Velocity Europe 2016 and the people who are making the web faster

A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to accompany several of my colleagues to O’Reilly’s Velocity Europe conference, which this year was held in Amsterdam.

Velocity isn’t just about making the web faster – it’s also about efficient, effective devops practices. But although web performance is just one aspect of Velocity, it has still been the place to go if you’re interested in building faster websites.

This is thanks in no small part to the efforts of web performance legend Steve Souders, author of High Performance Web Sites, who is widely regarded as the man who set the web performance ball rolling. This was actually Steve’s final stint as co-chair of Velocity, and his influence is sure to be missed.

HTTP/2 – does it live up to expectations?

There were a couple of recurring themes at the conference. HTTP/2 (now, thankfully, commonly abbreviated to H2) came up quite a bit. Although it’s been around for a while, people are now starting to get to grips with how it’s affecting performance in the real world – is it everything we hoped it would be? In some ways, the answer is seems to be ‘no’. Server push, for example, looked like (and may yet prove to be) one of the most promising features of H2. By delivering resources before the client requested them, it could make use of what would otherwise have been idle bandwidth and ‘warm up’ TCP connections (helping to overcome slow start).

This was covered in a number of excellent talks by Yoav Weiss (Akamai), Kazuho Oku (DeNA), Colin Bendell (Akamai), and Michael Gooding and Javier Garza (again, from Akamai). All highlighted problems with server push – in some circumstances, for example, trying to push CSS or JavaScript early could lead to the HTML being delivered late, delaying the rendering of the page. Another fly in the ointment was the fact that browsers aren’t (yet) able to abort downloads for cached resources. Fortunately, solutions for this and one or two other H2 issues might not be too far away – see the cache digests proposal from Kazuho, for example: https://tools.ietf.org/html/draft-kazuho-h2-cache-digest-00.

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Colin Bendell of Akamai introduces canipush.com, testing browser capabilities

Progressive web apps

Another hot topic was progressive web apps, and this was the subject of Jason Grigsby’s (co-founder of Cloud Four) keynote on day one. Although he sought to play down some of the hype around the subject, it was hard not to be enthused. Despite gaps in support for some of the key features of web apps ­– notably, service workers in Safari – the characteristics of web apps sum up many of the performance best practices we should be aiming for anyway. In a sense, he said, they are like a Trojan horse for web performance, a way to bring the importance of performance to the attention of the business.

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Progressive web apps a Trojan horse for web performance – Jason Grigsby

NCC Group’s Andy Davies picked up the theme on day two, showing us how progressive web apps give us the best of both worlds – all the benefits of apps (ease of use, offline operation), with none of the drawbacks (hard to find, resource hungry in terms of storage and updates). He also took us through a practical example, demonstrating a web app he had built to access reports from NCC Group’s monitoring service.

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Andy Davies on the competition between apps and the mobile web

Real-world web performance stories

Other great talks included Lara Hogan’s (Etsy) brilliantly delivered session on image optimisation, Adam Onishi’s (Financial Times) experiences of optimising a new website for the London Web Performance Meetup Group and Cynthia Mai’s (Amazon) presentation on making web performance best practices work on a large scale – and it doesn’t get much larger than Amazon!

These all featured really well-told web performance stories, bringing home the importance of testing, optimising and retesting – because there can be a whole host of reasons why the theory doesn’t always quite work in practice. So a big thank you to all the speakers who were generous enough to share their experiences and their considerable expertise. For those of us involved in delivering web performance consultancy, it’s incredibly helpful to keep up with some of the latest thinking and see how a range of organisations are making their websites faster.

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