An Intro to the Astro Framework: Benefits and Drawbacks by@jerrychang

An Intro to the Astro Framework: Benefits and Drawbacks

Astro changes the game by flipping the way we build websites, it supports multiple frontend frameworks, and takes the compiler approach to optimizing how we build websites.
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Jerry

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Content

  • Introduction

  • Features

  • Server-side Rendering

    1. Initial Load
    2. Start Hydration
    3. Finish Hydration
  • Performance and User Experience (UX)

  • Partial Hydration

  • Slots

  • Drawbacks

  • Conclusion

Introduction

Astro is a new framework that takes a different approach to challenge the existing rendering patterns used by many other frameworks (Gatsby, Next.js, and Remix.run to name a few).


Even though the framework is still in beta, the features offered by the team are quite impressive so far. It brings many fresh ideas that I think are worth looking into.


I can feel that the team really tried to bridge the developer experience (DX) and performance by leveraging their own Astro compiler.


In this article, we’ll discuss the key features offered by Astro, then dive into a few of them in detail.


Then, we’ll move into Server-side rendering (SSR) from a fundamental level to form a basis for our discussion around the concepts introduced by Astro. Then, move to discuss how Astro does things differently!


Finally, we will take a look at some of its drawbacks and what type of application it is most applicable to at this time.

Features

  • Out of the box features
    • Templating (via “slots”)
    • Page Layouts
    • Markdown support
    • Code blocks
    • Fetch
    • Filesystem routing convention (similar to Next.js)
    • Astro component (.Astro )
  • Supports multiple frameworks (Vue.js, React.js, Svelte, Solid.js, etc)
  • Opt-in interactivity optimization
    • Through the hydration directives (client:* - provided by Astro compiler)
  • Pagination
  • RSS feed

Server-side rendering

The use case for server-side rendering is to improve the SEO for search engine crawling.


This is because single-page applications, or sites that only run on the client-side, are difficult for search engines to index its data like meta tags and other open graph details.


As a result, without the generated HTML which contains these details, it has a big impact on the ranking of the website when users search Google.


So, server-side rendering was a solution to this problem. The process goes like this: an HTML file (along with CSS and js) is served to the user on the initial request, then the client-side application will “hydrate” the DOM elements.


Finally, once all the previous steps are done, it’ll then be ready to observe the user’s interactions (i.e. Clicks).


Let’s take a look at a visualization of this process to better understand it.

1. Initial load (HTML, js, CSS)

Initial page load where the user only sees the blank page.

SSR initial load

SSR initial load

2. Start hydration

This is where the Javascript starts attaching the DOM event listeners (ie Click, KeyPress).

At this point, the CSS should also be loaded and available.

SSR starts hydration or binding DOM events

SSR starts hydration or binding DOM events

3. Finish hydration

Finally, there will be some time between the start and end of the hydration. If you are using React (<18), then this process happens all at once and it is ”blocking”. Meaning, it’ll hydrate the whole application. Then, only when it is done, will users be able to interact with it.


For performance-critical applications, this can make all the difference, especially on low-end devices and when using a slow network connection (ie 3G).

SSR finish hydration

SSR finish hydration

Performance and User Experience (UX)

Looking at the above steps in another way, it looks like the following on a timeline:

Source: Rendering on the web by Jason Miller & Addy Osmani.

Source: Rendering on the web by Jason Miller & Addy Osmani.


As you can see, there is a small period between the First Content Paint (FCP) and Time to Interactive (TTI) where the client application is going through the hydration phase.


This impacts the performance; as your bundle becomes larger, the longer it will take for the request to load to hydrate your client-side site/application.


In addition, performance is not the only thing impacted, the UX is impacted too. The longer the hydration process takes, the more time it takes for users to be able to interact with your website or web application.


This can be frustrating for users clicking on an element on the page while it is still hydrating and having it not do anything at all.

Partial Hydration

So, how exactly does Astro solve this problem?


It does this through partial hydration. As I mentioned in the features section, websites built using Astro are static by default. Meaning, that no JS will be served, and all the JS will be stripped during the process.



⚠️ Note: when we say “no JS” is served, we mean JS from our application and not Astro’s core JS bundles. This is required for things like defer loading and hydrating of components (when it is applicable).



You may be asking, “Ok, if JS from our application is stripped, then how do you get click events on buttons?” Great question!


Astro provides directives that allow you to explicitly specify which component you’d like to hydrate and when.


In addition, Astro follows the “Island Architecture” which has the benefit of:


  1. Allowing the components to load independently from each other
  2. Allowing the components to render in isolation

Hydration process (partial/selective hydration)

rendering with partial/selective hydration

rendering with partial/selective hydration


In this example, while the rest of the page is static, the <Nav /> and <Button /> components are hydrated on load.

Benefits

The Benefit of this is the following:


  1. Serving less JS to the client (smaller JS bundle)
  2. Independent “Islands” to load and hydrate the component in isolation rather than the whole application

Example of this:

Depending on use cases, you can also use client:visible, which loads and hydrates the component only when it is visible. There are a few other directives; feel free to check out the documentation.


If you just want to make sure your component gets hydrated on load, then you would add the following directive:


<Nav client:load />

<Button client:load />


To me, with Astro, you can really find a good balance between the speed you get from HTML and the dynamism from Javascript.


It’s so easy to optimize the code via the provided directive. The compiler handles all the heavy lifting. No additional code needs to be written to handle this. That is a big deal!

📝 Helpful reference:

Slots

Another feature I found interesting was Astro’s slots. This provides a more powerful primitive compared to react’s prop and children .


I felt the slot was more similar to other templating libraries like (Rails) erb, where you can define where different children components go within the layout component and let the templating engine do the work of rendering it in the right place.

Example

// Card.tsx
import * as React from 'react';

import {
  CardHeading,
  CardWrapper,
} from '~/components';

interface CardProps {};
const Card: React.FC<CardProps> = (props) => {
  return (
    <CardWrapper>
      <CardHeading>
        <slot name="card-heading">
      </CardHeading>
      <CardImageWrapper>
        <slot name="card-image">
      </CardImageWrapper>
      <CardFooter>
        <slot name="card-footer">
      </CardFooter>
    </CardWrapper>
  );
};

// App.tsx
import { Card, Footer } from '~/components';
import * as React from 'react';

interface AppProps {};
const App: React.FC<AppProps> = (props) => {
  return (
    <Card>
      <div slot="card-heading">
        <h2>Suzy</h2>
      </div>
      <div slot="card-image">
        <img src="/images/cat-suzy.png" slot="card-image">
      </div>
      <Footer slot="card-footer" />
    </Card>
  );
};

Astro Component

Astro provides its own component which is very similar to svelte (if you have used it before).

Everything (HTML, js, CSS) is in one file and it uses the extension .Astro .


💡 Note: Inside the Astro component is where you can import and render the different components (.vue, .tsx, .jsx, svelte)


Example

---
const title = "this is my title";
---

<h1 class="title">{title}</h1>

<style>
  .title {
    color: grey;
  }
</style>



💡 Note: The CSS in the astro component is scoped to the component by default!


📝 Helpful reference:

Data fetching

Within Astro’s script block, common syntax like await/async , typescript, and fetch are supported.


Fetching the data is simple as what is highlighted below:

---
interface PokemonResult {
  name: string;
  url: string;
}
interface PokemonResponse {
  count: number;
  next: string;
  previous: number | null;
  result: PokemonResult[];
}
const response = await fetch('https://pokeapi.co/api/v2/pokemon');
const data: PokemonResponse = await response.json();
const result: PokemonResult = data?.result ?? [];
---

<ul>
  {(result) => <li>{result}</li>}
</ul>

<style></style>

📝 Helpful reference:

Environment variables

Astro offers environment variables via .env* files. The convention it uses is very similar to other frameworks.

There are two categories of environment variables

  1. Public (on the client-side) - Available at run-time, this can be defined via PULIC_* prefix
  2. Private (on server/build) - Available at build time, this is the default


⚠️ All environment variables are Private unless explicitly defined using the PUBLIC_ prefix

Usage


.env file:

UNSPLASH_API_KEY=xxxxxx


astro file:

---
const requestUrl = 'https://api.unsplash.com/search/photos?page=1&per_page=15&query=surfing';
const response = await fetch(requestUrl, {
  headers: {
    'Authorization': `Client-ID ${import.meta.env.UNSPLASH_API_KEY}`
  }
});

const data = await response.json();
const results = data?.results || [];
const images = results.map(images => images.urls);
---

<section class="image-section">
  <ul>
    {images.map((imageSizes) => (
      <li class="image-container">
        <img src={imageSizes.small} />
      </li>
    ))}
  </ul>
</section>

<style></style>

📝 Helpful reference:

Drawbacks

The only drawback with Astro in this current stage is that its use cases feel a little niched.


Many of the out-of-the-box features like code blocks and markdown seem to be very focused on building developer blogs. I am sure this is temporary only to gain developer adoption, and then they will expand to other use cases later.


On the point of multiple frameworks being supported, the support for routing and state management has not been mentioned nor does it seem like there is a potential solution.


This is understandable as the framework is still in beta. Nevertheless, I am excited to see what the team has planned for upcoming releases.


Unfortunately, as impressive as it is so far, I hesitate to build a large application with this just yet because of the lack of tooling and ecosystem.


However, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t jump in and try it out. The documentation is clear and easy to understand.


I still believe Astro introduces a lot of interesting new concepts that can be applied regardless if you are using Astro or not.

Conclusion

To summarize, Astro is a project that has a unique take on building fast websites. It brings many fresh ideas which I feel will likely pollinate to other frameworks — which is a very common thing.


In addition, I noticed that there is a real focus on DX within the features provided which I really appreciate.


We started a discussion regarding the fundamentals to better understand Server-side rendering (SSR). then broke it down further to understand what exactly Astro does differently that makes it better and how that impacts both the performance & UX.


Astro allows you to find a sweet spot between the static (with HTML) and the dynamism (from js) when developing your websites. It does this by layering in advanced techniques, such as static first with selective/partial hydration, where our pages are thought of as isolated “Islands” which are loaded and hydrated independently.


Give it a try, and see for yourself. Astro provides many sample applications in their example repo which is a great starting point for experimentation!


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