It's not socket science: Part II

Wednesday, December 17, 2014 · 8 min read

A quick recap: in Part I, we learned about how protocols are really awesome, and how they stack onto each other to build abstractions. We learned to use netcat to create TCP connections, and then played with HTTP and HTTPS.

Let’s write some protocol code (finished product available on Github). We’re going to use Python to build a bot for IRC, a beautiful and historic protocol for chatting over the Internet.

IRC bots are all over the place. Some do routine tasks like moderate channels. Others let you play games like Mafia, or perhaps provide simple services like spelling correction (or “make me a haiku”). Yet others simply keep logs of what is said and then try to say relevant things at the right times. Perhaps the most famous one is Bucket, who manages #xkcd.

Our IRC bot is going to provide a utility which tells a joke when someone says !joke in a particular channel.

The IRC protocol is specified in this document (that document updates this one, as listed in the header)). That document is called an RFC, or Request For Comments.

I think the RFC system is beautiful. RFCs are documents that standardize the important messy details that hold the Internet together. They were ‘invented’ by Stephen D. Crocker when he was assigned the task to document ideas in the early days of the Internet. An RFC is supposed to be a memo; a technical note or idea that is published for anyone to read, review, and (ha!) comment on. Everyone can write an RFC.

This is how standards come about. Once I have published a sensible RFC that standardizes some means of sharing files (for instance, the File Transfer Protocol or FTP, which people still use from time to time (RFC)), I can put it out there for smart people all over the world to review. If it’s really exciting, someone may write an implementation. Future implementations would abide by the rules, and so your FTP server and my FTP client would cooperate.

Notice how this is decentralized. It’s not Google saying “Ok, folks, this is how we’re going to transfer files. Deal with it.” RFCs specify the consensus of many experts—when you see an RFC describing a protocol that has many implementations, you know that many people agree that that’s the best way of doing things (and even if it isn’t, it’s a reasonable compromise).

Of course, if you have a completely different way of transferring files which would use a brand new super-secure hyper-compressed protocol, you can write your own RFC and implementations, and hope that it catches on.

There are a lot of RFCs around, some fascinating, some funny. To us, however, they are simply documentation for the protocol we will use to build our IRC bot.

But I digress.

The RFC isn’t hard to read, but I’ll just tell you the important parts here. IRC works over the standard port 6667, or port 6697 if it’s secure (SSL-wrapped).

Let’s experiment on Freenode. I’m going to assume you have some idea of how IRC works (that is, you know what I mean when I say “channel” and “nick”). You may want to log into Freenode with another IRC client (an online one like KiwiIRC would suffice), just to see stuff happen.

Now, start with nc 6667.

You might get some messages that look sort of like this: NOTICE * :*** Looking up your hostname... NOTICE * :*** Couldn't look up your hostname

That just means that Freenode’s servers hoped you were logging in from an IP address with a registered domain, so that it can display your username as “user@hostname” in a whois query (and some other uses as well). But you’re at home, and your home’s IP probably doesn’t have a domain name pointing to it (unless you’re running a server at home!). So it just complains.


Type NICK an-irc-explorer and hit enter. Then type USER an-irc-explorer * * :Mr. IRC. You should be greeted with a huge block of text that starts with something like: 001 an-irc-explorer :Welcome to the freenode Internet Relay Chat Network an-irc-explorer 002 an-irc-explorer :Your host is[], running version ircd-seven-1.1.3 003 an-irc-explorer :This server was created Sat Mar 8 2014 at 15:57:41 CET

Basically, it’s telling you that you’ve successfully connected to the server, and identified yourself with the nickname an-irc-explorer.

You can now converse with server by sending it more commands (type HELP to list commands). Perhaps the most exciting one is JOIN: type JOIN #bots to join Freenode’s channel for bots.

Your normal IRC client should show that an-irc-explorer joined.

To say things, use PRIVMSG #bots :Hello, world. (The colon is a separator character, not part of the actual text that will be displayed on a client. Its purpose is to allow the last argument to contain spaces, which—unsurprisingly—show up quite a lot in chat messages.)

If you say something from your client, you should get some scary text like this:

:hardmath123!hardmath123@gateway/web/cgi-irc/ PRIVMSG #bots :Hi

The first bit tells you who said something, and is of the form nickname!username@hostname (remember the hostname lecture above?). PRIVMSG means you’re getting a message, #bots is the channel, and Hi is the message.

Not too hard.

There’s one last thing you need to know. IRC checks if you’re there periodically by sending out a PING message. All you need to do is send the server PONG and it’ll be happy. If you don’t, the server assumes something bad happened, and kills the connection based on a “Ping Timeout” (generally 120 seconds ish). It’s the protocol version of “if I’m not back in an hour, call the police.”

And now you’re ready for some code.

Fire up Python.

Python gives you sockets with the socket module, which corresponds rather well with C’s sockets.

import socket

Let’s create a socket and connect it to Freenode.

s = socket.socket(socket.AF_INET, socket.SOCK_STREAM)
s.connect(("", 6667))

The first line has two magic constants. AF_INET is best explained by Brian “Beej” Hall:

In some documentation, you’ll see mention of a mystical “PF_INET”. This is a weird etherial beast that is rarely seen in nature, but I might as well clarify it a bit here. Once a long time ago, it was thought that maybe a address family (what the “AF” in “AF_INET” stands for) might support several protocols that were referenced by their protocol family (what the “PF” in “PF_INET” stands for). That didn’t happen. Oh well. So the correct thing to do is to use AF_INET in your struct sockaddr_in and PF_INET in your call to socket(). But practically speaking, you can use AF_INET everywhere. And, since that’s what W. Richard Stevens does in his book, that’s what I’ll do here.

SOCK_STREAM means TCP. The alternative is SOCK_DGRAM, which means UDP–User Datagram Protocol. There’s also SOCK_RAW, which requires root privileges and makes (you guessed it) a raw IP socket. We discussed these in the previous installment.

The connect line, of course, connects to a remote socket somewhere in the Freenode network. It’s important to realize that that remote socket is the same thing as the one you just created. The server/client-ness is an abstraction. Your own socket has a host and port, too, which you can find with s.getsockname(). You’ll get something like ('', 60694).

Getting data from a socket is kind of messy, because of how TCP works. You don’t really ever know if the server wants to send more data or not. So, UNIX sockets work like this: you specify how many bytes you want to read, and the process will be paused (“blocked”) until the server sends you stuff (it could, in theory, just sit there forever). When something is sent, at most that number of bytes is given to you as a string.

In practice, this looks like:

data = s.recv(1024)

to read at most 1024 bytes from the server.

There is a problem here. A chat client doesn’t want to just freeze until a new message is sent, it wants to do other things and occasionally carry out actions if there’s a new message.

The hard solution is to use Python threads. You have multiple bits of code running around doing stuff at the same time, and you’re very careful about the socket’s state. If you’re not, you might end up reading and writing at the same time and bad things will ensue.

That will end in a mess.

The easy solution is the select module. It’s used as such:

import select
readables, writables, exceptionals =[s], [s], [s]) will return three lists: a list of sockets that are readable, a list of sockets that are writable, and a list of sockets that are in a bad situation and erroring/broken/eating your laundry.

Now we can check:

if len(readables) == 1:
    data = s.recv(1024) # won't block

Note that we still don’t know how much data there is. In fact, we have no way of knowing how much data there is, because the server may have sent another 20 bytes which TCP hasn’t reassembled yet.

So, it’s generally advisable for protocols to specify a maximum message length and some signal that a message has been terminated. Section 2.3 of RFC 2812 very helpfully tells us how IRC handles this:

IRC messages are always lines of characters terminated with a CR-LF (Carriage Return - Line Feed) pair, and these messages SHALL NOT exceed 512 characters in length, counting all characters including the trailing CR-LF. Thus, there are 510 characters maximum allowed for the command and its parameters. There is no provision for continuation of message lines.

We can put that all together as follows:

import select
import time
def read_loop(callback):
    data = ""
    CRLF = '\r\n'
    while True:
        time.sleep(1) # prevent CPU hogging :)
        readables, writables, exceptionals =[s], [s], [s]) 
        if len(readables) == 1:
            data += s.recv(512);
            while CRLF in data:
                message = data[:data.index(CRLF)]
                data = data[data.index(CRLF)+2:]

callback is called every time a complete message has been received. Also, when it’s being called, no other socket operations are happening (reads or writes). As we discussed above, this is a major win.

Writing to the socket is much easier, it’s literally s.sendall('data'). (There’s also s.send('data'), which isn’t guaranteed to actually send all of the data, but returns the number of bytes that actually made it (based on TCP acknowledgements). sendall is an abstraction on top of this.)

Guess what? You know enough to write a bot now!

import random
jokes = [
    # populate me with some good ones!
    # this might be the hardest part of writing the bot.
    "You kill vegetarian vampires with a steak to the heart.",
    "Is it solipsistic in here, or is it just me?",
    "What do you call two crows on a branch? Attempted murder."
s.sendall("NICK funnybot\r\n")
s.sendall("USER funnybot * * :hardmath123's bot\r\n")
connected = False
def got_message(message):
    global connected # yes, bad Python style. but it works to explain the concept, right?
    words = message.split(' ')
    if 'PING' in message:
        s.sendall('PONG\r\n') # it never hurts to do this :)
    if words[1] == '001' and not connected:
        # As per section 5.1 of the RFC, 001 is the numeric response for
        # a successful connection/welcome message.
        connected = True
        s.sendall("JOIN #bots\r\n")
    elif words[1] == 'PRIVMSG' and words[2] == '#bots' and '!joke' in words[3] and connected:
        # Someone probably said `!joke` in #bots.
        s.sendall("PRIVMSG #bots :" + random.choice(jokes) + "\r\n")

This is actually all you need. If you concatenate all the snippets in this blog post, you will have a working bot. It’s surprisingly terse (yay Python?).

We can actually make this secure with just two more lines of code. Remember how I said SSL was ‘wrapped’ around a normal protocol?

import ssl
secure_socket = ssl.wrap_socket(plain_old_socket)

secure_socket has all the methods of a normal socket, but the ssl module handles the SSL negotiations and encryption behind the scenes. Abstraction at its finest.

You can play around with reading the documentation and integrating this into your bot (remember to use the new secure port, 6697).

If you end up deploying a bot, make sure you read the channel or server’s bot policy. For instance, Foonetic provides these instructions:

Bot Policy: Well behaved bots are allowed. Annoying bots or bots which are insecure or poorly behaved are not allowed. Channel owners may have their own policy for public bots; it is advised you check with a channel operator before bringing a bot into a channel. Excessive bots from a single network address may exceed the session limit and/or be considered cloning. Please mark your bot with user mode +B and your nick in the “Real Name” field so that an oper can locate you if your bot malfunctions. Absolutely no “botnets” are allowed and any illegal activity will be reported to your ISP!

If you’re lazy, you can get a slightly refined version of this code from my Github.

So. We learned about how RFCs work, and we read the RFC on IRC. Then we used that knowledge to built an IRC bot on top of Python’s low-level socket library.

The techniques you learned in this blog posts are useful for all sorts of things. For instance, SMTP is a simple email protocol (port 25), and it’s an easy way to send from a script (Python ships with smtplib, a module that wraps around the protocol). Similarly, telnet is a very lightweight protocol that adds some terminal-specific frills to netcat (screen size, raw mode, etc.) Even bitcoin needs documented protocols to work. It’s definitely worth learning how these things work.

Enjoy, and happy botwriting.

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