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Refactoring your CSS & XHTML/HTML

Posted by Sheldon Finlay on July 16, 2009

Refactoring is a concept that is often used in the context of programming. In fact, it’s one of the cornerstones of Test-Driven Development (TDD) in Ruby on Rails. Oddly, I rarely see refactoring discussed in the context of writing CSS and XHTML. Whether you write Ruby, PHP, Perl or CSS and HTML, refactoring your code should be a part of your coding workflow.

So what is refactoring? It’s basically cleaning up your code, making it more efficient and easier to maintain. When writing prose, you bang out a first draft to get your ideas down on refactoring-csspaper. It’s a bunch of crap often. Then you revisit your mess and make it beautiful and worthy of submitting to your local town paper.

Coding is no different. When writing XHTML and CSS I am often trying out things, adding extra divs and spans, and creating a mess of CSS and XHTML. It’s called the process. It’s messy. When I finally get to the look I wanted to achieve, I take a quick break and bask in the glory of having everything aligning and looking the way I had envisioned it to look. But I am not done yet. Far from it. I must refactor my code.

Refactoring code removes duplication, aids in readability and maintenance of the code in the future. The goal here is to make things simpler, while continuing to achieve the layout I have designed. If you refactor and suddenly something doesn’t look right, that is not refactoring, that is breaking something. You want to refactor in small steps and test your code in the browser to ensure things are still working as intended. You should be using some form of source control management (SCM) like Git and regularly checking your code changes in. This way if you botch something, you can always pull a working version out of your SCM.

Now you might be thinking to yourself, I write semantic markup, isn’t that refactoring? No, that’s called doing your job as a standards aware designer. You should always strive to create meaningful markup. That’s the name of the game. Refactoring is revisiting your code and identifying areas where your code can be improved, streamlined and made simpler. In six months or a year, when you revisit this code you’ll spend less time trying to remember how this code works because you took the time to make it simpler and easier to maintain.

Refactoring is a huge topic and I plan on addressing it using several examples in a series of posts on the topic. We are going to take some baby steps here. For now I will leave you with a simple refactoring of CSS.

I ended up writing this CSS code in a site I was working on today:

Do you notice something in this code? There is a huge amount of duplication here.  The height and the padding-top attributes are the same for each of these classes. This duplication violates the DRY principle: Don’t Repeat Yourself. Duplication is a very bad thing. If we want to change the height, we have to change it in four places. This is not ideal. A better approach would be to refactor this CSS and remove the duplication and place it into a group of parent classes:

So here I  have refactored out the duplication and placed it in a group of parent classes. Now if I want to change the height of padding of these elements, I just need to deal with making the change in one place. The readability has been improved along with the maintainability. And I have saved a a few lines of CSS. While not a huge amount in the small example, the LOC saving in a large CSS file can measure in the kilobytes!

Thats it for now. If there is one takeaway in this lesson, it is look for and eliminate duplication whenever possible. Stay tuned for more examples of CSS & XHTML refactoring.

Restarting Apache? Use graceful instead of restart.

Posted by Sheldon Finlay on July 09, 2009

If you need to restart Apache on a live server, you have a few options. The common method which I often see discussed is

apachectl restart

This immediately tells the parent server to kill of its children (quite violent, no?) and then reload. The problem with doing this is it will end any active connections. So if you have visitors reading or writing to the server it will stop them dead in their tracks. They might even receive a connection error page in their browsers.

A better way to restart Apache using the graceful command:

apachectl graceful

This tells the parent to signal to its children to finish whatever they are doing and die (more compassionate). So if you have a visitor uploading a file or in a mid-stream connection, they should not receive an error. They may receive a small delay while things start up again, but overall, the restart should be barely noticable. Read more about the specifics of Apache restarting and stopping.

@font-face and website performance

Posted by Sheldon Finlay on July 07, 2009

graublauwebteaser@font-face has been riddled with shortcomings making it less than ideal for real world applications. But with most A-grade browsers now supporting the CSS specification, it seems it’s time has come.

One golden rule in web development is to keep HTTP requests to a minimum. Each additional HTTP request slows down the delivery of the web site and adds additional burden to the server.

@font-face basically allows you to embed fonts so they can be rendered on the page. Mind you, font files typically are not small. Graublau Sans Web, a popular free OpenType font for the web is 44kb and if you want to use the bold variant too, that will cost you another 44kb. Maybe you want a couple more fonts for your design. It’s going to cost you in the form of HTTP requests and download bloat. This might be fine for a low-traffic blog, but a high traffic site serving thousands of request a minute would not want to add fonts to their burden.

One possible solution would be to have all the freely licensed fonts hosted by a reliable CDN. Maybe Typekit is planning this, I don’t know. Reliable is the operative word. Google has set the precedence with their AJAX Libraries API. Basically Google hosts all the common JS libraries like jQuery, Scriptaculous, etc. Developers then link to Google to pull the code into their sites. The advantage is a faster experience for users visiting websites that use Google’s API on their site thanks to caching. See if a visitor visits my site and I am using the Google JS link for jQuery and then they visit your site and you have the same Google JS link for jQuery, the visitor doesn’t have to download the same exact Jquery file twice. They just download it once from Google.

It seems this same practice could be applied to @font-face and font embedding. If Google hosted a dozen common web fonts and we could all link to them in our stylesheets, it would make @font-face a lot more elegant and faster. Whether Google would be up for the task is anyone’s guess. But I am keeping my finger’s crossed.

Is XHTML Dead?

Posted by Sheldon Finlay on July 07, 2009

The web is always chocked full of conflicting information. As Mark Twain put it, A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. On the Intrawebs, the truth often wears cement shoes.

There’s a great deal of confusion on the web this week with the announcement from the W3C that the XHTML2 working group will stop work at the end of this year. Oh noes! So does this spell the end of XHTML?

There’s one surefire way to answer this question: