Scaling Mixmax: Front-end performance
We moved off Meteor and improved our load time by 87%
Tuesday, May 5th, 2015
Mixmax is a communications platform that brings professional communication & email into the 21st century.
This is the next post in a series on how we scaled Mixmax from a successful prototype to a platform that scales to many thousands of users. In this post, I’ll describe some of the front-end performance bottlenecks we experienced while using the Meteor framework and why we had to move one part of our app off it.
We value performance deeply at Mixmax. It’s also very important to our users. Since Mixmax is deeply integrated within Gmail, our users expect it to behave exactly like the built-in Gmail UI. Our users should never see a loading spinner using Mixmax inside of Gmail, just as you’d never see a loading spinner inside of Gmail itself.
First, a quick primer on Mixmax architecture: Mixmax is a Chrome Extension that replaces your Gmail new email compose window with its own editor, loaded using an iframe. The reason we use an iframe is to keep our code and CSS entirely separate from Gmail and to minimize the failure-prone integration points with Gmail. However, as an iframe, we incur a network round trip cost every time you click the Compose button. That’s why load time and initial rendering performance are absolutely critical to our user experience.
Load time performance was one of our biggest performance complaints. Our time to first render was over 8 seconds (90th percentile). Just having finished migrating our backend to a new microservices architecture, it was now time to rethink the front-end.
Step 1. Time to first byte
Our 90th percentile time to first byte (TTFB) time is 800ms, which is quite fast given that it includes network round trip time of the request and the start of the response. The actual time spent processing server-side is always less than 50ms; the rest is pure network, likely due to the fact that we’re only hosted on the US east coast but have a worldwide audience. We measured this using the following code that sent our TTFB time to Keen.io for processing:
Here is the data from our internal analytics dashboard (built using Keen’s API) of the 98th, 90th, 50th, and 20th percentile TTFB load times:
This is understandably fast since all the server is doing is creating a new Mixmax message object in the database, inlining it in the page (using the Meteor fastrender package), and then returning the boilerplate Meteor HTML page.
The 90th percentile load time between TTFB and DOMContentLoaded was 5 seconds (90th percentile). This is atrociously slow compared to most other web apps. We had our work cut out here; we needed to examine this segment closely.
This segment can be further broken down into two areas:
- Initializing moment-timezone.js - 171ms
- Initializing jquery - 30ms
- Initializing chrono.js - 20ms
- Initializing Iron Router - 20ms
Step 3. From DOMContentLoaded to when the compose view gets rendered
As you can see here, the bottlenecks are:
- Setting up Iron Router (and Meteor Blaze templates) - 75ms. This is where Meteor is setting up data structures for its Blaze templates.
- select2 initialization - 40ms. This is used for our autocomplete ‘to’ field.
- messageview initialization - 25ms. Needed for our own UI (the message view) to render.
How did we fix this?
We came up with three primary goals that would help us address these performance problems:
1. Only load libraries when they’re needed
2. Move off Meteor’s Blaze & Iron Router
3. Use server-side rendering
We chose to architect this new service as close to the metal and bare bones as possible. So we chose a basic Express app with a Backbone front-end. Our new architecture has the following characteristics:
Load libraries separate from application source
In the Meteor world, most packages bring a library with them. Meteor even packages the jQuery source with its own core source. With our new custom architecture, we were able to load all our libraries from popular CDNs where it’s highly likely that the user already has them cached. Additionally, when we push a new version of our app, the users don’t need to re-download these libraries. The
<head> code looks like this:
Lazily load anything and everything we can
As we found out in our analysis, some libraries such as moment.js and chrono.js are very expensive to load. Fortunately, they aren’t required for first render to show anything meaningful to the user. So we are loading them using async script tags at the very end of the page, loaded from a CDN of course:
Chrome also recently made loading async scripts even faster.
Moving to the new architecture was a huge improvement. Our time to first render dropped considerably, from almost 8sec (90th percentile) down to about one second. We also already received great feedback from our users. Some even said it loaded quicker than Gmail’s own compose window.
We certainly miss Meteor in our compose window: reactivity on the front-end, its useful local development toolchain, and the plethora of great packages. But we’ve been able to find or build equivalents to those in our new world of Express and Backbone. However, we’re still using Meteor for our application dashboard where page load time isn’t as important.
We’ll continue to publish followup posts about our journey scaling Mixmax from a successful prototype to a product that scales to many thousands of users. Try it today by adding Mixmax to Gmail.
Want to work on interesting problems like these? Email email@example.com and let’s grab coffee!