This page was written to show how streaming can speed up applications. The examples illustrated show web interfaces using AJAX to pull in new data but the same techniques would apply equally well anywhere that REST is used.

Stream any JSON REST resource

Let’s start by examining the standard pattern found on most AJAX-powered sites. We have a client-side web application and a service that provides it with data. The page isn’t updated until the response completes:

Oboe is different from most streaming JSON libraries since the JSON does not have to follow a special format. On a good connection there isn’t a lot of time to save but it is likely that progressive display in itself will improve the perception of performance:

With a slower connection or larger data the improvement is more significant.

Transmit fluently over mobile

Mobile networks today are high-bandwidth but can also be high-latency and come with inconsistent packet delivery times. This is why buffered content like streaming HD video plays fluidly but web surfing still feels laggy. The visualisation below approximates a medium-sized download on a mobile network:

Oboe.js makes it easy for the programmer to use chunks from the response as soon as they arrive. This helps webapps to feel faster when running over mobile networks:

Handle dropped connections with grace

Oboe.js provides improved tolerance if a connection is lost before the response completes. Most AJAX frameworks equate a dropped connection with total failure and discard the partially transferred data, even if 90% was received correctly.

We can handle this situation better by using the partially transferred data instead of throwing it away. Given an incremental approach to parsing, using partial data follows naturally without requiring any extra programming.

In the next visualisation we have a mobile connection which fails when the user enters a building:

Because Oboe.js views the HTTP response as a series of small, useful parts, when a connection is lost it is simply the case that some parts were successful and were used already, while others did not arrive. Fault tolerance comes for free.

In the example below the client is smart enough so that when the network comes back it only requests the data that was missed on the first attempt:

Streamline resource aggregation

It is a common pattern for web clients to retrieve data through a middle tier. Nodes in the middle tier connect to multiple back-end services and create a single, aggregated response by combining their data.

The visualisation below shows an example without streaming. Origin 1 is slower than Origin 2 but the aggregator is forced to respond at the speed of the slowest service:

We can speed this scenario up by using Oboe.js to load data in the aggregator and the client. The aggregator dispatches the data as soon as it has it and the client displays the data as soon as it is arrives.

Despite being a stream, the aggregator’s output is 100% valid JSON so it remains compatible with standard AJAX tools. A client using a streaming parser like Oboe.js consumes the resource as a stream but a more traditional client has no problem reading it as a static resource.

In a Java stack this could also be implemented by using GSON in the middle tier.

Step outside the trade-off between big and small JSON

There is often a tradeoff using traditional REST clients:

  • Request too much data and the application feels unresponsive because each request takes some time to download.
  • Request less and, while the first data is handled earlier, more requests are needed, meaning a greater http overhead and more time overall.

Oboe.js breaks out of the tradeoff by beating both. Large resources load just as responsively as smaller ones so the developer can request more and let it stream.

In the visualisation below three rival clients connect to the same server. The top client requests a lot of data, the middle a little data twice, and the bottom a lot using Oboe.js:

Send historic and live data using the same transport

It is a common pattern in web interfaces to fetch existing data and then keep the page updated with ‘live’ events as they happen. We traditionally use two transports here but wouldn’t our day be easier if we didn’t have to program distinct cases?

In the example below the message server intentionally writes a JSON response that never completes. It starts by writing out the existing messages as a chunk and then continues to write out new ones as they happen. The only difference between ‘old’ and ‘new’ data is timing:

Publish cacheable, streamed content

Above we had a service where the response intentionally never completes. Here we will consider a slightly different case: JSON that streams to reflect live events but which eventually ends.

Most streaming HTTP techniques like Websockets intentionally avoid caches and proxies. Oboe.js is different; by taking a REST-based approach to streaming it remains compatible with HTTP intermediaries and can take advantage of caches to better distribute the content.

The visualisation below is based on a cartogram taken from Wikipedia and simulates each state’s results being announced in the 2012 United States presidential election. Time is sped up so that hours are condensed into seconds.

This won’t work for every use case. Websockets remains the better choice where live data after-the-fact is no longer interesting. REST-based Cacheable streaming works best for cases where the live data is not specific to a single user and remains interesting as it ages.

What downsides?

Because it is a pure Javascript parser, Oboe.js requires more CPU time than JSON.parse. Oboe.js works marginally more slowly for small messages that load very quickly but for most real-world cases using i/o effectively beats optimising CPU time.

SAX parsers require less memory than Oboe’s pattern-based parsing model because they do not build up a parse tree. See Oboe.js vs SAX vs DOM.

If in doubt, benchmark, but don’t forget to use the real internet, including mobile, and think about perceptual performance.

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