Book Review - High Performance Web Sites: Essential Knowledge for Front-End Engineers

October 26, 2007

Coffee in 30 seconds? A sandwich in a minutes? A web page which loads in 2 minutes? Unacceptable..

With ultra fast broadband connections available to an increasing number of Internet users, the bottleneck of fast page loads has shifted from the users to the content providers.

In a survey done on regular users of the Internet, it was found that the users are more inclined to remain on a page that loads quickly even if there is better content available on another site. So it is becoming increasingly important that web pages are served fast or risk turning the users away from your site.

Most sites today can be improved heavily to gain significant performance improvement. And to aide in this, O' Reilly Media has released the book High Performance Web Sites, authored by Steve Souders, Chief Performance Yahoo!

The book details 14 rules or guidelines on optimizing your website for performance. The rules vary from changing web server configurations to modifying the web site infrastructure to tweaking the site front end. The book explains these rules by referencing 10 of the most popular and heavily trafficked web sites, providing details of potential performance bottlenecks and tips for improving their speed.

Most of the rules can be used by any webmasters to wishing to improve the performance of her site; though some of the rules are aimed at very large and/or very popular sites. The simplest rules require minor front end UI changes like rearranging the order of inclusion of Javascript and CSS files in a web page while another others require the use of a content delivery network (CDN) or other infrastructure changes. It is obviously simpler to implement the former and research tells that they provide a higher performance benefit as well relatively considering the effort and cost involved.

The book also delves on improving the speed of Javascript heavy pages, which affects sites making use of Ajax heavily. With an increasing number of sites becoming richer in Javascript, this is a fairly important chapter and so should have been a little more detailed.

Overall, the book is very good and explains in detail rules which might seem obvious but which not many follow or even know of. The chapters are arranged in a good logical order and of reasonable length each though some could have been a little more detailed. I read some of the chapters more than once to appreciate them in full. Another feature, which might be good or bad depending on perspective is that the book is mostly code and application (eg. Web server) agnostic except when specific examples were essential.

The book is also provided with online examples for each topic being discussed. The examples have two parts. Traditional implementation and with the performance rule being discussed applied to the example. So users can compare the effect of the rule by themselves.

All in all, the book is very useful and essential to improve the performance of your web site from the frond-end perspective. The rules in this book, if applied will give you a significant performance boost.

Steve Souders is the chief performance Yahoo! and advises various teams across Yahoo! on how to improve performance of their applications. He is also the author of YSlow, a Firebug extension (yes an extension for an extension) which tests a site in terms of the rules detailed in the book.

AJ is a wanderer on the net currently working as a programmer to fuel those wanderings. He also blogs his personal thoughts and reads a lot.
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