The Big, Bloated Web

Curtis Franklin Jr., Executive Editor | 11/29/2011 | 41 comments

Curtis Franklin Jr.
In the realm of software developers, it's common for Old Folks (that would be the group that includes me) to reminisce about the old days when we programmed using punched cards and languages like COBOL and FORTRAN. We would do things like desk-check our code to make sure the logic was right, since CPU cycles were expensive, RAM was limited, and I/O was cumbersome.

It was important for us to make sure we used the hardware resources as efficiently as possible, so we struggled to make each instruction do as much as possible, and to use as few instructions as we could get by with. Then the hardware got cheap and powerful, people became more expensive than systems, and no one (outside of those embedded system folks out on the fringe) cared much about code efficiency any more.

The evolution of general software development is being repeated on the Web, as the average size of a page and its contents grows. An article over at says that we're building a fatter, slower Web. Oh. Goody. What joy does that news bring to you as a CIO? Let's walk through some of enterprise pleasures to come.

First, if you look at the data presented at, it's obvious that object size is growing faster than the number of requests. This means, basically, that more Web pages are being requested, and the size of the files fulfilling those requests is growing rapidly. That's not terribly surprising, but there are surprising nuggets in the data. One is that the size of Flash files isn't growing. Another is that the size of CSS and JavaScript files are.

Now, it's easy to say that the real problem is that the pages are getting more complex, and there's a kernel of truth to that. More important, though, is the idea that we've stopped caring about whether the pages we build are optimal. When the Web was young and dial-up was common, we built Web pages that would download and display rapidly at 57 kbps, or so.

Now, we assume that everyone has multi-megabit data links and powerful display processors. As a result, we build code quickly and don't care how big our CSS or JavaScript files might be. The problem is, even though the pipes are bigger, they're still finite, and lots of big files requested by lots of impatient people will still have an impact on overall network performance.

What's a CIO to do? You're not developing Web pages or even leading development teams, so you aren't going to review code. What you can do, though, is exercise the most powerful tool in a C-level exec's toolbox: You can define a culture.

If you let it be known that efficiency and elegance are qualities you demand, and reinforce those qualities with both your words and your actions, the effects will trickle down to every development group in your sphere of control.

There are solid financial reasons to do this (see the sentence on finite pipes, above), but the cultural reasons may be more compelling. Treating every corporate resource as important and refusing to waste even abundant raw materials (like CPU cycles and I/O operations) leads to an organization that embraces cost savings as a virtue rather than a punishment, and takes the lead on "green" initiatives as a matter of course.

It's easy to get sloppy when resources are plentiful, but there are advantages to discipline. The latest Web statistics are a wake-up call -- don't let your IT organization hit the bloated JavaScript "snooze" button.

View Comments: Newest First | Oldest First | Threaded View
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Steve Antonoff   The Big, Bloated Web   12/8/2011 2:23:49 PM
Re: You're Right...
One of the problems is that the life span of the code is now measured in days, not years or even months.  If code is going to be thrown away every few days to give a web site a "newer" feel, it isn't worth putting much effort into efficiency and elegance.  As a performance tester, I write a lot of "use once and throw away" code for tests. Those, I typically don't spend a lot of time on making them really tight.  But, for some tests, the code can be around for a long time, with tweeks to keep it running.  For this type of test scripts, using tried-and-true techniques for coding standards pays off big time.

Another thing that efficient code requires: Defined REQUIREMENTS and PLANNING.  Has anyone done that for a web site recently?  Seems like "hacking" (as in "putting together a hack to get a job done quickly", oh, excuse me, they call it "Agile" now) has become the norm.
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tinym   The Big, Bloated Web   12/1/2011 10:03:39 PM
Re: Rhetorical question
It's often about managment. It may even go so far as hiring the wrong folks in the first place. Developers who aren't concerned with quality code (and efficiency in turn) may be sloppy or careless. This creates a lot of work for other developers in the future who spend time cleaning up. I've spent a lot of time cleaning up code myself.
Joe Stanganelli   The Big, Bloated Web   12/1/2011 9:38:39 PM
Re: bells and whistles only call attention to the problems
The way it was explained to me by someone I worked for once was, "Tell people what's important to them -- not what's important to you."

Flash intros showing your employees hard at work -- that's just pride.
Joe Stanganelli   The Big, Bloated Web   12/1/2011 10:22:09 AM
Re: Mobile Websites
Unfortunately, most mobile versions of sites, well, kind of suck.

xkcd explains one of the issues quite nicely here.
Joe Stanganelli   The Big, Bloated Web   12/1/2011 10:00:11 AM
Re: Rhetorical question
When it comes to the Web, Flash animations belong only in games.  Period.
CurtisFranklin   The Big, Bloated Web   11/30/2011 9:53:43 PM
Re: Rhetorical question
@JPoe wrote:

I don't know that it's a 'lazy' thing, as much as a time-to-market thing.

If developers are given a deadline that doesn't allow time to write good code, then it may not be laziness but it's certainly bad management. My grandfather told me, "Anything worth doing over is worth doing right the first time." The "kick it out the door and let the customers be our QA," attitude is a sign of bad management and a defective culture. A good CIO who takes quality and optimization seriously can do a lot about fixing both.
CurtisFranklin   The Big, Bloated Web   11/30/2011 9:48:38 PM
Re: Trade-offs
@tinym wrote:

That would have been fine except for all the special requirements it took to make a site function in IE6.

Oooh, you're so right. Of all the software Microsoft has put out, IE6 may well be the most pernicious. Not only was it non-standard in some especially frustrating ways, lethargic IT departments kept it around as a standard long after it should have been sent to the great software glue-factory in the sky.

Other versions of IE have been fine (and the current versions are actually quite good), but IE6 has left a bad taste in the mouths of many, many web developers.
CurtisFranklin   The Big, Bloated Web   11/30/2011 9:43:51 PM
Re: Rhetorical question
@David Wagner wrote:

Just to also play devil's advocate here, what kind of bloat are we talking about?

Dave, it's not so much about the delay for any individual user (though I'd make the case that mobile users might very well want the pages they view to be optimized), but the aggregate impact on corporate bandwidth and ISP networks. Between the rise in video as a content type and demonstrably inefficient code, even those "big pipes" we're all used to can become filled. At that point, everyone is going to see a slowdown, no matter how much bandwidth they think they have.
tinym   The Big, Bloated Web   11/30/2011 7:06:18 PM
Re: Trade-offs
That would have been fine except for all the special requirements it took to make a site function in IE6.  Even simple page layout was an issue.  There are entire sites dedicated to helping web developers through the muddled mess that was IE6.
David Wagner   The Big, Bloated Web   11/30/2011 6:06:20 PM
Mobile Websites
So, here is a related but slightly tangential quesiton. Why haven't mobile devices streamlined web design again? The tiny, underpowered mobile sites were cute when screen sizes were small and data moved slower. But now that we have tablets and smart phones with 4.5 inch screens, people are viewing the full internet on mobile devices again. Some sites have tablet specific versions and I often like them more than their full design.

You'd think optimizing your page for tablets one way or the other would lead to less bloated coding again. But it doesn't seem to have done so.
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