Overview

ZeroMQ (also written as ØMQ, ZMQ, or 0MQ) is a fantastic tool that is really powerful and can scale to very large systems. Getting started with ZeroMQ can be quite challenging from a beginner’s perspective. The purpose of this guide is to give you a broad idea of what ZeroMQ can do and to help you decide if ZeroMQ is the messaging library for you. 

ZeroMQ is a very simple library to use once you get the hang of things. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get the hang of things in ZeroMQ until you read all 500 pages of the ZeroMQ Guide. Now don’t get me wrong, this guide is full of great information in addition to being very well written. My goal with this article is to describe all the important details of ZeroMQ without getting too much into the nitty gritty. Think of this as being an introductory guide to the ZeroMQ Guide.

What is ZeroMQ?

The ØMQ guide starts off with a section called ‘ZeroMQ in a Hundred Words’. This paragraph I think does a great job at describing what it is to someone who is experienced in network programming and distributed systems, but to someone not so experienced, it is a hundred words of mostly jargon. So here’s my attempt at ZeroMQ in a hundred words or less.

ZeroMQ in a Hundred Words

ZeroMQ is an asynchronous network messaging library known for its high performance. It’s intended use is for distributed systems as well as concurrent systems. In summary, ZMQ allows you to send messages (binary data, serialized data, simple strings, etc.) over the network through various methods like TCP or multicast as well as between processes.  ZeroMQ provides a whole slew of language APIs which run on most operating systems and allows you to communicate seamlessly between all sorts of programs. It also provides a collection of patterns, such as request-reply and publish-subscribe which assist you in creating and structuring your network.

Sockets

Sockets are the bread and butter of ZeroMQ. ZMQ contains several different sockets, each with their own properties and use cases. Sockets can be combined in many different ways, though there are plenty of combinations of sockets that are simply incompatible. Understanding the basics of sockets is key to designing your ZeroMQ system.

I’ll be running through a few of the most of the socket types and some of their typical combinations, though there are many different socket combinations other than the ones that will be discussed here.

REQ and REP Socket

The REQ socket is short for ‘request’. This is one of the most basic sockets that is typically seen paired with a REP, or ‘response’, socket. Though, the REQ socket as well as the REP socket can be combined with many other types of sockets.

The REQ/REP socket combination works something like this:

  1. The REQ and REP sockets are initialized in separate programs. We call the “connect()” function on the REQ socket and “bind()” on the REP socket.
  2. The REP socket is initialized and is blocked, waiting for a message to arrive.
  3. The REQ socket sends some arbitrary “request” over the network
  4. REP receives this message and does whatever it needs to do with it, and the REP socket can send a reply/acknowledgement back to the REQ socket. 

Don’t worry about connect vs. bind right now, but if you want to learn more, check out the “When should I use bind and when connect?” question in the FAQ.

Keep in mind, the REQ/REP sockets are synchronous sockets. This means that they can only talk to one peer at a time. Because of this, the use case for the REP/REQ socket combination is very narrow and you typically won’t find it in a real world application. You should really only be using REQ/REP as a learning tool to help you understand the basics of ZeroMQ

ROUTER and DEALER Socket

The DEALER-ROUTER  sockets can be thought of as a non blocking, asynchronous version of the REQ-REP sockets. The DEALER socket acts as the REQ socket and the ROUTER acts as the REP socket. Something to keep in mind while researching ZMQ on your own, you’ll notice in older blogs/posts the term XREQ and XREP. These are the old names for the DEALER and ROUTER sockets. 

Sending and receiving from a ROUTER socket is a little different from other sockets. These differences allow it to be asynchronous. The most important thing to note is that a ROUTER socket expects any incoming messages to have an identity frame prepended to the message itself. This allows the ROUTER to know where the message came from. When sending a message on a ROUTER, the first frame of the message is removed, and used to identify which client to send the response to.

The DEALER sockets are intended to ‘deal’ messages out to its connected workers. When sending a message out via the DEALER socket, messages are sent in a ‘round-robin’ fashion.

To gain a more in depth understanding of these sockets, as well as other sockets involving the request/reply structure, I highly recommend The Request-Reply Mechanisms section of the ZeroMQ guide.

PUB and SUB Sockets

PUB/SUB stands for, as you might have guessed, ‘publish’ and ‘subscribe’. The way this socket combo works may be clearly evident to some, but I’d like to briefly go over it in case you aren’t familiar with the publish/subscribe model.

The basic idea of a publish/subscribe model is that a PUB socket pushes messages out, and all the associated SUB sockets receive these messages. This communication is strictly one way, there are no responses or acknowledgements sent by the SUB sockets. 

PAIR Sockets

PAIR sockets are a socket type that can only be used with each other. PAIR sockets allow bidirectional communication and can only be connected to one peer at a time.

One very important thing to note is that PAIR sockets cannot be used over the network. They can only be used for messaging between process threads.

PUSH/PULL Sockets

The PUSH/PULL sockets are a one way socket combination that allows you to distribute messages to many workers. A PUSH socket will distribute sent messages to it’s PULL clients evenly. 

This pattern is useful in cases where you are doing a large number of small tasks.

Conclusion

Once you have a basic idea of what kind of sockets are out there and how they are typically used, you start to explore how they fit into your use case. Keep in mind, if your use case is complex and doesn’t seem to fit into one set of sockets, you can use multiple sets of sockets. The ZeroMQ Guide recommends that you break down your use case as much as possible and focus on one set of sockets at a time. Then slowly build it out piece by piece, solving one problem at a time. This procedural approach to developing ZeroMQ makes it a lot more manageable, I highly recommend following it.

If you ever get stuck, remember that the ZeroMQ Guide holds most of the information you’ll need. While it may take some time to sift through it, you should always check there first for your answer. 

Good luck and happy coding.

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