Internal Pipeline Machinery

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes


The pipeline is a structure containing a sequence of functions (blocks / lambdas) that are called one after another, distributed in phases topologically ordered, with the ability to mutate the sequence and to call the remaining functions in the pipeline and then get back to current block. All the functions are suspending blocks/lambdas, thus the whole pipeline is asynchronous.

Since pipelines contains blocks of code, they can effectively be nested creating sub-pipelines.

Pipelines are being used in ktor as an extension mechanism to plug functionality at the right place. For example, a Ktor application defines three main phases: Infrastructure, Call and Fallback. And the routing feature defines its own nested pipeline inside the application’s call phase.


The simplified API of Pipelines (without some generics, only public members and no bodies), looks like this:

class PipelinePhase(val name: String)
class Pipeline <TSubject : Any, TContext : Any> {
    constructor(vararg phases: PipelinePhase)

    val attributes: Attributes
    fun addPhase(phase: PipelinePhase)
    fun insertPhaseAfter(reference: PipelinePhase, phase: PipelinePhase)
    fun insertPhaseBefore(reference: PipelinePhase, phase: PipelinePhase)
    fun intercept(phase: PipelinePhase, block: suspend PipelineContext.(TSubject) -> Unit)
    fun merge(from: Pipeline)

    suspend fun execute(context: TContext, subject: TSubject): TSubject


Phases are groups of interceptors that can be ordered topologically defining relations between them.

You can define your own pipeline phases like this:

val myPipelinePhase = PipelinePhase("MyPipelinePhase")

You can register phases when constructing the pipeline: Pipeline(phase1, phase2, phase3...)

You can also register your phase later in a pipeline by calling the Pipeline.addPhase method. Or register defining a relation to another phase adjusting the order of the phases by using the Pipeline.insertPhaseAfter and Pipeline.insertPhaseBefore methods defining relations for phases to be topologically sorted.

For example, if you define two phases, and want them to be executed in order, you can:

val phase1 = PipelinePhase("MyPhase1")
val phase2 = PipelinePhase("MyPhase2")
pipeline.insertPhaseAfter(ApplicationCallPipeline.Infrastructure, phase1)
pipeline.insertPhaseAfter(phase1, phase2)

Then you can intercept phases, so your interceptors will be called in that phase, in the order they are registered:

pipeline.intercept(phase1) { println("Phase1[A]") }
pipeline.intercept(phase2) { println("Phase2[A]") }
pipeline.intercept(phase2) { println("Phase2[B]") }
pipeline.intercept(phase1) { println("Phase1[B]") }

Would print:


You can execute the pipeline by calling the execute method providing a context and a subject:

pipeline.execute(context, subject)

You can omit calling the addPhase method when using the insertPhase* methods unless you need to register a Phase that would be otherwise included by calling Pipeline.merge later.
For example if you define a Phase inside a node in the routing feature, and then, in an inner node, try to insert a phase using that one as reference, you would get an exception like io.ktor.pipeline.InvalidPhaseException: Phase Phase('YourPhase') was not registered for this pipeline.
In this case you can just call addPhase so the phase is referenced before merging.

Interceptors and the PipelineContext

When calling Pipeline.intercept you provide a phase where the interception will be appended, and you also have to provide a function/lambda that receives a this: PipelineContext, so you can handle the whatever you need. Inside that context, you have access to a proper typed Context (usually the ApplicationCall) and an optional Subject so you can pass information around to other interceptors. Then there are three methods to control how is going the pipeline to continue the execution.

The context API:

class PipelineContext<TSubject : Any, out TContext : Any>() {
    val context: TContext
    val subject: TSubject
    fun finish()
    suspend fun proceedWith(subject: TSubject): TSubject
    suspend fun proceed(): TSubject

This way, the interceptors can control the flow in the following ways:

  • Throwing an exception: Exception propagates back, and the pipeline is canceled.
  • Calling the proceed or proceedWith functions: The interceptor is suspended, while the rest of the pipeline is executed, and once completed then function is resumed and the code after calling proceed/proceedWith is executed.
  • Calling the finish() function: The pipeline finishes without any exceptions and without executing the rest of the pipeline
  • In other case: the next function is called, or the pipeline finishes if it was last function.

The order of the blocks is determined by the order of phases they are installed into, then by installation order. Phases are defined when the pipeline is created, and can be augmented to add more phases using pipeline.phases

For PipelineContext that has an ApplicationCall as context, there is a convenience extension property call as an alias to context.

The Subject

When executing, the pipeline context also carries a subject: an arbitrary typed generic object TSubject that is being processed.

The subject is accessible from the context as a property with its own name. And it is propagated between interceptors. You can change the instance (for example for immutable subjects) using the PipelineContext.proceedWith(subject) method. When using this method, the pipeline will continue with the new subject instance and will return to the caller with the last instance passed by the pipeline thus effectively allowing to process the subject in later interceptions.

For a pipeline without a subject you can use Unit, for example, since the ApplicationCallPipeline doesn’t require a subject, it use uses Unit.


Pipelines of the same type can be merged. This is done with merge function on a receiving a pipeline. All interceptors from merging the pipeline are added to the receiving pipeline according to their phases.
Pipelines are being merged when there are different points where interceptors can be installed.

One example is the response pipelines that can be intercepted on the application level, on call level, or per route; before we execute a response pipeline we merge them all.

Ktor pipelines


Ktor defines a pipeline without subject, and the ApplicationCall as context defining three phases Infrastructure, Call and Fallback to be executed in that order:

#direction: right fill=#af8 #.fallback: fill=#faa dashed [<call>Call] [<fallback>Fallback] [Infrastructure] then -> [Call] [Call] then -> [Fallback]

The purpose for intercepting each phase:

  • Infrastructure: For generic features that do not complete the call, like the Authentication feature
  • Call: Features and interceptors that are going to complete the call, like the Routing feature
  • Fallback: Features that process unhandled calls in a normal way, and resolve them somehow, like the StatusPages feature.

The code looks like this:

open class ApplicationCallPipeline : Pipeline<Unit, ApplicationCall>(Infrastructure, Call, Fallback) {
    val receivePipeline = ApplicationReceivePipeline()
    val sendPipeline = ApplicationSendPipeline()

    companion object {
        val Infrastructure = PipelinePhase("Infrastructure")
        val Call = PipelinePhase("Call")
        val Fallback = PipelinePhase("Fallback")

This base pipeline is used by the Application and the Routing feature.


A ktor Application is a ApplicationCallPipeline. This is the main pipeline used for web backend applications handling http requests.


The routing feature defines a nested pipeline attached to the Call phase in the Application pipeline. You can get the routing root node pipeline by calling val routing = application.routing {}. Each node in the Route tree defines its own pipeline that is later merged per each route.

By merging the tree pipelines, you can define phases and interceptions at some point in the tree, and then they will be executed in the order defined by the phase relations.

Since Route nodes has its own pipeline and the merge happens later, if you plan to add relations to some phases defined in other ancestor Route nodes, you will have to add them with Pipeline.addPhase in the specific Route node to avoid the io.ktor.pipeline.InvalidPhaseException: Phase Phase('YourPhase') was not registered for this pipeline exception.


Ktor also define other pipelines in some other features.


See PipelineTest for examples.