|Even Faster Web Sites|
|reviewer||Michael J. Ross|
|summary||Advanced techniques for improving website performance.|
With the eighth chapter, the book shifts gears to focus on network considerations — namely, how to improve the site visitor's experience by optimizing the number of bytes that must be pushed down the wire. In "Scaling with Comet," Dylan Schiemann introduces an emerging set of techniques that Steve Souders describes as "an architecture that goes beyond Ajax to provide high-volume, low-latency communication for real-time applications such as chat and document collaboration" — specifically, by reducing the server-side resources per connection. In Chapter 9, Tony Gentilcore discusses a rather involved problem with using gzip compression — one that negatively impacts at least 15% of Internet users. Even though videos, podcasts, and other audiovisual files consume a lot of the Internet's bandwidth, images are still far more common on websites, and this alone is reason enough for Chapter 10, in which Stoyan Stefanov and Nicole Sullivan explain how to reduce the size of image files without degrading visible quality. They compare the most popular image formats, and also explain alpha transparency and the use of sprites. The only clear improvement that could be made to their presentation is on page 157, where the phrase "named /favicon.ico that sits in the web root" should instead read something like "usually named favicon.ico," since a favicon can have any filename, and can be located anywhere in a site's directory structure.
The lead author returns in Chapter 11, in which he explains how to best divide resources among multiple domains (termed "sharding"). In the subsequent chapter, "Flushing the Document Early," Steve explores the approach of utilizing chunked encoding in order to begin rendering the Web page before its full contents have been downloaded to the browser. The third and final section of the book, devoted to Web browser performance, consists of two chapters, both of whose titles neatly summarize their contents: "Using Iframes Sparingly" and "Simplifying CSS Selectors." That last chapter contains some performance tips that even some of the most experienced CSS wizards may have never heard of before. As with most of the earlier chapters, the narrative tends to be stronger than the illustrations. For instance, Figure 14-5, a multiline chart, is quite misleading, because it appears to depict three values varying over time, when actually each of the ten x-axis coordinates represents a separate major website. A bar chart would obviously have been a much better choice.
Like any first edition of a technical book, this one contains a number of errata (aside from those mentioned earlier): In Figure 1-1, "iteration" is misspelled. On page 23, in the sentence beginning "Thus, if...," the term "was" should instead read "were." In Figures 7-1 and 7-4, the "Global object" box should not contain "num2." On page 95, in the phrase "the terminal condition evaluates to true," that instead should read "false." On page 147, in the sentence beginning "However, the same icon...," the "was" should instead read "were." On page 214, "Web-Pagetest. AOL" should instead read "Web-Pagetest, then AOL," because the first sentence is one long absolute phrase (i.e., lacking a finite noun and verb).
All of these defects can be easily corrected in future printings. What will probably need to wait for a second edition, are improvements to the figures that are in need of replacement or clarification. What the publisher can rectify immediately — should the author and O'Reilly choose to do so — would be to make all of the example source code available for download.
Even though this book is decidedly longer than High Performance Web Sites, and has many more contributing authors, it does not appear to contain as much actionable information as his predecessor — at least for small- to medium-sized websites, which probably make up the majority of all sites on the Web. Even though such methodologies as Comet, Doloto, and Web Workers appear impressive, one has to wonder just how many real-world websites can justify the development and maintenance costs of implementing them, and whether their overhead could easily outweigh any possible benefits. Naturally, these are the sorts of questions that are best answered through equally hard-nosed experimentation — as exemplified by Steve Souders's admirable emphasis upon proving what techniques really work.
Fortunately, none of this detracts from the application development and optimization knowledge presented in the book. With its no-nonsense analysis of Internet performance hurdles, and balanced recommendations of the most promising solutions, Even Faster Web Sites truly delivers on its title's promise to help Web developers wring even more speed out of their websites.
Michael J. Ross is a freelance Web developer and writer.
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