Saturday, February 14, 2009

Upto 80% Speed Increase on Colnect with Symfony

I have managed to cut up to 80% in loading times for Colnect's pages. This is going to be a technical post that would hopefully help others using Symfony framework on their websites. Please mind that for many sites, caching can and should be enabled. On Colnect, however, a lot of pages (especially the heavy ones) cannot be cached since they need be calculated on every request from the same user. If your site is not very dynamic, using APC (if you have a single server) or memcached (when you have many) is the best thing you can do for performance.

Partials are evil


Maybe not that evil but they take their toll on your loading time. The worst is when using them inside a loop as the price increases linearly. Use helpers whenever possible but make sure you load only the necessary helpers on each call and don't try to re-load helpers when inside a loop.

Re-use function results


Symfony encourages you to use methods and functions repeatedly, for example sfContext::getInstance()->getModuleName();. Obviously, the more calculations, the longer things take so whenever you need to re-use results, save the variable content.

A good PHP structure for re-using results is:

function foo_calculate() {
static $result = null;
if (is_null($result)) {
# perform calculations
$result = calculation results...
}
return $result;
}


Escaping PHP and going back to PHP takes its toll


Using
?>xxx
is more costly than
echo 'xxx';
See code on the next paragraph.

Using many echo calls slows things down



It's better to accumulate output in a variable and call a single echo.
The following code performs simple tests so you can get a feeling of the differences in execution times. Run it a few times (when all other applications are closed) since results alter a bit every time.


public function executeCompareOutput(sfWebRequest $request) {
$times = 100000;
echo 'Looping for '.$times.' times - results in msec';
echo '<-div style="display:none">';
$start = microtime(true);
for ($x = 0; $x++ < $times;) {
echo ' '.$x;
}
echo '<-/div><-br/>'.round(1000 * (microtime(true) - $start));

$start = microtime(true);
echo '<-div style="display:none">';
for ($x = 0; $x++ < $times;) {
?> echo $x;
}
echo '<-br/>'.round(1000 * (microtime(true) - $start));

$start = microtime(true);
echo '<-div style="display:none">';
$sBuf = '';
for ($x = 0; $x++ < $times;) {
$sBuf .= ' '.$x;
}
echo $sBuf;
echo '<-br/>'.round(1000 * (microtime(true) - $start));

$start = microtime(true);
echo '<-div style="display:none">';
$sBuf = '';
for ($x = 0; $x++ < $times;) {
$sBuf .= ' ';
$sBuf .= $x;
}
echo $sBuf;
echo '<-br/>'.round(1000 * (microtime(true) - $start));

$start = microtime(true);
echo '<-div style="display:none">';
$GLOBALS['bufbuf'] = '';
for ($x = 0; $x++ < $times;) {
$GLOBALS['bufbuf'] .= ' '.$x;
}
echo $sBuf;
echo '<-br/>'.round(1000 * (microtime(true) - $start));

die('<-br/>bye');
}


Here is a sample output:

Looping for 10000 times - results in msec
3044
5503
10
15
16
bye


On this run using multiple echo calls + PHP escaping took 55 TIMES MORE than buffering the output in a variable. This clearly proves that the style suggested by Symfony templates, using many PHP echo blocks, is HIGHLY inefficient. If you have a few dozens of it in your templates and your content is cached, this is negligible. If your content is very dynamic, as is the case with Colnect, we're talking about something very worth noting.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Colnect's Alexa Ranking Keeps Going Up

Colnect's ranking on Alexa has risen again, now standing at 184,627 whereas ~3 months ago it was at ~360,000 and ~5 months ago ~500,000. I don't even know if it's linear or logarithmic although I guess the latter.

To those who may not know, Alexa ranks many (most?) websites out there of the big WWW. It does that by analyzing the traffic of (mostly unsuspecting?) users who install the Alexa toolbar on their browsers. This nice toolbar delivers the information back to their big servers, they crunch it whichever way they like and then rank the sites according to this information.

Why would anyone care about Alexa's ranking? Well, it has come to be relatively important in the WWW world. It allows you to have some (allegedly non-biased) objective information about how your website fairs on the Internet.

Are the results reliable? The short answer IMHO: no. The longer answer: perhaps, to some length. Since some website owners/operators/SEO personnel think of it as important, they are making an effort to get their ranking up. This isn't that hard, considering the fact the grand majority of users don't have the Alexa toolbar. There are many methods but they're basically about making people who use your site have the Alexa toolbar thus your site will have an improved ranking.

Another important disadvantage of Alexa is that ranking is on a per-domain basis. As such, this blog (which a few read) ranks the same as Colnect (which many frequently use). Personal websites on some free hosting all rank the same so you cannot tell them apart and so on.

Does Colnect try to improve its ranking? No. I did think about it for some time, since after all it may look better to some people, but have decided not to. The main two reasons would be not to spend my time on metrics that don't really matter and the second that since I wouldn't install it on my machine, I wouldn't ask others to do so.

Okay, let's hope this post won't cause Colnect's Alexa ranking to crash :)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers...

Many collectors (and non-collectors) really enjoy statistics and so finally the long awaited counters have now been added to Colnect. So when a collectors sees all coins in Colnect by country, there's now a small number indicating how many coins of that country are available on the database. The same goes for stamps and phonecards.

The big benefit becomes clearer when looking at a collector's collection, swap list or wish list. It's then very easy to know how many items the collector has of each country, company or even series.

Here's for example the information for an expert collector on Colnect, Czech RepublicDravec

Phonecards

Collection: 7,546 Phonecards
Swap list: 1,290 Phonecards (Match with my wish list)
Wish list: 6,199 Phonecards (Match with my swap list)

Stamps

Collection: 1,137 Stamps
Swap list: 3 Stamps (Match with my wish list)
Wish list: 5,678 Stamps (Match with my swap list)

Coins

Collection: 2,155 Coins
Swap list: 301 Coins (Match with my wish list)
Wish list: 10,938 Coins (Match with my swap list)



On the back end side of Colnect, the system is very flexible in supplying the given information so the real challenge was to try and create an as-intuitive-as-possible user interface. I've recently made a post about usability and the addition of counters and simplification of the user interface that followed is a big step forward.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Phonecard Puzzles

When a few items can be combined to a bigger one, it's a puzzle. A new and unique feature of Colnect shows the combined puzzle items together so that collectors may see the whole puzzle, even if they've not yet obtained the physical items. Puzzles are more common for phone cards but may sometimes be found with stamps as well.

Click here for an example Disney puzzle

or better
All phone card puzzles on Colnect

Monday, January 26, 2009

Usability

A good system doesn't only have to offer users worthwhile services but should be as easy and intuitive to use as possible. When people access so many websites, they expect everything to be natural for them. Rarely do people actually read long HELP sections. Frequently they simply play around with the application and what they can't see quickly would many times never be used.

Though these are old news, the user interface on Colnect V2 has initially not been properly designed and implemented. I admit this was a big mistake since it made the usage of existing users much more awkward and wasn't inviting enough for new users. Though Colnect did grow very nicely since V2 has been released, it's likely despite the user's interface rather than because of it.

So the good news is that in the recent days and upcoming days the user's interface will be added with many useful options to make the usage of Colnect as easy and intuitive as possible.

Here are two examples for recent additions:

CSS-only popup menus




Sorting collectors lists by clicking the column header


Friday, January 9, 2009

Colnect's Minor Contribution to World Peace

As Colnect embraces collectors from all parts of the earth and of different languages, it adds a small contribution to world peace. I strongly believe in promoting peace on the individual level. We are all people and though we may differ in our views and culture, we share so much in common. Getting closer to people of different backgrounds allows us to be more open minded and accepting of the differences. When collectors connect, they also make friends in distant places and learn about other countries and cultures.

Colnect's platform allows translation to any language so that people of different cultures can join us and enjoy sharing their hobby with others. Currently 25 languages are translated properly and 5 more are pending translation. All translations are done by volunteers and so any new language is welcomed.

Colnect does not promote political discussions since there are other, more suitable, sites for that. The lack of politics on Colnect allows all to join in and make friends without prejudices.

Though personally I come from a turbulent region, Colnect isn't and wouldn't be identified with any specific country or political stream. The English language is used as Colnect's base language only because it's the most popular language on the web world for now.

Happy collecting and peace to us all :)

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Very happy holidays :) Over 3,000 collectors on Colnect

As 2009 is looming, Colnect has happily announced that its community now has over 3,000 members. Colnect's community growth rate has been on the increase, especially since the new Colnect V2 site has been launched during the midst of October. Since now Colnect caters to stamps and coins collectors, it has found a new crowd of people interesting in managing their personal collection easily and connect with other collectors from around the world.

Colnect's development relies on the assistance of its ~70 contributors who volunteer to translate Colnect, update its database with new collectibles and help with various tasks.

Though this blog has recently been quiet, a lot has happened on Colnect recently. The lack of a PR department in Colnect takes its toll and certainly Colnect would have bloomed much sooner with such. New features and fixes are added daily to the site and the contributors help update the catalogs on a regular basis. Colnect's collectors forums provide more detailed information about recent updates to the site.

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