An introduction to Orbit

Installing Orbit

Orbit is a lightweight framework for Web applications written in Lua. Unlike Sputnik, Orbit gives you the basic tools for constructing applications built on WSAPI. If you want authentication, standard look-and-feel, wiki-like functionality, you are better off starting with Sputnik; but Orbit is a satisfying way to build web applications from scratch.

The easiest way to install Orbit on a Unix machine is using LuaRocks, but here for a change I will assume that you already have Lua for Windows which already has most of the dependencies for Orbit. Then download, unzip it somewhere preserving folder names, and run lua install-orbit.lua from this directory in a command prompt.

The examples in this tutorial are then in the orbit-2.0.2\samples\basic folder.

The Basics

The simplest Orbit application is one that serves up a single HTML page:

-- basic1.lua

-- declaration
module("basic1", package.seeall,

-- handler
function index(web)
  return render_index()

-- dispatch
basic1:dispatch_get(index, "/", "/index")

-- render
function render_index()
   return [[
    <h2>Pretty Easy!</h2>

An Orbit application is a Lua module, declared in the usual way except for the extra ‘’. Lua’s module function can take a number of extra arguments, which are all functions which modify the module table in some way: package.seeall makes the global environment accessible to the module, and adds some extra methods to the new module (you may think of this as ‘inheritance’.)

Any HTML request is mapped onto handler functions - in this case, the result of doing a GET request on ‘/’ or ‘/index’. index just asks render_index to actually generate the HTML for this particular page. You can then run this application using the default Xavante server:

c:\basic> orbit basic1.lua
Starting Orbit server at port 8080

And you can view the result by going to http://localhost:8080 in your favourite browser.

Not perhaps very impressive, seeing as the result could be achieved by a simple static page, but the render function can return any dynamically created string. And this example will work with Xavante, FastCGI or CGI, because Orbit is a WSAPI application.

All the usual web request variables are parsed and available to you. The web variable returned from the handler contains a table GET which has all the parameters passed to the server from a GET request. Call this script with http://localhost:8080/?cat=felix&dog=fido and you will see that cat and dog are fields of web.GET, appropriately translated from URL encoding.

-- basic3.lua

module("basic3", package.seeall,

    local ls = {}
    for k,v in pairs(web.GET) do
        table.insert(ls,('<li>%s = %s</li>'):format(k,v))
    ls = '<ul>'..table.concat(ls,'\n')..'</ul>'
    return ([[
    Web Variables <br/>
end, "/", "/index")

This is not a pretty script; it’s only virtue is that it is short. It is ugly for two basic reasons; first, generating HTML with regular string operations is awkward, and second, it does not separate the logical parts out neatly. The HTML problem will be discussed in the next section, but the next example separates the various operations into their own sections.

This also shows how Orbit can serve up static content as well, in this case anything inside the /images directory:

-- basic2.lua

module("basic2", package.seeall,

function index(web)
  return render_index(collectgarbage("count"))

basic2:dispatch_get(index, "/", "/index")
-- any file in this directory will be served statically
basic2:dispatch_static ("/images/.+")

local template = [[

function render_page(contents)
    return template:format(contents)

function render_index(mem)
   return ([[
    <img src="/images/lua.png"/>
    <h2>Memory used by Lua is %6.0f kB<h2>

Note that dispatch_static is passed a Lua string pattern, not a file mask; in this case, anything in the directory.

We are now presenting true dynamic content (the amount of memory managed by Lua) and made a first start to prettifying the result. It is convenient to only generate the ‘inner’ HTML and use a template to generate the full page, so render_page has been factored out.

Orbit follows the Model-View-Controller (MVC) pattern that separates an application into three distinct parts. The Controller acts as the executive, the Model manages the data, and the View presents the data to the user; here the dispatch rules calls index which uses the renderer render_index to present the HTML form of the data. This pattern comes from a basic principle, Separation of Concerns. You do not want to mix database access, application logic and visual presentation together because the result is not clear and may become unmaintainable quickly.

HTML the Orbit Way

The HTML problem is usually solved using templates, such as Cosmo as discussed in the last article on Sputnik. Orbit provides another option, which is that Lua code can generate HTML:

-- html1.lua

function generate()
    return html {
        head{title "HTML Example"},
            h2{"Here we go again!"}


C:\basic>lua html1.lua
<html ><head ><title >HTML Example</title>></head><body ><h2 >
Here we go again!</h2></body></html>

This certainly reads better if you are used to Lua, but the magic involved needs some explanation. You may imagine that Orbit has introduced a whole bunch of little functions into the module, but this is not how it is done. Instead, orbit.htmlify modifies the environment of the function generate so that any undefined variable is assumed to be a HTML tag and becomes a suitable function. So you can generate anything, even with unknown tags. So if generate was:

function generate()
    return sensors {
        sensor {name="one"},
        sensor {name="two"},

Then the result would be this syntactically valid XML:

<sensors ><sensor name="one"></sensor>
<sensor name="two"></sensor></sensors>

In presenting the resulting markup I’ve inserted a few line breaks for making reading a bit easier. Naturally you might like to beautify the output for debugging purposes; web browsers do not care. HTML Tidy is another option. which will also give you a host of other diagnostic checks.

One problem to watch out for is that a mistyped tag name will give you odd HTML, not a Lua error. And there are some HTML tags which are valid Lua globals, such as table - the solution is to say H(‘table’), etc. But HTML can now be generated without making your eyes bleed, as with the ugly web variables script. This little snippet uses the fact that tag functions take table arguments:

function generate (web)
    local list = {}
    for name,value in pairs(web.GET) do
        table.insert(list,li(name.." = "..value))
    return ul(list)

Any technique can produce over-elaborate code, as this program which generates an HTML form formatted with a table:


function wrap (inner)
    return html{ head(), body(inner) }

function test ()
    return wrap(form (H'table' {
        tr{td"First name",td( input{type='text', name='first'})},
        tr{td"Second name",td(input{type='text', name='second'})},
        tr{ td(input{type='submit', value='Submit!'}),



Not quite eye-bleeding, but getting there! The solution is to capture common patterns in a library. The util module in the basic folder makes for much more readable code:

function show_form (web)
    return wrap(form {
        htable {
            {text("First name",'first')},
            {text("Second name",'second')},
            {submit 'Submit', submit 'Cancel'},

Databases the Orbit Way

Orbit can create an Object-Relational Mapping (ORM) between the tables of a relational database and Lua tables. The restriction is that the SQL table is required to have a numeric key called id. In the following discussion, we must switch between two very different meanings of the word table, so I’ll use ‘array’ to mean ‘an array-like Lua table’ and ‘map’ to mean ‘a hash-like Lua table’.

Consider the following SQL table definition found in the blog example database:

CREATE TABLE blog_post
       "title" VARCHAR(255) DEFAULT NULL,
       "body" TEXT DEFAULT NULL,
       "n_comments" INTEGER DEFAULT NULL,
       "published_at" DATETIME DEFAULT NULL);

This code uses LuaSQL’s sqlite3 driver to dump out a particular row of this table by defining a mapper:

-- ORM1.lua
require "orbit"
require "luasql.sqlite3"
local env = luasql.sqlite3()

function dump (t)
    if #t > 0 then
        for _,row in ipairs(t) do
        for field,value in pairs(t) do
            if type(value) == 'string' then
                value = value:sub(1,60)
        print '-----'

mapper =
mapper.conn = env:connect("../blog/blog.db")
mapper.driver = "sqlite3"
mapper.table_prefix = 'blog_'

posts = mapper:new 'post'  -- maps to blog_post table

-- print out the second post
second = posts:find(2)

published_at    number  1096923480
title   string  The Care And Feeding Of Your Sleeping Bicycle
id  number  2
n_comments  number  0
body    string
Thunder, thunder, thundercats, Ho! Thundercats are on the m

posts:find(2) gets the database row with id equal to 2 and returns a map with corresponding fields and values.

SQL is a more strongly-typed language than Lua, so that both published_at and n_comments are mapped to the number type. However, the mapper does preserve this information in its field meta; for instance, mapper.meta.published_at.type is ‘datetime’.

Orbit’s ORM mappers simplify database access by bridging the gap between the underlying database and the language; the most involved code here is just to dump out Lua maps and arrays.

As always, the interactive prompt is the best way to explore the available mapper methods:

C:\basic>lua -lmapper
Lua 5.1.4  Copyright (C) 1994-2008, PUC-Rio
> posts = mapper:new 'post'
> dump(posts:find_first('n_comments > 0'))
published_at    number  1097769720
title   string  'Star Wars' As Written By A Princess
id      number  4
n_comments      number  1
body    string
Ten years ago a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a

find_first also returns a row, but by an explicit condition; find_all is similar, but returns an array of all matching rows. Note that the condition is a SQL expression, not Lua; this is effectively a more friendly way to create an SQL query:

dump(posts:find_all("id = ? or id = ?",
    {2,4,order = "published_at asc"}))

ORM mapping works particularly nicely with dynamic languages, but there are some downsides. consider the case that the table blog_post had many thousands of rows; the default mapper will grab all the columns, including the potentially rather large body. So opportunities for optimizing queries are lost, if we were only interested in searching the title for a match. It’s possible to reorganize things so that blog_post only contained ‘meta’ data about each post (plus perhaps a short summary) and a new table blog_text would contain the actual text of each post, indexable using the same id.

Putting it Together

The next example will bring together these three concerns: request pattern matching (Controller), ORM mapping to a database (Model) and Orbit htmlification (View). It uses the database from the blog example but presents it in summary form. For each row, it puts out a nicely formatted summary. The actual rows are selected by a user set of keywords.

All our HTML-generating functions begin with ‘render_‘. orbit.htmlify can be called in another way, where you give the module first, and then specify a string pattern to match the functions in the module that you want to htmlify.


Initially, the actual model-controller part of the application is simply this:

function index(web)
  return render_index(posts:find_all())

blog1:dispatch_get(index, "/", "/index")

And the view part:

local function limit (s,maxlen)
    if #s > maxlen then
        return s:sub(1,maxlen)..'...'
        return s

function render_page(contents)
    return html {
        head { title 'Blog Example' },
        body (contents)

function render_post(post)
    return div {
        h3 ( .. ' ' .. post.title),
        p (limit(post.body,128)),
        em('%a %b %d %H:%M %Y',post.published_at)),
        ' ',post.n_comments,' comments'

function render_index(posts)
    local res = {}
    for i,post in ipairs(posts) do
        res[i] = render_post(post)
    return render_page(res)

The heart of the view is render_post, which formats each row from the model. You will only achieve date formatting happiness once you have learned the formating characters for; these are the same as those used in the C strftime function.

All in all, not bad for a 55-line program. The next step is to add simple keyword searching, which takes an extra line:

function index(web)
  local keyword = web.GET.keyword or ''
  if keyword == '' then return {}
    return render_index(posts:find_all('title like ?',{'%'..keyword..'%'}))

The SQL like operator works with patterns, so that finding a title containing the word ‘Chicken’ would be “title like ‘%Chicken%’”, where ‘%’ means ‘any sequence of characters’. The keyword is passed as a GET request variable: enter the following URL to see the results of the search: http://localhost:8080/?keyword=Chicken.

It would be useful to have some user interface, especially when we start passing multiple keywords. render_index becomes:

function render_index(posts)
    local res = {}
    append(res,p (form {
        input {type='text',name='keyword'},
        input {type='submit',value='Submit'},
    append(res,h2(('Found %d posts'):format(#posts)))
    for _,post in ipairs(posts) do
    return render_page(res)

By default, HTML forms submit their values to the same URL as the page, so this works fine.

This introduction was intended to help you begin reading the Orbit samples, documentation and tutorials. In the next in this series, we will discuss building more complicated applications, caching generated pages, and Orbit Pages, which is a powerful Lua-powered template engine for generating HTML.

Steve Donovan

Steve Donovan Steve is a developer in Johannesburg, South Africa. Visit his personal blog.

Published on 22 Dec 2009