A compelling case for Next.js

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If GitHub stats are anything to go by, Next.js has received incredible attention of late.

Freelancers and enterprises alike are creating their next applications in or migrating their existing ones to Next.js. When I was recently on-boarded to my first account at Sapient, the departing senior XT architect highly recommended that we migrate to it.

But what is Next.js? Let’s first start with that.

The uninitiated probably know that Next.js has something to do with React. What exactly? Is it the next generation of React? Or something lighter and more performant (like Preact)?

I’ll attempt the simplest explanation possible. Next.js is a way to create server-side web pages all the while allowing you to compose your app using React components. It internally uses React’s server-side rendering principles (and perhaps ReactDOMServer?) to create SSR pages.

It’s okay if you don’t get it the first time. So I’ll quote from its official docs.

In the words of Zeit (people behind Next.js) themselves:

You may want to server-side render certain pages and statically prerender others (balancing SEO and speed).

Think about how webapps are created with PHP. You create some files, write PHP code, then simply deploy it. We don’t have to worry about routing much, and the app is rendered on the server by default.

That’s exactly what we do with Next.js. Instead of PHP, we build the app with JavaScript and React.

Wait. What?!

Are we going back to the server-side days? Weren’t we meant to move away from server-side on to client-side for performance reasons? Is creating single page client applications not the latest ritual? Besides, PHP, JSP, Ruby or Rails, ASP.NET… all can apparently do what Next.js promises.

To fully understand this, we must recap the pros and cons of server- and client-heavy apps.

Server-sideClient-side
Time to first byte (TTFB)Bad
(html is served after full processing on the server, taking its size up)
Good
(a bare-bones, ultra-lightweight html is served immediately)
Time to first meaningful paint (TTFMP)Good
(user can see the “primary” contents sooner)
Bad
(user has to wait for browser’s JS engine to execute all scripts to perceive a page’s “primary” contents)
SecurityLess surface area for vulnerabilities
(what happens on the server stays on the server)
More surface area for vulnerabilities
(increased scope for bad implementations of security due to exposed auth data)
SEO PerformanceGood
(crawlers can easily parse the entire html rendered then and there)
Bad
(crawlers that cannot execute JS code are just left out)
General PerformanceGoodDepends
(see the second article in links below)

I highly recommended reading the following articles once:

An Introduction to React Server-Side Rendering
Next.js vs. Create React App: Whose apps are more performant?
The Benefits of Server Side Rendering Over Client Side Rendering

The second article is especially unmissable, and makes a great point in favor of server-side rendering (SSR) in general. It explains with the help of key practical metrics why SSR wins over CSR in all important areas.

Personally, I have always been a BIG advocate of taking server-side along with client-side development. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a front-end developer or a back-end developer. A front-end person who doesn’t not know their way around back-end code should not be called a developer in the first place! SSR or not, any app can be performant and secure only if its developers understand the full stack well.

Stop Blindly Following W3Schools!

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I started out learning to create websites by reverse engineering web pages that I found and liked online. The way I got started with CSS is an interesting story. I started developing static websites at a young age. I produced mostly ugly pages by myself and a wee-bit jazzy ones using something like Macromedia DreamWeaver. I hadn’t yet discovered the mystical world of stylesheets.

In the summer of 2006, it had only been a few days since France’s heart-wrenching loss in the final of FIFA football World Cup when I was absentmindedly browsing some WC pictures that I had painstakingly downloaded over my super-slow Internet connection. That delightful little folder of my favorite images was inside SUSE Linux. Whether it was version 9 or 10, I cannot remember.

As I was a KDE junkie, I naturally had the folder open in Konqueror, KDE’s default web and file browser. While scrolling through the list and mindlessly clicking this button and that menu, I stumbled across an option to generate a gallery out of images. I curiously clicked this option and, *boom*, there it was — a gallery of all photos in the folder in the form of a web page. What a beautiful web page it was. The page had supporting files, full-sized images, thumbnails, and an intriguing file with .css extension.

Clicking the CSS file opened it in my text editor. “Interesting, a .css file is only a text file,” I said to myself. Most of the contents in that file didn’t make sense to me, but there were these other pieces that seemed quite obvious such as background-color, color and font-family properties. In my reverse engineering fashion, I made a few changes here and there and refreshed the web page in browser. *Boom*, some of my changes were actually reflected. This seemingly innocuous incident created a minor explosion of curiosity in my mind.

Out came a new tab in Firefox, hastily typed were the letters “google.com” in address bar, and with a thud was hammered the Enter button on keyboard. A big search text box appeared in the next few seconds. What did I type in it? CSS, of course silly. To where did the very first search result point? W3Schools, of course silly. And so began my journey of learning CSS from the most popular web development learning resource on planet. I regret it to this day. My regretful mistake didn’t end at CSS, it was augmented by my learning HTML, advanced HTML and even JavaScript from W3Schools.

Out came a new tab in Firefox, hastily typed were the letters “google.com” in address bar, and with a thud was hammered the Enter button on keyboard.

Fast-forwarding to present times, just a couple of days ago I was listening to episode #7 (Online Resources for JavaScript Developers) of JavaScript Jabber, a popular podcast series for the lovers of the beautiful language. It was in it where a couple of web experts echoed my feelings about W3Schools. Just to be clear, when I was learning from the “great” W3Schools, I didn’t have any such feelings. In fact, I deemed every word and example on the website a work of experts, which they probably were. However, my feelings changed drastically when I “grew up” and started to discover most of my coding style that was derived from W3Schools was composed of a collection of anti-patterns.

In order to appeal to a wider section of audience and to make things simple, examples listed on W3Schools tutorials dumbed down so much that best practices were sacrificed. Take for instance their use of event handler attributes, such as onclick and onfocus, all the while blatantly ignoring the principle of separation of concerns. This was not even mentioned as a cautionary note to the initiated. Tricks and lies such as this put me back in my career by at least a couple of years.

<button onclick="var hello='world'; alert(hello);">Click me</button>

For years W3Schools piggybacked on the “W3” name to maintain its popularity. Meanwhile, other respected developer resources such as Mozilla Developer Network (MDN) took a diametrically opposite approach of going into deep discussions about each aspect of building blocks of the web. That looked scary initially, but with time your eyes and mind adjusted. I recently finished Part I and II of an exhaustive JavaScript resource called JavaScript.info. It also takes a profound approach similar to MDN’s. In fact, it encourages one to read W3C’s original specifications on various matters. Yes, it’s time consuming but hugely rewarding when applying your learning into practice.

I would like to conclude this rather loooong blog post by saying this:

Do not follow W3Schools or any such simplified online resource without questions. Be extra careful, use common sense, and do compare your learning from other (more detailed) sources. Do not let the details scare you away. Embrace detaily things. But don’t follow even the detaily things blindly.