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-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 postBrowser 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
- For dynamic components: use an appropriate
Cache-Controlheader 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 allcomponents 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.