Nevow Athena from Scratch: Echo Application

What is an “Echo Application?”

Our first foray into building an Athena application will be an easy venture: we want to type something in an input box and have it echoed back to us on the same page, without having to reload anything. Why? Well, our eventual goal is to have a working chat server, with all sorts of technical bells and whistles (persistent storage, authentication, etc.), but that’s a bit heady for right now. Many of the same principles which we will eventually employ in our chat application exist for a simple case of sending textual messages between a web browser and a server. This is the essence of our “Echo” application.

Mental Preparation

In the../intro.htmland the../concepts.htmlpages, we had a refresher on AJAX and COMET and we learned a little bit about what that looks like for Athena. But as we sit down to actually write an Athena application, what do we need to wrap our heads around?

Given the introductory knowledge we have, we know that we will need to write some JavaScript, some Python, and if our past experience in developing web applications is any guide, some form of template. This indeed is the case, but here’s something big: we’re not working with pages and page templates; we’re working with “elements”, or parts of the DOM tree. We will not be creating page resources; we will be creating just the parts of a “traditional” page that will be dynamic and interactive.


Now that we’ve pumped ourselves up and before we start clacking away at the keyboard, we need to get pointed in the right direction. We need a plan. Here’s what we know:

  1. We will have a server that:
    • serves dynamic elements in a resource accessible via a URL;
    • communicates with a client.
  2. We will have a client that:
    • communicates with the server;
    • updates its DOM tree.

The user experience of this application will be the following:

  1. they will type text in an input on a form; and
  2. the typed text will be rendered to a different part of the page upon hitting a submit button.

We will not simply write user input to a div with JavaScript DOM manipulation, but will instead pass data like we expect will be necessary when we write our chat application. After all, it’s probably best to build towards our goal. In order to accomplish this, the application will do something like the following:

  1. JavaScript client code will extract user input and send it to our server;
  2. Python code will receive messages from the client;
  3. Python code will send messages to the client; and
  4. a template file (or stan code) will be used for presentation.

Let the Coding Begin

In a future installment, we will outline the development process from the perspective of test-driven development, in order to not only show how to write unit tests for Athena (Python and JavaScript), but to encourage good programming practices while working with Athena. For now, though, we will just dive right in.


Let’s start with the easy bit: what our app will look like. Here is the template for our echo application:

<div xmlns:nevow=""
    <h2>Echo Element</h2>
    <form name="echoElement">
        <athena:handler event="onsubmit" handler="doSay" />
        <div name="scrollArea">
        <input name="message" /><input type="submit" value="Send" />

Things to note:

  • This is not a complete HTML document, but is an XHTML template for an “element”.
  • The name space declarations in the top div tag are necessary for the operation of Athena.
  • When we hit the “Send” button, our JavaScript class will call the``doSay()`` method.

Writing the Client

Next up is the JavaScript. We need to send our data to the server. In a full chat application, it would be necessary to send the data to the server so that we could propagate the message to all connected clients. In this case, with the simple echo, we’re not going to do anything with the data that gets sent to the server, except send it back, of course.

Our JavaScript will need to do several things:

  1. import required modules;
  2. inherit callRemote functionality from the base``Widget`` class;
  3. setup convenience attributes;
  4. implement the doSay() method we put in our template above; and
  5. implement a method for updating the DOM with data it receives from the server
// import Nevow.Athena

Nevow.Athena.Widget.subclass(EchoThing, 'EchoWidget').methods(
    function __init__(self, node) {
        EchoThing.EchoWidget.upcall(self, "__init__", node);
        self.echoWidget = self.nodeByAttribute('name', 'echoElement');
        self.scrollArea = self.nodeByAttribute('name', 'scrollArea');
        self.message = self.nodeByAttribute('name', 'message');

    function doSay(self) {
        self.callRemote("say", self.message.value);
        self.message.value = ""; 
        return false;
    function addText(self, text) {
        var newNode = document.createElement('div');
        document.body.scrollTop = document.body.scrollHeight;

Points to note:

  • Those import statements aren’t just pretty: they are necessary! In Athena, you need to treat those like you treat the import statements in Python.
  • The attributes set in the __init__() method are for convenience when we reference them in other methods.
  • Note the callRemote() method in doSay() , As mentioned in the ../concepts.htmlsection, this is how JavaScript is communicating with our Python server.
  • Another thing about doSay : this is the submit handler. As such, it needs to return false so that the browser is prevented from doing a normal form submission.
  • addText() is the method that will be updating the browser DOM once the server sends the data back.

There’s not much to say about the next one. This is what sets up the relationship between our module name and the actual file itself (so that the JavaScript can be loaded):

from twisted.python import util

from nevow import athena

import echothing

chatthingPkg = athena.AutoJSPackage(util.sibpath(echothing.__file__, 'js'))

Writing the Server

Despite what one might think, writing the server may be the easiest part! If you’ve created Nevow applications before, then this will look very familiar. The only method we need is one that will send data back to the client. Besides importing the necessary modules and creating a class with some boilerplate, that’s about it.

Let’s take a look at the code:

from twisted.python.util import sibpath
from nevow.athena import LiveElement, expose
from nevow.loaders import xmlfile

class EchoElement(LiveElement):

    docFactory = xmlfile(sibpath(__file__, 'template.html'))
    jsClass = u'EchoThing.EchoWidget'

    def say(self, message):
        self.callRemote('addText', message)
    say = expose(say)

As promised, simple as can be. We do make use of a Twisted utility that simplifies typing the path to our template. Some very important points:

  • The jsClass assignment is what connects this code to your JavaScript code.
  • As discussed in the ../concepts.htmlsection, the expose decorator is required if our JavaScript is going to be able to call the say() method.

Putting it All Together

Now that we’ve got all the code in front of us, we can trace out exactly what happens:

  1. the user loads the resource in their browser, and the template is rendered;
  2. after typing a message in the input box, the user hits submit;
  3. upon hitting submit, the client code doSay() method is called;
  4. doSay() makes a remote call to the Python server method``say()`` ;
  5. the Python server receives the data when say() is called, and then it passes that data to the client code’s addText() method;
  6. with control back in the client code and data fresh from the server, JavaScript can now update the page’s DOM with the new data, and this is what the addText() method does;
  7. when addText() finishes, the cycle has completed and the browser now displays the latest data input by the user.

The Fruits of Our Labor

Now we get to run it! This is a little different than what you may be used to, if you have written Twisted applications in the past. We are using the plugin architecture of Twisted and Nevow such that twistd will publish our element in an HTTP service. To do this, we will use``twistd`` ‘s athena-widget command:

cd Nevow/doc/howto/chattutorial/part00/listings
twistd -n athena-widget --element=echothing.echobox.EchoElement

If you executed this against the tutorial code on your local machine, you can now visit localhost:8080 and start echoing to your heart’s content.


As you can see, our echo application is a toy app that doesn’t do anything very useful. However, it has provided us with a basis for learning how to write working Athena code that lets a browser and server communicate with each other, both sending and receiving data. As such, we now have a solid foundation upon which we can build a functional, useful and instructional chat application.