Improving CSS Custom Properties performance

Chrome 84 reached the stable channel a few weeks ago, and there are already several great posts describing the many important additions, interesting new features, security fixes and improvements in privacy policies (([1], [2], [3], [4]) it contains. However, there is a change that I worked on in this release which might have passed unnoticed by most, but I think is very valuable: A change regarding CSS Custom Properties (variables) performance.

The design of CSS, in general, takes great care in considering how features are designed with respect to making it possible for them to perform well. However, implementations may not perform as well as they could, and it takes a considerable amount of time to understand how authors use the features and which cases are more relevant for them.

CSS Custom Properties are an interesting example to look at here: They are a wonderful feature that provides a lot of advantages for web authors. For a whole lot of cases, all of the implementations of CSS Custom Properties perform well enough that most people won’t notice. However, we at Igalia have been analyzing several use cases and looking at some reports around their performance in different implementations.

Let’s consider a fairly straightforward example in which an author sets a single property in a toggleable class in the body, and then uses that property several times deeper in the tree to change the foreground color of some text.

<style>
   .red { --prop: red; }
   .green { --prop: green; }
</style>
<body class="green">
 
<div>
  <div>
    <div>
      <div>
        <div style="color: var(--prop)"></div>
       </div>
    </div>
  </div>
</div>
<!-- repeat the above subtree N times -->

Only about 20% of those actually use this property, 5 elements deep into the tree, and only to change the foreground color.

To evaluate Chromium’s performance in a case like this we can define a new perf tests, using the perf tools the Chromium project has available for browser engineers. In this case, we want a huge tree so that we can evaluate better the impact of the different optimizations.

<style>
    .green { --prop: green; }
    .red { --prop: red; }
</style>
<body>
    <script>
        function createDOMTree() {
            let div = document.createElement('div');
            div.innerHTML = '<div><div><div><div><div style="color: var(--prop)">TEXT</div></div></div></div></div>';
            for (let i = 0; i < 10000; i++) {
                document.body.appendChild(div.cloneNode(true));
            }
        }
        createDOMTree();
        var theme;
        PerfTestRunner.measureTime({
            description: "Measures the performance in the propagation of a custom property declaration.",
            setup: () => {
                document.body.classList.remove(theme);
                theme = theme == 'green' ? 'red' : 'green';
            },
            run: function() {
                document.body.classList.add(theme);
                forceStyleRecalc(document.body);
            },
        });
    </script>
</body>

These are the results obtained runing the test in Chrome 83:

avg median stdev min max
163.74 ms 163.79 ms 3.69 ms 158.59 ms 163.74 ms

I admit that it’s difficult to evaluate the results, especially considering the number of nodes of such a huge DOM tree. Lets compare the results of the same test on Firefox, using different number of nodes.

Nodes 50K 20K 10K 5K 1K 500
Chrome 83 163.74 ms 55.05 ms 25.12 ms 14.18 ms 2.74 ms 1.50 ms
FF 78 28.35 ms 12.05 ms 6.10 ms 3.50 ms 1.15 ms 0.55 ms
1/6 1/5 1/4 1/4 1/2 1/3

As I commented before, the data are more accurate when the DOM tree has a lot of nodes; in any case, the difference is quite clear and shows there is plenty room for improvement. WebKit based browsers have results more similar to Chromium as well.

Performance tests like the one above can be added to browsers for tracking improvements and regressions over time, so we’ve added (r763335) that to Chromium’s tree: We’d like to see it get faster over time, and definitely cannot afford regressions (see Chrome Performance Dashboard and the ChangeStyleCustomPropertyDeclaration test for details) .

So… What can we do?

In Chrome 83 and lower, whenever the custom property declaration changed, the new declaration would be inherited by the whole tree. This inheritance implied executing the whole CSS cascade and recalculating the styles of all the nodes in the entire tree, since with this approach, all nodes may be affected.

Chrome had already implemented an optimization on the CSS cascade implementation for regular CSS properties that don’t depend on any other to resolve their value. These subset of CSS properties are defined as Independent Properties in the Chromium codebase. The optimization mentioned before affects how the inheritance mechanism is implemented for these Independent properties. Whenever one of these properties changes, instead of recalculating the styles of the inherited properties, children can just copy the whole parent’s computed style. Blink’s style engine has a component known as Matched Properties Cache responsible of deciding when is possible to avoid the style resolution of an element and instead, performing an efficient copy of the matched computed style. I’ll get back to this concept in the last part of this post.

In the case of CSS Custom Properties, we could apply a similar approach as a good step. We can consider that the nodes with computed styles that don’t have references to custom properties declarations shouldn’t be affected by the new declaration, and we can implement the inheritance directly by copying the parent’s computed style. The patch with the optimization I’ve implemented in r765278 initially landed in Chrome 84.0.4137.0

Let’s look at the result of this one action in the Chrome Performance Dashboard:

That’s a really good improvement!

However, it’s also just a first step. It’s clear that Chrome still has a wide margin for improvement in this case, as well any WebKit based browser – Firefox is still, impressively, markedly faster as it’s been described in the bug report filed to track this issue. The following table shows the result of the different browsers together; even disabling the muti-thread capabilities of Firefox’s Stylo engine (STYLO_THREAD=1), FF is much faster than Chrome with the optimization applied.

Chrome 83 Chrome 84 FF 78 FF 78 th=1
avg
median
stdev
min
max
163.74 ms
163.79 ms
3.69 ms
158.59 ms
163.74 ms
117.37 ms
117.52 ms
1.98 ms
113.66 ms
120.87 ms
28.35 ms
28.50 ms
0.93 ms
26.00 ms
30.00 ms
38.25 ms
38.50 ms
1.86 ms
35.00 ms
41.00 ms

Before continue, I want get back to the Matched Properties Cache (MPC) concept, since it has an important role on these style optimizations. This cache is not a new concept in the Chrome’s engine; as a matter of fact, it’s also used in WebKit, since it was implemented long ago, before the fork that created the new blink engine. However, Google has been working a lot on this area in the last years and some of the most recent changes in the MPC have had an important impact on style resolution performance. As a result of this work, elements with independent and non-independent properties using CSS Variables might produce cache hits in the MPC. The results of the Performance Dashboard show a considerable improvement in the mentioned ChangeStyleCustomPropertyDeclaration test (avg: 108.06 ms)

Additionally, there are several other cases where the use of CSS Variables has a considerable impact on performance, compared with using regular CSS properties. Obviously, resolving CSS Variables has a cost, so it’s clear that we could apply additional optimizations that reduce the impact of the variable resolution, especially for handling specific style changes that might not affect to a substantial portion of the DOM tree. I’ve been experimenting with the MPC to explore the idea an independent CSS Custom Properties cache; nodes with variables referencing the same custom property will produce cache hits in the MPC, even though other properties don’t match. The preliminary approach I’ve been implementing consists on a new matching function, specific for custom properties, and a mechanism to transfer/copy the property’s data to avoid resolving the variable again, since the property’s declaration hasn’t change. We would need to apply the css cascade again, but at least we could save the cost of the variable resolution.

Of course, at the end of the day, improving performance has costs and challenges – and it’s hard to keep performance even once you get it. Bit if we really want performant CSS Custom Properties, this means that we have to decide to prioritize this work. Currently there is reluctance to explore the concept of a new Custom Properties specific cache – the challenge is big and the risks are not non-existent; cache invalidation can get complicated. But, the point is that we have to understand that we aren’t all going to agree what is important enough to warrant attention, or how much investment, or when. Web authors must convince vendors that these use cases are worth being optimized and that the cost and risks of such a complex challenges should be assumed by them.

This work has been sponsored by Bloomberg, which I consider one of the most important contributors of the Web Platform. After several years, the vision of this company and its responsibility as consumer of the platform has lead to many and important contributions that we all enjoy now. Although CSS Grid Layout might be the most remarkable one, there are may other not that big, like this work on CSS Custom Properties, or several other new features of the CSS Text specification. This is a perfect example of an company that tries to change priorities and adapt the web platform to its needs and the use cases they consider more aligned with their business strategy.

I understand that not every user of the web platform can do this kind of investment. This is why I believe that initiatives like Open Priorization could help to move the web platform in a positive direction. By providing a way for us to move past a lot of these conversation and focus on the needs that some web authors and users of the platform consider more important, or higher priority. Improving performance for CSS Custom Properties isn’t currently one of the projects we’ve listed, but perhaps it would be an interesting one we might try in the future if we are successful with these. If you haven’t already, have a look and see if there is something there that is interesting to you or your company – pledges of any size are good – ten thousand $1 donations are every bit as good as ten $1000 donations. Together, we can make a difference, and we all benefit.

Also, we would love to hear about your ideas. Is improving CSS Custom Properties performance important to you? What else is? Share your comments with us on Twitter, either me (@lajava77) or our developer advocate Brian Kardell (@briankardell), or email me at jfernandez@igalia.com. I’d be glad to answer any question about the Open Priorization experiment.

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