Blog » Client-side rendering with Prototype

Client-side rendering with Prototype

Piotr Solnica
January 15, 2009

Web applications are getting more and more complex. The user interface of a modern web application can be as rich as its desktop equivalent. If we use JavaScript/HTML/CSS trio to build this UI then we definitely want to use AJAX. A typical approach is to use AJAX to update parts of our page using an HTML response, everyone knows that, right? Does this approach allow us to create a responsive, fast and flexible UI? The answer is no.

Here are 4 main downsides of using AJAX requests to load UI parts:

  • You increase the server load – yes, you make an AJAX request only because you need a piece of HTML code that you want to insert to an already rendered page. That was cool a few years ago when AJAX was such a great innovation. Nowadays it should be considered as a less efficient solution.
  • You complicate the server-side code – because you need parts of your page to be returned by the server you, obviously, need to handle that by writing more server-side code. You end up having many actions in your controllers that return different fragments of HTML. I know, you think it’s normal, everyone does that.
  • You loose a lot of control over the UI – you use DHTML techniques to deal with the UI and in the same time you need the server to get parts of that UI. This leads to a code duplication and in many cases ends up with a big mess.
  • A user will have to wait until a request is done – that just sucks, that poor guy has to wait because you went back to the server for a little piece of HTML. How you are going to implement a responsive UI this way? “Your servers are fast”. Of course they are, but what if user’s ISP sucks? What if the user is downloading something and 99% of his bandwidth is gone?

Rendering HTML on the client-side is ridiculously simple. Consider the following example. Let’s say we have a page with a list of some people, the list is just a simple HTML table. It could look like this:

<table>
  <thead>
    <tr>
      <th>First Name</th>
      <th>Last Name</th>
      <th>E-Mail</th>
    </tr>
  </thead>
  <tbody id="people">
    <!– here go people –>
  <tbody>
  <tfoot>
    <tr colspan="4">
      <td>
        <a id="previous" href="#">Previous</a>
        <a id="next" href="#">Next</a>
      </td>
    </tr>
  </tfoot>
</table>

As you can see the tbody element is empty, we will load its content after the entire page is loaded. Instead of a bunch of “tr” elements the server should return a nice JSON data which could look like this:

var people = [
 { id : 1, first_name : John, last_name : Doe, email : john.doe@somewhere.com },
 { id : 2, first_name : Jane, last_name : Doe, email : jane.doe@anywhere.com },
 { id : 3, first_name : Third, last_name : Guy, email : third.guy@nowhere.com }
];

To render these data we obviously need a template. Prototype gives us a handy class called Template which is perfect for our needs. To create a template and render the list of people we need a few lines of JavaScript:

var personRowTemplate = new Template(
  <tr id="person_#{id}"><td>#{first_name}</td><td>#{last_name}</td><td>#{email}</td></tr>);

var peopleRows = ;

people.each(function(person) {
  peopleRows += personRowTemplate.evaluate(person);
});

$(people).update(peopleRows);

That’s pretty much it. It doesn’t look spectacular, huh? Now just think about the benefits of this approach:

  • You have the data in JSON format, you can use them to render things like an edit form without going back to the server, thus user experience will be better
  • You can be focused on building a nice JSON API for accessing data instead of implementing actions that return small pieces of HTML
  • Your client-side code is cleaner and more consistent

Sounds like a good deal, doesn’t it? :)


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