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Subscriptions and Message Passing

This section explains how Threat Bus manages subscriptions and describes the message passing flow between subscribers. The document addresses developers who are interested in contributing to Threat Bus or otherwise want to learn about the runtime internals.

Separation of Concerns#

Threat Bus and all plugins are implemented with python threads and thread-safe, synchronized queues. The main loop of Threat Bus must never be blocked. All plugins should implement the StoppableWorker base class to model busy work. Implementing that class also facilitates a graceful shutdown. Please refer to the docs about developing plugins for more on this topic.

As plugins run in their own threads and are not aware of each other, Threat Bus uses queues to enable communication between them. On start-up, Threat Bus creates one global queue for incoming messages. Let's call it inq. Threat Bus passes a reference to this queue to all installed plugins — backbone and application plugins alike. Per convention, only application plugins write to the inq, while backbone plugins consume messages from it.

Subscription Flow#

Threat Bus provides two callbacks to all application plugins for subscribing and unsubscribing apps. You can find their implementation in the entry point of the Threat Bus application. The signature of the callbacks looks as follows.

subscribe(topic: str, q: JoinableQueue, time_delta: timedelta = None)
unsubscribe(topic: str, q: JoinableQueue)

Applications (e.g., a Zeek instance) un/subscribe from/to Threat Bus via an application plugin (e.g., threatbus-zeek offers a broker endpoint for Zeek instances to connect with). All communication between application and app plugin uses an app-specific message format. In our example, Zeek sends broker messages.

The application plugin transforms received messages from the app-specific message format and invokes the corresponding callback for un/subscribing.


This message format mapping is the same for all kinds of messages exchanged between apps and app plugins, be it un/subscriptions or security content.


Subscribing requires passing a topic and an optional integer for requesting a snapshot of historic indicators. Application plugins create a new queue for every subscription they receive from an app. Let's call that queue outq_1.

Backbones provision incoming messages from the global inq to all subscribers (all the many outq_ns). But how do backbones become aware of new queues?

This is done via the subscribe callback. Application plugins pass the subscribed topic along with the newly created outq_x to Threat Bus. Threat Bus then instructs all registered backbones to provision messages for the requested topic to the new queue (outq_1 in our example).

Once subscribed, application plugins read from the outqs they created. The plugins are responsible to forward all messages that appear in any given outq to the subscribed app. How that is done, for example over the wire, is implementation specific logic and handled by the plugin (e.g., via broker to a Zeek instance or via ZeroMQ to VAST).


Unsubscription works just as subscription, via a callback to Threat Bus. A subscribed app, e.g., a Zeek instance, unsubscribes at the responsible app plugin using the app-specific format (broker in this case). The plugin parses the request, extracts the topic the app wishes to unsubscribe from, and forwards that topic along with the corresponding outq_x of the subscriber to Threat Bus via the unsubscribe() callback shown above. Threat Bus then instructs all backbones to forget about the said outq_x.

Message Passing#

This section outlines how messages flow through Threat Bus on the example of two already subscribed applications -- the OpenCTI connector and Zeek.

In our example, Threat Bus is equipped with three plugins:

  • threatbus-zeek for communicating with Zeek instances via broker.
  • threatbus-zmq for communicating via ZeroMQ (i.e., with the opencti-connector).
  • threatbus-inmem for having a simple, in-memory backbone.

A Zeek instance has already subscribed to Threat Bus via the threatbus-zeek plugin's broker endpoint. It is subscribed to the topic stix2/indicator and an appropriate outq is already created (see the Subscription Flow above).

Let's assume the opencti-connector sends a STIX-2 indicator to Threat Bus via ZeroMQ. The message arrives at the threatbus-zmq plugin. Format conversion is not required, because the message is already in STIX-2 format. The plugin now puts this message in the global inq.

In another thread, the threatbus-inmem plugin continuously reads from the inq. It is also aware of the subscription from the Zeek instance for the topic stix2/indicator. Because the incoming message is of exactly that type, the backbone clones the message from the inq and puts it into the outq.

The threatbus-zeek plugin (again in another thread) continuously monitors all outqs of its subscribed Zeek instances. Once the new message arrives in the outq threatbus-zeek maps the STIX-2 indicator to a broker compatible format before sending it out to the appropriate Zeek instance.

Finally, the Zeek instance receives the message and can ingest it into its intel framework. Should Zeek generate a sighting now, the message would similarly flow all the way back into OpenCTI, just reversing the flow.