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[Tutorial] Best Practices for Speeding Up Your Web Site (Part-1)


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Minimize HTTP Requests

80% of the end-user response time is spent on the front-end. Most of this time is tied up in downloading all the components in the page: images, stylesheets, scripts, Flash, etc. Reducing the number of components in turn reduces the number of HTTP requests required to render the page. This is the key to faster pages.

One way to reduce the number of components in the page is to simplify the page's design. But is there a way to build pages with richer content while also achieving fast response times? Here are some techniques for reducing the number of HTTP requests, while still supporting rich page designs.

Combined files are a way to reduce the number of HTTP requests by combining all scripts into a single script, and similarly combining all CSS into a single stylesheet. Combining files is more challenging when the scripts and stylesheets vary from page to page, but making this part of your release process improves response times.

CSS Sprites are the preferred method for reducing the number of image requests. Combine your background images into a single image and use the CSS background-image and background-position properties to display the desired image segment.

Image maps combine multiple images into a single image. The overall size is about the same, but reducing the number of HTTP requests speeds up the page. Image maps only work if the images are contiguous in the page, such as a navigation bar. Defining the coordinates of image maps can be tedious and error prone. Using image maps for navigation is not accessible too, so it's not recommended.

Inline images use the data: URL scheme to embed the image data in the actual page. This can increase the size of your HTML document. Combining inline images into your (cached) stylesheets is a way to reduce HTTP requests and avoid increasing the size of your pages. Inline images are not yet supported across all major browsers.

Reducing the number of HTTP requests in your page is the place to start. This is the most important guideline for improving performance for first time visitors. As described in Tenni Theurer's blog post Browser Cache Usage - Exposed!, 40-60% of daily visitors to your site come in with an empty cache. Making your page fast for these first time visitors is key to a better user experience.

Use a Content Delivery Network

The user's proximity to your web server has an impact on response times. Deploying your content across multiple, geographically dispersed servers will make your pages load faster from the user's perspective. But where should you start?

As a first step to implementing geographically dispersed content, don't attempt to redesign your web application to work in a distributed architecture. Depending on the application, changing the architecture could include daunting tasks such as synchronizing session state and replicating database transactions across server locations. Attempts to reduce the distance between users and your content could be delayed by, or never pass, this application architecture step.

Remember that 80-90% of the end-user response time is spent downloading all the components in the page: images, stylesheets, scripts, Flash, etc. This is the Performance Golden Rule. Rather than starting with the difficult task of redesigning your application architecture, it's better to first disperse your static content. This not only achieves a bigger reduction in response times, but it's easier thanks to content delivery networks.

A content delivery network (CDN) is a collection of web servers distributed across multiple locations to deliver content more efficiently to users. The server selected for delivering content to a specific user is typically based on a measure of network proximity. For example, the server with the fewest network hops or the server with the quickest response time is chosen.

Some large Internet companies own their own CDN, but it's cost-effective to use a CDN service provider, such as Akamai Technologies, EdgeCast, or level3. For start-up companies and private web sites, the cost of a CDN service can be prohibitive, but as your target audience grows larger and becomes more global, a CDN is necessary to achieve fast response times. At Yahoo!, properties that moved static content off their application web servers to a CDN (both 3rd party as mentioned above as well as Yahoo’s own CDN) improved end-user response times by 20% or more. Switching to a CDN is a relatively easy code change that will dramatically improve the speed of your web site.

Add an Expires or a Cache-Control Header

There are two aspects to this rule:

For static components: implement "Never expire" policy by setting far future Expires header

For dynamic components: use an appropriate Cache-Control header to help the browser with conditional requests

Web page designs are getting richer and richer, which means more scripts, stylesheets, images, and Flash in the page. A first-time visitor to your page may have to make several HTTP requests, but by using the Expires header you make those components cacheable. This avoids unnecessary HTTP requests on subsequent page views. Expires headers are most often used with images, but they should be used on all components including scripts, stylesheets, and Flash components.

Browsers (and proxies) use a cache to reduce the number and size of HTTP requests, making web pages load faster. A web server uses the Expires header in the HTTP response to tell the client how long a component can be cached. This is a far future Expires header, telling the browser that this response won't be stale until April 15, 2010.

      Expires: Thu, 15 Apr 2010 20:00:00 GMT

If your server is Apache, use the ExpiresDefault directive to set an expiration date relative to the current date. This example of the ExpiresDefault directive sets the Expires date 10 years out from the time of the request.

      ExpiresDefault "access plus 10 years"

Keep in mind, if you use a far future Expires header you have to change the component's filename whenever the component changes. At Yahoo! we often make this step part of the build process: a version number is embedded in the component's filename, for example, yahoo_2.0.6.js.

Using a far future Expires header affects page views only after a user has already visited your site. It has no effect on the number of HTTP requests when a user visits your site for the first time and the browser's cache is empty. Therefore the impact of this performance improvement depends on how often users hit your pages with a primed cache. (A "primed cache" already contains all of the components in the page.) We measured this at Yahoo! and found the number of page views with a primed cache is 75-85%. By using a far future Expires header, you increase the number of components that are cached by the browser and re-used on subsequent page views without sending a single byte over the user's Internet connection.

Gzip Components

The time it takes to transfer an HTTP request and response across the network can be significantly reduced by decisions made by front-end engineers. It's true that the end-user's bandwidth speed, Internet service provider, proximity to peering exchange points, etc. are beyond the control of the development team. But there are other variables that affect response times. Compression reduces response times by reducing the size of the HTTP response.

Starting with HTTP/1.1, web clients indicate support for compression with the Accept-Encoding header in the HTTP request.

      Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate

If the web server sees this header in the request, it may compress the response using one of the methods listed by the client. The web server notifies the web client of this via the Content-Encoding header in the response.

      Content-Encoding: gzip

Gzip is the most popular and effective compression method at this time. It was developed by the GNU project and standardized by RFC 1952. The only other compression format you're likely to see is deflate, but it's less effective and less popular.

Gzipping generally reduces the response size by about 70%. Approximately 90% of today's Internet traffic travels through browsers that claim to support gzip. If you use Apache, the module configuring gzip depends on your version: Apache 1.3 uses mod_gzip while Apache 2.x uses mod_deflate.

There are known issues with browsers and proxies that may cause a mismatch in what the browser expects and what it receives with regard to compressed content. Fortunately, these edge cases are dwindling as the use of older browsers drops off. The Apache modules help out by adding appropriate Vary response headers automatically.

Servers choose what to gzip based on file type, but are typically too limited in what they decide to compress. Most web sites gzip their HTML documents. It's also worthwhile to gzip your scripts and stylesheets, but many web sites miss this opportunity. In fact, it's worthwhile to compress any text response including XML and JSON. Image and PDF files should not be gzipped because they are already compressed. Trying to gzip them not only wastes CPU but can potentially increase file sizes.

Gzipping as many file types as possible is an easy way to reduce page weight and accelerate the user experience.

Put Stylesheets at the Top

While researching performance at Yahoo!, we discovered that moving stylesheets to the document HEAD makes pages appear to be loading faster. This is because putting stylesheets in the HEAD allows the page to render progressively.

Front-end engineers that care about performance want a page to load progressively; that is, we want the browser to display whatever content it has as soon as possible. This is especially important for pages with a lot of content and for users on slower Internet connections. The importance of giving users visual feedback, such as progress indicators, has been well researched and documented. In our case the HTML page is the progress indicator! When the browser loads the page progressively the header, the navigation bar, the logo at the top, etc. all serve as visual feedback for the user who is waiting for the page. This improves the overall user experience.

The problem with putting stylesheets near the bottom of the document is that it prohibits progressive rendering in many browsers, including Internet Explorer. These browsers block rendering to avoid having to redraw elements of the page if their styles change. The user is stuck viewing a blank white page.

The HTML specification clearly states that stylesheets are to be included in the HEAD of the page: "Unlike A, [LINK] may only appear in the HEAD section of a document, although it may appear any number of times." Neither of the alternatives, the blank white screen or flash of unstyled content, are worth the risk. The optimal solution is to follow the HTML specification and load your stylesheets in the document HEAD.

Put Scripts at the Bottom

The problem caused by scripts is that they block parallel downloads. The HTTP/1.1 specification suggests that browsers download no more than two components in parallel per hostname. If you serve your images from multiple hostnames, you can get more than two downloads to occur in parallel. While a script is downloading, however, the browser won't start any other downloads, even on different hostnames.

In some situations it's not easy to move scripts to the bottom. If, for example, the script uses document.write to insert part of the page's content, it can't be moved lower in the page. There might also be scoping issues. In many cases, there are ways to workaround these situations.

An alternative suggestion that often comes up is to use deferred scripts. The DEFER attribute indicates that the script does not contain document.write, and is a clue to browsers that they can continue rendering. Unfortunately, Firefox doesn't support the DEFER attribute. In Internet Explorer, the script may be deferred, but not as much as desired. If a script can be deferred, it can also be moved to the bottom of the page. That will make your web pages load faster.

Avoid CSS Expressions

CSS expressions are a powerful (and dangerous) way to set CSS properties dynamically. They were supported in Internet Explorer starting with version 5, but were deprecated starting with IE8. As an example, the background color could be set to alternate every hour using CSS expressions:

      background-color: expression( (new Date()).getHours()%2 ? "#B8D4FF" : "#F08A00" );

As shown here, the expression method accepts a JavaScript expression. The CSS property is set to the result of evaluating the JavaScript expression. The expression method is ignored by other browsers, so it is useful for setting properties in Internet Explorer needed to create a consistent experience across browsers.

The problem with expressions is that they are evaluated more frequently than most people expect. Not only are they evaluated when the page is rendered and resized, but also when the page is scrolled and even when the user moves the mouse over the page. Adding a counter to the CSS expression allows us to keep track of when and how often a CSS expression is evaluated. Moving the mouse around the page can easily generate more than 10,000 evaluations.

One way to reduce the number of times your CSS expression is evaluated is to use one-time expressions, where the first time the expression is evaluated it sets the style property to an explicit value, which replaces the CSS expression. If the style property must be set dynamically throughout the life of the page, using event handlers instead of CSS expressions is an alternative approach. If you must use CSS expressions, remember that they may be evaluated thousands of times and could affect the performance of your page.

Make JavaScript and CSS External

Many of these performance rules deal with how external components are managed. However, before these considerations arise you should ask a more basic question: Should JavaScript and CSS be contained in external files, or inlined in the page itself?

Using external files in the real world generally produces faster pages because the JavaScript and CSS files are cached by the browser. JavaScript and CSS that are inlined in HTML documents get downloaded every time the HTML document is requested. This reduces the number of HTTP requests that are needed, but increases the size of the HTML document. On the other hand, if the JavaScript and CSS are in external files cached by the browser, the size of the HTML document is reduced without increasing the number of HTTP requests.

The key factor, then, is the frequency with which external JavaScript and CSS components are cached relative to the number of HTML documents requested. This factor, although difficult to quantify, can be gauged using various metrics. If users on your site have multiple page views per session and many of your pages re-use the same scripts and stylesheets, there is a greater potential benefit from cached external files.

Many web sites fall in the middle of these metrics. For these sites, the best solution generally is to deploy the JavaScript and CSS as external files. The only exception where inlining is preferable is with home pages, such as Yahoo!'s front page and My Yahoo!. Home pages that have few (perhaps only one) page view per session may find that inlining JavaScript and CSS results in faster end-user response times.

For front pages that are typically the first of many page views, there are techniques that leverage the reduction of HTTP requests that inlining provides, as well as the caching benefits achieved through using external files. One such technique is to inline JavaScript and CSS in the front page, but dynamically download the external files after the page has finished loading. Subsequent pages would reference the external files that should already be in the browser's cache.


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