How I wrote an Activitypub Server in OCaml: Lessons Learnt, Weekends Lost

#ocaml #design #social #activitypub

It was way back in the summer of 2019 when I first became a member (i.e. a Fedizen!) of the Fediverse, the distributed social network formed by various Free and Libre servers communicating using the Activitypub protocol.

There I was, with my newly minted undergraduate degree under my arm, embarking upon a PhD in a foreign country, and, having left my family and friends far far behind, without anyone to talk to1. It was then that I stumbled upon Pleroma, Mastadon, and the various nifty communities on the Fediverse, and found within them a social network that I could actually use and a community that I could truly feel a part of.

Four years later, I have finally got round to contributing back to this ecosystem that has served me so much, and have written my own Activitypub server — in fact, I am now happily interacting with the Fediverse primarily through my own code! (

In this (somewhat sentimental) post, I'm going to take a meandering and reflective walk through my journey of implementing an Activitypub server in OCaml in a roughly chronological order, recalling the challenges and trials I faced and how I overcame them. Hopefully, the observations in this post will be of use to others, either those writing their own Activitypub servers to specification-writers themselves to understand pain-points in the specification that may inhibit implementations.

You can find my implementation here:, and can follow me on the Fediverse at!

Step 1: A Basic CRUD App

Every journey begins with a single step, and for me, the first step for this project was setting up a basic registration and authentication mechanism for the server.

After careful deliberation, I ended up using OCaml's Dream web framework for my implementation — it's a modern web-server library for OCaml, and its idiomatic interface should feel quite familiar to anyone who's used web frameworks in other languages: @@ Dream.router [
  (* ... authentication ... *)
  Dream.get "/register" handle_register_get;
  (* ... *)

  (* ... user routes ... *)
  Dream.get "/user/:username" handle_actor_get;
  Dream.get "/user/:username/inbox" handle_inbox_get;
  (* ... *)

  (* static *)
  Dream.get "/static/**" @@ Dream.static "static";
  (* ... *)

My initial iteration of the server had basic routes for authentication, login and registration, viewing users and serving static files (as above). Most of the endpoints at this time were actually just stubs — the only component that was properly implemented was the login and registration flows, which mostly consisted of code taken from the respective tutorials from the Dream documentation.

While most of this scaffolding was fairly standard and didn't require much thought, something that did give some hassle was in selecting an appropriate representation of the users of the system. The challenge arose from the generality of the Activitypub specification itself, which isn't too clear on what particular information an "account" must or should have. In particular, examples in the Activitypub specification mostly talks about the content of messages being sent between servers, providing examples as below:

  "@context": ["",
               {"@language": "ja"}],
  "type": "Person",
  "id": "",
  "following": "",
  "followers": "",
  "liked": "",
  "inbox": "",
  "outbox": "",
  "preferredUsername": "kenzoishii",
  "name": "石井健蔵",
  "summary": "この方はただの例です",
  "icon": [

Given this message and then reading their descriptions, there's a reverse engineering process to decipher the actual information that has to be maintained within the implementation itself — for example, for a local user, the liked, inbox and outbox fields can probably be derived from the user's username.

In the end, I settled on the following datatype as the basic representation of users in my system, choosing the fields through a process of trial and error and looking at the internal data types of other Activitypub implementations:

type t = {
  id: int64;                                   (* UNIQUE Id of user *)
  username: string;                            (* username (fixed) *)
  password_hash: string;                       (* password (hash) *)
  display_name: string option;                 (* display name *)
  about: string option;                        (* about text *)
  pubkey: X509.Public_key.t;                   (* public key *)
  privkey: X509.Private_key.t;                 (* private key *)

Here, the fields I settled upon were: 1) id, an internal integer identifier to identify local users, 2) username, a string representing the handle of a user (i.e. @gopiandcode), 3) password hash, hashed password, as expected, 4) display name, a string used as the display name of the user, 5) about, the about-me information for a user, 6) pubkey and 7) privkey, the public and private key of the user.

The Activitypub-specific fields were the private and public keys, which are required to sign Activitypub messages, and the username, display name and about fields, which correspond to possible fields in the Activitypub Person object type.

Overall, the fields ended up being quite similar to most other Activitypub implementations that I could find in the wild (Rustodon, Pleroma, Honk, Mastodon, etc.), so it seems a little wasteful that the specification itself doesn't really give any hints about this and leaves implementors to independently derive this design themselves.

Step 2: Picking the low hanging fruits: Webfinger endpoints

The WebFinger protocol, specified in RFC 7033, is a standardised mechanism for querying for the users on a server, and serves as the core mechanism by which Activitypub servers learn which users are present on other servers. As it happens, supporting WebFinger is probably the simplest requirement to satisfy when implementing an Activitypub server, and so, naturally, it was the first component of federation that I implemented.

The WebFinger protocol operates through HTTP requests to a distinguished endpoint /.well-known/webfinger: @@ Dream.router [
  (* ... *)
  Dream.get "/.well-known/webfinger" handle_webfinger;
  (* ... *)

Queries are encoded through a query parameter "resource" describing what is being searched for — for instance, the RFC includes the following as an example of a well-formed webfinger query:

GET /.well-known/webfinger?

We expect the query to have the form acct:<username>@<domain>, which corresponds to the following regex in OCaml:

Re.(seq [
  opt (str "acct:");
  group local_username;
  char '@';
  str (Params.domain config)

Here Params.domain refers to a global constant that stores the domain on which the server is hosted.

Upon receiving such a request, if the queried user exists, then the server should respond with a JSON object of the following form:

 "subject": "gopiandcode",
  "aliases": [""],
  "links": [ ... ]

To encode this in OCaml, I wrote a conversion function from local users to a WebFinger query JSON response:

let of_local_user actor =
  let username = Database.LocalUser.username actor in
  assoc [
    "subject", string (Configuration.user_specifier username);
    "aliases", list [ uri (Configuration.user_url username) ];
    "links", list [
      profile_page (Configuration.user_profile_page username);
      activity_json_self username;
      activitystreams_self username;

The "links" field contains additional links to the user and varies from implementation to implementation. From the Activitypub specification it's not clear which additional links are absolutely necessary or needed, so again, in the implementation, I emit a set of links based on what I have seen previously in the responses from other servers.

Putting it all together, the actual implementation of the webfinger endpoint is merely a few lines — extract the username being queried, retrieve the user, and then encode as an WebFinger JSON object:

let handle_webfinger req =
  let+ queried_resource = Dream.query req "resource" |> or_bad_reqeust in
  let+ username = resource_to_username config queried_resource in
  let* local_user = Dream.sql req @@ fun db ->
    (* lookup user *)
    Database.LocalUser.lookup_local_user ~username db in
  let data = 
    (* convert to activitypub json *)
    Activitypub.Webfinger.of_local_user config local_user in
  Dream.json data

Step 3: Learning to Talk with Signed Requests

Implementing WebFinger makes users on our server visible to the other servers on the Fediverse, but actually communicating with them is another kettle of fish entirely. The next big stumbling block that I ran into was in constructing appropriately signed requests — most Activitypub implementations require that any POST operations are signed, and will reject any unsigned requests.

In particular, the signature scheme used by Activitypub servers is the Signed HTTP Messages Draft Spec, which requires a server to sign a digest of the entire request with a cryptographic signature using the private key of the user sending the request.

Unfortunately, the OCaml ecosystem doesn't have any libraries that implement signed requests (unlike Rust, Golang, Erlang, and Python) and overall the community is uninterested in having such a library, and so I had to implement signature signing myself:

let verify_request (req: Dream.request) =
  let meth = Dream.method_ req in
  let path = req in
  let headers = Dream.all_headers req |> StringMap.of_list in
  let+ signature = Dream.header req "Signature" in
  let hsig = parse_signature signature in

  (* 1. build signed string *)
  let@ body = Dream.body req in
  let body_digest = body_digest body in

  (* signed headers *)
  let+ signed_headers = StringMap.find_opt "headers" hsig in

  (* signed string *)
  let signed_string = 
    build_signed_string ~signed_headers ~meth ~path ~headers ~body_digest in

  (* 2. retrieve signature *)
  let+ signature = StringMap.find_opt "signature" hsig in
  let+ signature = Base64.decode signature |> Result.to_opt in

  (* 3. retrieve public key *)
  let+ key_id = StringMap.find_opt "keyId" hsig in
  let* public_key = resolve_public_key key_id in

  (* verify signature against signed string with public key *)
  verify signed_string signature public_key

Thankfully, OCaml's crypto ecosystem is fairly mature, so I didn't have to do too much, just simply glue together existing libraries.

Step 4: Taming the ugly side of Activitypub with decoders

At this point, I was now ready to tackle the federation mechanism at the heart of the Fediverse: encoding and decoding activitypub requests to and from other servers. Again, this turned out to be more of a challenge than I first expected.

The Activitypub specification is, unfortunately, pretty much useless for the purposes of implementing an interoperable server.

This may seem surprising: the specification, here, paints a deceivingly pretty picture of Activitypub conformance, with a guide chock-full of examples and helpful tips, such as the nice illustration below:


The problem is that the Activitypub specification, in its formal description, is far too general for the purposes of interoperability, and allows for an impractically large number of conformant encodings of events and operations.

For instance, one annoying feature of the Activitypub specification is that most fields can be either an object, or a link that will resolve to an object. For example, consider the specification of the inbox field on any actor (i.e user on the server):

The inbox is discovered through the inbox property of an actor's profile. The inbox MUST be an OrderedCollection.

An OrderedCollection object has a fairly well defined structure, and a conformant implementation could include the inbox of a user's posts directly in the object for the user itself, however most servers expect the inbox field of a user to be a link, and will likely reject an actor object where the inbox has been inlined.

More generally, this means that if you choose a particular encoding of your objects based on the specification alone, then you might construct a Activitypub server that can communicate with itself, but will entirely fail to interoperate with other servers.

So clearly, if you want to make an interoperable Activitypub server, then you have to look at Activitiypub messages from real servers. The problem with this is that you run into a chicken-and-egg situation: in order to see real messages, you need to federate with other servers, and in order to federate with other servers you need to first be able to parse incoming messages.

In the end, the solution I came up with to this conundrum was to leech off the excellent tests suites of existing Activitypub servers — in particular, Pleroma's repository has a fixtures folder with a collection of "difficult" Activitiypub messages from various servers:

  "@context": [
      "@language": "und"
  "actor": "",
  "cc": [],
  "id": "",
  "object": "",
  "state": "pending",
  "to": [
  "type": "Follow"

Using the events sourced from these kinds of fixtures, I then was able to write a set of decoding functions to ingest Activitypub messages in this commit:

let follow =
  let open D in
  let* () = field "type" @@ constant ~msg:"expected create object (received %s)" "Follow"
  and* actor = field "actor" id
  and* cc = field_or_default "cc" (singleton_or_list string) []
  and* id = field "id" string
  and* object_ = field "object" string
  and* state = field_opt "state" (string >>= function "pending" -> succeed `Pending
                                                 | _ -> fail "unknown status") in
  succeed {actor; cc; id; object_; state}

Here I used OCaml's excellent decoders library to manually write parsing functions for each Activitypub object into an internal representation, at the same time making sure they were able to handle all example documents that I had available.

type follow = {
  id: string;
  actor: string;
  cc: string list;
  to_: string list;
  object_: string;
  state: [`Pending | `Cancelled ] option;
  raw: yojson;
} [@@deriving show, eq]

While it is possible to automatically derive parsing functions from datatype definitions (such as by using ppx_yojson_conv), it wouldn't have been suitable in this case as the decoding process had to be adjusted to account for the nuances of the various other server encodings. The OCaml hacker Kit-ty-kate has an older library that provides Activitypub support using an automatically generated approach, although I'm not sure if it has actually been used to write an interoperable server.

Finally, The decoders library comes has an encoding module which provides an idiomatic DSL that I used to construct JSON objects:

let follow ({ id; actor; cc; object_; to_; state=st; raw=_ }: Types.follow) =
  ap_obj "Follow" [
    "id" @ id <: E.string;
    "actor" @ actor <: E.string;
    "to" @ to_ <: E.list E.string;
    "cc" @ cc <: E.list E.string;
    "object" @ object_ <: E.string;
    "state" @? st <: state;

Step 5: To have friends, you must be able to accept their follows!

At this point in the implementation (at around maybe 1 year of on-and-off work in my free time), all the preliminaries were set up, and I was ready to actually start building a federating server — the first form of federation that I managed to implement was that of handling and sending follow requests.

A follow request is initiated when a server POSTs a Follow object to the target's inbox:

let handle_inbox_post req =
  (* check request is signed *)
  let+ () = Http_sig.verify_request req in
  let user = Dream.param req "username" in
  let+ data = Dream.body req |> Activitypub.Decode.(decode_string obj) in
  match data with
  (* ... *)
  | `Follow { id; actor; cc; to_; object_; state; raw } ->
    let username = get_username object_ in
    let+ target = Dream.sql req (Database.LocalUser.lookup_user ~username)
                  |> map_err (fun err -> `DatabaseError err) in
    handle_remote_follow id actor target
  (* ... *)

In order to handle this request, the server should send an Accept object back to the author:

let handle_remote_follow follow_url author target =
  (* resolve the author of the follow *)
  let+ author = resolve_remote_user_by_url (Uri.of_string author) in
  (* create a follow object locally *)
  let+ follow = 
      ~raw_data:(Yojson.Safe.to_string data)
      ~url:follow_url ~author ~target ~pending:false
      ~created:( ()) in
  (* send accept object back to author *)
  accept_remote_follow follow_url author target

The process for following ended up being mostly the same, with only non-trivial part being ensuring that the request was signed:

let follow_remote_user local ~username ~domain db =
  let+ remote = resolve_remote_user ~username ~domain db in
  let+ follow_request = build_follow_request config local remote db in
  let uri = Database.RemoteUser.inbox remote in
  let key_id = Database.LocalUser.username local
               |> Configuration.Url.user_key config in
  let priv_key = Database.LocalUser.privkey local in
  let+ resp, body  = signed_post (key_id, priv_key) uri follow_request in
  let+ body = lift_pure (Cohttp_lwt.Body.to_string body) in
  Lwt_result.return ()

A surprising hiccup that I ran into in this process was in noticing that Pleroma servers actually query the users' followers list (at /<user>/followers/) to work out if a follow was sent properly, so to be on the safe side, I also implemented this endpoint.

Step 6: From Following to Viewings Posts and a Feed

Once you've successfully followed a user, their server will then forward their messages to your server, and so, now, with the changes up to this point, my testing server began to have a stream of incoming Activitypub messages — I just needed to display them.

The next major milestone in my implementation was in setting up a feed of posts; as I had implemented a robust Activitypub message parser earlier, there was no difficulty in ingesting the messages and this mainly boiled down to writing appropriate functions to collect the relevant posts to be displayed. In my case, this was all achieved through a few gnarly SQL statements:

-- select posts 
SELECT, P.public_id, P.url, P.author_id, P.is_public, P.summary, P.post_source, P.published, P.raw_data
FROM Posts as P
    -- we are not blocking/muting the author 
    TRUE AND (
    -- where, we (1) are the author
    P.author_id = ? OR
        -- or   we (1) are following the author of the post, and the post is public
    (EXISTS (SELECT * FROM Follows AS F WHERE F.author_id = ? AND F.target_id = P.author_id) AND P.is_public) OR
        -- or we (1) are the recipients (cc, to) of the post    
    (EXISTS (SELECT * FROM PostTo as PT WHERE PT.post_id = AND PT.actor_id = ?) OR
         EXISTS (SELECT * FROM PostCc as PC WHERE PC.post_id = AND PC.actor_id = ?)))

At this point, as a tangent to the Activitypub implementation, I lost faith in OCaml's SQL support, and embarked on a 3-month hiatus to write a better SQL library, which was then contributed back to the ecosystem.

Step 7: Eye on the prize, and the hells of testing Activitypub integration

At this point, I had a rudimentary server that could follow and view posts. There was enough here to start federating with other servers, but not enough to actually start dog-fooding and using it myself2. As such, I didn't want to expose my server publicly, but I did want to test it out against other Activitypub implementations. My goal, then, was to try and host one of these other server implementations locally and test against that — again, as a common pattern in this journey, this was harder than expected.

The main challenge in local hosting of Activitypub servers is in the specification's requirement that all endpoints are HTTPS secured — if you're running locally, then you'll need to not only somehow setup a self-signed certificate for your local addresses, but also configure the servers that you are using to trust these self-signed certs and depending on the server this varies in difficulty.

Towards this end, I tried running a number of servers locally. My main choices were either Mastadon or Pleroma — I knew these servers relatively widely used, so ensuring compatibility with them would at least guarantee interoperability with a sizable portion of the Fediverse. Mastadon, I ended up discounting almost immediately, as its deployment relies on a complex net of services which I could never manage to work out how to make operate properly inside a Docker container.

In the end, I chose Pleroma for my testing, although even this wasn't so simple. While setting up a local network with Pleroma using docker-compose was fairly straightforward, I ran into a challenge with setting up the certificates. The problem was that it seems that the Erlang/Elixir library that Pleroma was using for sending HTTPS requests did not use the servers certificate store. As such, I had to vendor a patched version of Pleroma that disabled HTTPS validation:

 defmodule Pleroma.HTTP.AdapterHelper.Hackney do
+  require Logger
   @behaviour Pleroma.HTTP.AdapterHelper

   @defaults [
     follow_redirect: true,
-    force_redirect: true
+    force_redirect: true,
+    insecure: true

   @spec options(keyword(), URI.t()) :: keyword()

Step 8: Redesign

Technically this part isn't really in chronological order as I've been continuously iterating on the design of the frontend throughout the whole process, but I recall that one of the final big pushes I did was in finalising my styles and the look and feel of the website.

The initial format of the site was a fairly standard web-first design using the Bulma framework:


Very early on, I started feeling that it was too bland or generic, and tried to spice things up with a custom dark theme:


However, this didn't really solve the issue, and eventually the generic feeling of the site began to sap my motivation, so I tried redesigning the site using the more lightweight Pure-CSS framework:


Unfortunately, because I didn't plan this design out ahead of time, as I developed the site I kept on adding more and more ad-hoc extensions to the theme, and eventually it started to feel incoherent.

As such, before the final release, I took a month or so off and spent some time actually properly designing a theme for the site: collating and analysing examples of websites that I liked, developing a colour scheme that fit my tastes for the site, and selecting unique UI flourishes that would serve to give the site an identity:


Overall, I think it turned out quite well — the site might not be to your liking, but it is certainly to mine!

Step 9: Putting it all together

Implementing this server had been a real slog; at every turn in my journey, I was running up into unexpected challenges that each set me back months: ambiguities in the Activitypub specification, shortcomings of the OCaml ecosystem, problems with testing instances locally etc. However, at this point in my journey, things actually started to heat up, and maybe even become "fun".

As I now had a locally running network of containers to test integration3, the basic internal structure of my website nailed down, and a pre-defined theme and design for the site, adding new features at this point was fairly quick: they typically only required small changes and could be tested quickly.

Adding custom profile pictures was straighforward, and only required adding an extra field to my representation of users:

VersionedSchema.declare_table db ~name:"local_user" [
  (* ... *)
   field ~constraints:[
     foreign_key ~table:UserImage.table ~columns:Expr.[UserImage.path]
        ~on_update:`RESTRICT ~on_delete:`RESTRICT ()
   ] "profile_picture" ~ty:Type.text;
   (* ... *)

I then added support for posts with images, which required writing an additional decoder to ingest Attachment objects:

let attachment =
  let open D in
  let* media_type = field_opt "mediaType" string
  and* name = field_opt "name" string
  and* type_ = field_opt "type" string
  and* url = field "url" string in
  succeed ({media_type;name;type_;url}: Types.attachment)

Similarly, adding support for likes and reboosts4 simply required extending the inbox handler:

let handle_post_cheer req =
  let public_id = Dream.param req "postid" in
  let* current_user = current_user req in
  let* post = sql req (Database.Posts.lookup_by_public_id ~public_id) in
  Worker.send_task Worker.(LocalReboost {user;post});
  redirect req

I then added support for replies, which required adjusting the message handling functions to automatically retrieve post targets:

let rec resolve_remote_note ~note_uri db =
  (* retrieve json *)
  let* (_, body) = Requests.activity_req (Uri.of_string note_uri) |> Lwt_result.map_error (fun err -> `ResolverError err) in
  let* note_res = decode_body ~ty:"remote-note" body ~into:Activitypub.Decode.note
                  |> map_err (fun err -> `ResolverError err) in
  log.debug (fun f -> f "was able to sucessfully resolve note at %s!" note_uri);
  let* n = insert_remote_note note_res db in
  let* _ = 
      (* recursively load reply to notes as well *)
      resolve_remote_note note_res.in_reply_to db in
  return_ok n

The last feature I added was a proper outbox endpoint implementation, whose pagination logic was mostly a repeat of the feed:

let handle_outbox_get req =
  let username = Dream.param req "username" in
  let* user = Dream.sql req (Database.LocalUser.find_user ~username) in
  let offset, start_time = (* ... *) in
  let* outbox_collection_page =
    Dream.sql req
         start_time offset user) in
  activity_json data

I'm not actually sure whether the outbox endpoint is actually used, unlike the followers one, but my server has it at least.


Well, that about wraps up my journey: having implemented all the previous steps, I now have a roughly working server; I have 15 followers, and follow 67 people, I can send posts and reply, and I occasionally get interactions, which assure me that my server is still federating correctly and I'm not just screaming into the void.

After releasing the server, and starting to dog-food the implementation, there were a couple of teething hiccups5, but now it's chugging along mostly independently — you might even say, too independently, because I haven't been able to bring myself to fix the minor bugs I've noticed since release.

Was it a fun journey? hmm… No.

I've been working on this for around 2/3 years on-and-off in my free time. Navigating the Activitypub specification and implementations has often felt like taking one step forward and two steps back. There have been several points at which I've wanted to work on other free-time projects, but had to force myself to continue to slave away on this.

However, all in all, I'm happy to have this done!

It feels pretty cool to interact with others through your own implementation — due the feature of automatically fetching reply chains when receiving a post, after following a few people, the server really starts to light up, and I now receive a constant stream of messages, making it really feel like a social network.


Also, because the implementation is so bare-bones, it actually has a smaller CPU and memory footprint than Pleroma, so probably cheaper to host (although, I have noticed some performance spikes whenever I interact with Fedi-celebrities).

You can find my implementation here:, and can follow me on the Fediverse at!



My personal beliefs and ethics dictated that the usual predatory and proprietary social media services were not an option.


For one, unfollowing was not yet supported, so the server probably would have eventually lead to being ostracised by the community.


Previously, I had been testing by uploading my code to a private VPS server in Finland, so the debugging cycle was quite torturous to say the least.


In my site I call them toasts and cheers for no reason other than because I can.


Such as realising that some servers are configured to require signed GET requests as well, which prevented me from interacting with for a while.