FF: Minimizing HTTP Requests

As I mentioned last week, I’ll be talking about a few of my favorite techniques for making websites load faster–the rules and practices that I find interesting and intriguing as a web developer obsessed with a dash of challenge. ;)

One of the best ways to speed up website performance is by reducing the number of HTTP requests the website makes — it’s the first rule in YDN’s Best Practices for Speeding up your Web Site and YSlow, which is arranged according to what technique would have the most impact on your page’s performance. This rule can be quite tedious to do when optimizing a current website/layout, so the best case, really, is to start a project with this in mind.

The article explains it well, so I’ll just quote them (italics mine):

80% of the end-user response time is spent on the front-end. Most of this time is tied up in downloading all the components in the page: images, stylesheets, scripts, Flash, etc. Reducing the number of components in turn reduces the number of HTTP requests required to render the page. This is the key to faster pages.

The use of CSS sprites has been around for quite a while now, and is the best way to reduce the number of HTTP requests to your server. A CSS sprite is basically multiple images combined into one single, larger image, which is then positioned into your HTML elements via CSS.

Can you imagine the conversation between the browser and the server for either case?

Browser: Give me the background for the Index menu item.
Server: Here you go, it will take around 1 second.
Browser: While I’m getting that, can you also get me the background for the Blog menu item?
Server: Here it is, another second for that.
Browser: And let’s not forget the background for the About menu item, too.
Server: Of course, here you go, you’ll get it in a second.

As opposed to when you use a CSS sprite for your menu items:

Browser: Give me the background image for the navigation menu items.
Server: Here you go, it will take a bit less than 2 seconds.

Short and sweet.

Note, however, that if your visitors are predominantly dialup users, this might not be a good rule for you to follow — mostly because you really can’t stuff any more data into that pipe than that pipe can handle. It will take longer for them to download the image, which will affect their perception of the website, as opposed to an image that gets downloaded faster and shows up on their browser faster. Remember those old-school rules about slicing header images? That’s basically rooted in that scenario: dialup can only download so much, so give them a couple parts of the header to download and see immediately. What’s best for your website depends on your target visitors.

There are a couple of CSS sprite tutorials and generators around:

…to name a few. If you’re just getting started with spriting, I’d suggest you create your sprite manually in your preferred image editing application before trying one of the generators and work on something simple like navigation or lists with icons for the first few times. This should give you a better grasp of what happens with a sprite.

Something to keep in mind: sprites will add complexity to maintaining your design. Adding another image to an existing sprite, updating your CSS code to reflect that (and possibly impacting current CSS rules on other images using that same sprite) is slightly more time-consuming than just uploading a new image and a new CSS rule to use that single image. And of course, the more images on a single sprite, the more difficult it is to keep that image and the accompanying CSS rules maintainable. One of the ways to combat this is to organize sprites according to use. As opposed to one über-sprite containing everything and the dust on the coffee table, a sprite for navigation and a sprite for list items separately is easier to maintain and organize.

Good luck with minimizing your HTTP requests!