and mobile application development.
Yesterday we looked into Ionic / Capacitor, giving a brief
structural overview of what Capacitor apps look like under the hood and
how this translates to three aspects of performance: startup latency, jank,
and peak performance. Today we’ll apply that same approach to another
popular development framework, React Native.
I don’t know about you, but I find that there is so much marketing smoke
and lights around the whole phenomenon that is React and React Native
that sometimes it’s hard to see what’s actually there. This is
compounded by the fact that the programming paradigm espoused by React
(and its “native” cousin that we are looking at here) is so effective at
“how” that the machinery supporting React recedes into the background.
At its most basic, React is what they call a functional reactive
programming model. It is functional in the sense that the user
interface elements render as a function of the global application
state. The reactive comes into how user input is handled, but I’m not
going to focus on that here.
React’s rendering process starts with a root element tree, describing
object with a type property. To render an element tree, if the value
of the type property is a string, then the element is terminal and
doesn’t need further lowering, though React will visit any node in the
children property of the element to render them as needed.
Otherwise if the type property of an element is a function, then the
element node is functional. In that case React invokes the node’s
object as the argument. React will then recursively re-render the
element tree produced as a result of rendering the component until all
nodes are terminal. (Functional element nodes can instead have a class
as their type property, but the concerns are pretty much the same.)
(In the language of React
Native, a terminal node
is a React Host Component, and a functional node is a React Composite
Component, and both are React Elements. There are many
imprecisely-used terms in React and I will continue this tradition by
using the terms I mention above.)
The rendering phase of a React application is thus a function from an
element tree to a terminal element tree. Nodes of element trees can be
either functional or terminal. Terminal element trees are composed only
of terminal elements. Rendering lowers all functional nodes to terminal
nodes. This description applies both to React (targetting the web) and
React Native (which we are reviewing here).
It’s probably useful to go deeper into what React does with a terminal
element tree, before building to the more complex pipeline used in React
Native, so here we go. The basic idea is that React-on-the-web does
impedance matching between the functional description of what the UI
should have, as described by a terminal element tree, and the stateful
tree of DOM nodes that a web browser uses to actually paint and display
the UI. When rendering yields a new terminal element tree, React will
compute the difference between the new and old trees. From that
difference React then computes the set of imperative actions needed to
mutate the DOM tree to correspond to what the new terminal element tree
describes, and finally applies those changes.
In this way, small changes to the leaves of a React element tree should
correspond to small changes in the DOM. Additionally, since rendering
is a pure function of the global application state, we can avoid
rendering at all when the application state hasn’t changed. We’ll dive
into performance more deeply later on in the article.
React Native doesn’t use a WebView
React Native is similar to React-on-the-web in intent but different in
structure. Instead of using a WebView on native platforms, as Ionic /
Capacitor does, React Native renders the terminal element tree to
platform-native UI widgets.
When a React Native functional element renders to a terminal element, it
will create not just a JS object for the terminal node as
React-on-the-web does, but also a corresponding C++ shadow
fully lowered tree of terminal elements will thus have a corresponding
tree of C++ shadow objects. React Native will then calculate the layout
for each node in the shadow tree, and then commit the shadow tree: as
on the web, React Native computes the set of imperative actions needed
to change the current UI so that it corresponds to what the shadow tree
describes. These changes are then applied on the main thread of the
The description above of React Native’s rendering pipeline applies to
the so-called “new
architecture”, which has
been in the works for some years and is only now (April 2023) starting
to be deployed. The key development that has allowed React Native to
move over to this architecture is tighter integration and control over
Hermes. Let’s step back a bit to see if we
can imagine why anyone in their right mind would make a new JS
In the last article, I mentioned that the only way to get peak JS
performance on iOS is to use the platform’s WkWebView, which enables JIT
though. I guess you could create an invisible WebView and just run your
can’t cheaply synchronously create a shadow tree of layout objects, for
So, it may be that JIT is just not worth paying for, if it means having
your own. It would be nice to use the same engine on iOS and Android,
though. When React Native was first made, V8 wasn’t able to operate in
easily augment it with native extensions, for example to talk to the
Swift or Java app that actually runs the main UI. That’s what I
describe above with the creation of the shadow tree, but that’s not
quite what the original React Native did; I can only speculate but I
collection!) could be heavy enough to cause the main UI to drop frames.
thread. When a render would complete, the resulting terminal element
tree would be serialized as JSON and shipped over to the “native” side
of the application, which would actually apply the changes.
This arrangement did work, but it ran into problems whenever the system
subsystems. As I understand it, this was notably the case when React
layout would need the dimensions of a native UI widget; to avoid a
stall, React would assume something about the dimensions of the native
UI, and then asynchronously re-layout once the actual dimensions were
known. This was particularly gnarly with regards to text measurements,
which depend on low-level platform-specific rendering details.
To recap: React Native had to interpret its JS on iOS and was using a
“foreign” JS engine on Android, so they weren’t gaining anything by
using a platform JS interpreter. They would sometimes have some
annoying layout jank when measuring native components. And what’s more,
React Native apps would still experience the same problem as Ionic /
Capacitor apps, in that application startup time was dominated by
The solution to this problem was partly to switch to the so-called “new
architecture”, which doesn’t serialize and parse so much data in the
course of rendering. But the other side of it was to find a way to move
to parse and compile JS every time the app was run. On V8, you would do
this by generating a
Faced with this problem and armed with Facebook’s bank account, the
React Native developers decided that the best solution would be to make
The result is Hermes. If you are familiar
parser, originally built to match the behavior of
Esprima; an SSA-based intermediate
a set of basic
a custom bytecode
an interpreter to run that
a GC to manage JS objects; and
so on. Of course, given the presence of eval, Hermes needs to include
the parser and compiler as part of the virtual machine, but the hope is
that most user code will be parsed and compiled ahead-of-time.
If this were it, I would say that Hermes seems to me to be a dead end.
V8 is complete; Hermes is not. For example, Hermes doesn’t have with,
async function implementation has been lagging, and so on. Why Hermes
when you can V8 (with snapshots), now that V8 doesn’t require JIT code
I thought about this for a while and in the end, given that V8’s main
target isn’t as an embedded library in a mobile app, perhaps the binary
size question is the one differentiating factor (in theory) for Hermes.
By focussing on lowering distribution size, perhaps Hermes will be a
compelling JS engine in its own right. In any case, Facebook can afford
to keep Hermes running for a while, regardless of whether it has a
competitive advantage or not.
It sounds like I’m criticising Hermes here but that’s not really the
point. If you can afford it, it’s good to have code you control. For
example one benefit that I see React Native getting from Hermes is that
they control the threading
model; they can
mostly execute JS in its own thread, but interrupt that thread and
switch to synchronous main-thread execution in response to high-priority
events coming from the user. You might be able to do that with V8 at
some point but the mobile-apps-with-JS domain is still in flux, so it’s
nice to have a sandbox that React Native developers can use to explore
the system design space.
With that long overview out of the way, let’s take a look to what kinds
of performance we can expect out of a React Native system.
during application startup is lower than is the case with Ionic /
However, it must be said that as a framework, React tends to result in
and incurs significant work at startup
One of React’s strengths is that it allows development teams inside an
organization to compose well: because rendering is a pure function, it’s
easy to break down the task of making an app into subtasks to be handled
by separate groups of people. Could this strength lead to a kind of
weakness, in that there is less of a need for overall coordination on
the project management level, such that in the end nobody feels
responsible for overall application performance? I don’t know. I think
the concrete differences between React Native and React (the C++ shadow
object tree, the multithreading design, precompilation) could mean that
React Native is closer to an optimum in the design space than React. It
does seem to me though that whether a platform’s primary development
toolkit shold be React-like remains an open question.
execution is mostly off the main UI thread. The threading
model changes to
me wonder, though: what if that work takes too much time, or what if
there is a GC pause during that pre-emption? I would not be surprised
to see an article in the next year or two from the Hermes team about
efforts to avoid GC during high-priority event processing.
Another question I would have about jank relates to interactivity. Say
the user is dragging around a UI element on the screen, and the UI needs
to re-layout itself. If rendering is slow, then we might expect to see
a lag between UI updates and the dragging motion; the app technically
isn’t dropping frames, but the render can’t complete in the 16
milliseconds needed for a 60 frames-per-second update frequency.
But why might rendering be slow? On the one side, there is the fact
uses a simple bytecode interpreter, and will never be able to meet the
performance of V8 with JIT compilation.
However the other side of this is the design of the application
framework. In the limit, React suffers from the O(n) problem: any
change to the application state requires the whole element tree to be
recomputed. Rendering and layout work is proportional to the size of
the application, which may have thousands of nodes.
Of course, React tries to minimize this work, by detecting subtrees
whose layout does not change, by avoiding re-renders when state doesn’t
change, by minimizing the set of mutations to the native widget tree.
But the native widgets aren’t the problem: the programming model is, or
it can be anyway.
Aside: As good as native?
Again in theory, React Native can used to write apps that are as good as
if they were written directly against platform-native APIs in Kotlin or
Swift, because it uses the same platform UI toolkits as native
applications. React Native can also do this at the same time as being
cross-platform, targetting iOS and Android with the same code. In
practice, besides the challenge of designing suitable cross-platform
abstractions, React Native has to grapple with potential performance and
be quite satisfactory.
Aside: Haven’t I seen that rendering model somewhere?
As I mentioned in the last article, I am a compiler engineer, not a UI
specialist. In the course of my work I do interact with a number of
colleagues working on graphics and user interfaces, notably in the
context of browser engines. I was struck when reading about React
Native’s rendering pipeline about how much it resembled what a browser
as part of the layout, paint, and render pipeline: translate a tree of
objects to a tree of immutable layout objects, clip those to the
viewport, paint the ones that are dirty, and composite the resulting
textures to the screen.
It’s funny to think about how many levels we have here: the element
tree, the recursively expanded terminal element tree, the shadow object
tree, the platform-native widget tree, surely a corresponding
platform-native layout tree, and then the GPU backing buffers that are
eventually composited together for the user to see. Could we do better?
I could certainly imagine any of these mobile application development
frameworks switching to their own Metal/Vulkan-based rendering
architecture at some point, to flatten out these layers.
By all accounts, React Native is a real delight to program for; it makes
developers happy. The challenge is to make it perform well for users.
With its new rendering architecture based on Hermes, React Native may
well be on the path to addressing many of these problems. Bytecode
pre-compilation should go a long way towards solving startup latency,
provided that React’s expands-to-fit-all-available-space tendency is
kept in check.
If you were designing a new mobile operating system from the ground up,
though, I am not sure that you would necessarily end up with React
Native as it is. At the very least, you would include Hermes and the
base run-time as part of your standard library, so that every app
doesn’t have to incur the space costs of shipping the run-time. Also,
in the same way that Android can ahead-of-time and just-in-time compile
would expect that a mobile operating system based on React Native would
extend its compiler with on-device post-install compilation and possibly
JIT compilation as well. And at that point, why not switch back to V8?
Well, that’s food for thought. Next up, NativeScript. Until then,