High Performance Web Sites Essential Knowledge for Frontend Engineers

**** Feb172010

High Performance Web Sites begins by making the case that frontend developers bear a lot of responsibility for optimizing the performance of the sites we build. Sure, sometimes a server is slow or just plain screwy (technical term), but author Steve Souders writes:

If we were able to cut backend response time in half, the end user response time would decrease only 5-10% overall. If, instead, we reduce the frontend performance by half, we would reduce overall response times by 40-45%.

HTTP Overview

Before starting on the 14 rules, Chapter B gives a good overview of how exactly a website gets from the server to your browser, including GET request and response headers, and browser caching. Surprisingly, this is not something you have to know when building websites, but it is helpful when thinking about performance. It’s interesting to check out these response headers for yourself using the Web Developer Toolbar for Firefox.

14 Rules for Speed

The 14 Rules are ordered by “bang-for-the-buck”, and the first one is especially satsifying, because it’s fairly easy to incorporate into your workflow: “Make Fewer HTTP Requests”. This means combining CSS background images into sprites, and combining multiple scripts and stylesheets into single files. Rule 2, “Use a Content Delivery Network”, is the one rule in the top 10 that feels beyond the scope of the small-scale web designer, such as myself.

While most of these optimization rules are straightforward to implement, some, such as #3, “Add an Expires Header” and #4, “GZip Components”, assume some knowledge of Apache server configuration, and the privileges to do it on your web host. For example, the author gives the following directive as an example of setting expires headers:

<FilesMatch "\.(gif|jpg|js|css)$">
  ExpiresDefault "access plus 10 years"

But where does this snippet go? For me, this required some Google searching. (Answer: httpd.conf or .htaccess file).


While you won’t find a lot in this slim volume that you can’t find on the web (especially in Yahoo’s handy reference Best Practices for Speeding up Your Web Site), and you may have to undertake further research to apply some of the rules to your site, it is nonetheless a good addition to your reference shelf.

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Author(s)Steve Souders

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