Building a Zite Replacement (Part 10)

Posted by Graham Wheeler on Saturday, November 7, 2015

I’ve spent the past few days refining the web server, largely for diagnostic purposes, so it can replace the old TkInter app. I can seen articles for categories or feeds, their rank, and detailed information on why they received particular categories and ranks. This has enabled me to improve the categorization and ranking algorithms. I’m at a point now where I feel I need a lot more sources than the ~4000 I have right now, as well as more categories. The latter is more complex and will take me back to some of my earlier explorations in clustering, etc. The former largely involves mining more of the web to find useful sites.

Currently doing a pull of the ~4000 sites takes several minutes on my low-power server. If I want to scale to 10x or more polling is not ideal. So another change I have needed is to move to a push model. Thankfully that’s possible, through the use of the PubSubHubbub (aka PuSH). This is a Google-designed system whereby publishers can push notifications of updates to central servers that in turn support subscriptions on clients for receiving notifications. There are commercial services for this (Superfeedr seem’s to be the main player here) but there is also a publicly accessible server run by Google.

Using this is fairly straightforward. Here is a simple Python script for subscribing or unsubscribing. You pass in a command (subscribe/unsubscribe), an RSS feed URL you want notfications for, and a callback URL that the PuSH server will call back to, both to confirm the subscription and to send notifications to:

import sys
import urllib
import urllib2

if __name__ == '__main__':
  if len(sys.argv) != 4:
    print "Usage: python (subscribe|unsubscribe) <feed> <callback>" 
    params = {
        'hub.mode': sys.argv[1],
        'hub.verify': 'sync',
        'hub.callback': sys.argv[3],
        'hub.topic': sys.argv[2],

        request = urllib2.Request(
            "",  # Google server
    except Exception as e:
      print '%s failed: %s" % (command, str(e))

You can include a verification token too in the params, and your callback server can verify that to make sure that you did the subscribe request and not someone else.

The other part of this is the callback server. In my case I want to just fold this in to my node server, so I added this code in my routes/index.js file. For now I’m just writing the updates to a file. My callback URL is hostname/pubsub:

router.get('/pubsub', function(req, res) {
  if (req.query['hub.challenge']) {
    // Subscription verification request; send back challenge
  } else {
    // Update notification
    fs.appendFile('pubsub.txt', JSON.stringify(req.body) + '\n',
      function (err) {

You can find full details of the PuSH spec here.