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What it Takes to Render a Complex Web App in Milliseconds

ben profile image Ben Halpern Updated on ・4 min read

There's a lot going on with the dev.to home page, especially when you are logged in. We load the top community posts, the top posts related to the tags and users you follow, the number of reactions and comments on each post, info about top tags, the tags you follow, your profile pic, and of course, all the application code related to actions you might take.

And we do it all really fast.

We believe in the possibility that the web can be virtually instant for all those who use it. Early on, I approached this from the perspective of "we're just serving blog posts, of course it can be instant". But as we've evolved the platform, it has taken a lot more creativity to keep things pretty damn instant.

So what does it take to render an instant home page?

In order to render the request as quickly as possible to all corners of the globe, the HTML request is served directly from a Fastly CDN node. So, if you are located in New York City, your page will be fetched from New York City; if you are in Tokyo, the request will hit the Tokyo server. If you are in Egypt, your request will come from Dubai. Operating and optimizing a global CDN is outside the scope of my expertise, so in general I think in terms of the abstractions the CDN provides.

An issue with this approach is that we need to maintain a high hit rate of the cached content, but we don't know who you are on initial request. We use headers to understand whether you are logged in or not, and this helps us organize the initial page for you and simplify some of our logic; but, of course, it would not be reasonable to cache every unique logged in user. So we make secondary ajax requests in order to serve custom data. When you see your profile picture or information on the page related to you, it was loaded after initial page load. Sometimes this is laggy, and we're always trying to work it out, but the typical experience is solid.

In order to optimize your experience when we can, we store some of your information locally when available. So your profile picture in the nav bar and on the home page, and the tags you follow, and some other info, is stored in your browser so it's rendered virtually instantly regardless of network conditions. We still make the request to the origin server every time to double check and ensure the info is fresh. This approach makes the typical request a lot faster than if we did not take this approach.

As I have written about in the past, a big part of eliminating rendering latency is inlining styles and making all JavaScript async. This has been a big part of delivering a great experience. This decision was made a while ago and has been great.

We used to take that approach on each page, but we've since evolved our approach.

Internal navigation

While it's been a great choice to inline styles for ensuring incoming traffic gets a great experience, it's not optimal to send this data over with every instance of internal navigation. We use a form of XHR-based internal navigation similar to Turbolinks, but smaller and more customized. This gives the experience of an extremely performant single-page-application, but most of the logic gets to stay on the server, which I think is a really big win in terms of keeping the code clean and maintainable.

So we only inline styles on requests that are not triggered by internal navigation. To take it a step further, we also stopped sending over the nav bar or the footer. You only get the meat of the page. And yet the backend developer doesn't have to stress about this choice. They only have to know that we can't have different versions of the nav bar on different pages (without invoking special code on the client to do this). This means that internal page request typically measure in about 4-8kb. There are outliers here, like pages with a lot of comments, but we'll iron that out as well.

Progressive Web Apps

Integrating some newer APIs that will improve these aspects even further is next on the docket. Our caching-first architecture is primed to take advantage of these features and I am very excited. Our initial efforts have been to improve performance for everyone, regardless of browser features, and it has set us up well to make good use of the bleeding edge APIs which are growing in browser coverage and becoming more mature overall.

In conclusion

I tried running some rendering tests comparing dev.to and twitter.com and Twitter just never stopped rendering. I waited for seven minutes and the test wouldn't stop. If this post is any indication, I do not have a lot of patience for waiting around. So I'm just going to go ahead and hit publish now. I'll be forced to extrapolate the evidence I do have and assume our site is infinitely faster.

Of course I know that Twitter's product is massively more complex and they serve orders of magnitude more traffic than we ever would. So I'm not trying to boast on any engineering levels, but for any individual user, it doesn't really matter how much overall traffic they serve. The individual will still measure user experience apples to apples. User experience is everything and performance is the biggest factor in user experience in the browser.

Happy coding ✌️

Posted on by:

ben profile

Ben Halpern

@ben

A Canadian software developer who thinks he’s funny. He/Him.

Discussion

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I love the way dev.to loads...its amazingly fast...instantclick(i hope am not wrong)

Looks like i have to read up on how CDN boost up rendering speed

 

It started with InstantClick, but we've made enough adjustments that it's hard to say we still use the library itself. The InstantClick code was copied into our filesystem and hacked on one change at a time. I guess that gets into the philosophical question of how much you can change some software while still referring to the original state by name.

A while back I reached out to the InstantClick author and he hadn't really been keeping up with the project and wasn't really supporting it per se, but I just visited it and it looks like it is getting more support now. Maybe my publicizing it a bit helped kick that into gear.

The CDN is pretty critical to everything for us. CDNs are common practice for rendering static assets, but less so for dynamic pages. For us, though, it's a big part of our caching stack. Fastly provides some really sensible defaults and abstractions but also lets you dive into the Varnish Configuration Languge for customization.

 

Deep dive into varnish. Thanks for the explanation.

 

A: You put your money where your mouth is: This site loads crazy fast!

B: Thank you for the easy github auth!

C: Wow!

 

Thanks for sharing.

I am not so familiar with CDN and I wonder how you are managing how Fastly caches your resources.
By using HTTP headers described here (I only see cache-control:public, no-cache in your response header)?

How do you refresh relevant caches when a content is updated?

 

Indeed, the performance of dev.to is remarkable. Thanks for sharing!

 

When you're in Nigeria. The HTML request comes from Egypt or SA. They're thousands of miles away. Why Nigeria? Why? :(

But dev.to is still fast enough though :)

 

Yes, that is something I wish would improve. As a web dev shop, this is not something we have a lot of control over, but I will try to invoke influence on CDN providers to improve the situation. Mostly asking questions about their current state of things and why it is that way.

For us, as I mentioned, we can treat this as an abstraction layer so as coverage improves at the infrastructure layer, it will improve for us.

Many web experiences serve all their traffic from an origin server, so any attempt at distribution is a good thing. We could, in the future, serve more of the origin server traffic from different distributed apps, but that would take replica databases also be distributed and orchestrate eventual consistency down at the data layer, which is a layer of complexity we're not ready to take on yet.

 

Yes i know it's something that's out of your control.

I'm just wondering why so many "internet-based" companies ignore the traffic in this region.

Nigeria has the largest number of internet users in Africa (More than South Africa and Egypt combined).

Like i said earlier dev.to is fast enough here. So no worries at all :)

Yeah, it strikes me as incredibly short-sited to not serve this region better (or at all!). There's a lot of ignorance and short-sitedness abound, but it still doesn't explain enough why nobody is doing it right.

For what it's worth, I don't think it's totally out of our control. Me and my team are pretty influential, connected, and crazy enough to try things. I would love to have conversations about some of the issues on dev.to and welcome you to start discussion threads or write about any of it. It would really help me orient myself around the unknown unknowns that do make things "out of my control" for the moment.

Maybe you can both contact Andela - andela.com/ ?

I've heard they are pretty connected in Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda, maybe they know someone that can point you in the right direction.

 

Yeah, the images are also served via CDN and optimized like crazy.

 

I'd bet one could make a webpack module (or whatever they're called, I don't use it day-to-day) to inline images. I wonder if it would be faster... Intuition says faster for small images, slower for large ones.

 

dev.to is amazingly fast and speed is one of the best features a product could have.

I would like to know where you are hosted and what stack/frameworks you use.

 
 

Comprehensive article explaining the nitty gritty of making Dev.to instantaneous, Ben!

Could you shed some light on whether you use containers & orchestration (or plan to) from an infra point of view?

 

I love dev.to . It loads amazingly fast and lightweight on browser . No special effects and animations adds extra points and many small articles are very informative .

Simply Superb