Building a Real-Time Application in the Phoenix Framework with Elixir

14 minute read     Updated:

Allan MacGregor %     Allan MacGregor

The Elixir language, along with the Phoenix framework, has been growing in popularity at a quick pace, and with good reason. Phoenix offers productivity levels comparable to frameworks like Ruby on Rails while being one of the fastest web frameworks available.

If you’re currently working with a web framework like Ruby on Rails or even Laravel, you should definitely give Phoenix some attention due to the performance gains it promises. Additionally, Phoenix also has the capability to build highly responsive real-time applications.

Introducing Phoenix LiveView

Phoenix LiveView is a relatively new library added to the Phoenix stack. Developers can build rich, real-time user experience with purely server-rendered HTML.

Phoenix LiveView adds bi-directional communication via WebSockets between the server and the client, without needing dedicated JavaScript code on the frontend. This allows you to implement real-time functionality on your applications with ease.

Explaining Today’s Tutorial

For this tutorial, we are going to be building a crowdfunding application that will leverage the real-time capabilities of Phoenix LiveView. Our application will allow users to support a funding goal in real-time and see the funding goal update as other users also commit to a specific amount. We’ll call it Phoenix Fund.

The goal of this application is not to build a fully-featured crowdfunding platform but to get your feet wet with LiveView:

  • How LiveView views works and renders
  • How Phoenix leverages WebSockets for communication
  • How to implement real-time updates on your application
  • How the LiveView life cycle works

Here’s a sample of how the final application will work:

The Crowdfunding App

Pre-Build Setup

For this tutorial, make sure you have a good working Elixir environment. The easiest way to do this is to follow the official Elixir instructions, which will give you a couple of options for:

  • Local installation on Linux, Windows, and macOS
  • Dockerized versions of Elixir
  • Package manager versions setups

I would recommend focusing on the local install for this tutorial, as it might be the easiest one to get started. Additionally, you will need to have npm installed locally and a running version of PostgreSQL.


You can easily install Node.js from their official instructions, but in most cases, it’s possible your system might already have Node preinstalled.


Postgres can be a little tricky to install depending on the operating system you’re using. For this tutorial, you can leverage Docker and get a local version running by taking the following steps:

  1. Create a folder to persist the DB data.
> mkdir ${HOME}/phoenix-postgres-data/
  1. Run a Docker container with the Postgres image.
$ docker run -d \
 --name phoenix-psql \
 -e POSTGRES_PASSWORD=Phoenix1234 \
 -v ${HOME}/phoenix-postgres-data/:/var/lib/postgresql/data \
 -p 5432:5432 \
  1. Validate that the container is running.
> docker ps

CONTAINER ID   IMAGE      COMMAND                  CREATED         STATUS        PORTS                                  NAMES
11cbe1d2bc2f   postgres   "docker-entrypoint.s…"   6 seconds ago   Up 5 seconds  5432/tcp,>5432/tcp       phoenix-psql
I can
that was
  1. Validate PostgreSQL is up and running.
> docker exec -it phoenix-psql bash

root@11cbe1d2bc2f:/# psql -h localhost -U postgres

psql (13.2 (Debian 13.2-1.pgdg100+1))
Type "help" for help.

postgres=# \l
                                 List of databases
   Name    |  Owner   | Encoding |  Collate   |   Ctype    |   Access privileges   
 postgres  | postgres | UTF8     | en_US.utf8 | en_US.utf8 | ...

Setting Up Phoenix

Now that you have the necessary dependencies, go ahead and install the Phoenix application generator and create your first Phoenix app. The Phoenix generator is distributed as a mix archive and can be installed by running the following command:

> mix archive. install hex phx_new 1.5.8

Mix Archives

Mix archives are essentially .zip files of an Elixir project following the Erlang Archive Format. Simply put, archives give us a way to distribute projects and use them as a regular command tool.

Creating a New Project

Now that the Phoenix archive is installed locally if you run mix help, you should see a new set of mix commands available in your system:

mix phx                   # Prints Phoenix help information
mix phx.digest            # Digests and compresses static files
mix phx.digest.clean      # Removes old versions of static assets
mix phx.gen.cert          # Generates a self-signed certificate for HTTPS testing
mix       # Generates a Phoenix channel
mix phx.gen.context       # Generates a context with functions around an Ecto schema
mix phx.gen.embedded      # Generates an embedded Ecto schema file
mix phx.gen.html          # Generates controller, views, and context for an HTML resource
mix phx.gen.json          # Generates controller, views, and context for a JSON resource
mix          # Generates LiveView, templates, and context for a resource
mix phx.gen.presence      # Generates a Presence tracker
mix phx.gen.schema        # Generates an Ecto schema and migration file
mix phx.gen.secret        # Generates a secret
mix               # Creates a new Phoenix v1.5.4 application
mix          # Creates a new Ecto project within an umbrella project
mix           # Creates a new Phoenix web project within an umbrella project
mix phx.routes            # Prints all routes
mix phx.server            # Starts applications and their servers

Running mix from any directory will create a new Phoenix application. But before you dive in, it’s crucial that you understand the options available when making a Phoenix project. Let’s take a look by running the following command:

> mix help


--live - include Phoenix.LiveView to make it easier than ever to build
    interactive, real-time applications
--umbrella - generate an umbrella project, with one application for
    your domain and a second application for the web interface
--app - the name of the OTP application
--module - the name of the base module in the generated skeleton
--database - specify the database adapter for Ecto. One of:
postgres - via
mysql - via
mssql - via

    Please check the driver docs for more information and requirements.
    Defaults to "postgres".

--no-webpack - do not generate webpack files for static asset building.
    When choosing this option, you will need to manually handle JavaScript
    dependencies if building HTML apps
--no-ecto - do not generate Ecto files
--no-html - do not generate HTML views
--no-gettext - do not generate gettext files
--no-dashboard - do not include Phoenix.LiveDashboard
--binary-id - use binary_id as primary key type in Ecto schemas
--verbose - use verbose output

Let’s pay attention to the first option, --live. As mentioned at the beginning of this tutorial, you’ll be building a fundraising application, so make sure to set up your Phoenix application to allow for real-time functionality from the get-go:

> mix --live phoenix_fund

* creating phoenix_fund/lib/phoenix_fund_web/router.ex
* creating phoenix_fund/lib/phoenix_fund_web/telemetry.ex
* creating phoenix_fund/lib/phoenix_fund_web.ex
* creating phoenix_fund/mix.exs
* creating phoenix_fund/

* creating phoenix_fund/assets/static/robots.txt

Fetch and install dependencies? [Yn] 
* running mix deps.get
* running mix deps.compile
* running cd assets && npm install && node node_modules/webpack/bin/webpack.js --mode development

mix will create the basic skeleton for your new Phoenix LiveView app and download all the dependencies on the Elixir and Node.js side of things.

Next, provision your database and start the local Phoenix server:

> mix ecto.create && mix phx.server

If everything is working correctly, you should be able to visit localhost:4000 and see the default Phoenix livewire homepage:

Out of the box installation

Now the app generated has the default Phoenix styling and setup, but let’s add a little polish for this exercise. You’re going to add TailwindCSS and some pre-made boilerplate CSS.

  1. First, add the following dependencies to your assets/package.json file, to install Tailwind and the necessary node libraries:
  "devDependencies": {
    "postcss": "^8.1.10",
    "postcss-import": "^13.0.0",
    "postcss-loader": "^4.1.0",
    "postcss-nested": "^4.2.1",
    "tailwindcss": "^2.0.1",
  1. Next, make sure to install your new dependencies:
npm install
  1. Copy the webpack and Tailwind configuration from this gist into your assets directory:
  1. Copy these CSS files into the following locations:
  1. Finally change your application to use regular CSS instead of Sass by updating the assets/js/app.js to:
import "../css/app.css"

Adding Your Auction Route

Now that you have a project up with the base styling, you can start working on adding the routes and logic to show the auctions. Open your lib/phoenix_fund_web/router.ex file and look for the following chunk of code:

  scope "/", PhoenixFundWeb do
    pipe_through :browser

    live "/", PageLive, :index

This is the scaffold code that was generated when you generated the application. You want to add a new route for your actions, and you can do that easily by using the live macro:

 live "/auction", AuctionLive

It’s important to highlight that AuctionLive is not a Phoenix controller. Rather, it’s a long-running LiveView process in charge of managing and tracking the state for that particular route.

Go ahead and define your new module under lib/phoenix_fund_web/live/auction_live.ex. By convention, the LiveView modules are placed under the live directory.

defmodule PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive do 
 use PhoenixFundWeb, :live_view
 def mount(params, session, socket) do
  {:ok, assign(socket, :raised, 0)}

This is the core of a LiveView module. mount/3 is the entry point for each LiveView, and it will be invoked twice:

  • Once on the initial page load
  • Once to establish a live socket

It expects three parameters:

  • params: A map of string keys with the query params
  • session: The connection session
  • socket: The LiveView socket struct

In your mount/3 function, assign the initial status for your LiveView so it can be rendered. Next, define a render/1 function that will render your LiveView HTML.

defmodule PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive do 
  def render(assigns) do
       <h1>Cabinet of Curiosities</h1>
       <div id="auction">
           <div class="meter">
             <span style="width: <%= @raised %>%">
               $<%= @raised %> USD

For now, you’ll provide the HTML directly on your function. Note that the ~L is a special syntax called a sigil; it’s used to represent Live EEx content.

Start your Phoenix server and let’s try to load /auction. If everything was set up correctly, you should see the following:

Auction View

Excellent! Your new route is now being rendered by your LiveView. Now it’s time to make it do something useful by adding a couple of buttons to allow people to donate.

defmodule PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive do 
  def render(assigns) do
       <h1>Cabinet of Curiosities</h1>
       <div id="auction">
           <div class="meter">
             <span style="width: <%= @raised %>%">
               $<%= @raised %> USD
        <button phx-click="donate-1"> $1 </button>
           <button phx-click="donate-5"> $5 </button>
           <button phx-click="donate-10"> $10 </button>
           <button phx-click="donate-100"> $100 </button>

The page should look as follows:

Buttons added

However, if you try to click any of your new buttons, you’re going to get an error like so:

[error] GenServer #PID<0.935.0> terminating
** (FunctionClauseError) no function clause matching in PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive.handle_event/3
    (phoenix_fund 0.1.0) lib/phoenix_fund_web/live/auction_live.ex:26: PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive.handle_event("donate-5", %{"value" => ""}, #Phoenix.LiveView.Socket<assigns: %{flash: %{}, live_action: nil, live_module: PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive, raised: 34}, changed: %{}, endpoint: PhoenixFundWeb.Endpoint, id: "phx-FmnbLK6vHaXG9gIk", parent_pid: nil, root_pid: #PID<0.935.0>, router: PhoenixFundWeb.Router, view: PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive, ...>)
    (phoenix_live_view 0.13.0) lib/phoenix_live_view/channel.ex:102: Phoenix.LiveView.Channel.handle_info/2
    (stdlib 3.14) gen_server.erl:689: :gen_server.try_dispatch/4
    (stdlib 3.14) gen_server.erl:765: :gen_server.handle_msg/6
    (stdlib 3.14) proc_lib.erl:226: :proc_lib.init_p_do_apply/3
Last message: %Phoenix.Socket.Message{event: "event", join_ref: "4", payload: %{"event" => "donate-5", "type" => "click", "value" => %{"value" => ""}}, ref: "39", topic: "lv:phx-FmnbLK6vHaXG9gIk"}
State: %{components: {%{}, %{}, 0}, join_ref: "4", serializer: Phoenix.Socket.V2.JSONSerializer, socket: #Phoenix.LiveView.Socket<assigns: %{flash: %{}, live_action: nil, live_module: PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive, raised: 34}, changed: %{}, endpoint: PhoenixFundWeb.Endpoint, id: "phx-FmnbLK6vHaXG9gIk", parent_pid: nil, root_pid: #PID<0.935.0>, router: PhoenixFundWeb.Router, view: PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive, ...>, topic: "lv:phx-FmnbLK6vHaXG9gIk", transport_pid: #PID<0.929.0>}

Handling Events

As you can see from the error, the Auction LiveView doesn’t currently know how to handle an event. As part of your button code, you added phx-click; this is a binding that sends a particular event like donate-1 back to your LiveView.

Your next step is adding a new definition of handle_event/3 for each one of your events. Go ahead and add the first function definition to the handle of the $1 donation button event:

defmodule PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive do 
  def handle_event("donate-1", _, socket) do
    raised = socket.assigns.raised + 1
    {:noreply, assign(socket, :raised, raised)}

The handle_event/3 function takes three parameters:

  • The name of the event, in this case donate-1
  • The metadata about the event, that you can safely ignore for now
  • The socket, which, if you remember, holds the state of your LiveView process

Inside your handle_event/3, you’re doing two things:

  • Retrieving the current raised value from the socket.assigns and increment it by 1
  • Assigning the new value back to the socket

If you reload your page and click on the $1 donation button, you should see the value correctly incrementing.

Button working

Make sure to add the following code to handle the remaining events:

defmodule PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive do 
  def handle_event("donate-5", _, socket) do
    raised = socket.assigns.raised + 5
    {:noreply, assign(socket, :raised, raised)}

  def handle_event("donate-10", _, socket) do
    raised = socket.assigns.raised + 10
    {:noreply, assign(socket, :raised, raised)}

  def handle_event("donate-100", _, socket) do
    raised = socket.assigns.raised + 100
    {:noreply, assign(socket, :raised, raised)}

Understanding the LiveView Life Cycle

LiveView Life Cycle

Let’s recap what you’ve done so far to better understand the LiveView life cycle:

  1. Your application receives a request for a LiveView route.
  2. Your app will invoke that view mount/2 function and set the initial socket state.
  3. Next, it will call render/1 to render the static HTML to send back to the client.
  4. Opening a LiveView socket will pass the rendered HTML.
  5. The socket will remain open to receive events and handle updates on the LiveView process state.

It is in this life cycle where one of the more powerful and interesting features of LiveView lies. As mentioned, LiveView is listening to your socket for updates but it will only rerender the portions of the page that needed updating. In the case of this tutorial, the meter is the only piece that gets an update.

This is one of the key features that makes Phoenix and LiveView extremely well suited for real-time applications.

Broadcasting With PubSub

So far, you’ve built an app that can leverage Phoenix LiveView to allow users to donate in real time, but so far, there’s a caveat: updates are not shared across users or even tabs. Wouldn’t it be nice to get the donations to show in real time for everyone who has the page open?

Next, you’ll leverage PubSub to broadcast real-time updates to all LiveView clients, not just the one that triggers the event.

“Publish-subscribe is a messaging pattern where senders of messages, called publishers, do not program the messages to be sent directly to specific receivers, called subscribers, but instead categorize published messages into classes without knowledge of which subscribers, if any, there may be. Similarly, subscribers express interest in one or more classes and only receive messages that are of interest, without knowledge of which publishers, if any, there are.” –Wikipedia

In short, PubSub is a messaging pattern that will allow us to implement real-time asynchronous communication with any clients listening for events in our application. In the case of this tutorial, that will be every user with a fundraising page open.

Configure Phoenix PubSub

First, you need to configure your app endpoint to use the Phoenix.PubSub.PG2 adapter. Add the following configuration to your lib/phoenix_fund/application.ex:

{Phoenix.PubSub, [name: PhoenixFund.PubSub, adapter: Phoenix.PubSub.PG2]},

Subscribing to a Topic

Next, tell your LiveView process to subscribe to a specific topic when the LiveView mounts. You can leverage Phoenix.PubSub.subscribe/3 for that:

defmodule PhoenixFundWeb.AuctionLive do
  use PhoenixFundWeb, :live_view
  @topic "auction"

  def mount(params, session, socket) do
    {:ok, assign(socket, :raised, 0)}

You’ll use a generic auction topic, as you’re only dealing with a single auction.

Broadcasting to All Subscribers

Your next step is to modify each of your handle_event/3 definitions to broadcast. The updated code looks like:

  def handle_event("donate-1", _, socket) do
    raised = socket.assigns.raised + 1
    PhoenixFundWeb.Endpoint.broadcast_from(self(), @topic, "donate_event", raised)
    {:noreply, assign(socket, :raised, raised)}

  def handle_event("donate-5", _, socket) do
    raised = socket.assigns.raised + 5
    PhoenixFundWeb.Endpoint.broadcast_from(self(), @topic, "donate_event", raised)
    {:noreply, assign(socket, :raised, raised)}

  def handle_event("donate-10", _, socket) do
    raised = socket.assigns.raised + 10
    PhoenixFundWeb.Endpoint.broadcast_from(self(), @topic, "donate_event", raised)
    {:noreply, assign(socket, :raised, raised)}

  def handle_event("donate-100", _, socket) do
    raised = socket.assigns.raised + 100
    PhoenixFundWeb.Endpoint.broadcast_from(self(), @topic, "donate_event", raised)
    {:noreply, assign(socket, :raised, raised)}

You’re using the Phoenix.PubSub.broadcast_from/4 function, which allows you to broadcast a message describing a new socket state to all the LiveView clients that are subscribed to a topic. Notice that you’re not triggering the click event on the other clients, just letting them know that the socket state has changed.

Finally, now that you’re broadcasting the socket updates, you need to tell your LiveView process how to handle the incoming broadcasts. For this, add a handle_info/2 that will pattern match against the broadcast struct:

  def handle_info(%{topic: @topic, payload: raised}, socket) do
    {:noreply, assign(socket, :raised, raised)}

If you start up your application and open two browser windows side by side, you should see the donation meter updating on all windows as soon anyone clicks any of the donation buttons.

Broadcast in real time

In Summary

As you’ve learned, Phoenix offers a powerful set of libraries, making it relatively easy to create real-time applications with very little code and, even more surprisingly, no JavaScript at all. With LiveView, you can create fully fledged real-time features using only server-side code, and when you add Phoenix PubSub, you can open those same features to all app users in real time.

Of course, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface here of what you can do with Phoenix, LiveView, and PubSub. If you want to keep going with this project, I would recommend tackling adding persistence next, and the ability to create multiple auctions with Ecto.

Both Ecto and the Phoenix project use Earthly for defining their continuous integration process, so examining those projects can be a great way to learn more about Earthly.

Additional Resources

Allan MacGregor %
Allan MacGregor

Allan MacGregor is a software engineer and entrepreneur based in Toronto, with experience in building projects and developing innovative solutions.



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