NCC Group’s Web Performance & Optimisation conference – a round-up

Every year, we invite customers to an event that’s dedicated to learning how to make the web faster. This year, the conference took place in London on 14 May, and we were fortunate to have around 100 delegates, plus a number of excellent speakers.

We started with a short introduction from Bob Dowson, director of the Web Performance division, after which Patrick Hamann of the Guardian delivered the first of two keynotes. Titled Breaking News at 1000ms, Patrick’s talk was all about the Guardian’s move to responsive design.

He explained how content was split up into independent “swim lanes”. This not only made it easy to prioritise critical content, it also made the site more resilient. For example, database lookups for non-critical content, such as comments, would no longer be a single point of failure that could prevent an article from being displayed.

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Patrick Hamann on prioritising critical content by creating “swim lanes”

Patrick went into an impressive level of technical detail. Among other things, he showed us how important content could be displayed first by inlining the CSS required to render it. This was radical thinking, flying in the face of received wisdom about separating style from content. But it worked, eliminating the extra network request that would otherwise be required to start rendering the page.

Patrick also pointed out that performance isn’t just about load (or render start) times. It’s also about the performance of the page as the user interacts with it, and he demonstrated how he and his team had been able to minimise “jank” (the juddering effect as you scroll through a page) on the Guardian site.

After Patrick’s keynote, we had a lightning demo from Paul Bianciardi, who showed us some of the latest features of Performance Analyser, as well as giving a few hints about what was in the pipeline for the next few weeks.

We then refuelled with coffee ahead of the next keynote, entitled What Are Third-party Components Doing to Your Site’s Performance? This was delivered by our very own Simon Hearne (Senior Technical Consultant) and Andy Davies (Associate Director).

Using stats from the HTTP Archive, they showed how we’re making more third-party requests and how they appear to be having a detrimental effect on performance. This was illustrated very strikingly on a histogram showing the impact of MVT (multivariate testing) on Speed Index (a measure of how quickly a page renders).

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How multivariate testing affects load time

Andy pointed out that by including third-party content, you’re giving someone else a licence to change your site without going through your control process. Sometimes it goes very wrong. In one case, a third party deployed a new version of a script and, as a result, people using the site were unable to complete purchases for over two hours. Anecdotal evidence suggested that this kind of problem was more common than we might think.

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Andy Davies and Simon Hearne on the power that third parties can have over your site

It was important, Andy said, to audit third-party content, to make sure it’s really adding value and to understand exactly what it’s doing (this isn’t always easy). Andy and Simon finished by saying that we still don’t quite know enough about third parties and that more research needs to be done.

Next, there was another lightning demo – this time Drew Post offered some insights into recent enhancements to the user interface for NCC Group’s monitoring product. He also gave us an overview of how NCC Group’s new real-user monitoring (RUM) product will work.

After a break for lunch, delegates could choose from one of three tracks. One was an introduction to web performance from Professional Services Manager Ben Daniel and me. We ran through why web performance matters, the importance of latency and how a web page is built. We then looked at some of the most common pieces of optimisation advice, based on the performance health checks we’ve delivered over the past year or so.

Another option was the “blatant sales pitch” from Bryan Courtney-Bennett, Associate Director of Sales. We included this because feedback from past events suggested that people actually wanted more information about our own products and services. As a rule, we do try to keep sales out of these events. We take the view that people come to learn about web performance, not to get the hard sell. As a compromise, this year we gave delegates the option to spend an hour with Bryan, learning all about what we have to offer.

Those already using our products could attend a session on using data creatively, with Gareth Hughes, one of our Senior Technical Consultants. He showed delegates how to integrate our monitoring data with an APM solution to get more detailed information about the source of possible performance problems. He also gave a demonstration of how to get Performance Analyser to work with a continuous integration solution (in this case, Jenkins). It’s not just accessing the data that’s important, though – finding useful visual representations is key to making it useful, and he demonstrated how to build dashboards with Graphite and Grafana, using NCC Group’s open source non-interactive dashboard and monitoring API.

We then all made our way back to the main room, where we were treated to three short but incredibly useful presentations from Dave Stott, of Maplin Electronics, Justin Allum, from comparethemarket.com, and Dave Whyte, from Auto Trader.

Dave Stott gave us a frank account of how he and his team managed to turn the Maplin site around – from one that was facing performance challenges over the summer to one that delivered record sales on Black Friday.

Justin then offered up some great insight into what you can and can’t learn from load testing. For example, it’s important to know not just when your site fails under stress testing, but also how it fails and how you recover from that failure. He also looked at the importance of regular testing – results are really only valid up until the point at which you make a change to the system.

Dave Whyte followed with Dozor – a simple, visual tool that monitored all servers and applications, drawing on data from various sources and making it easy to spot and fix issues as they arise.

Dave Stott, Dave Whyte, Justin Allum and Andy Davies then kindly stayed on to form our speaker panel, fielding questions that had been submitted in advance, as well as a few from the audience on the day.

We’re extremely grateful to all our speakers for giving us their valuable time and insight, as well as to everyone who came along on the day and helped to make it a success. We hope to see you again next year. In the meantime, you can view a selection of videos and slides from the event.

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