01 Oct 2018, 20:37

A Quick Look at WorkerDOM

In the browser, many operations occur on a single main thread. Due to the number of things we need to handle as web developers such as styling, DOM updates, fetches, data transforms, timers and so forth we can end up with a lot going on that thread. Unfortunately, this thread is also responsible for handling user inputs and rendering to the screen, which are user critical requirements and have large impacts on their experience. Here if we have tasks that run for long periods this can block responding to user input and rendering new frames.

In the browser we have access to threading via Web Workers. Web Workers allow us to run JavaScript in a separate thread whilst also being able to message back to the main thread. The limitations of Web Workers are that they have transfer times for data between the main and worker thread, limited transfer types (i.e. Functions and Errors aren’t allowed) and also perhaps most importantly no DOM access (i.e. document.getElementByID for example). I have experimented and written about transfer times for workers, showing that for small loads the fear is probably over played. However a core aspect of frontend development is, maybe somewhat obviously, trying to update what is happening on the screen (render new content). This makes the DOM limitation pretty painful for those using Web Workers, as it mostly limits it to computational logic which we then proxy back to the main thread.

On mobile devices, where performance perhaps matters the most, we’re now seeing low-end devices with multiple cores (for example a Nokia 1 and the Micromax Bharat Go both have quadcore processors). Arguably this is where multiple threaded code would probably have the largest benefit. However, we still have a particularly single-threaded approach to writing browser code. This is why it’s interesting to see the emergence of the recently announced WorkerDOM library from the AMP team, which aims to let developers leverage workers more easily, by removing the aforementioned limitation of lack of DOM access (or at least perceived lack of DOM access).

What is WorkerDOM?

WorkerDOM is a library which you can include in your applications and pages. It provides much of the regular DOM API and in turn proxied access to the real DOM on the main thread, passing mutations to the DOM over to the main-thread to be handled. This encourages a lot of logic that was previously happening on the main thread to be handled by the Web Worker, leaving the main thread to handle user input and DOM changes. The library itself is written in TypeScript and is compiled down to both global variable and module formats.

Setting up WorkerDOM

You can include WorkerDOM by installing it via NPM like so:

npm install @ampproject/worker-dom

or if you use Yarn then:

yarn add @ampproject/worker-dom

Alternatively you could use a script tag directly, using a CDN, in the following fashion:

<script src="https://unpkg.com/@ampproject/worker-dom@0.1.2/dist/index.js"></script>

We can actually take this a step further as WorkerDOM is distributed as both a global (aliased as MainThread) and an ES Module, allowing for the import syntax. This means you can do the following;

<script src="https://unpkg.com/@ampproject/worker-dom@0.1.2/dist/index.mjs" type="module"></script>
<script src="https://unpkg.com/@ampproject/worker-dom@0.1.2/dist/index.js" nomodule defer></script>

Here only browsers that understand modules (all modern browsers, except Samsung Internet now support modules) will receive the module script.

First Steps

WorkerDOM allows us to expose a specific part of the DOM to be upgraded, we can do this by doing something we would probably not normally do; we set the src attribute on the containing element we want to upgraded to work with WorkerDOM. The src attribute is updated to be the name of the script we’re interested in running as our worker script. For the purposes of this blog, we are going to generate some prime numbers and render them into the DOM. For our index.html file, we might start with something like this in our case:

<body>
    <div src="primes.js" id="primes">
    </div>
</body>

So now we have an element that we can upgrade in our body. We need to declare explicitly that we want to upgrade the element using the upgradeElement method. We can do that like so:


<script type="module">
    import {upgradeElement} from '/dist/index.mjs';
    upgradeElement(document.getElementById('primes'), '/dist/primes.mjs');
</script>

<script nomodule async=false defer>
    document.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded', function() {
        MainThread.upgradeElement(document.getElementById('primes'), '/dist/primes.js');
    }, false);
</script>

You can see we take both the module and none module code paths allowing us to handle both scenarios. This means we can now begin looking at our actual worker logic!

The Worker File

The coolest part about WorkerDOM is that it allows us to behave as if we have DOM access in the worker thread. That means we have access to properties like document.createElement for example. Continuing on with the concept that we want to generate primes and add them to the DOM, we could do something like this:


const startNumber = 1;

function generatePrimes() {

    while (document.body.firstChild) {
        document.body.removeChild(document.body.firstChild);
    }

    const numDivs = 1000;
    const limit = startNumber + numDivs;
    const primes = sieveOfEratosthenes(limit); // An algorithm for generating primes up to 'limit'

    const div = document.createElement('div');
    div.className = 'parent';

    for (let i = startNumber; i < limit; i++) {
        const numberDiv = document.createElement('div');
        numberDiv.className = "number";
        const numberText = document.createTextNode(i);
        if (primes.has(i)) {
        numberDiv.style.fontWeight = 'bold';
        numberDiv.style.color = '#240098';
        }
        numberDiv.appendChild(numberText);
        div.appendChild(numberDiv);
    }

    document.body.appendChild(div);
    startNumber += numDivs;

}

setTimeout(generatePrimes, 0); // Not sure why we need this in a timeout?
document.body.addEventListener('click', generatePrimes);

This code will create divs with numbers in them, with prime numbers being highlighted and put in bold. The numbers will update on click on the document. Notice how we can behave as if this worker code is on the main thread, with access to DOM APIs. It’s worth pointing out the main difference here is that the "primes" div from the index.html is considered our document.body here.

As it stands, WorkerDOM is currently in alpha, and as such is still being worked on. Hopefully, this post has given you a reasonable overview of the library, and if you are interested in learning more about WorkerDOM I would recommend these resources: