Multipart requests

Multipart originates from MIME, an Internet standard that extends the format of emails.

A multipart message is a list of parts. A part contains headers and a body. The body of the parts may be of any media type, and contain text or binary data. It is possible for parts to contain a multipart media type.

In the context of HTTP, multipart is most often used with the multipart/form-data media type. It is what browsers use to upload files through HTML forms.

The multipart/byteranges is also common. It is the media type used to send arbitrary bytes from a resource, enabling clients to resume downloads.


In the normal case, when a form is submitted, the browser will use the application/x-www-form-urlencoded content-type. This type is just a list of keys and values and is therefore not fit for uploading files.

That's where the multipart/form-data content-type comes in. When the form is configured to use this content-type, the browser will create a multipart message where each part corresponds to a field on the form. For files, it also adds some metadata in the part headers, like the file name.

A form with a text input, a file input and a select choice box will result in a multipart message with three parts, one for each field.

The browser does its best to determine the media type of the files it sends this way, but you should not rely on it for determining the contents of the file. Proper investigation of the contents is recommended.

Checking for multipart messages

The content-type header indicates the presence of a multipart message:

{<<"multipart">>, <<"form-data">>, _}
    = cowboy_req:parse_header(<<"content-type">>, Req).

Reading a multipart message

Cowboy provides two sets of functions for reading request bodies as multipart messages.

The cowboy_req:read_part/1,2 functions return the next part's headers, if any.

The cowboy_req:read_part_body/1,2 functions return the current part's body. For large bodies you may need to call the function multiple times.

To read a multipart message you need to iterate over all its parts:

multipart(Req0) ->
    case cowboy_req:read_part(Req0) of
        {ok, _Headers, Req1} ->
            {ok, _Body, Req} = cowboy_req:read_part_body(Req1),
        {done, Req} ->

When part bodies are too large, Cowboy will return a more tuple, and allow you to loop until the part body has been fully read.

The function cow_multipart:form_data/1 can be used to quickly obtain information about a part from a multipart/form-data message. The function returns a data or a file tuple depending on whether this is a normal field or a file being uploaded.

The following snippet will use this function and use different strategies depending on whether the part is a file:

multipart(Req0) ->
    case cowboy_req:read_part(Req0) of
        {ok, Headers, Req1} ->
            Req = case cow_multipart:form_data(Headers) of
                {data, _FieldName} ->
                    {ok, _Body, Req2} = cowboy_req:read_part_body(Req1),
                {file, _FieldName, _Filename, _CType} ->
        {done, Req} ->

stream_file(Req0) ->
    case cowboy_req:read_part_body(Req0) of
        {ok, _LastBodyChunk, Req} ->
        {more, _BodyChunk, Req} ->

Both the part header and body reading functions can take options that will be given to the request body reading functions. By default, cowboy_req:read_part/1 reads up to 64KB for up to 5 seconds. cowboy_req:read_part_body/1 has the same defaults as cowboy_req:read_body/1.

To change the defaults for part headers:

cowboy_req:read_part(Req, #{length => 128000}).

And for part bodies:

cowboy_req:read_part_body(Req, #{length => 1000000, period => 7000}).

Skipping unwanted parts

Part bodies do not have to be read. Cowboy will automatically skip it when you request the next part's body.

The following snippet reads all part headers and skips all bodies:

multipart(Req0) ->
    case cowboy_req:read_part(Req0) of
        {ok, _Headers, Req} ->
        {done, Req} ->

Similarly, if you start reading the body and it ends up being too big, you can simply continue with the next part. Cowboy will automatically skip what remains.

While Cowboy can skip part bodies automatically, the read rate is not configurable. Depending on your application you may want to skip manually, in particular if you observe poor performance while skipping.

You do not have to read all parts either. You can stop reading as soon as you find the data you need.

Cowboy 2.12 User Guide


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