What Is a Single-page Application (SPA)? Pros and Cons With Examples

ProfilePicture of Rafael Carvalho
Rafael Carvalho
Senior Developer
Two women next to a giant SPA letters

Selecting the correct technology stack can make or break a project. Sometimes, the desire to use the next ‘hot’ technology leads stakeholders (both technical and non-technical) to make unwise decisions in this department.

Twitter is a high profile example of this phenomenon. In 2010, the social giant shipped a new Single-page Application (SPA) architecture that pushed all the UI rendering and logic to client-side JavaScript. This resulted in slow initial page-load times, as the entire client-side library had to be loaded upfront. The SPA architecture also transferred the bulk of the processing power from the server to users’ machines, which resulted in an inconsistent user experience across browsers. Twitter quickly reversed the decision, re-architecting the application to render most of the page content on the server side. You can find out more on their blog.

While Single-page Applications frameworks have been around for years, they continue to evolve, with new versions generating buzz within the development community. The above Twitter example shows that, while developing a Single Page Application may sound like an exciting option, it may not be the right one for your project.

In this article we will look at the pros and cons of Single-page Application, so your team can make the decision based on information – not ego!

Table Of Contents

Single-page Applications vs Multiple-page Applications

Before the first Single-page Application framework appeared, the landscape was dominated by Multiple-page Applications (MPAs) built in static HTML and server-side technologies like PHP, ASP, Java, Ruby, and Python. It should be noted that what we consider to be a “normal” website even today, is the same as what we’re calling an MPA.

MPAs work by making multiple requests between the client and the server. As websites have grown in complexity, so have the demands they make on servers. The introduction of AJAX, which allows web pages to be updated without reloading, partly alleviated this issue. It also gave developers a glimpse into how a Single-page Application future might look.

The first significant step towards this future was the release of jQuery, in late 2006. While not a Single-page Application framework, it was the first big name in what is now a long line of JavaScript frameworks. But jQuery was always a UI-focused framework and as such, didn’t support elegant ways of handling data. This may be a non-issue in simple web applications but becomes problematic when handling rich dynamic pages or large-scale enterprise applications.

Next came the Knockout.js framework and its introduction of MVVM data binding. Knockout.js simplified the data binding process by creating a separation of concerns between the view and the application’s data. It did this by taking the view model and binding it to the browser’s HTML, so any changes in the browser were automatically tracked and reflected in the view model – and vice versa!

The road to the Single-page Applications we have today was far from a linear process. Other technologies, Flash and Silverlight for example, introduced rich internet applications (RIAs) that moved away from Javascript entirely. And while they were initially well received by the development community, their need for 3rd party browser plugins limited adoption and they are now considered legacy frameworks.

Back on the Javascript bandwagon, the 2009 release of Backbone.js offered developers a lightweight client-side framework. You could build a Single-page Application with Backbone, but took a lot of work and repetitive code. It wasn’t until 2010 that all these disparate ideas were brought together with the release of Angular.js. By providing client-side Model-View-Controller (MVC) architecture, two-way data binding, templates and dependency injection in one framework, Angular.js became the first true SPA solution.

The Multiple-page Application Legacy

MPAs still form the vast majority of web applications online. While this is partly due to a head start over Single-page Applications, there are many use cases where building a Multi-page Application is simply the better option.  In fact, many of the web’s most popular websites have opted to remain as MPAs.  These include Stack Overflow, Amazon and most Wordpress-based sites. Multi-page Applications have a long track record and are proven to work great for a variety of applications.

So, how can you decide which option is best for your project? The key to choosing the correct framework lies in understanding your project’s requirements and how they map to your technology needs. I’ve prepared the comparison below to aid in this effort.

Multiple-page Application Pros & Cons

User Experience

Pros:

Con:

Single-page Application Pros & Cons

Pros:

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Cons:

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If you have decided that building an SPA best suits your project, there is still the small matter of selecting a framework. This is a hotly debated topic (I’m not kidding, typing ‘Angular vs React’ is like stepping into a war zone) and one that is beyond the scope of this article.

But I will leave you with a list of the 5 most popular and well-supported options. I suggest you apply the same rigorous analysis we carried out above to select the most appropriate framework for your project.

SPA or MPA?

Improvements in the “snappiness” of an application and a richer, more immersive user experience are often cited as key reasons to go with Single-page Applications. The recent SPA redesigns of streaming music site Pandora and Google’s Gmail platform are great examples of this in practice. But, as we noted with Twitter, these benefits are not guaranteed. It is vital to take a considered, project-by-project approach to choosing your technology stack. Not doing so can result in emotions or social pressures hijacking the decision process.

The risks fall into a few broad categories: talent skills, talent cost, stability, SEO, and security. These shortcomings are not unusual for a new technology and are being fixed at pace thanks to an active and motivated community. They are, however, still factors that need to be considered in your decision-making process. If you find you are struggling to find the right talent for your project why not get in touch. Sourcing great talent is what we do best at Scalable Path.

The good news is that this decision does not have to be as black and white as it may appear. In certain cases, a hybrid web application could be a viable option. Many popular platforms are doing just this. Facebook, for example, retains a Multi-page Application framework for its website but sprinkles advanced JavaScript into certain sections where a rich, snappy user experience is crucial. This hybrid approach is also a valid path particularly if a large MPA is already in place.


Key Takeaways

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