sink (Writable-only stream) by
 * providing a _write method */
Leaky.prototype._write = function(chunk, encoding, done) {
        if (!this._target_stream)
                return done();


        if (this._target_ready) {
                /* Use the external API of Writable streams to push data :
                 * the effect is the same as a pipe (we move data around),
                 * except here the destination thinks we're not a "streamy"
                 * client considering streams are not connected through the
                 * pipe mecanism */
                if (!this._target_stream.write(chunk)) {
                        this._target_ready = false;
                        this._target_stream.once('drain', this._got_drain.bind(this));


Leaky.prototype._got_drain = function() {
        var go = true;

        while (!this._rb.isEmpty() && go) {
                go = this._target_stream.write(this._rb.deq());

        if (!go) {
                this._target_stream.once('drain', this._got_drain.bind(this));
        } else {
                this._target_ready = true;

module.exports = Leaky;

Does this work ?

Yes, finally ! As suspected back-pressure doesn't hurt us anymore : the source stream can be read at full speed and with this relay inserted, a fast client won't get stalled by a second slow destination. As expected these stallers experience garbled video, lost frames, macroblocks ... you name it.

Streams : deep dive

Now that we're starting to get a grasp of what's happening, time to get our hands dirty.

NodeJS streams are defined here :

Looking at the _stream_transform.js file almost immediately confirms what we've been able to infer :

// In a transform stream, the written data is placed in a buffer. When
// _read(n) is called, it transforms the queued up data, calling the
// buffered _write cb's as it consumes chunks. If consuming a single
// written chunk would result in multiple output chunks, then the first
// outputted bit calls the readcb, and subsequent chunks just go into
// the read buffer, and will cause it to emit 'readable' if necessary.
// This way, back-pressure is actually determined by the reading side,
// since _read has to be called to start processing a new chunk. However,
// a pathological inflate type of transform can cause excessive buffering
// here. For example, imagine a stream where every byte of input is
// interpreted as an integer from 0-255, and then results in that many
// bytes of output. Writing the 4 bytes {ff,ff,ff,ff} would result in
// 1kb of data being output. In this case, you could write a very small
// amount of input, and end up with a very large amount of output. In
// such a pathological inflating mechanism, there'd be no way to tell
// the system to stop doing the transform. A single 4MB write could
// cause the system to run out of memory.

Going back to our initial observations regarding the semantics of push(), it seems it is indeed involved in propagating back-pressure. However, what we get to understand here, is that push only ever returns false if a transform stream writes more data that what it has been fed with.

In our leaky transform scenario, this mechanism never gets trigerred since we write at most the same amount of data we're provided with. As a consequence push() never attempts to back-pressure us. As suspected some other mecanisms are in place, here it seems that we're getting throttled by someone else : the _read call.

Let's dig a bit further and have a look at _read :

// Doesn't matter what the args are here.
// _transform does all the work.
// That we got here means that the readable side wants more data.
Transform.prototype._read = function(n) {
  var ts = this._transformState;

  if (!util.isNull(ts.writechunk) && ts.writecb && !ts.transforming) {
    ts.transforming = true;
    this._transform(ts.writechunk, ts.writeencoding, ts.afterTransform);
  } else {
    // mark that we need a transform, so that any data that comes in
    // will get processed, now that we've asked for it.
    ts.needTransform = true;

So _read calls _transform. More importantly looking at the rest of the file, _read is the only method that ever calls _transform. Hence _transform will only be triggered whenever the endpoints requests (pulls) data. As a result, in a transform stream, if you don't emit more data than what you get, you can't possibly overflow the output with calls to push. On the other hand, since _transform is not called by _write, _write only accumulate data in a queue and this, as long as the transform buffer has some free space left. Once that buffer becomes full, back-pressure will be propagated upstream, no _transform involved.

Pimp my pipe

In the end, can we get an object that would get us the same behaviour than our successful leaky relay attempt, but at the same time be a native stream ?

Definitely !

Having seen some stream internals we understand that the solution is to use a Duplex stream in place of a Transform stream. Indeed a duplex stream lets us write directly custom _read and _write routines. Following our latest observations this gives us full control over how and when back-pressure is applied.

Ringbuffer = new require('ringbufferjs');
Duplex = new require('stream').Duplex;

util = require('util');

util.inherits(Leaky, Duplex);

function Leaky(opt) {
        Duplex.call(this, opt);

        this._rb = new Ringbuffer(10);
        this._wants_data = false;

Leaky.prototype._write = function(chunk, encoding, done) {

        if (this._wants_data)
                this._wants_data = this.push(this._rb.deq());


Leaky.prototype._read = function (size) {
        var go = true;

        while (!this._rb.isEmpty() && go) {
                go = this.push(this._rb.deq());

        this._wants_data = go;

module.exports = Leaky;

Using this Leaky stream is fairly easy :

source.pipe(new Leaky()).pipe(destination);

And that's it : Leaky will act as a lossy buffer between a fast source, and a slow destination.


When going through Node's documentation, back-pressure is a bit of a magic word that is used to explain how pull-based streaming works. How it is actually achieved is a bit of a mystery. Is it an internal algorithm that's somehow triggered in stream objects, does it come from the API design, both ? Its actual inner workings, although simple, are not described.

I hope this article will help, through a simple example, shed some light on this mechanism : where it is showing up in the APIs, what its consequences are for developers and how to control its behaviour when needed.

Published on 17 Jul 2014 Florian
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