JavaScript
Article
By Andrew Tetlaw

Serve JavaScript Frameworks Faster with the Google AJAX Libraries API

By Andrew Tetlaw

Google has announced an extension to their Google AJAX APIs service: the AJAX Library APIs. They’ve assembled a collection of the most common JavaScript libraries and made them available on their content delivery network.

A common criticism leveled at JavaScript framework libraries is that the same code is downloaded from all the sites that use them, wasting bandwidth and creating duplicate files in the browser’s local cache. Google’s initiative is an effort to relieve that burden and create a kind of JavaScript Shangri La where all the frameworks hang out together, making efficient use of their time and possibly singing. if there’s a better way to ruin a decent plane-crash-survival movie than singing I haven’t seen it! Frank Capra has a lot to answer for.

Anyway, if enough sites use the Google CDN for their JavaScript libraries, the better the chance that the browser has already cached a local copy of it and can avoid having to download it again. Everyone reaps the performance benefits!.

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Using the service is simple. You can directly reference the libraries via URI like so:

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://ajax.googleapis.com/ajax/libs/prototype/1.6.0.2/prototype.js">
</script>

Alternatively, you can use Google’s API thusly:

<script type="text/javascript" src="http://www.google.com/jsapi"></script>
<script type="text/javascript">
  google.load("prototype", "1.6.0.2");
</script>

The first argument is the name of the library and the second is the desired version.

The JavaScript that comes down the wire, is gzipped when supported by the browser (the 124K Prototype library is compressed to about 30K) and comes with appropriate cache headers. An excellent feature of the service is the control you have over versioning. The above examples download a very specific version of Prototype: 1.6.0.2. But you can specify any increment level and it will serve up the latest version. For example if you specify version 1.6 you’ll get the latest 1.6 incremental version, what ever that may be. The same happens if you specify version 1, and if you don’t specify any version you’ll get the latest version available.

However, I noticed something even niftier when doing some testing, the Cache-Control header value is adjusted to suit the request. When specifying a specific incremental version, the header value looks like this:

Cache-Control: public, max-age=31536000

This informs any caching mechanism that cares to honor Cache-Control headers that the content is safe to cache for up to a year. When a more general version is specified you get this:

Cache-Control: public, max-age=3600, must-revalidate, proxy-revalidate

This informs caches that the content should be checked for changes hourly, to ensure the latest version is delivered.

The documentation only mentions versioning in association with the google.load API call but all the following direct URIs seem to work and deliver Prototype 1.6.0.2:

Currently Google hosts:

Some of those libraries also have minified versions.

There’s a short video on YouTube explaining how it all works, but it appears to be slightly out of date; the URI used to directly access the JavaScript file doesn’t match the documentation and doesn’t work.

When announcing the API on Ajaxian, Don also said something very interesting about the future of this kind of service:

If we see good usage, we can work with browser vendors to automatically ship these libraries. Then, if they see the URLs that we use, they could auto load the libraries, even special JIT’d ones, from their local system. Thus, no network hit at all!

Despite the rantings of some grumpy old curmudgeons, the use of JavaScript framework libraries is only increasing and improving. I can remember in the old days of DHTML when every script available had it’s own version of the addEvent method; so much wasteful duplication of code. The availability of common frameworks has stopped the duplication and offers a useful level of abstraction. I think Google’s new service is a great step in the right direction.

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