Managing webhooks with AWS services

12 Apr 2018


Disclaimer: This post contains a short description from a technology point of view on how we are serving webhooks in our system. If you are interested in more details, please contact us at devteam@onepagecrm.com.

Here in OnePageCRM we are utilizing some of Amazon Web Services in order to provide the best CRM system on the planet. One of our latest features, which is currently in a closed beta program, is email sync which is being provided by our partner Nylas. This feature allows you, in real time to sync emails from your email provider with the corresponding contact in your OnePagecrm account.

In this post I will discuss how the whole system operates.

The medium: webhook

Webhooks What is that “webhook” you may ask. Following Wikipedia definition webhook is nothing else than user-defined HTTP callback which is usually triggered by some event like pushing new commit to your repository, comments on a blog post or when someone submits a contact form on your website. In plain English, when some event will occur, one server will send a HTTP request to another server with information about such event. So we can call it a one way communication channel between different servers and how such webhook will be processed is only under the matter of developer creativity!

The actor: Nylas webhook

Nylas Let’s start at the moment when you will send an email to your customer or you will receive such and this contact exists in your OnePageCRM account (i.e. your contact has proper email address assigned). When you have our email sync feature on and connected to your email account, Nylas Sync Engine will detect this event and will send a webhook to the OnePageCRM server. This webhook will contain information about a new email in your either inbox or outbox. Have I said “OnePageCRM servers”? My mistake; webhooks are actually being sent to AWS and processed there before the email itself will be subject to investigation within the OnePageCRM system itself.

The doorkeeper: Amazon API Gateway

Amazon API Gatway As mentioned Nylas Sync Engine sends a webhook, which is a simple HTTP POST request, speaks with a service called Amazon API Gateway. We can call this service a very powerful front door which can be used to build very powerful APIs.

With use of API Gateway you can either:

  • forward traffic to your EC2, ECS or external servers,
  • process request in serverless environment (we’ll discuss this in a minute),
  • simply mock some response.

Of course you can mix all of these three within a single API (e.g. you can use EC2/ECS/Lambda feature to process data upload and redirect to storage provider in order to fetch data). In our case we will limit ourselves only to a single resource responding to two HTTP methods: GET and POST as it is required by Nylas Sync Engine.

The operation room: Amazon Lambda

AWS Lambda When our webhook is received by API Gateway it is further delivered to and processed by AWS Lambda service. Lambda is Amazon’s serverless function execution service which allows us to run our code in “pure cloud” without the need of having to configure our server (and yes, we know old Chinese proverb saying that there is no cloud and only someone’s else computer).

It’s important to know that within Amazon’s infrastructure, Lambda function is not focused only on serving HTTP requests coming through API Gateway that may be triggered e.g. after some object will be uploaded to S3 storage service, an email will come through SES service or simply execution may be triggered manually. Every lambda function which is being called with three parameters: event which is subject of the call (in our case it is the object describing HTTP request together with webhook data itself prepared by API Gateway method configuration), context which describes environment within which function is being called and callback which is “pointer” (yes, it’s hard to speak about pointers in such languages like Javascript) to callback function which Lambda execution environment is expecting to be called with function execution result.

Result of such function call is then sent back to API Gateway service where it may or may not be processed (it comes as an object and when unprocessed JSON response with such object will be prepared by default) and sent back to the client.

The servant: NodeJS

NodeJS SDK AWS Lambda allows developers to run code with use of various programming languages; when this post was written, it was possible to write Lambda function with NodeJS, Java, C# or Python. In our case we have chosen NodeJS as we have a number of very good developers skilled within this technology.

In order to use NodeJS within Lambda, we will need to create ZIP archive containing all package files (including package.json) - if you have a project in a separate directory, ZIP archive should contain content of it, not the directory itself.

If you have a module (let’s say it’s index.js in main project directory) and you want to create some function which will be executed as Lambda one, you have to define it within following way:

  
  // index.js file content
  
  exports.functionName = function(event, context, callback)
  {
    /* ... function body ... */
  }
  

Such function will be further accessible through index.functionName identifier.

When providing a webhook URL within Nylas dashboard, it is required that the given URL will accept the following requests:

  • GET request is “challenge-response” one which is being used by Nylas if given URL is valid; Such request should literally return string given as query parameter.
  • POST request which will contain data about events like new email creation, account sync status change etc.

In order to provide a required feature, we created a single resource within the API Gateway service which responds to GET and POST methods and for every method we are defining corresponding lambda functions:

  • GET request, we are simply returning string found as query parameter; the important thing here is that when we will return string from Lambda function it will still be treated as “JSON data” within API Gateway and by default it will be serialized which means that double quotes will be added around the string; and because it’s not exactly the same what Nylas expects to get in response, it will tell us that our callback URL is invalid; therefore we have to configure our API gateway to convert “string object” into actual string and return plain text response.
  • POST request, where we are have webhook data. First we validate the data by signature check (Nylas sends us signature within HTTP request headers), and then the data itself is processed, multiple events are being isolated (as within single webhook we can receive information about more than one event), initially filtered and then sent to further processing via Amazon SQS described below.

The messenger: Amazon SQS

Amazon SQS Amazon Simple Queue Service is the perfect method to implement communication between different independent elements of the system. It is being built as system of message queues where various system components can either send or receive messages. In our case after webhook data will be processed, we are creating a number of messages like “new email with ID1 in account X” or “account Y sync status has changed to Z” and Lambda function sends such message to predefined list of queues. From the other side, OnePageCRM servers responsible for all background jobs processing are continuously reading messages from those queues and finally processing emails itself deciding if it should be stored within your account or not.

The glue: Amazon CloudFormation

Amazon CloudFormation As you can see, we are using a number of different services from Amazon Web Services palette. And, as you may expect, manual configuration of all of those will be small hell even for an experienced system administrator. In order to help with that, AWS provides service called Amazon CloudFormation. CloudFormation implements “infrastructure as a code” process which allows you to manage your architecture via machine-readable configuration files instead of command-line tools of web interfaces. With use of CloudFormation for this particular scenario we are defining the following elements:

  • API Gateway resource with corresponding methods,
  • Lambda functions,
  • connections between API Gateway methods and corresponding Lambda functions,
  • API Gateway request & response processing rules,
  • various execution policies and execution roles.

Elements like SQS queues are not included within configuration itself (but we can always create SQS queue as part of it) but queue names are being passed as stack parameter (single configuration instance of CloudFormation is being called stack). Also Nylas secret key, which then is being used in Lambda to check request signature is being provided as stack parameter.

Amazon CloudFormation is using JSON files to describe the infrastructure itself. As the system grows, it is very hard to manage such files, therefore there is a number of tools which may help you with that. Here in OnePageCRM we are using library called Troposphere which allows to define your stack as Python script.

And that is how the whole process of webhooks processing looks within OnePageCRM system. You can read about other projects the team are working on in our Blog and any questions can be asked in our developer forum. Remember we are still hiring, if you think you would like to try your skills within the world of Rails, MongoDB and NodeJS, then we would love to hear from you!

author image

Paweł Smoliński

Linux fanatic married to a computer. In OnePageCRM holds CTO position and very likes it.
Also supports local economy by spending a lot of time in local pubs.