Despite this, single-page applications aren't without their challenges since they typically delegate page rendering and routing to the client-side (browser), which presents a unique set of challenges, including slow loading times for the first contentful page and poor search engine optimization. This gave rise to the need for server-side rendering (SSR), which aims to solve problems plaguing client-side rendering in single-page applications. You've probably heard of server-side rendering if you've actively been involved in front-end development in the past few years. Although SSR isn't exactly a new concept, many people still don't fully comprehend this technique or its associated benefits.
In this article, we'll take a high-level overview of server-side rendering, its advantages and disadvantages, and how it can benefit us with better user experience, increased search engine optimization, and faster page load times.
The Origin Story
Ironically, in the early days of web development, the traditional rendering method involved some form of server-side request handling. Typically, when a user visits a website through a browser, a request is sent to the server for that webpage's content, which is then fetched, bundled, and sent over to the browser as static files. Additionally, whenever a user clicks on a related link in the webpage, a new request is sent to the server for the new content of that webpage, which in turn refreshes the browser with the newly requested web page.
What is Server-side Rendering?
Hence the name "server-side rendering," as the page rendering is now done on the server, so users and bots always get a contentful page when they visit a web page. Furthermore, when a relative link is clicked on the web page, the same pattern is repeated, with a new request getting sent to the server, which sends back a fully rendered web page.
Benefits to Server-Side Rendering?
There are several potential benefits to using server-side rendering (SSR) for web applications:
- Improves SEO: Server-side rendering can enhance the search engine optimization (SEO) of web applications by making it easier for search engines or bots to crawl and index the content of web pages.
- Ideal for static websites: Server-side rendering is excellent for static pages because it's faster to pre-render the static page on the server before sending it to the client.
Downsides to Server-Side Rendering?
However, there are a few potential downsides to server-side rendering that should be considered before implementing it in a project:
- Complex to Set Up: It can be more complicated to set up and configure than client-side rendering, as the server must be configured to render the app correctly.
- Slow Overall Rendering Experience: Server-side rendering can lead to a slower overall page rendering experience for users than client-side rendering, as the server must generate the HTML for each page on each page request.
- Requires More Server Resources: Server-side rendering can use more server resources with frequent server requests than client-side rendering. As the server has to generate HTML for every page on demand, this can be particularly resource-intensive for websites that receive a lot of traffic.
- Not Ideal for Very Dynamic Web Apps: Getting rich site interactions using SSR can be challenging. Furthermore, it results in full-page reloads when fetching new content, even if it's only a specific portion of the page that changed.
React's Approach for SSR
React provides a solution for server-side rendering called ReactDOMServer, which is an object for pre-rendering React components on the server, typically a node server, and then hydrating the client with the React component tree. This makes it possible to generate static DOM content on the server and then pass them to the client using the hydrate() function, which is the same as render() (for client-side rendering) but is used to hydrate elements rendered by ReactDOMServer on the server to the client.
Furthermore, the React 18 release attempts to improve the performance of server-side rendering with React Suspense, a React component used to suspend, pause or delay the rendering of components until all data is available to avoid loading components with pending data. However, implementing server-side rendering in vanilla React applications can be tricky, especially when dealing with frequently changing state-dependent components or dynamic web apps, as it can easily lead to a lousy user and developer experience.
Luckily, there are a few React-based SSR frameworks that make building SSR applications less complicated.
Next.js Approach for SSR
Next.js is a React-based full-stack SSR framework that comes with three different approaches to server-side rendering:
- Static Site Generation (SSG): The concept behind SSG is to generate all the static web pages ahead of request time, typically during the build time, so they're already available to be served when requested by the client. Usually, this approach is appropriate for static websites with very few dynamic elements. Otherwise, every time the website's data changes, all the web pages must be regenerated.
- Server-Side Rendering (SSR): SSR as you know it, lets you generate your web pages on the server on-demand before sending them to the client. Using this method is ideal for dynamic websites with a lot of content that changes frequently.
- Incremental Static Regeneration (ISR): This concept is very similar to SSG, the difference being to regenerate the website incrementally, at specific time intervals. This means that the website gets regenerated to reflect updated changes at intervals. In a way, this approach combines SSR with SSG, which is ideal for static websites with some dynamic content.
With Next.js, developers can switch between these approaches when building an SSR React application.
Remix’s Approach for SSR
Remix is another open-sourced, edge-first React-based framework for building full-stack SSR React applications. In contrast to Next.js, Remix approaches SSR differently by placing all stakes on only SSR instead of also having ISG and SSG solutions. Taking the SSR route is Remix's response to the problem that SSG and ISR have when dealing with websites with many pages and dynamic content, which would mean generating every page at build time, even for hypothetical scenarios such as for search results, etc.
This may seem trivial for a small-scale web application, but imagine a complex or large application with several pages, such as an e-commerce store with several products or dynamic content. Being an edge-first framework, Remix allows you to get the most out of SSR for dynamic websites by easily incorporating distributed edge systems and their infrastructure into your build instead of relying on static build for a fast SSR website.
There are other popular technologies for developing SSR applications such Nuxt, which offers Vue.js developers both static-site generation and on-demand server rendering, amongst others.
Server-side rendering (SSR) aims to solve real problems plaguing client-side rendering in single-page applications. However, it does come with its challenges as well as benefits. The server-side rendering process (SSR) can be tricky for those who haven't worked with it before. Still, with the help of some popular SSR technologies, depending on your needs (SSR, SSG, or ISG), you and your team can quickly get up and running in building SEO-friendly and performant websites.