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WebSockets vs. SignalR: or why you should not have to care

July 20, 2012 1 comment

Introduction

When the web was founded, it was designed as a system to distribute and update data. If you look at the HTTP protocol you can clearly see these origins. It has commands to GET, UPDATE, POST or DELETE data, but it is always the client (and if we ignore REST, this means in most cases the browser) who takes the initiative. However, the web is changing. It has evolved from a pure data distribution system to an application distribution system. Today, the magic word of IT vendors for this is the ‘cloud’, but in fact this shift to an application distribution system has already started some years ago.

In order to start massively replacing traditional desktop applications, the web needs a new trick: two way communication between browser and server. The back-end must be able to update parts of a web page without user initiative. A definitive technical solution is underway in the form of web sockets, but do we really need to wait until this technology is broadly supported by the browsers of most users? In my opinion, the answer should be a clear NO.

Where SignalR comes in

When there are limitations, people become creative and are able to circumvent the issues blocking them from developing great products. Many popular web applications/sits are already capable of updating their content dynamically, yet they do not rely on web sockets. How is this possible? Because they rely on patterns such as ‘long polling’. With long polling, the browser sends a request for information to the web server with a huge timeout. The web server does not immediately sends data back to the browser, but waits until it has data to send back. When the client receives back data from the server, it will immediately resend a new request to the server.

This long polling pattern and similar patterns give the user the illusion that a persistent two way connection exists between the browser and the web server, but it causes some unnecessary hard work for applicative developers and this is where SignalR comes in for .NET developers. It makes an abstraction of the long polling pattern and gives applicative developers the same illusion as their end users: a persistent two way connection between browser and web server. SignalR takes care of all the details and allows developers to focus on their most important task: building a great application for users.

Because SignalR abstracts the underlying communication protocol, it can both support WebSockets and patterns, such as long polling. This makes an upgrade to WebSockets fairly easy when your organization adopts Windows Server 2012 and your users have moved to modern browsers such as Internet Explorer 10 or recent versions of Firefox and Google Chrome.

Conclusion

As I already wanted to emphasize in the title, comparing WebSockets with SignalR is pointless. Yes, WebSockets is technically superior and will probably give you some extra performance on your server side. But SignalR makes it possible to start developing today the web applications of tomorrow. When WebSockets become broadly available, SignalR will make it possible for you to move away from long polling without a lot of impact on your code.

Categories: ASP.NET MVC, C# Tags: ,