Monday, November 7, 2016

Sharing and Caching Assets Across Single-Page BFFs

Over the last couple of posts I showed the single-page BFFs pattern (a variation of the Backend-For-Frontend aka BFF pattern where the BFF serves only one page in a web application), and how you will likely need to place single-page BFFs behind a reverse proxy.

In this post I will outline an approach to handling shared assets - like CSS or Javascript which is used on all or most of the pages in a web application built using a number of single-page BFFs.

When building a web application consisting of a number of pages, there is likely both some look-and-feel and some behavior that we want to share across all pages - buttons should look and behave the same, menus that should be on all pages, colors and fonts should be consistent etc. This calls for sharing some CSS and some Javascript across the pages. When thinking about handling these shared things across a number of single-page BFFs there are some competing requirements to take into consideration:

  • Clients - i.e. browsers - should be able to cache the CSS and Javascript as the user moves through the web application. The alternative is that the client downloads the same CSS and JS over and over as the user navigates the web application. That would be too wasteful in most cases.
  • Each single-page BFF should be individually deployable. That is we should be able deploy a new version of one single-page BFF without having to deploy any other services. If not the system soon becomes unmanageable. Furthermore developers should be able to run and test each single-page BFF by itself without having to spin up anything else.
  • I do not want to have to write the same CSS and JS in each single-page BFF. I want to share it.

In this post I will show an approach that allows me to achieve all three of the above.

First notice that the obvious solution to the first bullet - allowing clients to cache shared CSS and JS - is to put the shared CSS and the shared JS in two bundles - a CSS bundle and a JS bundle - and put the bundles at a known place. That way each single-page BFF can just address the bundle at the known place, as shown below. Since all pages refer to the same bundles the client can cache them.

The problem with this is that it violates bullet 3: Any given single-page BFF only works when both the global bundles are available, so for a developer to work on a single-page BFF, they need not only the BFF, but also something to serve the bundles. If we are not careful, this approach can also violate bullet 2: Since the single-page BFFs depend on the two global bundles, but they do not contain the global bundles themselves, each one has a hard dependency on another service - the one that serves the bundles. That means we can easily end up having to deploy the service that serves the bundles at the same time as a new version of one of the single-page BFFs.

Looking instead a bullet three first suggests that we should put the shared CSS and Javascript into a package - an NPM package, that is - and include that package in each single-page BFF. That means each single-page BFF has the bundles it needs, so developers can work with each single-page BFF in isolation. This also means that each single-page BFF continues to be individually deployable: When deployed they bring along the bundles they need, so there is no dependency on another service to serve the bundles. The problem now becomes how to allow clients to cache the bundles? When the bundle are included in each single-page BFF, each page will use different URsL for the bundles - completely defeating HTTP cache header.

Luckily, as discussed in the last post, the single-page BFFs are already behind a reverse proxy. If we put a bit of smarts into the reverse proxy we can include the bundles in each single-page BFF and still let every page use same the URLs for the bundles, like so:

The trick implementing this is to have the reverse proxy look at the referrer of any request for one of the bundles - if the referrer is frontpage, the request is proxied to the frontpage single-page BFF, if the referrer is the my account page, the request is proxied to the MyAccount single-page BFF. That means that the bundles loaded on the frontpage is the bundles deployed in the frontpage single page BFF. Likewise the bundles loaded on the my account page come from the MyAccount single-page BFF. But from the client perspective the bundles are on the same URL - i.e. the client is able to cache the bundles based on HTTP cache headers.

To sum up: Put shared CSS and JS bundles in an NPM package that all the single-page BFFs use, and making the reverse proxy use the referrer on requests for the bundles to decide where to proxy requests to allows clients the cache the bundles, the single-page BFFs to be individually deployable and developers work with each single-page BFF in isolation.