Saturday, February 14, 2009

django-media-bundler now supports sprites!

Over the last week I've been working on adding image spriting support to django-media-bundler. For the uninitiated, image spriting is a technique that Google, Yahoo, and other fast web sites use to speed up page load times. What these web sites do is to combine all of their small icon images into one medium size image, and then use CSS background image offsets to display each icon individually from the master. For small icon graphics, the overhead of the HTTP requests dwarfs the size of the actual image, so this speeds things up drastically.

With the help of the Python Imaging Library, I was able to read the images, measure their dimensions, and paste them together into the master image. However, given icons of arbitrary size, it's not clear what is the best way to lay out the master image. Having just taken an advanced algorithms course, this problem seemed like a variation of the bin-packing problem. The bin-packing problem is NP-hard, but once you have a name for something, it's a lot easier to Google up some simple heuristic algorithms to solve the problem.

Finally, I had to figure out how to get the sprites into the page. I found that in audio-enclave we use images in all sorts of interesting ways that make it difficult to abstract away the spriting behind a template tag. In the end I generated a set of CSS rules with the background image and offsets and decided to let the user figure out how to display the images. Working in the sprites was, for our project, more pain than it was worth, and I had to break a couple of nice CSS abstractions to force a DIV node into an element which had none before.

Anyway, implementation details aside, now audio-enclave has excellent front-end performance! Check out these Firebug net tab screenshots:

Before spriting:

After spriting:

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