Speeding up Drupal

Nobody likes to wait. Especially people surfing the web. They want to see what they are looking for fast and will judge your website within a fraction of a second. Based on their first impression and user experience they make choices. A slow loading website is bad experience and will have a negative impact on conversion.

Nowadays, internet connections are getting faster and faster but at the same time, websites are getting bigger and bigger. Not optimized, image-rich pages with big javascript libraries and massive css files kan really hurt front-end performance of your website. Having a fast system server-side, with blazingly fast php scripts and mysql queries is nice, but in real life most noticeable performance improvements can be made when the data is being sent to the client-side's browser.

See the 'waterfall' load comparison test below between an  setup (A) without any cache or optimizations, and (B) a setup which is almost fully optimized.


And of course, there are speed differences in browsers too: Google Chrome is much faster in handling complex javascript pages, followed closely by Safari. Internet Explorer is last. But even if your users are heavy IE users you can do a lot to speed things up. Here I list some Drupal optimizations with specific modules, but the principle behind this applies to all websites. If you want to know more about this topic, I recommend this excellent presentation by Steve Souders and his O'Reilly books.

Now, Drupal does a good job of optimization 'out-of-the box'.  Under settings -> performance you will find a number of options which optimize performance. You can enable server-side caching and aggregate all js and css files. That's pretty nice but if you'll use a tool like YSlow or PageSpeed and analyze your site, you will probably still see a number of red flags showing up. These are tips for further optimizing your page load.


Gzip compression
This can seriously reduce the amount of data which has to be downloaded. Gzip compression is most effective on text and is very effective on included stylesheets and javascript files. It's not effective on jpg, gif or png files - these should be optimized seperately. However, Drupal 6 core doesn't offer Gzip compression. There is an issue about this to make it available in Drupal 7, but at this point it's unsure if this fixed on time.

Luckily, there is a module which provides this service. Well actually, there are two. To gzip css files there is gzip css. For javascript, use javascript aggregator.

In addition to faster load times, this one can potentially save your server a lot of bandwidth too!

Minify JavaScript
Javascript aggregator also provides an option to gzip js and (optionally) also to minify js using jsmin. Alternatively you might want to try your luck with the new closure compiler which Google released only last week. And there is already an google closure compiler module for Drupal which uses this service to minify and optimize js. It's an unstable proof-of-concept but I tried it and it didn't raise any issues on the test site. I'm not sure how it compares to jsmin but it's worth to check out.

Parellelize downloads
This trick requires you to setup a number of subdomaines which point to the main site. Browsers are limited to a number of concurrent connections to a hostname. For modern browsers this amount is six, but older ones (or even IE7) have as few as two (see full comparison). You can workaround this limitation by providing images, css and js files from different domains and thus speeding things up significantly.

Guess what. There is a Drupal module for this: parallel.

You might check out if you have any seo issues (images are taken from another domain, so this might influence your search visibility if you receive many visitors from image search.

Content Delivery Network
An even better way is to use a CDN and put it all in the cloud, but this unnecessary for many sites. There is a Drupal CDN module which - in anaddition to supporting real CDN's - also offers the same functionality as parallel. The CDN module is maintained by Wim Leers which also wrote a great but a bit older post on Drupal page loading performance. Also check out his slideshow and video presentation from DrupalCon Paris on this topic if you want to know more.

Leverage browser caching
You might not see this one pop up in PageSpeed at all if your server is already properly configured. Browsers tend to cache files they downloaded so future requests are pulled of your harddisk instead of the website. This requires your files (images) to provide an expiry date in the HTTP headers so your browser will know when to look for a new version. Drupal already this for you, and sets all expiry dates to two weeks in the future. However this is done in the .htaccess file and requires the mod_expires Apache module. If you get a red flag on this one like in the image above, you probably don't have it running.

This one can have a big impact on image rich websites where people are browsing image galleries with a lot of thumbnails: the browser will download all images which don't have an expiry date set on each page request!

Other optimizations
These are some of the things which will probably have the biggest impact. But, depending on your needs, you might try a number of other techniques. For example, use sprites for your theme images, or optimize your PNG's. For  the Drupal 7 icon set, ImageOptim(mac only) was used to smush core images.
In case your bottleneck is at the server-side, you might want to look at accelerators to speed up php like APC or XCache. Also check out this great comparison chart for Drupal performance modules.

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