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Cloudflare Workers and micro-frontends: made for one another

10/20/2022

12 min read

This post is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文.

To help developers build better web applications we researched and devised a fragments architecture to build micro-frontends using Cloudflare Workers that is lightning fast, cost-effective to develop and operate, and scales to the needs of the largest enterprise teams without compromising release velocity or user experience.

Here we share a technical overview and a proof of concept of this architecture.

Why micro-frontends?

One of the challenges of modern frontend web development is that applications are getting bigger and more complex. This is especially true for enterprise web applications supporting e-commerce, banking, insurance, travel, and other industries, where a unified user interface provides access to a large amount of functionality. In such projects it is common for many teams to collaborate to build a single web application. These monolithic web applications, usually built with JavaScript technologies like React, Angular, or Vue, span thousands, or even millions of lines of code.

When a monolithic JavaScript architecture is used with applications of this scale, the result is a slow and fragile user experience with low Lighthouse scores. Furthermore, collaborating development teams often struggle to maintain and evolve their parts of the application, as their fates are tied with fates of all the other teams, so the mistakes and tech debt of one team often impacts all.

Drawing on ideas from microservices, the frontend community has started to advocate for micro-frontends to enable teams to develop and deploy their features independently of other teams. Each micro-frontend is a self-contained mini-application, that can be developed and released independently, and is responsible for rendering a “fragment” of the page. The application then combines these fragments together so that from the user's perspective it feels like a single application.

An application consisting of multiple micro-frontends

Fragments could represent vertical application features, like “account management” or “checkout”, or horizontal features, like “header” or “navigation bar”.

Client-side micro-frontends

A common approach to micro-frontends is to rely upon client-side code to lazy load and stitch fragments together (e.g. via Module Federation). Client-side micro-frontend applications suffer from a number of problems.

Common code must either be duplicated or published as a shared library. Shared libraries are problematic themselves. It is not possible to tree-shake unused library code at build time resulting in more code than necessary being downloaded to the browser and coordinating between teams when shared libraries need to be updated can be complex and awkward.

Also, the top-level container application must bootstrap before the micro-frontends can even be requested, and they also need to boot before they become interactive. If they are nested, then you may end up getting a waterfall of requests to get micro-frontends leading to further runtime delays.

These problems can result in a sluggish application startup experience for the user.

Server-side rendering could be used with client-side micro-frontends to improve how quickly a browser displays the application but implementing this can significantly increase the complexity of development, deployment and operation. Furthermore, most server-side rendering approaches still suffer from a hydration delay before the user can fully interact with the application.

Addressing these challenges was the main motivation for exploring an alternative solution, which relies on the distributed, low latency properties provided by Cloudflare Workers.

Micro-frontends on Cloudflare Workers

Cloudflare Workers is a compute platform that offers a highly scalable, low latency JavaScript execution environment that is available in over 275 locations around the globe. In our exploration we used Cloudflare Workers to host and render micro-frontends from anywhere on our global network.

Fragments architecture

In this architecture the application consists of a tree of “fragments” each deployed to Cloudflare Workers that collaborate to server-side render the overall response. The browser makes a request to a “root fragment”, which will communicate with “child fragments” to generate the final response. Since Cloudflare Workers can communicate with each other with almost no overhead, applications can be server-side rendered quickly by child fragments, all working in parallel to render their own HTML, streaming their results to the parent fragment, which combines them into the final response stream delivered to the browser.

A high-level overview of a fragments architecture

We have built an example of a “Cloud Gallery” application to show how this can work in practice. It is deployed to Cloudflare Workers at  https://cloud-gallery.web-experiments.workers.dev/

The demo application is a simple filtered gallery of cloud images built using our fragments architecture. Try selecting a tag in the type-ahead to filter the images listed in the gallery. Then change the delay on the stream of cloud images to see how the type-ahead filtering can be interactive before the page finishes loading.

Multiple Cloudflare Workers

The application is composed of a tree of six collaborating but independently deployable Cloudflare Workers, each rendering their own fragment of the screen and providing their own client-side logic, and assets such as CSS stylesheets and images.

Architectural overview of the Cloud Gallery app

The “main” fragment acts as the root of the application. The “header” fragment has a slider to configure an artificial delay to the display of gallery images. The “body” fragment contains the “filter” fragment and “gallery” fragments. Finally, the “footer” fragment just shows some static content.

The full source code of the demo app is available on GitHub.

Benefits and features

This architecture of multiple collaborating server-side rendered fragments, deployed to Cloudflare Workers has some interesting features.

Encapsulation

Fragments are entirely encapsulated, so they can control what they own and what they make available to other fragments.

Fragments can be developed and deployed independently

Updating one of the fragments is as simple as redeploying that fragment. The next request to the main application will use the new fragment. Also, fragments can host their own assets (client-side JavaScript, images, etc.), which are streamed through their parent fragment to the browser.

Server-only code is not sent to the browser

As well as reducing the cost of downloading unnecessary code to the browser, security sensitive code that is only needed for server-side rendering the fragment is never exposed to other fragments and is not downloaded to the browser. Also, features can be safely hidden behind feature flags in a fragment, allowing more flexibility with rolling out new behavior safely.

Composability

Fragments are fully composable - any fragment can contain other fragments. The resulting tree structure gives you more flexibility in how you architect and deploy your application. This helps larger projects to scale their development and deployment. Also, fine-grain control over how fragments are composed, could allow fragments that are expensive to server-side render to be cached individually.

Fantastic Lighthouse scores

Streaming server-rendered HTML results in great user experiences and Lighthouse scores, which in practice means happier users and higher chance of conversions for your business.

Lighthouse scores for the Cloud Gallery app

Each fragment can parallelize requests to its child fragments and pipe the resulting HTML streams into its own single streamed server-side rendered response. Not only can this reduce the time to render the whole page but streaming each fragment through to the browser reduces the time to the first byte of each fragment.

Eager interactivity

One of the powers of a fragments architecture is that fragments can become interactive even while the rest of the application (including other fragments) is still being streamed down to the browser.

In our demo, the “filter” fragment is immediately interactive as soon as it is rendered, even if the image HTML for the “gallery” fragment is still loading.

To make it easier to see this, we added a slider to the top of the “header” that can simulate a network or database delay that slows down the HTML stream which renders the “gallery” images. Even when the “gallery” fragment is still loading, the type-ahead input, in the “filter” fragment, is already fully interactive.

Just think of all the frustration that this eager interactivity could avoid for web application users with unreliable Internet connection.

Under the hood

As discussed already this architecture relies upon deploying this application as many cooperating Cloudflare Workers. Let’s look into some details of how this works in practice.

We experimented with various technologies, and while this approach can be used with many frontend libraries and frameworks, we found the Qwik framework to be a particularly good fit, because of its HTML-first focus and low JavaScript overhead, which avoids any hydration problems.

Implementing a fragment

Each fragment is a server-side rendered Qwik application deployed to its own Cloudflare Worker. This means that you can even browse to these fragments directly. For example, the “header” fragment is deployed to https://cloud-gallery-header.web-experiments.workers.dev/.

A screenshot of the self-hosted “header” fragment

The header fragment is defined as a Header component using Qwik. This component is rendered in a Cloudflare Worker via a fetch() handler:

export default {
  fetch(request: Request, env: Record<string, unknown>): Promise<Response> {
    return renderResponse(request, env, <Header />, manifest, "header");
  },
};
cloud-gallery/header/src/entry.ssr.tsx

The renderResponse() function is a helper we wrote that server-side renders the fragment and streams it into the body of a Response that we return from the fetch() handler.

The header fragment serves its own JavaScript and image assets from its Cloudflare Worker. We configure Wrangler to upload these assets to Cloudflare and serve them from our network.

Implementing fragment composition

Fragments that contain child fragments have additional responsibilities:

  • Request and inject child fragments when rendering their own HTML.
  • Proxy requests for child fragment assets through to the appropriate fragment.

Injecting child fragments

The position of a child fragment inside its parent can be specified by a FragmentPlaceholder helper component that we have developed. For example, the “body” fragment has the “filter” and “gallery” fragments.

<div class="content">
  <FragmentPlaceholder name="filter" />
  <FragmentPlaceholder name="gallery" />
</div>
cloud-gallery/body/src/root.tsx

The FragmentPlaceholder component is responsible for making a request for the fragment and piping the fragment stream into the output stream.

Proxying asset requests

As mentioned earlier, fragments can host their own assets, especially client-side JavaScript files. When a request for an asset arrives at the parent fragment, it needs to know which child fragment should receive the request.

In our demo we use a convention that such asset paths will be prefixed with /_fragment/<fragment-name>. For example, the header logo image path is /_fragment/header/cf-logo.png. We developed a tryGetFragmentAsset() helper which can be added to the parent fragment’s fetch() handler to deal with this:

export default {
  async fetch(
    request: Request,
    env: Record<string, unknown>
  ): Promise<Response> {
    // Proxy requests for assets hosted by a fragment.
    const asset = await tryGetFragmentAsset(env, request);
    if (asset !== null) {
      return asset;
    }
    // Otherwise server-side render the template injecting child fragments.
    return renderResponse(request, env, <Root />, manifest, "div");
  },
};
cloud-gallery/body/src/entry.ssr.tsx

Fragment asset paths

If a fragment hosts its own assets, then we need to ensure that any HTML it renders uses the special _fragment/<fragment-name> path prefix mentioned above when referring to these assets. We have implemented a strategy for this in the helpers we developed.

The FragmentPlaceholder component adds a base searchParam to the fragment request to tell it what this prefix should be. The renderResponse() helper extracts this prefix and provides it to the Qwik server-side renderer. This ensures that any request for client-side JavaScript has the correct prefix. Fragments can apply a hook that we developed called useFragmentRoot(). This allows components to gather the prefix from a FragmentContext context.

For example, since the “header” fragment hosts the Cloudflare and GitHub logos as assets, it must call the useFragmentRoot() hook:

export const Header = component$(() => {
  useStylesScoped$(HeaderCSS);
  useFragmentRoot();

  return (...);
});
cloud-gallery/header/src/root.tsx

The FragmentContext value can then be accessed in components that need to apply the prefix. For example, the Image component:

export const Image = component$((props: Record<string, string | number>) => {
  const { base } = useContext(FragmentContext);
  return <img {...props} src={base + props.src} />;
});
cloud-gallery/helpers/src/image/image.tsx

Service-binding fragments

Cloudflare Workers provide a mechanism called service bindings to make requests between Cloudflare Workers efficiently that avoids network requests. In the demo we use this mechanism to make the requests from parent fragments to their child fragments with almost no performance overhead, while still allowing the fragments to be independently deployed.

Comparison to current solutions

This fragments architecture has three properties that distinguish it from other current solutions.

Unlike monoliths, or client-side micro-frontends, fragments are developed and deployed as independent server-side rendered applications that are composed together on the server-side. This significantly improves rendering speed, and lowers interaction latency in the browser.

Unlike server-side rendered micro-frontends with Node.js or cloud functions, Cloudflare Workers is a globally distributed compute platform with a region-less deployment model. It has incredibly low latency, and a near-zero communication overhead between fragments.

Unlike solutions based on module federation, a fragment's client-side JavaScript is very specific to the fragment it is supporting. This means that it is small enough that we don’t need to have shared library code, eliminating the version skew issues and coordination problems when updating shared libraries.

Future possibilities

This demo is just a proof of concept, so there are still areas to investigate. Here are some of the features we’d like to explore in the future.

Caching

Each micro-frontend fragment can be cached independently of the others based on how static its content is. When requesting the full page, the fragments only need to run server-side rendering for micro-frontends that have changed.

An application where the output of some fragments are cached

With per-fragment caching you can return the HTML response to the browser faster, and avoid incurring compute costs in re-rendering content unnecessarily.

Fragment routing and client-side navigation

Our demo application used micro-frontend fragments to compose a single page. We could however use this approach to implement page routing as well. When server-side rendering, the main fragment could insert the appropriate “page” fragment based on the visited URL. When navigating, client-side, within the app, the main fragment would remain the same while the displayed “page” fragment would change.

An application where each route is delegated to a different fragment

This approach combines the best of server-side and client-side routing with the power of fragments.

Using other frontend frameworks

Although the Cloud Gallery application uses Qwik to implement all fragments, it is possible to use other frameworks as well. If really necessary, it’s even possible to mix and match frameworks.

To achieve good results, the framework of choice should be capable of server-side rendering, and should have a small client-side JavaScript footprint. HTML streaming capabilities, while not required, can significantly improve performance of large applications.

An application using different frontend frameworks

Incremental migration strategies

Adopting a new architecture, compute platform, and deployment model is a lot to take in all at once, and for existing large applications is prohibitively risky and expensive. To make this  fragment-based architecture available to legacy projects, an incremental adoption strategy is a key.

Developers could test the waters by migrating just a single piece of the user-interface within their legacy application to a fragment, integrating with minimal changes to the legacy application. Over time, more of the application could then be moved over, one fragment at a time.

Convention over configuration

As you can see in the Cloud Gallery demo application, setting up a fragment-based micro-frontend requires quite a bit of configuration. A lot of this configuration is very mechanical and could be abstracted away via conventions and better tooling. Following productivity-focused precedence found in Ruby on Rails, and filesystem based routing meta-frameworks, we could make a lot of this configuration disappear.

Try it yourself!

There is still so much to dig into! Web applications have come a long way in recent years and their growth is hard to overstate. Traditional implementations of micro-frontends have had only mixed success in helping developers scale development and deployment of large applications. Cloudflare Workers, however, unlock new possibilities which can help us tackle many of the existing challenges and help us build better web applications.

Thanks to the generous free plan offered by Cloudflare Workers, you can check out the Gallery Demo code and deploy it yourself.

If all of these sounds interesting to you, and you would like to work with us on improving the developer experience for Cloudflare Workers, we are also happy to share that we are hiring!

We protect entire corporate networks, help customers build Internet-scale applications efficiently, accelerate any website or Internet application, ward off DDoS attacks, keep hackers at bay, and can help you on your journey to Zero Trust.

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To learn more about our mission to help build a better Internet, start here. If you're looking for a new career direction, check out our open positions.
DevelopersCloudflare WorkersMicro-frontendsDeveloper PlatformServerless

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Peter Bacon Darwin|@petebd
Igor Minar|@IgorMinar
Cloudflare|@cloudflare

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