Create Your Own IM Social App with MQTT

Image for post
Image for post


Message Queue Telemetry Transport (MQTT) is an instant communication protocol based on the publish-subscribe pattern. It is lightweight, open source, easy-to-use, and supports Quality of Service (QOS). These features, along with its low energy consumption, make MQTT suitable for applications such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile Internet.

IBM Message Queue (MQ) provides support to MQTT protocol and is fully compatible with the MQTT standard protocol. When comparing MQTT with standard protocol during usage, the following two points highlighted:

1. Creating the Parent Topic in Advance

Multiple levels of dynamic topics exist in the typical MQTT protocol, which eliminates the need to define and create them in advance. MQ topics are set up in advance in the MQ Console because MQTT is queue-oriented (for message persistence). MQ supports not only the MQTT protocol but also Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). To ensure intercommunication between messages of different access methods, MQTT provides the following adaptations:

  • Defines the first level of the topic as parent topic.

2. Supporting Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Without Showing Subscribers

P2P serves as a supplement to the standard MQTT protocol, which does not support P2P. All clients connected through the TCP/HTTP protocols can receive or send P2P messages.

The dynamic MQTT topics allow ample space for designers, but be sure to give careful attention to the following points:

  1. Do not include “/” and spaces in the name.


Implementation of Social IM with MQTT

Listed below are few scenarios about the implementation of social IM with MQTT:

Preparations: Create parent topics and Group ID in the MQ Console

A Client ID is required for every device to connect to the MQTT service. The Client ID is the client’s unique identifier and should be globally unique.

The Client ID is composed of two parts:

  • Group ID: The Group ID is applied and created in the MQ Console. It is used to specify the name of a group of nodes with the same logic and functions, representing a category of devices with the same tasks.

We will create the parent topic IMS in the MQ Console and the GroupID of GID_IMS. We will assume the following for Device IDs:

  • User A uses device GID_IMS@@@DeviceID_A

Scenario 1: User A requests to add User B as a friend for one-to-one chat

Solution 1: Use P2P messaging

The advantage to P2P messaging is that both sides do not need to subscribe in advance. The disadvantage is that if DeviceID_B receives a friend request from multiple users at the same time, it is difficult to identify the sender of each request.

The identification is unavailable from the message topic. We can parse the message body to identify the sender.

Note: In P2P messaging, the secondary topic must contain the P2P text, and the tertiary topic is the target device’s Client ID.

Image for post
Image for post

Solution 2: Design an inbox for every user and every user should subscribe to his/her inbox via the client login.

The advantage of this solution is that every user can parse the topic to know the sender of each incoming friend request and find out who has accepted the friend request.

When User B receives the message IMS/UserB/Inbox/Add/GFReq/UserA, User B knows User A sent the friend request.

When User A receives the message IMS/UserA/Inbox/Add/GFResp/UserB, User A knows it is User B’s feedback.

Image for post
Image for post

Scenario 2: User A follows User B’s updates and receives updates when User B updates his profile

To follow User B’s updates, User A subscribes to IMS/UserB. When User B shares content, User B publishes it to IMS/UserB. Subscribers (i.e., friends) of IMS/UserB can view the post (MQTT is responsible for sending the message to all subscribers).

If User A does not want to see User B’s profile updates, User A can cancel the subscription to IMS/UserB.

Image for post
Image for post

What if User B does not want User A to see User B’s shared messages?

An inbox is also an option in this scenario. User A subscribes to IMS/UserA/Inbox/Update/# at login. User B sends a message to IMS/UserA/Inbox/Update/UserB/Unsub. After User A receives this message, User A cancels the subscription to IMS/UserB. User A will no longer see User B’s Moments updates.

After User A receives User B’s subscription cancellation request, it is the application designer’s responsibility to determine whether to display a prompt box notifying User A (User B blacklists User A) or have it done silently (User B silently blacklists User A).

Image for post
Image for post

Scenario 3: User A invites User B and User C to join a group chat. User B and User C are not friends. Both are friends with User A.

First, the group chat initiator, User A, subscribes to IMS/Group123/#. P2P messaging is used to invite User B and User C to join the group chat.

User B and User C subscribe to IMS/Group123/# to agree to join the conversation. User B can publish to IMS/Group123/UserB with User B’s identity information in the group chat if User B wants to send a message to the group. This allows all members subscribed to IMS/Group123/# to see User B’s message.

Image for post
Image for post

Scenario 4: Send messages to a group of friends at holidays (not group chat)

You can send P2P messages to friends one by one or send messages to your friend’s inboxes. The disadvantage is you need to publish the message multiple times, depending on how many friends you want to receive the message.

Image for post
Image for post

Does a solution exist to reduce the effort involved in publishing multiple times?

MQTT intends to create a virtual group to simplify this process. Friends do not need to subscribe to this group explicitly. Instead, the subscription relationship is set up by the system dynamically based on the business configuration. Friends can receive messages sent to this group without noticing the existence of this group because the client did not initiate the action to subscribe to this virtual group (in a similar principle of P2P subscription).

MQTT does not support this feature currently.

Scenario 5: Commercial marketing — the system pushes messages to users in different categories/with different positioning

If you want to send a New Year greeting to users in various regions with the message content varying according to the region, you can use P2P or inbox, as in scenario 4. However, this is not an ideal solution for the entire system since there are many users.

Since MQTT does not support virtual groups currently, how can we implement this function?

During the business design, a topic for system broadcasting is reserved, such as IMS/System. Every user, apart from subscribing to his/her inbox and friends, also subscribes to the system preserved topic based on the user’s region (see Figure 7).

For example:
Beijing users are subscribed to IMS/System/Beijing
Hangzhou users are subscribed to IMS/System/Hangzhou

When the system sends a message to IMS/System/Beijing, all Beijing users will receive the message. Similarly, when the system sends a message to IMS/System/Hangzhou, all Hangzhou users will receive the message.

Image for post
Image for post

When a user logs into the client, the business application will identify the user’s region first and make the user subscribe to the preserved topic of the area. However, this solution is not flexible enough because when the business expands in the future, the program will require updates (subscribe to new topics to meet the new market demand).


MQTT is efficient in scenarios where a small code footprint is needed. It also helps you create an instant messaging app easily and quickly. MQTT is a good solution for wireless networks with flexible latency caused by bandwidth constraints.

Written by

Follow me to keep abreast with the latest technology news, industry insights, and developer trends.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store