Sunday, May 29, 2011

How a web page loads

The major web browsers load web pages in basically the same way. This process is known as parsing and is described by the HTML5 specification. A high-level understanding of this process is critical to writing web pages that load efficiently.

Parsing overview

As chunks of the HTML source become available from the network (or cache, filesystem, etc), they are streamed to the HTML parser. Next, in a process known as tokenization, the parser iterates through the source generating a token for (most notably) each start tag, end tag and character outside of a tag.

For example the input source <b>hello</b> yields 7 tokens:

start-tag { name: b }
character { data: h }
character { data: e }
character { data: l }
character { data: l }
character { data: o }
end-tag { name: b }

After each token is generated it is serially passed to the next major subsystem: the tree builder. The tree builder dynamically modifies the Document's DOM tree to reflect the new token.

The 7 input tokens above yield the following DOM tree:

<html>
  <head>
  <body>
    <b>
      "hello"

Fetching subresources

A frequent operation performed by the tree builder is creating a new HTML element and inserting it into the Document. It is at the point of insertion that HTML elements which load subresources begin fetching the subresource.

Running scripts

This parsing algorithm seems to translate HTML source into a DOM tree as efficiently as possible. That is, except for one wrinkle: scripts. When the tree builder encounters an end-tag token for a script, it must serially execute the script before parsing can continue (unless the associated script start-tag has the defer or async attribute).

There are two significant preconditions which must be fulfilled before a script can execute:

  1. If the script is external its source must be fully downloaded.
  2. For any script, all stylesheets in the document must be fully downloaded.

This means often the parser must idly wait while scripts and stylesheets are downloaded.

Why must parsing halt?
Well, a script may document.write something which affects further parsing or it may query something about the DOM which would yield incorrect results if parsing had continued (for instance the number of image elements in the DOM).

Why wait for stylesheets?

A script may expect to access the CSSOM directly or it may query an attribute of a DOM node which depends on the stylesheet (for example, how wide is a certain <table>).

Is it inefficient to block parsing?

Yes. Subresource download times often have a large constant factor limited by round trip time. This means it is faster to download two resources in parallel than to download the same two in serial. More obviously, the browser is also free to do CPU work while waiting on the network. For these reasons it is critical to efficient loading of a web page that subresource fetches are initiated as soon as possible. When parsing is blocked, the tree builder is not able to insert subsequent elements into the DOM, and thus subsequent subresource downloads are not initiated even if the HTML source which includes them is already available to the parser.

Mitigating blocking

As I've blogged previously, when the parser becomes blocked WebKit will run a lightweight parser known as the preload scanner. It mitigates the blocking problem by scanning ahead and fetching certain subresource that may be required. Other browsers employ similar techniques.

It is important to note that even with preload scanning, parsing is still blocked. Nodes cannot be added to the DOM tree. Although I haven't covered how a DOM tree becomes a render tree, layout or painting, it should be obvious that before a node is in the DOM tree it cannot be painted to the screen.

Finishing parsing

After the entire source has been parsed, first all deferred scripts will be executed (waiting for their source and all pending stylesheets to download). Their completion triggers the DOMContentLoaded event to be fired. Next, the parser will wait for any pending async scripts to finish loading and executing. Finally, once all subresources have finished downloading, the window's load event will be fired and parsing is complete.

Takeaway

With this understanding, it becomes clear how important it is to carefully consider where and how stylesheets and scripts are included in the document. Those decisions can have a significant impact on the efficiency of the page load.

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