Asset Bundling from the Command Line


The original version has been slightly edited in <2020-05-19 Tue> to improve readability.

Web Assets Management

Asset Bundling. Performances of Web applications and Websites can be improved by bundling assets. Roughly speaking, the process consists in concatenating all style sheets and JavaScript sources in two files, removing spaces and other useless characters (a process sometimes called minification or uglifying), and optionally compressing the resulting files, to further reduce their size. This reduces the number and size of network requests required to load and render out content.

Cache Busting. Another good practice is implementing a cache busting strategy, that is, a mechanism that invalidates the cache of browsers when our assets change.

Browsers, in fact, keep local copies of the files they download when visiting a site. Some of these files, such as style sheets and JavaScript, tend to change rarely, if at all. By caching these files, browsers can render a website faster when it is visited a second time, since there is no need to download again files which are already available locally.

This, however, can be a problem if the cached assets have been changed since the last visit: if the browser already has a local copy, it might not check for new versions and our website might not render as intended.

There are various techniques to avoid this issue. A simple approach consists in revving (or fingerprinting) assets, that is, changing their filename when their content changes. Common techniques use timestamps, version numbers, and the SHA of the file. If you are interested on the topic, see Cache Bust that Asset for a review of cache busting techniques and HTTP Caching for an excellent introduction about caching.

Tools. There are many tools to automatically bundle and fingerprint your assets. For instance, if you are on Ruby on Rails or Middleman, asset bundling is automatically managed by Sprockets or WebPack.

If you are on Jekyll, the situation is a bit more complex. There are, in fact, various plugins, such as Jekyll Assets, Jekyll Minibundle, and Jekyll::Littlefinger, providing different degrees of automation. However, their integration requires a bit of work and, in some cases, there are some quirks: for instance I could not integrate Jekyll::Littlefinger and Jekyll’s support for Sass. A different approach is using one of the many tools available for JavaScript, such as, for instance, Gulp, Webpack, and Grunt. Of these, the one most often used with Jekyll seems to be Gulp, for which there are some nice tutorials, such as Building a production website with Hugo and GulpJS and Using Gulp asset versioning with Hugo data files.

Finally, if you are using other tools, such as Org Mode, you are on your own.

The Command Line to the Rescue

Fortunately, the operations required to bundle assets can be easily performed from the command line and, thus, I wrote a simple bash script to bundle and fingerprint the assets of my website.

The script is based on sassc (a Sass compiler), uglifyjs (a JavaScript compressor), and sha256 (a fingerprint calculator). The trick is keeping track of the fingerprint generated by the generator, so that the bundled files can be referenced in you HTML files.

Here it is:

# use Sass to compile style sheets
sassc -I node_modules/spectre.css/src _sass/main.scss > assets/css/main.css

# fingerprint the compiled style sheet and move it to a directory Jekyll understands
SHA=$(sha256sum assets/css/main.css  | cut -f1 -d" ")
mv assets/css/main.css assets/css/main-${SHA}.css

# keep track of the filename with the SHA in _data/assets.yml 
# (the > ensures the old version of assets.yml gets overwritten)
cat > _data/assets.yml <<EOF
  digested: assets/css/main-${SHA}.css

# use UglifyJS to concatenate all JavaScript files
uglifyjs node_modules/zepto/dist/zepto.min.js _js/main.js > assets/js/main.js

# fingerprint the JavaScript and move it to a directory Jekyll understands
SHA=$(sha256sum assets/js/main.js  | cut -f1 -d" ")
mv assets/js/main.js assets/js/main-${SHA}.js

# keep track of the filename with the SHA in _data/assets.yml 
# (the >> ensures we are appending to _data_assets.yml)
cat >> _data/assets.yml <<EOF
  digested: assets/js/main-${SHA}.js

One important bit of the script is the generation of the assets.yml file, which keeps the correspondence between the original and the fingerprinted filenames. In order to reference a fingerprinted asset in our HTML files, in fact, we need to be able to compute the correct filename to update them manually when they change (kind of unfeasible).

When using Jekyll, the assets.yml generated by the script comes to the rescue, since we can use it in our layouts to load the proper asset, as follows:

<link rel="stylesheet" type="text/css" href="{{['main.css'].digested | absolute_url }}">
<script type="text/javascript" src="{{['main.js'].digested | absolute_url }}"></script>

The important bit is the['main.css'].digested which gets the name of the fingerprinted main.css asset. See Example: Accessing a specific author for more details.

Now, every time I change my assets, I run the script above to generate fresh copies of my assets.

The solution might be simple and naive (there is no deletion of old assets, to name one), but it works, it is blazing fast, it limits the number of external dependencies and the complexity of the build process. If you have spent time debugging a build toolchain which stops working after updating some components, you probably know what I mean.

Conclusions and take-home Lesson

Asset bundling and revving can improve the performances of your Website and Web applications. There are many nice tools which support us very well in complex workflows.

There are situations, however, where the command line might provide a simpler and robust solution.

You just need to think about what your requirements really are and what you really need from the tools you use.