Computational web services with R programming language

Posted on March 04, 2016 by Robin Neumann

If you encounter computational problems of certain complexity, the R programming language is most probably a good tool of choice to satisfy your needs. The main tasks R was developed for were dealing with large datasets, statistical analysis and computation. Within this area it has become a solid, mature open source platform, widely used in academia.

What I like about R is that the barriers for usage are low: It’s freely available for nearly every major UNIX enviornment and Windows, it can be used within a special stand-alone stable IDE that is very pleasant for beginners or just by the command line if you’re used to.

In addition to that its maturity has grown so far that even people whithout a degree in mathematics or computer science can have access to advanced statistical techniques in a well designed manner for their projects.

Most of a web dev’s day-to-day business possibly lives in another neighborhood. The barycenter of web development is organizing the communication of participants of several distributed systems. Its far more often dealing with applications talking HTTP (the lingua franca of web applications!) to each other than optimizing specific algorithms w.r.t to numerical issues or similar.

But for me the connection of both worlds is very interesting and fruitful: Employing statistical methods can be a benefit for a vast amount of web application types, that’s why it’s interesting to elaborate how this can be achieved. I’d like to describe one possible way here.

A web application in R

The most natural approach would be to implement the desired algorithm and the web application in the same language. As mentioned, R is a swiss knife for mathematical flavoured problems related to data. But in 2016 most web applications were not typically written in R and I admit this felt a bit unfamiliar for me, too.

Thanks to the work that a lot of people who put a lot effort into additional libraries of R it actually is possible and as it turns out it’s not that complicated. Therefore I’d like to explore with you an hello-world example of writing a small web application completely in R. I’d like to share a Hello world!-example of such a web application: It will take a query string from the URL and serves some basic JSON output including that parameter.

We are going to use a library for R named Rook. If you ever have seen some web development code in Ruby, you surely will have faced Rack at some point. Rack is a popular simple web server interface for Ruby. There are more really nice alternatives for doing web application relevant work in R (e.g. Shiny or plumber), but the final point where Rook got me motivated a lot was because it was highly inspired by Rack - and I knew of the power of simplicity of Rack in the Ruby ecosystem. I am very thankful for having Rook since it was exactly what I was looking for my specific problem.

Resources for learning basic R syntax

If you’re looking to learn the absolute basics with R try the free Code School course or have a look at the language definition.

Let’s get started!

(1/5) Installation of R

Installing R on a unixoide system should be pretty easy. My example lives on a Ubuntu machine, so I’ll use this as reference. But you are encouraged trying it on other systems, too. It should be possible!

If you’re running Ubuntu you can install it from the universe sources via

$ sudo apt-get install r-base r-recommended 

Afterwards there will be a binary named R ready for you at th command line. Called without arguments it will open a R console for you. You can exit it by invoking the quit function q()

$ R
> s <- "Hello"
> s
[1] "Hello"
> q()
Save workspace image? [y/n/c]: n

(2/5) Installation of rApache

My example setup uses an Apache2 web server. In addition to the Apache web server we need an extension called rApache. The installation for Ubuntu works this way:

$ sudo add-apt-repository ppa:opencpu/rapache
$ sudo apt-get update
$ sudo apt-get install libapache2-mod-r-base

(3/5) Installation of Rook library

R has its own package/library management system called CRAN, which basically is a network of ftp and web servers delivering R libraries to your machine. To install the library ‘Rook’ from the CRAN package sources, open a R console and type

> install.packages('Rook')

Afterwards you can load the package when needed via

> library('Rook')

You can find detailed information of Rook here in the documentation file.

(4/5) A Hello World example of Rook

Let’s examine how a Rook application has to look like. In the documentation you’ll find

A Rook application is an R reference class object that implements a ’call’ method or an R closure that takes exactly one argument, an environment, and returns a list with three named elements: ‘status’, ‘headers’, and ‘body’.

Here you can see how Rook quotes Rack: An application as a function of something called an environment returning a list of status, header and a body! So basically we need an object we can invoke a function named call on and we need to return a list containing the response data. But wait, let’s have small break here: What does reference class mean?

For historical reasons, R has three distinct object oriented systems built in: S3 classes, S4 classes and so-called Reference classes. Each of these are slightly different and completely distinct to each other. They have in common that these systems are providing (in different ways) object orientation mechanisms for the R language.

Let’s concentrate on Reference Classes, or short refclasses, which are introduced in R v2.12. Even there is complexity under the hood, let’s simply think of it of a way of defining class-like structures in R. We can define a new refclass by

Monkey <- setRefClass("Monkey")

Afterwards one can create instances (“objects”) of a refclass by

leila <- Monkey$new() 

leila is now a ‘Reference class object of class “Monkey”’.

Heading back to the definition of a Rook application this means two things for us: We have to implement our application logic as a function that returns the desired list with status, header information and a response body. Then we need to “attach” this function to a refclass. After this we can construct “instances” of our application that can be used somewhere else.

hello_world <- function(env){
  body <- '<h1>Hello World!</h1>'
    status = 200L,
    headers = list(
      'Content-Type' = 'text/html'
    body = body

application_factory <- setRefClass(
  methods = list(
    call = hello_world

Having this above we cann create an instance of the refclass HelloWord and invoke the function call:

# generate a fresh application
app <- application_factory() 

# Now invoke the application with an empty environment
env <- list() # … just an empty Array
app$call(env) # will return a list with status, header and body

If the whole refclass thing confuses you here’s the good message: You don’t need to state this as explicit as done above. It’s enough to implement the raw logic part as a function returning a list. With having a function hello_rook returning a list of status, header and body you can bind our application to a server by calling Rook::Server$call(hello_rook). The rest is maintained by Rook internally then¹. Here’s a running example:


hello_rook <- function(env){
  query_input <- env$QUERY_STRING

  body <- paste(
      '"status": 200,',
      '"input":"', query_input, '",',

    status = 200L,
    headers = list(
      'Content-Type' = 'application/json'
    body = body


(5/5) Point your Apache server to your R app

We’re almost finished, all pieces of the puzzle are on the table now. To “start” your app you just have to invoke rApache and tell your Apache where to look for the script. Head for your Apache config file (mine is located in /etc/apache2/). Add the following snippet to use rApache to run your Rook script:

LoadModule R_module           /apache/module/path/

<Location /hello_rook>
    SetHandler r-handler
    RFileHandler /home/robin/hello_rook/hello_rook.R

If you visit http://YOUR_HOST_APACHE_WAS_BOUND_TO/hello_rook you can inspect your sample JSON output!

If you visit http://YOUR_HOST_APACHE_WAS_BOUND_TO/hello_rook?Yeah! your JSON input should have reflected your query input “Yeah!”.

Ok. Where to go now?

The problem I’m currently working on is passing data into the R application. You can simply put large CSV files onto the server, loading them with R is pretty natural. But up to now I have not tried to catch and parse POST requests with Rook. R is able to maintain a database connection (e.g. with Postgres), too, but that’s another undiscovered (yet interesting!) area for me 😉

Thanks for reading and happy coding!

¹) In fact I’m not really certain how this works. So finally I decided to document it how I understood it. Maybe that information is not 100% correct. If you know better, I’d be happy if you’d tell me.

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