Android Service

Adapted from: Discreet Log #11: Integrating FFI processes with Android services

In addition to needing to make plain ol’ method calls into the Cwtch library, we also need to be able to communicate with (and receive events from) long-running Cwtch goroutines that keep the Tor process running in the background, manage connection and conversation state for all your contacts, and handle a few other monitoring and upkeep tasks as well. This isn’t really a problem on traditionally multitasking desktop operating systems, but on mobile devices running Android we have to contend with shorter sessions, frequent unloads, and network and power restrictions that can vary over time. As Cwtch is intended to be metadata resistant and privacy-centric, we also want to provide notifications without using the Google push notification service.

The solution for long-running network apps like Cwtch is to put our FFI code into an Android Foreground Service. (And no, it’s not lost on me that the code for our backend is placed in something called a ForegroundService.) With a big of finagling, the WorkManager API allows us to create and manage various types of services including ForegroundServices. This turned out to be a great choice for us, as our gomobile FFI handler happened to already be written in Kotlin, and WorkManager allows us to specify a Kotlin coroutine to be invoked as the service.

If you’d like to follow along, our WorkManager specifications are created in the handleCwtch() method of MainActivity.kt, and the workers themselves are defined in FlwtchWorker.kt.

Our plain ol’ method calls to FFI routines are also upgraded to be made as WorkManager work requests, which allows us to conveniently pass the return values back via the result callback.

One initial call (aptly named Start) gets hijacked by FlwtchWorker to become our eventbus loop. Since FlwtchWorker is a coroutine, it’s easy for it to yield and resume as necessary while waiting for events to be generated. Cwtch’s goroutines can then emit events, which will be picked up by FlwtchWorker and dispatched appropriately.

FlwtchWorker’s eventbus loop is not just a boring forwarder. It needs to check for certain message types that affect the Android state; for example, new message events should typically display notifications that the user can click to go to the appropriate conversation window, even when the app isn’t running in the foreground. When the time does come to forward the event to the app, we use LocalBroadcastManager to get the notification to MainActivity.onIntent. From there, we in turn use Flutter MethodChannels to forward the event data from Kotlin into the frontend’s Flutter engine, where the event finally gets parsed by Dart code that updates the UI as necessary.

Messages and other permanent state are stored on disk by the service, so the frontend doesn’t need to be updated if the app isnt open. However, some things (like dates and unread messages) can then lead to desyncs between the front and back ends, so we check for this at app launch/resume to see if we need to reinitialize Cwtch and/or resync the UI state.

Finally, while implementing these services on Android we observed that WorkManager is very good at persisting old enqueued work, to the point that old workers were even being resumed after app reinstalls! Adding calls to pruneWork() helps mitigate this, as long as the app was shut down gracefully and old jobs were properly canceled. This frequently isn’t the case on Android, however, so as an additional mitigation we found it useful to tag the work with the native library directory name:

private fun getNativeLibDir(): String {
    val ainfo = this.applicationContext.packageManager.getApplicationInfo(
            "im.cwtch.flwtch", // Must be app name
    return ainfo.nativeLibraryDir

…then, whenever the app is launched, we cancel any jobs that aren’t tagged with the correct current library directory. Since this directory name changes between app installs, this technique prevents us from accidentally resuming with an outdated service worker.