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November 08, 2009

The Story of Google's Closure: Advanced JavaScript Tools

On Thursday, Google caught the eyes of Web developers around the world with the company's move to open source its Closure JavaScript compiler, library and template system to the Web community - the very same tools that power popular applications, including GMail, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Reader, and no doubt many others. The Closure tools optimize Web code to be compact and high-performance, essentially reducing page load and redraw times while also enabling uncompromising capabilities. Around the Web, you could see the release elated geeks both inside and outside Google, many of whom previously worked with the tools while working for the Mountain View tech giant.

To better understand these tools, and get a real-world perspective on Closure, I reached out to Mihai Parparita, an engineer on the Google Reader team, to hear of his experience. He was gracious enough to extend a very thorough overview, explaining the tools' origin and use case, by e-mail, much of which is summarized below.

The Closure compiler dates back to GMail's launch in April of 2004. Paul Buchheit, now of Facebook, via FriendFeed and previously Google, largely credited for the founding of GMail, highlighted the announcement this week on his FriendFeed, calling it the "Gmail JavaScript compiler". The library and template system were initiated a few years following.

As Google Reader development started in early 2005, with Mihai, Jason Shellen, Chris Wetherell (the latter pair now are at Thing Labs working on Brizzly, which also uses Closure) and others working to make a top-notch Web-based RSS reader, the team leveraged Closure immediately after the initial prototypes. At the time, the team was less focused on download size than they are today, but the compiler's aggressive function checking improved error detection.

Mihai writes:
"Until the last month or so leading up to the Reader launch in October 2005, the size benefits of the compiler were less important, since we were less focused on download time (and performance in general) and more on getting basic functionality up and running. Instead, the extra checks that the compiler does (e.g. if a function is called with the wrong number of parameters, typos in variable names) made it easier to catch errors much earlier. We have set up our development mode for Reader so that when the browser is refreshed, the JavaScript is recompiled on the server and is used with the page when it is reloaded. This results in a tight development loop that makes it possible to catch JavaScript errors as early as possible."
As the library and template systems did not arrive until approximately 2006, Reader utilized homegrown code in their place that provided similar functionality, including handing different browser versions and quirks, Mihai said. But as soon as they were available, Reader used the new tools for new code, and later, to replace old shared libraries and homegrown code. Mihai said he performed an audit to detect usage of the old code, and find their Closure equivalents, so work could be distributed among the team during so-called "fixit" periods, when attention was given to code quality instead of new functionality.

With Closure implemented, benefits to Google Reader users are clear. Mihai estimates that without Closure, Reader's JavaScript code would be a massive 2 megabytes, which reduces to 513 kilobytes with Closure, and all the way down to 184 kilobytes using gzip, supported by nearly all browsers. Additional benefits include the near-elimination of concerns around browser differentiation, and an extremely manageable large JavaScript codebase "that doesn''t get out of control as it ages and accumulates features", he said. (Note download time was given as the main reason Robert Scoble has moved away from Reader and that the team recently made a push to even further optimize the code)

Closure's role at Reader, initially utilized in low level code, has "moved up the UI stack" to to the point where it is leveraged for UI widgets. Mihai says "this means that it's not a lot of work to do auto-complete widgets, menus, buttons, dialogs, drag-and-drop, etc. in Reader."

The excitement around Closure's release was palpable from developers through Silicon Valley and beyond as you could see from blog posts by Erik Arvidsson, a co-creator along with Dan Pupius, and a series of posts at bolinfest.com. Other excited Tweets came from Mike Knapp, the aforementioned Chris Wetherell and Kushal Dave.

As Mihai says, "You can tell that there's something special about this when you look at the ex-Googlers cheering about its release. If it had been some proprietary antiquated system that they had all been forced to use, they wouldn't have been so excited that it was out in the open now."

Like many other projects at Google, Closure's compiler, library and templates were derived solely as 20% projects and are largely still dependent on work done in so-called 20% time at Google. Mihai says that if one project needs a feature from the compiler or the library, they are encouraged to contribute to it as well.
"To give a specific example, Reader had some home-grown code for locating elements by class name and tag name (a much more rigid and simplified version of the flexible CSS selector-based queries that you can do with jQuery or with the Dojo-based goog.dom.query)," Mihai said. "As part of the process of "porting" to the Closure library, we realized that though there was an equivalent library function, goog.dom.getElementsByTagNameAndClass, it didn't use some of the more recent browser APIs that could it make it much faster (e.g.getElementsByClassName and the W3C Selector API). Therefore we not only switched Reader's code to use the Closure version, but we also incorporated those new API calls in it. This ended up making all other apps faster; it was very nice to get a message from Dan Pupius saying that the change had shaved off a noticeable amount of time in a common Gmail operation."
Now clearly I'm no developer beyond simple HTML and JavaScript, but I know good Web apps when I see them, and Google's Web apps (as well as Brizzly) are among the best in the world. They have managed to take what used to require massive software installs and make them relatively lightweight Web instances with similar functionality between services. With the release of Closure, sharp Web developers will be looking to leverage these JavaScript libraries and tools to make their own products best of breed - something that will benefit the Web as a whole. I appreciate Mihai's openness, and his willingness to share the story behind the story.