18 Feb 2018, 17:56

Easier Web Workers

Ever been on a web page and everything feels a bit slow? Delays typing, scrolling, and general interactions with the page? One of the main causes of this is ‘blocking the main thread’. Browsers do their best to keep the rendered contents of a page in sync with the refresh rate of a monitor (generally this is about 60 frames per second). However doing expensive operations in your main thread (i.e. where your everyday JavaScript is executed) has the potential to block it, preventing efficient page rendering and in turn delaying response to user interactivity such as scrolling, inputs, etc.

Thankfully due to the power of Web Workers, we can offload heavy computations to another thread, leaving the main thread for handling rendering and user interactions. Web Worker’s run a JavaScript file as a background thread that that runs as a separate context to the browsers main thread. So how do we construct a worker? Like so:


    const worker = new Worker('worker.js');

Here worker.js is the code that will listen for the message from the workers and perform the specified work.

Workers are pretty flexible, but one core thing you can’t do is access and manipulate the DOM. They also require you to pass data to them and the data is not shared, unless you’re using Transferables. You can natively pass any data that is allowed in the Structured Clone Algorithm to a worker. In practice this means most things minus Functions, Errors and DOM Elements. Here JSON.stringify may bring some performance benefits, although that’s worth testing for your use case first. It is worth mentioning that JSON.stringify also has various types that do not convert including functions, Date objects, regular expressions and undefined.

Since data is not shared, there is a performance overhead copying data to the worker. The exception here is previosuly mentioned Transferables which are ‘zero-copy’ meaning data is transferred to the thread context instead. This can be an order of magnitude faster than copying.

There is a cost to instantiating a Web Worker which will vary from browser and device, but this Mozilla article articulates that you’re looking around the 40ms mark. Communicating over to a Web Worker (postMessage) is fast however, around 0.5ms of latency.

Passing Messages

So what does a the code look like for passing data (a message) to and from a Web Worker look like?


    // In our main JavaScript file

    // Post data
    worker.postMessage("Hello from the main thread!");

    // Receive data
    worker.addEventListener('message', (event) => {
        console.log("Data from worker received: ", event.data);
    }, false);

And then in the Web Worker (say webworker.js) we need a way to receive the message:


    self.addEventListener('message', (event) => {
        console.log("Worker data received from the main thread", event.data);
        // Do what we want with do something with event.data
        self.postMessage(
            `Hello from the Web Worker thread!
             The message received had length: ${event.data.length}`
        );
    }, false);

Here we can see that once the message is received we can manipulate the incoming data as we see fit and send it back with ‘postMessage`.

A simple Web Worker example

To give a more tangible example, I have created an example repository which shows how we can produce large numbers of primes in a Worker whilst maintaining interactivity with the page.

Are there any nice abstraction libraries?

Yes! I have compiled a list of Hello World examples using various popular libraries. Namely:

  • Greenlet - Turn async functions into Web Workers
  • Comlink - Modern abstraction of Web Workers
  • Operative - Simpler callback oriented workers

You can see all of those examples in my GitHub repo here. There are others that might be worth checking out depending on your use case that I haven’t added.

  • promise-worker by Nolan Lawson for simpler promise based workers.
  • Workerize by Jason Miller which is the module level version of greenlet
  • Clooney by Surma; a actor library which builds upon Comlink.

Let’s take a little look at how Greenlet might work. Using ES7 async/await syntax, we get readable code, without sacrificing on functionality. Under the hood greenlet does something pretty cool, it generates an inline Web Worker using URL.createObjectURL and Blob. This allows us to do like so:


    const asyncSieveOfEratosthenes = greenlet(async (limit) => {
        // Code redacted for brevity
    });

    const calculate = document.getElementById("calculatePrimes");
    const message = document.getElementById("showPrimes")

    calculate.addEventListener("click", async () => {
        const n = 100000000;
        message.innerHTML = "Main thread not blocked!";
        // The following async function won't block:
        const totalPrimes = await asyncSieveOfEratosthenes(n);
        calculate.innerText = "Done!"
        message.innerHTML = `${totalPrimes.length} prime numbers calculated!`;
    });

Pretty cool if you ask me!

What about support?

Web Workers are very well supported by all major browsers, so this shouldn’t be an issue:

When to use Web Workers?

Some people may be tempted to try and start moving all there app logic over to a Web Worker. There is no guarantee that this will be any more performant. Web Workers make the most sense when you have heavy processing that would block the main thread and rendering and user interaction. For example, imagine you want to do some intensive number crunching, geometry processing (see for example Turf.js) or deep tree traversal and manipulation. The most useful piece of advice I can give here is profile and benchmark it. If you’re new to profiling, check out this piece on CPU profiling in Chrome.

Fibrelite

I am currently working on a library called Fibrelite which is based off of Jason Millers fantastic greenlet library. The aim is to produce a general purpose library for spinning out async functions as Web Workers, but with a variety of approaches to handling those function calls, for example pooling, prioritising calls or debouncing calls where necessary. This would be beneficial for any situation where both user interactions and intensive calculations are in tandem. I will write a more detailed blog post at a later date, in the mean time, check out a demo here.

18 Feb 2018, 17:56

Implementing the Web Share API in Your App

I was looking into how I might be able to improve the sharing experience on https://scratchthe.world, a digital scratch map PWA that I have been working. One thing I came across recently is the Web Share API, which I thought might be a strong contender for integration. The Web Share API allows for a smoother integration of sharing with popular applications on your mobile device (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger etc). You can see the documentation on MDN here.

The cool thing about the Web Share API is it has such a minimal interface, making it easy to use an implement without complicating your code. To elaborate, it only has one method, share. The method takes an object with the properties title, text, url:

  • title refers to the title of the thing you’re trying to share, you could for example use document.title here if you’re struggling.
  • text is the text that will be shared with the link in the target application
  • url is the link itself.

Unfortunately support mobile support is not ideal; it’s missing on iOS Safari, Samsung Internet and Opera Mini as it stands.

However depending on who you trust (i.e. StatCounter which powers caniuse.com) Chrome for Android accounts for 50%+ of mobile traffic globally. That’s a lot of people that can benefit!

Another nice aspect of the Share API is it is relatively straight forward to implement a fallback, hence my choice to implement it with Scratch the World. In Scratch the World I provide a input with a link to the state of the map for people to share with there friends. If the Web Share API is available I replace that with a share button.

This isn’t the exact code I use (it is based off the Google Developers page linked above) but to give you a feel for the rough approach:


    const setupShareButton = () => {
        const shareButton = document.getElementById("share-button");

        // Add an onclick listener to the element
        shareButton.addEventListener("click", () => {
            console.log("on click");
            if (navigator.share) {
                // If we have web share enabled use that
                useWebShare();
            } else {
                // Else do something else to help people share
                // your content
                useFallback();
            }
        });
    }
    
    const useFallback = () => {
        console.log("Using fallback!");
        const copyPasteUrl = document.getElementById("copy-paste-url");
        copyPasteUrl.style.visibility = "visible";
        // You could add a bar with share buttons for various 
        // social media sites here as another idea
    }
  
    const useWebShare = () => {
        console.log("Using Web Share!");
        // Web Share is promised based so we do .then and .catch
        // after to handle success or failure
        navigator.share({
            title: 'Using webshare!',
            text: 'This is an example of using web share',
            url: 'https://developers.google.com/web',
        })
            .then(() => console.log('Successful share'))
            .catch((error) => console.log('Error sharing', error));
    }

    setupShareButton();

And that’s it! The more complicated bit here is coming up with a nice fallback approach. You could implement sharing workflows for common mediums like Twitter and Facebook for example. Many providers have sharing URLs that you can use to help share your content. You could combine these with Terence Eden’s SuperTinyIcons to create buttons as a performant solution. On a more experimental note, Phil Nash released a Web Component wrapper for links that will default to the Web Share API when available, which is an interesting idea.

Lastly some of you might be wondering what does the Share API look like in practice? Here’s a video of how it shapes up in Scratch the World on Android Chrome:

07 Feb 2018, 19:00

Messaging Between Tabs Using Service Worker

As of late I’ve been thinking a lot about Service Workers (sorry if this is getting boring!), predominantly in relation to the Cache API. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Service Workers are a type of Web Worker that are shared between a domain scope, and can do cool things like intercept network requests and cache them. This is powerful because it means you can improve the performance of your app for commonly accessed assets and even go offline (as the Service Worker acts a network proxy). Alongside caching, Service Workers provide a host for other capabilities for features such as Push Notifications and also syncing data in the background using the Background Sync API. Not too shabby eh?

In this post I want to think about something slightly different. As mentioned Service Workers have this interesting property in that each Service Worker is registered per scope (by default the base location of the Service Worker script). This means multiple ‘clients’ (a “document in a browser context” or more simply tabs and windows) share the same Service Worker.

One side effect of this is that these clients can pass messages to the Service Worker and then propagate down messages to other open clients. I wanted to explore the potential of this capability a little more. I did a bit of research and found this fantastic blog post from Craig Russell about sending messages with Service Workers. I want to expand on Craig’s work to take it a little bit futher into the realm of updating tab state. Under the assumption that we have correctly registered our Service Worker in the page, lets demonstrate how we might achieve basic message passing, and then see what kind of things that might allow us to do.

From the client code we need a function to allow us to post a message to a Service Worker. One misconception is that the data passed needs to be a string, but it can actually be any basic data type that is acceptable by the Structured Clone Algorithm. In short this is pretty much everything except Errors, Functions and DOM nodes. In theory if you needed to pass these things you could use JSON.stringify and JSON.parse but these present their own pitfalls. This aside let see how the message sending works:


function stateToServiceWorker(data){
    if (navigator.serviceWorker && navigator.serviceWorker.controller) {
        navigator.serviceWorker.controller.postMessage(data);
    }
}

So this function covers sending from the client, what about receiving from the client? We could do something like this in our registration code to register for messages from our Service Worker:


if ('serviceWorker' in navigator) {

    navigator.serviceWorker.register('service-worker.js')
        .then(function() {
            return navigator.serviceWorker.ready;
        })
        .then(function(reg) {
            
            // Here we add the event listener for receiving messages
            navigator.serviceWorker.addEventListener('message', function(event){
                console.log(event.data)
            });

        }).catch(function(error) {
            console.error('Service Worker registration error : ', error);
        });

}

This concludes our client side code for sending and receiving messages. Now what about our Service Worker? Firstly lets examine receiving messages:


self.addEventListener('message', function(event){
    // Receive the data from the client
    var data = event.data;

    // The unique ID of the tab
    var clientId = event.source.id 

    // A function that handles the message
    self.syncTabState(data, clientId);
});

Now that we’ve received a message from the client, we need to know how to send it back to potential clients. We could probably inline this code but wanted to break it down for this demonstration:


self.sendTabState = function(client, data){
    // Post data to a specific client
    client.postMessage(data);
}

Greg’s post actually shows how you can send a message back to the client in question if you so wish. This can be done by sending a reference to a MessageChannels ports across and using some nice Promise callback wrapping, but for the sake of simplicity I’m omitting that here.

Now we can send some message to any specific client of our choosing, but how do actually call this function to access all the clients? We could do something like this:


self.syncTabState = function(data, clientId){
    clients.matchAll().then(function(clients) {

        // Loop over all available clients
        clients.forEach(function(client) {

            // No need to update the tab that 
            // sent the data
            if (client.id !== clientId) {
                self.sendTabState(client, data)
            }
           
        })
    })
}

So we’ve shown how to send and receive messages from the Service Worker. What’s the actual use case for this? Well the original idea I had in mind was quite abstract in syncing state across all opened tabs for an application. Let me show you a basic example through the medium of the this suboptimal gif:

Since then I’ve had a deeper think and I believe there might be some more exact/substantial use cases for this technique to consider, especially in the web app space. For example you could sync the state of your application across tabs without the explicit need for polling/websockets, or watching localStorage / IndexDB. Think updating a balance after bank transfer on another tab, or close a EU cookies banner simultaneously across open clients. You could also do things like triggering tabs that are on a specific route to perform some action, like open a specific dialog or hide information that is no longer relevant. Kitson Kelly made the point that this could come into it’s own in more heavy weight / power-user centered applications.

I’d be really opening to hearing other peoples suggestions on the matter, so feel free to drop me a line on Twitter. If you are interested in seeing the code you can check out the GitHub here.