Amazon S3, Elgg and external file handling

For the last couple of days I’ve been playing with two things:

  • An API to allow you to use external file services with your Elgg site
  • Amazon’s Simple Storage Service

Amazon S3 is a simple grid storage service with REST and SOAP interfaces. Essentially it means that you don’t need to worry about hard disk space: you pay 20 cents per Gb, plus transfer fees, and get as much contiguous space as you need.

I’ve got S3 up and running on a test site, and it’s both reliable and quick. Obviously for some tasks you don’t want to be grabbing files from an external server all the time, so Elgg will cache files it handles (for a default of an hour). Nonetheless, it’ll allow you to run vast sites on the Elgg platform at a fraction of the cost.

The S3 plugin just slots into your /mod/ folder. I’ll make it available under the GPL soon.

Meanwhile, if you want, you can now write plugins that easily send files elsewhere. There are several steps to this.

Let’s say we want to carve our files into stone using some stonewriting functions we’ve defined elsewhere. Correspondingly, we’re creating a plugin called /mod/stonewriter/.

Every plugin needs a lib.php in its folder, so create that. The function [plugin-name]_pagesetup() is required in every plugin, so create that – however, we’re not writing anything to the screen, so leave it blank:

function stonewriter_pagesetup() {

However, we want to attach ourselves to the file events create (which occurs for a file when it’s been uploaded) and delete (which occurs when it’s about to be deleted). Let’s say we’ll call functions called stonewriter_create() and stonewriter_delete() (for convenience). We can do that with the lines:


(If you wanted, for other purposes, you could also listen for events on objects of type weblog_post and weblog_comment.)

We also want all the files we upload to be written to stone, so we’ll set the default file handler to stonewriter. Additionally, when a file is downloaded by the user in stone tablet form, we’ll use a function called stonewriter_download to return the content.

$CFG->files->default_handler = "stonewriter";
$CFG->files->handler["stonewriter"] = "stonewriter_passthru";

This all goes into the stonewriter_init() function, which is called on page initialisation. So in total we have:

function stonewriter_init() {

global $CFG; // We need access to $CFG so we can set the handler
$CFG->files->default_handler = "stonewriter";
$CFG->files->handler["stonewriter"] = "stonewriter_passthru";


Next, let’s write that stonewriter_create function. Functions called using the event handler always take three parameters: $object_type (a string, which will be “file” in this case); $event (another string, eg “create”); $object (a structure that represents the file as Elgg stores it in its database). You always need to return the $object with any modifications. In this case we’ll also delete the uploaded file from the Elgg filesystem, because it doesn’t need to sit there once we’ve written it to stone tablets.

function stonewriter_create($object_type, $event, $object) {
global $CFG;
@unlink($CFG->dataroot . $object->location);
$object->handler = "stonewriter";
return $object;

And the corresponding delete function:

function stonewriter_delete($object_type, $event, $object) {
return $object;

Our final task is now to write the function that will be called when we want to get the contents of our stone tablets. The file library will call it with the location of the file in $file->location as a parameter:

function stonewriter_passthru($filename) {
$tablet_contents = get_tablet_with_filename($filename);
return $tablet_contents;

And that’s it. I’ve used these hooks to build the S3 plugin using Neurofuzzy’s S3 class, so there isn’t a lot of actual Amazon handling to do.

Even without the file handling, there are clearly lots of things you can do with the event API. One possibility is to alter the contents of a blog post by replacing certain codes with something that’s been defined by your plugin – you might want to write an emoticon plugin, for example. There are plenty of other examples.

This API is in the latest SVN version of Elgg, and we’ll make a new release within the next week. Watch this space.

2 responses to “Amazon S3, Elgg and external file handling”

  1. This ‘looks’ like what I’m hoping to do. I want to put all my profile images on to S3 and serve them off cloud front and skip Elgg altogether.

    However, I can’t work out what you mean by stone tablet?


    • “Stone tablet” was a way of saying “you can include any storage method here”. I literally meant carving data into stone as a facetious example.

      This blog post was based around the old Elgg architecture, but the new Elgg architecture supports this too. I’m no longer working on Elgg, but I recommend you ask in the Elgg community or hit up Marcus Povey with your question.

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