Beam My Model Up, Scotty!

star-trek-transporter

I know, I know. Scotty is from the original series, and the picture above is from TNG. Unlike Leonard from The Big Bang Theory, I prefer TNG over the original, and also Picard over Kirk. Please refrain from hate mail.

Much of both real and virtual ink has been spilled over Star Trek transporter technology and quirks. Who can forget the episode when Scotty has preserved himself as a transporter pattern in an endless loop only to be found and freed 70 years later by the TNG crew (see, there’s your Scotty-TNG link). But this article is about honouring all the hours I spent on various Star Trek instalments by applying the transporter principles to Web development.

As the Web development collective mind matures, a consensus is forming that spaghetti are great on your dining table but bad for your code. MVC design pattern on the server is just accepted as gravity, and several JavaScript frameworks are claiming it is necessary on the client as well. But is it always?

Here is case in point. Our team recently rebuilt a dashboard – a relatively complex peace of interactive technology. This is our third attempt at it (third time’s the charm, right)? Armed with all the experience of the previous two versions, plus our general desire to pull back from the extreme Ajax, we were confident this would be it. Why build a dashboard? Yes, I know, everybody and his uncle has one, and there are perfectly good all singing, all dancing commercial ones to be had. Here is a counter-question: why do you have a kitchen in your house when you can eat at perfectly good restaurants? Everybody has a dashboard because it is much more convenient to have your own (Google Analytics has one, WordPress I am writing this on has one). They can be simple because they don’t need to cater to all the possible scenarios, and much more tightly integrated. And not to mention cheaper (like eating at home vs. eating out). But I digress.

In the previous version, we sent a lot of JavaScript to the client, and after transporting and parsing it, JavaScript turned around and used XHR to fetch the model from the server as JSON. Then we wired up the model and the view and every time users made a change, we would update the model to keep it in sync. Backbone.js or Angular.js would have come in handy for this, only they didn’t exist when we wrote that code. Plus we hate frameworks.

In this version we wanted the dashboard page to arrive mostly assembled from the server. That part was clear. But we wanted to avoid the MV* complexity and performance consequences if possible. Plus it is really hard to even apply the usual data binding with dashboards because you cannot just wire the template with the model and let the framework do its magic. In a dashboard, the template itself is editable – users can drag and drop widgets around, delete them and add new ones. Essentially both the template and the data are built up from the model. This is not your grandmother’s MVC, that’s for sure.

Then we remembered Star Trek transporters and figured – why don’t we disperse the model and embed the model shards into the DOM as we are building the initial HTML on the server? We were waiting to hit a brick wall at some point, but it didn’t happen – this is an actually viable option. Here is why this approach (I will call it M/V) works for us like a charm:

  1. Obviously it is easy to do on the server – when we are building the initial response, embedding model shards into the HTML is trivial using HTML5 custom data properties (those attributes that start with ‘data-‘).
  2. The model arrives ready to use on the client – no need for an extra request to fetch the model after the fact. OK, Backbone.js has a way of bootstrapping models so that they arrive as payload with the initial response. However, that approach qualifies as CrazyHacks™ at best, and you save nothing payload-wise – the sum of the shards equals one whole model.
  3. When the part of the DOM needs to change due to the user interaction, it is easy to keep the associated ‘data-*’ properties in sync.
  4. When moving entire DOM branches (say, when dragging widgets between columns or changing layouts), model shards stay with their DOM elements – this is a real winner in our use case.
  5. We use DOM custom event bubbling to notify about the change – one listener at the top of the DOM branch is all that is needed to keep track of the sharded model’s dirty state. This helps us to stay lean because there is no need for JavaScript pub/sub implementations that increase size. It is laughably trivial to fire and listen to these events using jQuery, and they are fast, being implemented natively by the browser. Bootstrap uses the same approach.
  6. When the time comes to save, we traverse the DOM, collect the shards and assemble them again into a transient JavaScript object, then send it as JSON to the server via XHR. We use PUT/POST when we have the entire model, but more often the not, the view only renders a fraction of it (lazy loading), so we use PATCH instead.

This approach bought us some unreal savings in performance and size. Right now, we brought down total JavaScript from ~245kB to ~70KB minified gzipped (this includes jQuery, Require.js and Bootstrap). The best part is that this JavaScript loads asynchronously, after the initial content has already been displayed. The page is not only objectively fast, it is subjectively even faster because the initial content (what Twitter team calls ‘time to first tweet’) is sent in the first response.

As it is often the case in life, this approach may not work for everybody. A pattern where true MVC really shines is when you have multiple views listening to the same model. Changing the model updates all the views simultaneously, without the need for the pub/sub hell. But if you have exactly one view and one model, using M/V becomes a real option.

I can hear the collective gasp of architects in the audience. There are many things you can say about M/V, but architecturally pure it is not. But here is the problem. Speed and page size should be a valid architectural concern too. In fact, if you want your Web app to be usable on mobile devices, it is practically the only concern that matters. Nobody is going to wait your architecturally pure pig of a page to load while waiting for coffee – life is too short for 1MB+ web pages, pure or not.

Say No to layer cake, embrace small, live long and prosper!

© Dejan Glozic, 2013

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