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Demystifying Server-Side Rendering (SSR) in Next.js

Demystifying Server-Side Rendering (SSR) in Next.js

Server-side rendering is a powerful tool for creating dynamic web applications. It allows developers to create interactive and performant user interfaces without relying on client-side JavaScript execution. This approach speeds up loading times and offers unprecedented control over what is displayed on each page request.

In this article, we will explore the benefits of using server-side rendering in Next JS, how it works under the hood, and how best to implement it into existing projects. We’ll also look at some of the challenges associated with server-side rendering, such as performance optimization and maintenance considerations. Let us understand server-side rendering closely now.

What is Server-Side Rendering (SSR)?

Server-Side Rendering (SSR) is a technique used in web development to generate web pages on the server and deliver fully-rendered HTML to the client’s browser. This is how it works:

User Request: When you visit a website, your browser sends a request to the web server for a specific page.

Server Processing: The web server receives your request and processes it. If SSR is employed, the server prepares to generate the page on the server side.

Data Retrieval: To construct the page, the server may need to fetch data from databases, APIs, or other sources. It collects the necessary data, which could include text, images, and more.

HTML Generation: With data in hand, the server uses templates and layout structures to build an HTML document that represents the webpage. This HTML can include text, images, links, and any other content on the page.

Sending the Fully Rendered Page: Once the HTML is generated, the server sends it as a complete, fully-rendered webpage to your browser.

Browser Display: Your browser receives the HTML page and can immediately render it for you to view. This process eliminates the need for additional rendering on the client side, resulting in a faster initial page load.

Now that we know how SSR works, we will now consider its advantages and disadvantages for informed usage.

Advantages of SSR

Reduced Page Load Time

SSR significantly reduces the time it takes for a web page to become visible to the user. By pre-rendering the HTML on the server and sending it to the client’s browser, the user sees content faster compared to other rendering methods. This results in a snappier and more engaging user experience.

Improved Search Engine Rankings

Search engines play a vital role in driving web traffic. SSR is highly favored by search engines because it provides fully-rendered HTML content that is easy to crawl and index. Websites using SSR often achieve better search engine rankings, resulting in increased visibility and organic traffic.

Enhanced User Experience

Improved page load times directly contribute to a better user experience. Users are more likely to stay engaged and explore a website if pages load quickly and smoothly. SSR ensures that the initial content is readily available, reducing waiting time for users.

Accessibility

SSR often leads to better accessibility. Since the initial HTML is fully formed, it is readily available to assistive technologies like screen readers, ensuring that web content is inclusive and accessible to all users. This aligns with the principle of progressive enhancement, which emphasizes a basic, functional experience for all users.

Improved Performance Even With Slow Internet

Users with slower internet connections or less powerful devices benefit significantly from SSR. Since the server handles the rendering, the client’s device doesn’t need to perform extensive rendering tasks, which reduces the page load time and improves performance, even under less-than-ideal conditions.

Security

SSR can enhance security by allowing sensitive data processing to occur on the server, reducing the risk of exposing critical information to client-side code. This can be particularly important for applications handling sensitive data or user authentication.

Disadvantages of SSR

Complex Implementation

Implementing SSR can be more complex than other rendering methods. It requires server-side code for rendering, data fetching, and routing, which may demand more development time and expertise.

Not Suitable for Real-Time Interactions

SSR is less suitable for applications that require real-time interactivity and dynamic content updates. Since the initial HTML is pre-rendered, it may not easily adapt to real-time data changes without additional client-side rendering.

Slower Subsequent Page Interactions

While SSR accelerates the initial page load, it may involve additional round trips to the server for user interactions, such as navigating to different pages or loading new content. This can result in slower subsequent page interactions compared to pure Client-Side Rendering (CSR).

Longer Download Times

The fully-rendered HTML generated by SSR can become quite large, especially for content-rich pages. This can lead to longer download times, particularly for users with slower internet connections.

Increased Development Effort

Implementing SSR often requires a more complex build process, involving data fetching strategies and build-time rendering. For websites with frequently changing or dynamic data, this complexity can increase development effort.

Slow Deployment

For websites with extensive content and frequent updates, SSR build times can become a significant concern. Longer build times can lead to slower deployment and development workflows, which may necessitate optimizations.

How can we use SSR to our benefit, then? Here are slime tips and best practices from my experience that will help you leverage SSR to your benefit.

Best Practices and Tips for Effective SSR

  • Optimize data fetching to reduce latency. Use server-side caching and consider fetching only the data necessary for the initial render. Make use of data prefetching methods to enhance user experience.
  • Implement code splitting to reduce the initial JavaScript payload. Load only the essential JavaScript required for the initial page view, and load additional scripts as needed for subsequent interactions.
  • Employ caching mechanisms to store rendered HTML on the server, reducing the need to regenerate pages for each request. This improves server performance and response times.
  • Avoid blocking resources like JavaScript that can delay page rendering. Load scripts asynchronously or defer non-essential scripts to prevent blocking the critical rendering path.
  • Implement robust error handling to gracefully manage errors during SSR. Provide friendly error messages and fallbacks to prevent users from encountering empty or broken pages.

Ways to Implement SSR in Next.js

There are several ways to implement Server-Side Rendering (SSR) in web development, and the choice often depends on the technology stack and framework you are using. Here are some common methods for implementing SSR.

1. Using Frameworks: Many modern web frameworks provide built-in support for SSR. For example:

  • In Next.js (React), you can use functions like getServerSideProps or getStaticProps to enable SSR for specific pages or components.
  • In Nuxt.js (Vue), SSR is a core feature, and you can create SSR pages easily.

2. Node.js with Express or Koa: You can create custom SSR setups using Node.js with frameworks like Express or Koa. This approach allows you to have full control over the server and routing.

Let’s now look into how we can implement server-side rendering in Next.js for an e-commerce website.

Step 1: Create a new Next.js project

To get started, you will have to create a new Next.js project by running the following commands in your terminal:

npx create-next-app my-ecommerce-app
cd my-ecommerce-app

Step 2: Set up the environment configuration

We will now define an environment variable to be stored in a .env.local file, which stores configuration settings that can be used across different environments (e.g. development, staging, production).

To set an environment variable in your project. You will have to create a file called .env.local in the root of your project directory and add a line like the following:

API_URL=http://localhost:3000

Step 3: Create a new page

Next.js uses a file-based routing system, which means that a file in the pages directory represents each page in your application. To create a new page, simply create a new file in the page’s directory with the desired URL path. For example, to create a page displaying a post list, you could create a file called pages/posts/index.js.
In this file, you can define a React component that will be rendered when the user visits the /posts URL path. Here’s an example component that fetches a list of posts from an API and displays them in a list:

function PostsPage() {
const [posts, setPosts] = useState([])

useEffect(() => {
async function fetchPosts() {
const res = await fetch(‘/api/posts’)
const posts = await res.json()
setPosts(posts)
}
fetchPosts()
}, [])

return (
<div>
<h1>Posts</h1>
<ul>
{posts.map((post) => (
<li key={post.id}>{post.name}</li>
))}
</ul>
</div>
)
}

export default PostsPage

Step 4: Create an API endpoint

To fetch the list of posts, we’ve used an API endpoint at /api/posts. Next.js provides a built-in API routing system that makes it easy to create serverless API endpoints.
To create an API endpoint, create a new file in the pages/api directory. For example, to create an API endpoint that returns a list of posts, you could create a file called pages/api/posts.js.

In this file, you can define a function that will be executed when the user requests the API endpoint. For the purpose of this guide, we will use an example function that fetches a list of posts from a mock API:

const posts = [ { id: 1, name: ‘Post 1’ }, { id: 2, name: ‘Post 2’ }, { id: 3, name: ‘Post 3’ },]

export default function handler(req, res) {
res.status(200).json(posts)
}

Step 5: Update the page to use server-side rendering

By default, Next.js uses client-side rendering (CSR) to render pages, which means that the JavaScript code is executed in the user’s browser. To switch to server-side rendering (SSR), you’ll need to update your page component to use a getServerSideProps function.

The getServerSideProps function is a special function that runs on the server before the page is rendered. It can be used to fetch data from an API or database, and return it as props to the page component.

Here’s an updated version of the pages/posts/index.js file that uses getServerSideProps to fetch the list of posts on the server:

import { useState } from ‘react’

function PostsPage({ posts }) {
const [loading, setLoading] = useState(false)

return (
<div>
<h1>Posts</h1>
<ul>
{posts.map((post) => (
<li key={post.id}>{post.name}</li>
))}
</ul>
</div>
)
}

export async function getServerSideProps() {
const res = await fetch(`${process.env.API_URL}/api/posts`)
const posts = await res.json()
return { props: { posts } }
}

export default PostsPage

Note that we’ve moved the useState hook for the loading state outside of the getServerSideProps function, since it needs to be initialized on the client as well.

Step 6: Start the development server

You can now start the development server by running the following command in your terminal:

npm run dev

This will start a local development server at http://localhost:3000.

Step 8: Test the application

You can now test the application by visiting the /posts URL path in your web browser. You should see a list of posts displayed on the page.

Blogpost Homepage
Post

If you view the page source in your browser, you’ll also see that the list of posts is included in the HTML markup, meaning the page was rendered on the server.
This is how you can implement server-side rendering in a Next.js application!

Case Studies and Real-World Examples

Let’s explore some real-world case studies and examples of websites and applications built with Next.js to showcase how Server-Side Rendering (SSR) has been successfully utilized:

Airbnb

Airbnb, a popular online marketplace for lodging and travel experiences, uses Next.js to improve its website’s performance. Next.js SSR helps with faster page loads, a critical factor for a platform that hosts thousands of property listings.

Netflix

Netflix utilizes Next.js for server-side rendering on its marketing and content pages. SSR ensures that these pages load quickly and are SEO-friendly, which is essential for a streaming platform looking to attract new subscribers.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, server-side rendering in React offers powerful benefits, including faster page loads, improved user experiences, and SEO advantages. While it comes with some complexity, modern tools like Next.js and Express.js simplify implementation. With caching and infrastructure support, SSR enhances user experiences, making it valuable for projects with dynamic content or complex backends. Consider SSR a valuable tool in your React toolkit for top-notch performance and SEO if implemented correctly.

About the author:

Nagarajan R is a Senior Front-End Developer at Siam Computing
Nagarajan R is a Senior Front-End Developer at Siam Computing

Nagarajan R is a Senior Front-End Developer at Siam Computing. With expertise in React.js and Next.js, he specializes in creating exceptional user interfaces and web applications. His strong grasp of modern front-end technologies, coupled with years of hands-on experience allows him to deliver high-quality solutions that leave a lasting impact on users.

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