Single Page Apps

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We released the Scheduler service(cloud hosted cron that does webhooks) on the 18th of Jan. It was our first release (still in beta) and you can sign up for it via the Windows Azure store as an addon. Upcoming release will have a full portal and the ability to register without going via the Windows Azure portal.

We’ve been building the user portal to the Scheduler service as a Single Page app (SPA) and I wanted to share a some background and insights we’ve gained.

SPA overview

To review, an SPA is a web app contained in a single page - where 'pages' are nothing but `div`s being shown/hidden based on the state of the app and user navigation.

The benefits are that you never have a full page refresh at all - essentially, page loads are instantaneous and data is retrieved and shown via AJAX calls. From a UX standpoint, this delivers a 'speedier' experience, since you never see the 'static' portions of your page reload when you navigate around.

All that speediness is great but the downsides are equally important.

SPA - Challenges

  1. Navigation - SPA’s by nature break the normal navigation mechanism of the browser. Normally, you click a link, it launches off a request and would update the url on the address bar. The response is then fetched and painted. In an SPA however, a link click is trapped in JS and the state is changed and you show a different div (with a background AJAX req being launched). This breaks Back/Forward navigation and since the URL doesn’t change, bookmarkability is also broken to boot.

  2. SEO - SEO also breaks because links are associated with JS script and most bots cannot follow such links.

Now, none of this is really new. Gmail was probably the first well known SPA implementation and that’s been around since 2004. What’s changed is tha t now there are better tools and frameworks for writing SPAs. So how do you get around the problems?

  1. Back/Forward nav and Bookmarkability: SPA’s use hash fragment navigation - links contain hash fragments. According to the original HTTP standard, hash fragments are for within page navigation and hence while the browser will update the address on the address bar and push an entry into the history stack, it will not make a request to the server. Client side routing can listen for changes to the location hash and manipulate the DOM to show the right 'section' of the page.

  2. SEO - Google (and later Bing) support crawling SPA websites provided the links are formatted specifically. See

Why we went the SPA way

When we started out with the Portal, we needed to take some decisions around how to go about it

  1. Scheduler REST service is a developer focused offering and the primary interaction for our users is the API interface itself. While the portal will have a Scheduler management features, this is really to give our users a 'manual' interface to scheduler. The other important use case for the portal is when you want to see history of a task’s execution. Given that the API was primary, we wanted to build the UI using the APIs to dogfood our API early and often.

  2. It just made sense to have the UI consume the APIs so that we weren’t re-writing the same capabilities again just to support the UI.

  3. Getting the portal to work across devices was important. In that sense, going with an approach that reduces page loads makes sense.

  4. We wanted public pages to be SEO friendly - so the SPA experience kicks in only after you login.

  5. Bookmarkability is important and it should be easy to paste/share links within the app.

Tools and frameworks

We evaluated different frameworks for building the SPA. We wrote a thin slice of the portal - a few public pages, a Social login page and a couple of logged in pages for navigation and bookmarkability.

  1. KO+ approach - I’m calling this KO+ as it’s KO is just a library for MVVM binding and we needed a bunch of other libraries for managing other aspects of the SPA.

    • Knockout.js - for MVVM binding

    • Sammy.js - Client side routing

    • Require.js - script dependency management.

    • Jquery - general DOM manipulation when we needed it.

  2. Angular.js - Google’s Angular.js is a full suite SPA framework that handles all the aspects of SPA

We chose the KO+ approach as there was knowledge and experience on KO in the team. The learning curve’s also lesser since each library can be tackled at a time. While Angular offers a full fledged SPA framework, it also comes with more complexity to be grappled with and understood - essentially, the 'Angular' way of building apps.

That said, once you get over the initial learning curve of Angular, it does have a pleasant experience and you don’t have to deal with integration issues that come up when using different libraries. We had prior experience on KO on the team so it just made sense to pick it given our timelines.

I’ll post an update once we have it out of the door and ready for public consumption.