Why browser performance doesn’t matter and why maybe you shouldn’t care

Thinking (and obsessing) about software performance, Part 2

When I first blogged about performance over at jazz.net, I received feedback on one hot topic in particular, namely browser performance. There’s no doubt the “Browser Wars” are big business for the competing players. Here in the U.S. during the 2012 Summer Olympics’ televised coverage we saw one vendor heavily tout its newest browser. Of course they claimed it was faster than ever before.

Earlier this year the Rational Performance Engineering team planned to address this topic with an article showing how Rational Team Concert behaves in the major browsers. We also wanted to include details about our testing method so folks could measure their own browsers’ response time and compare with ours. The raw material lives here.

The intent was to produce a graph something like this:

Hypothetical Response Times for the Same Transaction in Three Browsers

However, the data collected using three browsers available at that time, suggested that the battle for browser supremacy may be nearing its end. The gaps are closing, and some browsers appear to be better for different use cases.

Six Common WebUI Use-Cases on Jazz.net (4.0.1 M3)

Further experimentation revealed that the same task executed in the same browser may not complete consistently in the same amount of time. In fact, it’s possible that this variability could blur the distinction between browsers.

The more we tested and investigated, the more we realized that generalizing about Transaction Z’s performance in Browser B was nearly pointless because everyone’s browser experience is different. A more accurate representation of the first picture would actually be:

Hypothetical Response Times for Three Browsers for Three Users

Admittedly, these are imaginary numbers selected for dramatic effect. However, we will get to some facts later on. I’m not saying the CLM team has given up trying to optimize web application performance. A top task for the team is to investigate and deliver improvements in RTC plan loading. What I want to say is that obsessing over browser performance can be deceptive, if not fruitless, because as the major browsers’ performance becomes consistent, it appears that individual and corporate policies are starting to affect browser behavior more.

Let’s look at some things that can slow down your browser.

There have been documented reports that some hotel Wi-Fi services add JavaScript to your browser which may infiltrate and change every page you load (search for “hotel wifi javascript injection”). At the time of this writing, this alteration is presumed to be benign, and maybe less of an issue. But it’s still conceivable that another organization offering Wi-Fi might do something similar. Setting aside the security implications, this injected JavaScript can slow you down. Imagine having to touch a particular flower pot on your neighbor’s porch each and every time you enter your own house.

The hotel Wi-Fi example is a known example of what others might label spyware, which is more pervasive than any of us realize. Some corporations spy on their employees for all sorts of good and maybe not so good reasons. Some sites we visit may expose us to malware and spyware. These logging and caching systems can slow you down, not just browser performance, but your entire machine.

Staying connected with friends, family and even our employers in the Internet age may require being logged into many sites and applications such as Google and Facebook. An open session with Gmail while you’re filling out that online status report might slow you down a tiny fraction, as your browser requests are noted and tracked. Elsewhere, while you’re surfing, open sessions with Yahoo and Bing follow your trail and leave cookies for others. Why else do you suddenly see coupons for that TV you priced last week or hotel ads for places you researched flight times?

Our online crumbs create a profile which advertisers and others are keen to eavesdrop upon. Consequently, if we’re checking friends’ Facebook pages or simply surfing, our search results may be customized. Here are two Google searches run from the same machine and IP, one using Chrome’s “incognito” feature, the other from my heavily customized Firefox:

My search results for “quest clear” in incognito Chrome

My search results for “quest clear” in customized Firefox

They’re pretty similar except for the order of results. Firefox’s Google results correctly deduce I might be more interested in ClearQuest than World of Warcraft. What’s also interesting is that Google suggests Chrome’s search was 0.03 faster. Is it the browser that’s faster, or is it that Google needs those hundredths-of-a-second to filter its results based on what it knows about me?

Of course corporate applications handle cookies differently, if they use them at all. Showing that the same search from the same desktop can yield different results shows that the intervening browser might keep track of what you do and silently dispatch data to places that aren’t directly related to your immediate tasks. Any additional traffic whether customized or not can slow you down.

If you use an Http sniffer tool to log your http activity (for example, Fiddler, HTTP Sniffer, HTTP Scoop, or even Firebug or HttpWatch) then you might be able to note the excess traffic that comes in and out of your system. My fully-loaded browser is constantly polling for stock updates, news feeds and weather reports. Less frequent traffic alerts me to changed web pages, new antivirus definitions, fresh shared calendar entries and application updates. Those special toolbars offer to make searching slightly easier, but they are probably keeping an eye on your every move.

Indeed if you visit commercial sites with such a tool, you may see all the embedded JavaScript which tracks users firing requests to various different sites which do nothing but data collection. A modest amount of Internet traffic has to be related to tracking. Indeed some websites are slow simply because tracking scripts and data are set to load before the real human-consumable content.

Having fresh data at our behest comes at a price, perhaps small, but still measurable. If you can’t run your browser bare-bones, then we recommend having a sterile alternate browser handy. As indicated above, one of my browsers is fully loaded, the other knows very little about me and keeps no cookies, bookmarks or history.

Because browsers are customizable, and can be tampered with by sites we visit or by the services we use, some corporations take a stronger stance. Common to financial, consulting or any organization that must adhere to government or industry standards, browser and desktop settings may be completely locked down and not changeable at the desktop. A corporation may use policies in the operation system to limit the number of open connections and other TCP/IP settings, and others may put hard limits on the expiration of cookies and cached content.

Some companies route all Internet and Intranet traffic to a proxy server for optimization, security and logging. Some organizations are looking to protect customer information that passes through their hands and/or comply with EU privacy laws. We have seen situations where poor RTC performance was due to the extra trip to a corporate proxy server. Some organizations permit rerouting traffic, others don’t.

We have heard from customers who can’t follow our browser tuning recommendations because their organizations won’t let them. If this surprises you, it’s actually a fairly common practice. Years ago I worked as a consultant for a major petrochemical company. Every night corporate bots would scan desktops and uninstall, delete and reset any application or product customization that wasn’t permitted by corporate IT. Thank goodness the developers had software configuration management and checked-in their work at the end of each day.

Browsers allow us to explore the Internet and interact with applications. They can take us anywhere in cyberspace, and we can pretty much do anything we want once we get there. They are an infinitely customizable vehicle from which to explore the World Wide Web. But customization comes at an expense, and sometimes, there are settings and behaviors we cannot change. As a software development organization, we’re becoming more aware and sensitive to these concerns and are working towards adjusting our web interfaces to work better in controlled environments.

There’s one lurking topic I’ve not addressed head-on. Given how quickly new browsers hit the market, it’s very difficult for software vendors to validate promptly their products in each and every new release. Believe me, this is a headache for software vendors not easily solved.

At the desktop level, there are some things all of us can to right now to improve performance. Here’s a short list, and you’re probably already doing a few of them.

In your OS:

  • Keep your OS up-to-date and patched
  • Run and update your security software on a schedule

In your browser(s):

  • Keep your browser up-to-date and patched
  • Make sure any plug-ins or extensions are up-to-date and patched
  • Remove any plug-ins or extensions you do not use
  • Think twice before customizing your browser
  • Run as lean as possible

In your alternate, lean browser:

  • Keep your browser up-to-date and patched
  • Delete your cache after each session
  • Prevent cookies wherever possible
  • Avoid any customizations