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Optimizing sluggish UI

Is your Vaadin application becoming sluggish? Yes, this can happen - it is no secret. This can happen for every application, with every programming language, with every UI library and with all hardware platforms. Make it a web application and it is not even hard. For end users this is not acceptable, especially when building applications for frequent use.

All developers have heard the phrase premature optimization is the root of all evil, coined by software guru Donald Knuth. There is a wisdom in that clause. Still I want to motivate you (Vaadin developer) to read this article, even if you currently have no performance issues. I’d say it is not that bad to know what will inevitably make your application slow. You might subconsciously avoid the worst pitfalls (but still not be subjected to premature optimization) and avoid optimization task totally.

Resolving performance issues in Vaadin-based applications may be a bit tricky in some situations. Performance issues are one of the most common issues why project managers in IT Mill come and disturb our "peace" in the RnD team. Usually we’ll end up modifying the application, not Vaadin. Vaadin abstracts away the browser environment, and the abstraction may make it hard to figure out what is the actual cause for a slow UI.

The first step is to detect whether to optimize the server side or the client side. You can use all standard profiling tools with Vaadin apps like Firebug for the client side and JProfiler for the server side. For a quick look for what is taking so long it is easy to use "?debug" query parameter in application. It will show you a small floating console in the browser. Inspecting messages there, one can see server visit time (includes both network latency and server processing time) and the actual time spent handling the response in client.

If the problem is on server side, it is most commonly in the back-end system or how it is connected to Vaadin components. The server side code of Vaadin is pretty well optimized by the JVM. If the server side is your problem, I’d bet you will end up optimizing SQL queries. Optimizing tricks for server side are very similar to any other Java application.

If it is the client side processing that takes a long time, optimizing methods are more Vaadin specific. There are several tricks one can perform to optimize the client side processing time. Some of them are more or less generic to ajax applications in common, others are purely Vaadin specific tricks. If you belong to the large group of Java developers who hate browser programming, you don’t need to get worried at this point. Although the processing time is long on client, you will be mostly modifying the pure server side Java code when optimizing your application.

Best tricks to make/keep your Vaadin apps UI responsive

#1 Render less components

The most common cause for slow rendering time is that you are rendering a lot of components.It’s easy to forget that the browser is always the browser, and too much complicated stuff will cause slowness. The JavaScript engines have been optimized a lot lately, but the actual rendering is still a bottleneck.

  • consider if you can use one component instead of many (eg. instead of using one label per line, use a label with multiple lines using html : label.setContentMode(Label.CONTENT_XHTML) )

  • hide rarely used features (this also improves usability) when possible

#2 Try to keep component tree simple (flat)

When component tree (the hierarchy of components, not the 'Tree' component) gets deeper (more components inside others) the rendering task gets heavier for browsers. As the growth is more than linear, I have split this from previous hint. To really show you the importance of this tip, I made a small example application. Try it at:

 Tips for keeping the component tree simple:

  • Avoid for example using vertical layouts inside another vertical layouts when possible

  • Do you need to extend CustomComponent in your server side composition or could you just extend some layout? This will result having one component less in the component tree. You might sometimes be arguing against this because of architectural reasons (CustomComponent has a fewer methods than VerticalLayout), but on the other hand Java has interfaces to deal the issue in a cleaner manner.

  • Maybe you have an  extra layout inside your Panel or Window (see setContent method)? This is a common pitfall for Vaadin newcomers.

#3 Use the right component

Some components in Vaadin are just faster to render than others. For example our standard VerticalLayout and HorizontaLayout have a huge feature set supporting for example spacing, margin, alignments and expand ratios. Supporting all these comes with a price of performance hit. Rendering a lot of simple components into CssLayout (which does not support all those features), is often several times faster than into the default layouts.

So favor simpler components in your application if you don’t need all those features. This will be essential in your frequently recycled server side compositions. So consider if you could use:

  • Vertical/HorizontalLayout instead of GridLayout.

  • single GridLayout instead of multiple nested Vertical/HorizontalLayouts.

  • CssLayout (available in standard distribution since 6.1) instead of full featured HorizontalLayout.

  • GridLayout (or even FastGrid from FastLayouts incubator project) instead of Table. Table is meant for displaying tabular data, GridLayout is meant for laying out components.

In some extreme cases it may be a viable option to build optimized client side component instead of using pure server side composition. It is not the easiest path to take as you need to work in browser environment too, but you then have a full control of what is happening. With custom client side component one can also more easily optimize also the data transferred between client and server. Refer to manual for more information.

#4 Use Table efficiently

Table is one of the most optimized component in Vaadin, both server and client side. Still it is very easy to put both client and server on its knees with it. Common things to check if you have performance issues with Table:

  • make sure the container used in table loads data lazily from back-end if you have huge amounts of data

  • using the editable mode or ColumnGenerator can make a huge amount of components to be rendered on client. Especially if table size is maximized. Consider using lighter components in Table (like putting complex property editor into PopupView instead of straight to table cell)

  • Don’t overuse layouts in table, use CssLayout instead of others when possible

  • Use lazy-loading of rows, don’t render all rows at once

  • Minimize caching with setCacheRate function, if you have heavy table body (like large editable table with several columns).

#5 Avoid complex custom layouts

With CustomLayouts it is common to use html tables to build complex layout. Using html tables as a layout has several drawbacks like heavy rendering and browser differences. Rendering Vaadin components into a complex table based dom structure may be much slower than into a simple div based layout. The core reason for this optimization is the same as in trick #2 : the rendering is more more expensive in complex dom structures.

#6 Use a light theme

The effect of theme may be radical in some cases. Believe it or not, but I have seen cases where rendering time triples just by using a different themes. Heavy theme combined with a deep component tree is something that will really test the speed of browsers rendering engine. For optimizing theme you can google some generic instructions.  Minify, gzip, use simple (and fewer) selectors, optimize images, use transparency moderately.

 Sizing components can be done in both server side Java code and in themes css. Both approaches have some good and bad features. Don’t use both methods at the same time for the same component, it may render improperly and add an extra performance hit.

#7 Use generic component features moderately

All Vaadin components have captions, icons and error indicators. All of them adds extra burden to client side rendering engine, just like extra components. As captions, icons and errors are also packed with surprisingly wide set of features (see ticket #1710 in trac), in some cases it may even be faster to use extra Label or Embedded instead of them.