Peterbe.com

A blog and website by Peter Bengtsson

My site's now NextJS - And I (almost) regret it already

React, Django, Node, JavaScript

My personal blog was a regular Django website with jQuery (later switched to Cash) for dynamic bits. In December 2021 I rewrote it in NextJS. It was a fun journey and NextJS is great but it's really not without some regrets.

Some flashpoints for note and comparison:

React SSR is awesome

The way infinitely nested comments are rendered is isomorphic now. Before I had to code it once as a Jinja2 template thing and once as a Cash (a fork of jQuery) thing. That's the nice and the promise of JavaScript React and server-side rendering.

JS bloat

The total JS payload is now ~111KB in 16 files. It used to be ~36KB in 7 files. :(

Before

Before

After

After

Data still comes from Django

Like any website, the web pages are made up from A) getting the raw data from a database, B) rendering that data in HTML.
I didn't want to rewrite all the database queries in Node (inside getServerSideProps).

What I did was I moved all the data gathering Django code and put them under a /api/v1/ prefix publishing simple JSON blobs. Then this is exposed on 127.0.0.1:3000 which the Node server fetches. And I wired up that that API endpoint so I can debug it via the web too. E.g. /api/v1/plog/sort-a-javascript-array-by-some-boolean-operation

Now, all I have to do is write some TypeScript interfaces that hopefully match the JSON that comes from Django. For example, here's the getServerSideProps code for getting the data to this page:

const url = `${API_BASE}/api/v1/plog/`;
const response = await fetch(url);
if (!response.ok) {
  throw new Error(`${response.status} on ${url}`);
}
const data: ServerData = await response.json();
const { groups } = data;

return {
  props: {
    groups,
  },
};

I like this pattern! Yes, there are overheads and Node could talk directly to PostgreSQL but the upside is decoupling. And with good outside caching, performance never matters.

Server + CDN > static site generation

I considered full-blown static generation, but it's not an option. My little blog only has about 1,400 blog posts but you can also filter by tags and combinations of tags and pagination of combinations of tags. E.g. /oc-JavaScript/oc-Python/p3 So the total number of pages is probably in the tens of thousands.

So, server-side rendering it is. To accomplish that I set up a very simple Express server. It proxies some stuff over to the Django server (e.g. /rss.xml) and then lets NextJS handle the rest.

import next from "next";
import express from "express";

const app = next();
const handle = app.getRequestHandler();

app
  .prepare()
  .then(() => {
    const server = express();

    server.use(handle);

    server.listen(port, (err) => {
      if (err) throw err;
      console.log(`> Ready on http://localhost:${port}`);
    });
  })

Now, my site is behind a CDN. And technically, it's behind Nginx too where I do some proxy_pass in-memory caching as a second line of defense.
Requests come in like this:

  1. from user to CDN
  2. from CDN to Nginx
  3. from Nginx to Express (proxy_pass)
  4. from Express to next().getRequestHandler()

And I set Cache-Control in res.setHeader("Cache-Control", "public,max-age=86400") from within the getServerSideProps functions in the src/pages/**/*.tsx files. And once that's set, the response will be cached both in Nginx and in the CDN.

Any caching is tricky when you need to do revalidation. Especially when you roll out a new central feature in the core bundle. But I quite like this pattern of a slow-rolling upgrade as individual pages eventually expire throughout the day.

This is a nasty bug with this and I don't yet know how to solve it. Client-side navigation is dependent of hashing. So loading this page, when done with client-side navigation, becomes /_next/data/2ps5rE-K6E39AoF4G6G-0/en/plog.json (no, I don't know how that hashed URL is determined). But if a new deployment happens, the new URL becomes /_next/data/UhK9ANa6t5p5oFg3LZ5dy/en/plog.json so you end up with a 404 because you started on a page based on an old JavaScript bundle, that is now invalid.

Thankfully, NextJS handles it quite gracefully by throwing an error on the 404 so it proceeds with a regular link redirect which takes you away from the old page.

Client-side navigation still sucks. Kinda.

Next has a built-in <Link> component that you use like this:

import Link from "next/link";

...

<Link href={"/plog/" + post.oid}>
  {post.title}
</Link>

Now, clicking any of those links will automatically enable client-side routing. Thankfully, it takes care of preloading the necessary JavaScript (and CSS) simply by hovering over the link, so that when you eventually click it just needs to do an XHR request to get the JSON necessary to be able to render the page within the loaded app (and then do the pushState stuff to change the URL accordingly).

It sounds good in theory but it kinda sucks because unless you have a really good Internet connection (or could be you hit upon a CDN-cold URL), nothing happens when you click. This isn't NextJS's fault, but I wonder if it's actually horribly for users.

Yes, it sucks that a user clicks something but nothing happens. (I think it would be better if it was a button-press and not a link because buttons feel more like an app whereas links have deeply ingrained UX expectations). But most of the time, it's honestly very fast and when it works it's a nice experience. It's a great piece of functionality for more app'y sites, but less good for websites whose most of the traffic comes from direct links or Google searches.

NextJS has built-in critical CSS optimization

Critical inline CSS is critical (pun intended) for web performance. Especially on my poor site where I depend on a bloated (and now ancient) CSS framework called Semantic-UI. Without inline CSS, the minified CSS file would become over 200KB.

In NextJS, to enable inline critical CSS loading you just need to add this to your next.config.js:

    experimental: { optimizeCss: true },

and you have to add critters to your package.json. I've found some bugs with it but nothing I can't work around.

Conclusion and what's next

I'm very familiar and experienced with React but NextJS is new to me. I've managed to miss it all these years. Until now. So there's still a lot to learn. With other frameworks, I've always been comfortable that I don't actually understand how Webpack and Babel work (internally) but at least I understood when and how I was calling/depending on it. Now, with NextJS there's a lot of abstracted magic that I don't quite understand. It's hard to let go of that. It's hard to get powerful tools that are complex and created by large groups of people and understand it all too. If you're desperate to understand exactly how something works, you inevitably have to scale back the amount of stuff you're leveraging. (Note, it might be different if it's absolute core to what you do for work and hack on for 8 hours a day)

The JavaScript bundles in NextJS lazy-load quite decently but it's definitely more bloat than it needs to be. It's up to me to fix it, partially, because much of the JS code on my site is for things that technically can wait such as the interactive commenting form and the auto-complete search.

But here's the rub; my site is not an app. Most traffic comes from people doing a Google search, clicking on my page, and then bugger off. It's quite static that way and who am I to assume that they'll stay and click around and reuse all that loaded JavaScript code.

With that said; I'm going to start an experiment to rewrite the site again in Remix.

Please post a comment if you have thoughts or questions.

Sort a JavaScript array by some boolean operation

JavaScript

Imagine you have an array like this:

const items = [
  { num: 'one', labels: [] },
  { num: 'two', labels: ['foo'] },
  { num: 'three', labels: ['bar'] },
  { num: 'four', labels: ['foo'] },
  { num: 'five', labels: [] },
];

What you want, is to sort them in a way that all those entries that have a label foo come first, but you don't want to "disturb" the existing order. Essentially you want this to be the end result:

{ num: 'two', labels: ['foo'] },
{ num: 'four', labels: ['foo'] },

{ num: 'one', labels: [] },
{ num: 'three', labels: ['bar'] },
{ num: 'five', labels: [] },

Here's a way to do that:

items.sort(
  (itemA, itemB) =>
    Number(itemB.labels.includes('foo')) - Number(itemA.labels.includes('foo'))
);
console.log(items);

And the outcome is:

[
  { num: 'two', labels: [ 'foo' ] },
  { num: 'four', labels: [ 'foo' ] },
  { num: 'one', labels: [] },
  { num: 'three', labels: [ 'bar' ] },
  { num: 'five', labels: [] }
]

The simple trick is to turn then test operation into a number (0 or 1) and you can do that with Number.

Please post a comment if you have thoughts or questions.

Brotli compression quality comparison in the real world

Node, JavaScript

At work, we use Brotli (using the Node builtin zlib) to compress these large .json files to .json.br files. When using zlib.brotliCompress you can set options to override the quality number. Here's an example of it at quality 6:

import { promisify } from 'util'
import zlib from 'zlib'
const brotliCompress = promisify(zlib.brotliCompress)

const options = {
  params: {
    [zlib.constants.BROTLI_PARAM_MODE]: zlib.constants.BROTLI_MODE_TEXT,
    [zlib.constants.BROTLI_PARAM_QUALITY]: 6,
  },
}

export async function compress(data) {
  return brotliCompress(data, options)
}

But what if you mess with that number. Surely, the files will become smaller, but at what cost? Well, I wrote a Node script that measured how long it would take to compress 6 large (~25MB each) .json file synchronously. Then, I put them into a Google spreadsheet and voila:

Size

Total size per level

Time

Total seconds per level

Miles away from rocket science but I thought it was cute to visualize as a way of understanding the quality option.

Please post a comment if you have thoughts or questions.

How to string pad a string in Python with a variable

Python

I just have to write this down because that's the rule; if I find myself googling something basic like this more than once, it's worth blogging about.

Suppose you have a string and you want to pad with empty spaces. You have 2 options:

>>> s = "peter"
>>> s.ljust(10)
'peter     '
>>> f"{s:<10}"
'peter     '

The f-string notation is often more convenient because it can be combined with other formatting directives.
But, suppose the number 10 isn't hardcoded like that. Suppose it's a variable:

>>> s = "peter"
>>> width = 11
>>> s.ljust(width)
'peter      '
>>> f"{s:<width}"
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
ValueError: Invalid format specifier

Well, the way you need to do it with f-string formatting, when it's a variable like that is this syntax:

>>> f"{s:<{width}}"
'peter      '

Please post a comment if you have thoughts or questions.

How to bulk-insert Firestore documents in a Firebase Cloud function

Node, Firebase, JavaScript

You can't batch-add/bulk-insert documents in the Firebase Web SDK. But you can with the Firebase Admin Node SDK. Like, in a Firebase Cloud Function. Here's an example of how to do that:

const firestore = admin.firestore();
let batch = firestore.batch();
let counter = 0;
let totalCounter = 0;
const promises = [];
for (const thing of MANY_MANY_THINGS) {
  counter++;
  const docRef = firestore.collection("MY_COLLECTION").doc();
  batch.set(docRef, {
    foo: thing.foo,
    bar: thing.bar,
    favNumber: 0,
  });
  counter++;
  if (counter >= 500) {
    console.log(`Committing batch of ${counter}`);
    promises.push(batch.commit());
    totalCounter += counter;
    counter = 0;
    batch = firestore.batch();
  }
}
if (counter) {
  console.log(`Committing batch of ${counter}`);
  promises.push(batch.commit());
  totalCounter += counter;
}
await Promise.all(promises);
console.log(`Committed total of ${totalCounter}`);

I'm using this in a Cloud HTTP function where I can submit a large amount of data and have each one fill up a collection.

Please post a comment if you have thoughts or questions.

I'm a GitHubber now

Work, GitHub

Starting today, I'm a Hubber. Meaning, I work for GitHub. I'll be joining the GitHub Docs team to help technical writers document all the various products that GitHub have. Since I haven't actually started coding anything yet, I don't want to claim I know how it works or exactly what I'll be working but on, but I do know that the site at hand is docs.github.com and I've previously taken a lot of inspiration from this site when building the MDN rewrite.

GitHub profile

If you are a Hubber, too, and reading this; Hi! Let's be friends! I'm a friendly guy. Please ping me and say hi.
I'll be working from home here in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. I have 2 young kids; Tucker and Charlotte, who mean the world to me. And my backbone-of-life wife Ashley. My hobbies are coding, swimming, golf, and cooking.

Please post a comment if you have thoughts or questions.