Tag Archives: single-page apps

Why we abandoned server generated web pages

1. You’re constantly transporting state back and forth between client and server (and often neglecting to do so).

The next time you’re in GMail, notice something interesting about selecting emails. If you check several emails for a mass operation and then realize you’re not altogether sure about one email, so you click to read it, then you come back out to the list, the same emails are still checked. Now do the same test in an app written in any of the classic Java, PHP, Python, etc. frameworks. In those, when the user clicks on the email to view it:

  1. In all likelihood it was just a link so all of the client-side state (the checked and unchecked checkboxes) is immediately discarded by the browser.
  2. Some “clever” frameworks make that link not really a link, instead, they generate JavaScript client side which invokes a POST (as if a form was submitted), the checkboxes do get submitted to the server, stored somewhere in the user’s session, and then hopefully sent back down with the next request for the page that had the original list of checkboxes. Our links aren’t really links, there’s lots of JavaScript magic going on behind the scenes that most people you work with don’t even begin to understand and, trust me, trust me when I say this… It breaks. And it breaks badly.

2. It’s slow, slow, and did I mention slow?

  1. The development cycle itself is slower. I can throw up a temporary API using a variety of tools (or mock it client side using something like $httpBackend) and start work on the UI immediately. As I make each change I just have to refresh the browser to see my change in place. In fact, if I use tools like the Grunt server the browser refresh is automatically triggered when I save a changed file so I can just glance over at it and evaluate the results without leaving my code.

    Most server side frameworks involve a compilation step of some type (for example, Java’s JSPs are translated to servlets and then those are compiled to a byte code for the VM). Thus I have a longer wait to view each change I make.

  2. If my UI is built client-side with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript then it’s way more efficient because the only data which is being transported back and forth is that sent via the API calls to the server. I don’t have to ship a complete list of all the products wrapped in HTML layout one minute, and then minutes later what is effectively the exact same list (minus one or two and plus one or two) again wrapped in a bunch of HTML formatting. Note: Some of this can carry over to content delivery networks as well because an all static files front-end works really well around the world.
  3. Users get tired of every thing they click upon meaning another trip to the server. If they just looked at that data a minute ago, it may well be in memory locally so showing it again is free. But if I have to go to the server again to get it re-rendered for re-display, I can get really old fast. I think we can all point to a site where we are frequently frustrated by the slow performance.
  4. And why is it slow? Well, because it’s not just persisting data and performing queries on it, it’s also combining that data with HTML templates of some flavor to generate full pages and doing so over and over and over again. More work for the server means more servers needed, more time spent on performance tuning, etc.

3. It’s a more complicated programming model.

  1. If you do a lot of web applications where the pages don’t use any JavaScript to pull data on the fly, validate user’s forms in real time, etc. then that’s great. But if you are then you’ve got a wonderful hybrid going where sometimes you work in one language server side but you also use JavaScript client-side and you’ve got two different models just for one UI.
  2. For many frameworks, lots of middle tier complexity can leak into the pages, making them way more complicated than HTML and thus much harder for designers (and programmers) to work on. I’ve seen this most often in frameworks where designers are expected not to use standard HTML. Instead they’re supposed to use perfect XML where every tag perfectly matches a closing tag and not a bracket is out of place, or they can’t use the <a>, <form>, <input>, etc. tags, instead each has some replacement which is supposed to be used which typically functions about 70% or so the same as the regular tag.
  3. I loved this recent quote about JSF, a technology that I rejected at a previous employer because it was very clear that it was designed by committee and not extracted from real projects (like say Ruby on Rails):

4. Debugging is much more complicated.

Something as simple as how some HTML is rendering may require me to setup a debugger on a server on a remote machine because it is being generated from an intermediate file and data on the server.

With AngularJS or similar JavaScript frameworks, I can first look to see if the data came to the browser without problems. That involves just looking at the JSON I received from my API calls. If that’s good then I can set breakpoints in the JavaScript in the browser to see how the JavaScript code flow is going awry. On data flowing from client to server I can usually just consult the browser to see what was sent and I again know whether I’m looking at a client or server problem.

Software Rants

Mine is not a real software rant, I wrote it tongue-in-cheek after reading one just this week which spun up a bunch of people. Like most of the others, I skipped gracefully past some problems:

  • I still have non-API uses for servers. If I need a CSV or XLS file for download, it’s still way easier to have that generated on the server than to try and craft it client side with JavaScript.
  • I glossed over areas where the server generated web pages have advantages (for example, if your users are developmentally disabled and insist on staying on IE 7 or keeping JavaScript turned off).
  • I also skipped over the fact that there are browsers like older versions of IE where the debuggers are very poor and debugging can be just as painful client-side as it is for server-side.

Every framework that has achieved some level of popularity or notoriety has had its share of famous rants (Rails is a Ghetto, Node.js is stupid, and if you use it, so are you!, Why we left AngularJS which has since been renamed to 5 surprisingly painful things about client-side JS). Somebody doesn’t like the language, the framework, the community which goes with it and in frustration they vent. Sometimes they’re right about their complaints and sometimes they’re wrong, often it’s somewhere in between. Just relax and try to read it with an eye to whether the points being made are good ones and ignore the vitriol.

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6 Tips for building JavaScript apps

I’ve actually built a few JavaScript applications in the new style (AngularJS, Backbone.js, or other front-end JavaScript framework on the front-end and only APIs on the back-end) over the last couple of years. Here are some tips on what I think has worked well on those projects:

  1. Understand this, above all else, the front-end code is not real security! If you’re an American you can understand this via an analogy. The JavaScript code running in the browser is the TSA, it is security theater which exists just to make some user’s experience better. For example, it might hide buttons which the user is not allowed to click. But that doesn’t mean that the user cannot hack the JavaScript to turn on the forbidden button anyway. All of the real security in your application exists at the API layer. It must check every single value passed to it and confirm that the user has the permissions to perform the action he/she is trying to perform before actually doing anything. Likewise, it must not return any information which the logged in user should not have access to. Relying on the JavaScript code to hide part of the data will not work. Put all of your security focus on having a bulletproof API and you will never have real security problems.
  2. People use HTTP error codes to communicate back data for their APIs. In my opinion that’s a really bad idea and often not very adaptable to the actual errors you’re having. Instead use the JSend protocol for all the JSON you return. It’s the same objects you would probably send back today except that it is wrapped with an object that tells you status (‘success’, ‘fail’, or ‘error’) and messages/codes when appropriate because there were errors. Going this route will simplify your JavaScript service calling code and help you differentiate API errors from actual transport layer problems like servers being down or problems on the network.
  3. Don’t try to sequence operations from the front-end. I once answered a question on Stack Overflow where the asker wanted to know about how to sequence a seven step process for paying for something. I answered it once telling how to do it and then again to say never to do that. You should not have your front-end be the conductor and the back-end be the orchestra. If you do, you will be sorry because eventually someone will lose their web connection, close their laptop, or just shut down their browser in the middle of your carefully choreographed sequence. Instead, always try to make API calls from front to back that provide complete units of work, complete transactions with all the information needed for multi-step operations so you won’t end up with only part of an operation completing.
  4. Please, please, please, please don’t do things that break basic conventions in your apps. There’s no reason the user shouldn’t be able to hit the back button or the forward button. It requires very little thought to support (especially if you use modern JavaScript frameworks). Ditto bookmarks and multiple tabs. There shouldn’t be any reason I can’t copy a URL and send it to somebody else or make a bookmark of my location so I can get back to the same spot. Nevertheless, I’ve worked on so many apps over the years where these basic operations acted weird or wouldn’t work at all. Don’t be one of those apps.
  5. Spend some time thinking about what happens when the user sits on a page so long his/her session expires on the server. If you’re following suggestion two above then you can send back a standard error in your JSend and catch it in your JavaScript code. Then just prompt the user to login without ever leaving the page. Likewise, think about what happens when the user clicks on a bookmark in the browser or an email and goes to the site but is not yet logged in.
  6. Please, don’t be afraid to reject some ancient browsers. There’s good code out there to help you do it and make it look nice, but ultimately you’re doing yourself, your users, and everybody else a service if you refuse service for IE 6/7/8 and maybe more than that depending upon your needs.