16 min read

In this article written by Diogo Resende, author of the book Node.js High Performance, we will discuss how high performance is hard, and how it depends on many factors. Best performance should be a constant goal for developers. To achieve it, a developer must know the programming language they use and, more importantly, how the language performs under heavy loads, these being disk, memory, network, and processor usage.

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

Developers will make the most out of a language if they know its weaknesses. In a perfect world, since every job is different, a developer should look for the best tool for the job. But this is not feasible and a developer wouldn’t be able to know every best tool, so they have to look for the second best tool for every job. A developer will excel if they know few tools but master them.

As a metaphor, a hammer is used to drive nails, and you can also use it to break objects apart or forge metals, but you shouldn’t use it to drive screws. The same applies to languages and platforms. Some platforms are very good for a lot of jobs but perform really badly at other jobs. This performance can sometimes be mitigated, but at other times, can’t be avoided and you should look for better tools.

Node.js is not a language; it’s actually a platform built on top of V8, Google’s open source JavaScript engine. This engine implements ECMAScript, which itself is a simple and very flexible language. I say “simple” because it has no way of accessing the network, accessing the disk, or talking to other processes. It can’t even stop execution since it has no kind of exit instruction. This language needs some kind of interface model on top of it to be useful. Node.js does this by exposing a (preferably) nonblocking I/O model using libuv. This nonblocking API allows you to access the filesystem, connect to network services and execute child processes.

The API also has two other important elements: buffers and streams. Since JavaScript strings are Unicode friendly, buffers were introduced to help deal with binary data. Streams are used as simple event interfaces to pass data around. Buffers and streams are used all over the API when reading file contents or receiving network packets.

A stream is a module, similar to the network module. When loaded, it provides access to some base classes that help create readable, writable, duplex, and transform streams. These can be used to perform all sorts of data manipulation in a simplified and unified format.

The buffers module easily becomes your best friend when converting binary data formats to some other format, for example, JSON. Multiple read and write methods help you convert integers and floats, signed or not, big endian or little endian, from 8 bits to 8 bytes long.

Most of the platform is designed to be simple, small, and stable. It’s designed and ready to create some high-performance applications.

Performance analysis

Performance is the amount of work completed in a defined period of time and with a set of defined resources. It can be analyzed using one or more metrics that depend on the performance goal. The goal can be low latency, low memory footprint, reduced processor usage, or even reduced power consumption.

The act of performance analysis is also called profiling. Profiling is very important for making optimized applications and is achieved by instrumenting either the source or the instance of the application. By instrumenting the source, developers can spot common performance weak spots. By instrumenting an application instance, they can test the application on different environments. This type of instrumentation can also be known by the name benchmarking.

Node.js is known for being fast. Actually, it’s not that fast; it’s just as fast as your resources allow it. What Node.js is best at is not blocking your application because of an I/O task. The perception of performance can be misleading in Node.js applications. In some other languages, when an application task gets blocked—for example, by a disk operation—all other tasks can be affected. In the case of Node.js, this doesn’t happen—usually.

Some people look at the platform as being single threaded, which isn’t true. Your code runs on a thread, but there are a few more threads responsible for I/O operations. Since these operations are extremely slow compared to the processor’s performance, they run on a separate thread and signal the platform when they have information for your application. Applications blocking I/O operations perform poorly. Since Node.js doesn’t block I/O unless you want it to, other operations can be performed while waiting for I/O. This greatly improves performance.

V8 is an open source Google project and is the JavaScript engine behind Node.js. It’s responsible for compiling and executing JavaScript, as well as managing your application’s memory needs. It is designed with performance in mind. V8 follows several design principles to improve language performance. The engine has a profiler and one of the best and fast garbage collectors that exist, which is one of the keys to its performance. It also does not compile the language into byte code; it compiles it directly into machine code on the first execution.

A good background in the development environment will greatly increase the chances of success in developing high-performance applications. It’s very important to know how dereferencing works, or why your variables should avoid switching types. Here are other useful tips you would want to follow. You can use a style guide like JSCS and a linter like JSHint to enforce them to for yourself and your team. Here are some of them:

  • Write small functions, as they’re more easily optimized
  • Use monomorphic parameters and variables
  • Prefer arrays to manipulate data, as integer-indexed elements are faster
  • Try to have small objects and avoid long prototype chains
  • Avoid cloning objects because big objects will slow the operations


After an application is put into production mode, performance analysis becomes even more important, as users will be more demanding than you were. Users don’t accept anything that takes more than a second, and monitoring the application’s behavior over time and over some specific loads will be extremely important, as it will point to you where your platform is failing or will fail next.

Yes, your application may fail, and the best you can do is be prepared. Create a backup plan, have fallback hardware, and create service probes. Essentially, anticipate all the scenarios you can think of, and remember that your application will still fail. Here are some of those scenarios and aspects that you should monitor:

  • When in production, application usage is of extreme importance to understand where your application is heading in terms of data size or memory usage. It’s important that you carefully define source code probes to monitor metrics—not only performance metrics, such as requests per second or concurrent requests, but also error rate and exception percentage per request served. Your application emits errors and sometimes throws exceptions; it’s normal and you shouldn’t ignore them.
  • Don’t forget the rest of the infrastructure. If your application must perform at high standards, your infrastructure should too. Your server power supply should be uninterruptible and stable, as instability will degrade your hardware faster than it should.
  • Choose your disks wisely, as faster disks are more expensive and usually come in smaller storage sizes. Sometimes, however, this is actually not a bad decision when your application doesn’t need that much storage and speed is considered more important. But don’t just look at the gigabytes per dollar. Sometimes, it’s more important to look at the gigabits per second per dollar.
  • Also, your server temperature and server room should be monitored. High temperatures degrades performance and your hardware has an operation temperature limit. Security, both physical and virtual, is also very important. Everything counts for the standards of high performance, as an application that stops serving its users is not performing at all.

Getting high performance

Planning is essential in order to achieve the best results possible. High performance is built from the ground up and starts with how you plan and develop. It obviously depends on physical resources, as you can’t perform well when you don’t have sufficient memory to accomplish your task, but it also depends greatly on how you plan and develop an application. Mastering tools will give much better performance chances than just using them.

Setting the bar high from the beginning of development will force the planning to be more prudent. Some bad planning of the database layer can really downgrade performance. Also, cautious planning will cause developers to think more about “use cases and program more consciously.

High performance is when you have to think about a new set of resources (processor, memory, storage) because all that you have is exhausted, not just because one resource is. A high-performance application shouldn’t need a second server when a little processor is used and the disk is full. In such a case, you just need bigger disks.

Applications can’t be designed as monolithic these days. An increasing user base enforces a distributed architecture, or at least one that can distribute load by having multiple instances. This is very important to accommodate in the beginning of the planning, as it will be harder to change an application that is already in production.

Most common applications will start performing worse over time, not because of deficit of processing power but because of increasing data size on databases and disks. You’ll notice that the importance of memory increases and fallback disks become critical to avoiding downtime. It’s very important that an application be able to scale horizontally, whether to shard data across servers or across regions.

A distributed architecture also increases performance. Geographically distributed servers can be more closed to clients and give a perception of performance. Also, databases distributed by more servers will handle more traffic as a whole and allow DevOps to accomplish zero downtime goals. This is also very useful for maintenance, as nodes can be brought down for support without affecting the application.

Testing and benchmarking

To know whether an application performs well or not under specific environments, we have to test it. This kind of test is called a benchmark. Benchmarking is important to do and it’s specific to every application. Even for the same language and platform, different applications might perform differently, either because of the way in which some parts of an application were structured or the way in which a database was designed.

Analyzing the performance will indicate bottleneck of your application, or if you may, the parts of the application that perform not good as others. These are the parts that need to be improved. Constantly trying to improve the worst performing parts will elevate the application’s overall performance.

There are plenty of tools out there, some more specific or focused on JavaScript applications, such as benchmarkjs (http://benchmarkjs.com/) and ben (https://github.com/substack/node-ben), and others more generic, such as ab (http://httpd.apache.org/docs/2.2/programs/ab.html) and httpload (https://github.com/perusio/httpload). There are several types of benchmark tests depending on the goal, they are as follows:

  • Load testing is the simplest form of benchmarking. It is done to find out how the application performs under a specific load. You can test and find out how many connections an application accepts per second, or how many traffic bytes an application can handle. An application load can be checked by looking at the external performance, such as traffic, and also internal performance, such as the processor used or the memory consumed.
  • Soak testing is used to see how an application performs during a more extended period of time. It is done when an application tends to degrade over time and analysis is needed to see how it reacts. This type of test is important in order to detect memory leaks, as some applications can perform well in some basic tests, but over time, the memory leaks and their performance can degrade.
  • Spike testing is used when a load is increased very fast to see how the application reacts and performs. This test is very useful and important in applications that can have spike usages, and operators need to know how the application will react. Twitter is a good example of an application environment that can be affected by usage spikes (in world events such as sports or religious dates), and need to know how the infrastructure will handle them.

All of these tests can become harder as your application grows. Since your user base gets bigger, your application scales and you lose the ability to be able to load test with the resources you have. It’s good to be prepared for this moment, especially to be prepared to monitor performance and keep track of soaks and spikes as your application users start to be the ones responsible for continuously test load.

Composition in applications

Because of this continuous demand of performant applications, composition becomes very important. Composition is a practice where you split the application into several smaller and simpler parts, making them easier to understand, develop, and maintain. It also makes them easier to test and improve.

Avoid creating big, monolithic code bases. They don’t work well when you need to make a change, and they also don’t work well if you need to test and analyze any part of the code to improve it and make it perform better.

The Node.js platform helps you—and in some ways, forces you to—compose your code. Node.js Package Manager (NPM) is a great module publishing service. You can download other people’s modules and publish your own as well. There are tens of thousands of modules published, which means that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel in most cases. This is good since you can avoid wasting time on creating a module and use a module that is already in production and used by many people, which normally means that bugs will be tracked faster and improvements will be delivered even faster.

The Node.js platform allows developers to easily separate code. You don’t have to do this, as the platform doesn’t force you to, but you should try and follow some good practices, such as the ones described in the following sections.

Using NPM

Don’t rewrite code unless you need to. Take your time to try some available modules, and choose the one that is right for you. This reduces the probability of writing faulty code and helps published modules that have a bigger user base. Bugs will be spotted earlier, and more people in different environments will test fixes. Moreover, you will be using a more resilient module.

One important and neglected task after starting to use some modules is to track changes and, whenever possible, keep using recent stable versions. If a dependency module has not been updated for a year, you can spot a problem later, but you will have a hard time figuring out what changed between two versions that are a year apart. Node.js modules tend to be improved over time and API changes are not rare. Always upgrade with caution and don’t forget to test.

Separating your code

Again, you should always split your code into smaller parts. Node.js helps you do this in a very easy way. You should not have files bigger than 5 kB. If you have, you better think about splitting it. Also, as a good rule, each user-defined object should have its own separate file. Name your files accordingly:

// MyObject.js
    module.exports = MyObject;

    function MyObject() {
      // …
    MyObject.prototype.myMethod = function () { … };

Another good rule to check whether you have a file bigger than it should be; that is, it should be easy to read and understand in less than 5 minutes by someone new to the application. If not, it means that it’s too complex and it will be harder to track and fix bugs later on.

Remember that later on, when your application becomes huge, you will be like a new developer when opening a file to fix something. You can’t remember all of the code of the application, and you need to absorb a file behavior fast.

Garbage collection

When writing applications, managing available memory is boring and difficult. When the application gets complex it’s easy to start leaking memory. Many programming languages have automatic memory management, removing this management away from the developer by means of a Garbage Collector (GC). The GC is only a part of this memory management, but it’s the most important one and is responsible for reclaiming memory that is no longer in use (garbage), by periodically looking at disposed referenced objects and freeing the memory associated with them.

The most common technique used by GC is to monitor reference counting. This means that GC, for each object, holds the number (count) of other objects that reference it. When an object has no references to it, it can be collected, meaning, it can be disposed and its memory freed.

CPU Profiling

Profiling is boring but it’s a good form of software analysis where you measure resource usage. This usage is measured over time and sometimes under specific workloads. Resources can mean anything the application is using, being it memory, disk, network or processor. More specifically, CPU profiling allows one to analyze how and how much your functions use the processor. You can also analyze the opposite, the non-usage of the processor, the idle time.

When profiling the processor, we usually take samples of the call stack at a certain frequency and analyze how the stack changes (increases or decreases) over the sampling period. If we use profilers from the operating system we’ll have more items in stack than you probably expect, as you’ll get internal calls of node.js and V8.


Together, Node.js and NPM make a very good platform for developing high-performance applications. Since the language behind them is JavaScript and most applications these days are web applications, these combinations make it an even more appealing choice, as it’s one less server-side language to learn (such as PHP or Ruby) and can ultimately allow a developer to share code on the client and server sides. Also, frontend and backend developers can share, read, and improve each other’s code. Many developers pick this formula and bring with them many of their habits from the client side. Some of these habits are not applicable because on the server-side, asynchronous tasks must rule as there are many clients connected (as opposed to one) and performance becomes crucial.

You now see how the garbage collector task is not that easy. It surely does a very good job managing memory automatically. You can help it a lot, especially if writing applications with performance in mind. Avoiding the GC old space growing is necessary to avoid long GC cycles, pausing your application and sometimes forcing your services to restart. Every time you create a new variable you allocate memory and you get closer to a new GC cycle. Even understanding how memory is managed, sometimes you need to inspect your memory usage behavior

In environments seen nowadays, it’s very important to be able to profile an application to identify bottlenecks, especially at the processor and memory level. Overall you should focus on your code quality before going into profiling.

Resources for Article:

Further resources on this subject:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here