QoS1 added to the Arduino MQTT library

3 minute read

MQTT is a lightweight messaging protocol for the Internet of Things. This post details the use of QoS level 1 (guaranteed at least once delivery) in the Arduino MQTT library.

When you want your shiny new thing to send or receive data, the most common approach is to periodically connect to a web server and use HTTP to poll for updates or to send data home.

There are a number of drawbacks with this model. Firstly it’s not real-time, so any application where the device needs to respond quickly needs to be polling on a short interval to reduce lag. Secondly you’re using HTTP as a messaging system and as you move from tens, to hundreds, to thousands of devices all manically chattering away, you’ll start to hit scaling issues. Newer protocols such as websockets add a real-time layer to HTTP and can ameliorate these problems, but you’ll still have to create your own routing so that the messages flow to and from the right things.

This is a solved problem in other domains where queuing systems (also known as enterprise service buses, or message brokers) are a common element of modern distributed architectures, most adhering to a common standard called AMQP. Queuing systems support message delivery based on a loosely coupled data-centric publish/subscribe model rather than a network-centric push/pull model.

However, for the Internet of Things, AMQP is too big a protocol to run on devices such as Arduino, so I haven’t been able to use queuing systems with my IoT projects. However, before Christmas, I was excited to discover MQTT - an open standard which aims to deliver a lightweight messaging protocol suitable for IoT. Thanks to Nick O’Leary from IBM, there was already an MQTT Arduino library available which was fairly trivial to get hooked up to the MQTT plugin for RabbitMQ - my messaging server of choice.

MQTT has a concept called Quality of Service which can be either 0, 1, or 2. At level 0, messages are sent out ‘fire and forget’, at level 1, an acknowledgement is expected to confirm the message has been processed at least once, and at level 2 an acknowledgement of receipt is also added to make sure that the message is only delivered to one consumer to be processed exactly once.

Nick’s library only supported QoS0, which for most IoT applications would be just fine - a few dropped sensor readings here or there isn’t usually too much of a problem. However, for this particular project I’m sending larger messages (monochrome bitmaps) over the queue. RabbitMQ and MQTT can handle the large messages, and the Arduino was also okay because it would only process one message at a time, but RabbitMQ would keep sending messages as they arrived, so if the Arduino was busy they would pile up in the Ethernet buffer until it overflowed.

Normally you’d get RabbitMQ to buffer the messages using the prefetch setting which limits the number of simultaneous messages sent to a consumer. But because Nick’s library only supported QoS1, RabbitMQ had no way to know when the Arduino was ready for the next message and so it just sends them instantly - a ready-made denial of service attack.

So to cut a long story short I added QoS1 support into the library and after a bit of polish, my pull request has been accepted by Nick to the main repo. Now, when you subscribe to a topic, you can add the QoS level as follows:

mqttClient.subscribe("inTopic", 1);

If you have a look in the RabbitMQ management console you should now see that your queue name contains qos1. You don’t need to do anything else as the library will automatically deal with the acknowledgements as messages are receieved. So if you want to limit the number sent, as I did, then all you need to do is add the prefetch setting to your rabbitmq.conf:

[{rabbitmq_mqtt, [{default_user,     <<"guest">>},
                  {default_pass,     <<"guest">>},
                  {allow_anonymous,  true},
                  {vhost,            <<"/">>},
                  {exchange,         <<"amq.topic">>},
                  {subscription_ttl, 1800000},
                  {prefetch,         1},
                  {ssl_listeners,    []},
                  {tcp_listeners,    [1883]},
                  {tcp_listen_options, [binary,
                                        {packet,    raw},
                                        {reuseaddr, true},
                                        {backlog,   128},
                                        {nodelay,   true}]}]}

Now RabbitMQ will only send one message and then wait for an ACK before it sends the next, keeping the backlog safely in the queue.