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Single Page vs. Multi-Page Application

The difference between а single-page and multi-page applications is a frequent subject of discussion. What are the benefits of each approach, and when should you opt for one or the other?

Here’s what you need to know about single-page vs. multi-page applications.



What is a Multi-Page Application?

A multi-page application (MPA) is the more “traditional” way of developing a web application. MPAs consist of many pages with static elements that are loaded when changes in the data (content) occur. I.e., every request to the server fully renders a new page in the browser.

This is why it’s called multi-page – these applications can contain hundreds and thousands of pages and will load them separately, according to a user’s behavior. Such an application can have many levels, sections, subsections, and even micro-websites to break down the content and make it more manageable.

A typical example of a multi-page application is an online store like Amazon or eBay. Due to the sheer amount of data such applications contain, the MPA approach makes good sense.

MPAs are usually developed with HTML and CSS with JavaScript and jQuery, and sometimes AJAX is used to make them more flexible and light.

What is a Single-Page Application?

A single-page application (SPA), in turn, is a web-based app that does not require reloading when data changes, i.e., there are no page reloads or additional pages. Instead, the application consists of a single page that loads all types of content and elements straight into the browser rather than executing the logic on the server. This makes the SPA feel and behave more like a desktop application.

This aspect of SPAs that they load content dynamically without interrupting the flow makes them more accessible and convenient. Everyday apps like this include Gmail, Google Maps, Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, etc.

To render the page straight into the browser in this way, SPAs are made using HTML5 and a host of JavaScript frameworks such as AngularJS, React, Vue.js, Ember.js, Meteor.js, Knockout.js, and AJAX.

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Frameworks for Multi-Page Applications

No single framework is universally accepted as being the best for MPAs. However, several frameworks are frequently used and offer several benefits that distinguish them for their usefulness for the purpose. These are React, Angular, Vue.js, and Next.js. All four frameworks are considered convenient and practical for creating a multi-page app.

Among these, Vue.js and React are useful because both are view engines allowing developers to organize code into components and avoid clutter and duplication. They are also fast and light and can be used to build nice UI. Next.js, on the other hand, is excellent because it is a comprehensive solution allowing you to take care of the entire MPA lifecycle. Finally, Angular is open-source and highly testable.

SPA vs. MPA

Whether to use a single-page or a multi-page application will depend on the app’s goal and the project’s requirements. For each approach, specific use cases make it a better choice. There are also cases in which both could work, and here, you could think of a hybrid approach that combines elements of both while trying to reduce their disadvantages.

Following are the pros and cons of each approach and when you should consider using them.

Benefits and Disadvantages of a Multi-Page Application

Using an MPA approach offers the following benefits:

  • Scalable: The MPA architecture is good for heavy applications because it allows you to scale them as much as you want by adding new pages for every new product or service. Effectively, an MPA can have an unlimited amount of pages and content.
  • Easy to navigate and access: A robust navigation is a cornerstone of a good MPA, enabling users to move around the application quickly and access it from different entry points if needed.
  • Great for SEO: An MPA is very SEO-friendly, allows you to optimize for many different keywords, and continuously improves your ranking.
  • Provides more insights: With an MPA, a tool like Google Analytics provides many more insights regarding applications usage, performance, time spent on different pages, bounce rates, and much more.
  • Easier to develop: An MPA may turn out much easier to develop as it requires a smaller tech stack. Many ready-made solutions, such as various content management systems (CMS), can be used fairly quickly and easily.

At the same time, however, MPAs have several drawbacks that you must consider. These include:

  • Complex and expensive development: MPAs usually have more features than SPAs, their front-end and backend must be very well integrated, and frameworks must be used for both. This increases the time and resources it takes to develop an application.
  • Performance difficulties: Due to the many pages and functionalities that a multi-page app can provide, and the constant reloading of pages, this may lead to performance and speed issues.
  • Maintenance and security challenges: Maintaining, updating, and securing an MPA is possibly more complex than a SPA. On the one hand, the tech stack required to build an MPA may become outdated, which makes ongoing support and maintenance difficult. Additionally, an MPA may be harder to secure due to its size. A SPA requires its endpoints to be secure, whereas an MPA requires all its pages to be secured individually.

Benefits and disadvantages of a single-page application

Building a SPA instead of an MPA may be more suitable in several instances. The benefits provided by a single-page application include the following:

  • Fast load time: An SPA can be significantly faster than an MPA simply because the main resources are loaded once, after which only data is transmitted to and from the server. SPAs also don’t contain many pages, reducing the time required to load them.
  • Faster and cheaper development: SPAs development is simplified and streamlined due to fewer pages and functionalities being developed and tested and less content being displayed. When developing a mobile app, parts of the backend code for the web app can be reused, further reducing development time.
  • Improved user experience: A single-page app provides a more direct and linear user experience and is mobile-friendly. This reduces the cognitive load on users and allows them to use the app more uninterruptedly. Thanks to AJAX and JavaScript, SPAs have more flexible and responsive interfaces.
  • Easier to debug: An SPA is relatively easy to debug when developed with more popular frameworks, such as React or Vue.js, based on Chrome debugging tools.
  • Offline mode possible: After the initial request to the server, local data is cached. That allows users to use the app offline, synchronizing information once the app connects to the Internet.

Despite the above benefits, there are also certain drawbacks to developing a SPA. These include:

  • Insufficient SEO optimization: A single-page app doesn’t have separate pages and URLs, and the data is loaded on demand, meaning that search engines cannot index the content. This makes search engine optimization difficult. However, server-side rendering, along with other measures, helps address this.
  • Slow download time: The initial loading time of the application can be slow if it is significant and not appropriately optimized because the browser needs to download the client frameworks.
  • Not scalable: SPAs are generally not scalable because load time increases the more requested content.
  • JavaScript required: Without JS support or if the user disables JS, a single-page app cannot be used in its entirety.
  • Jumping stages are not saved: SPAs do not save jumps to other states in the browser history, which leads the back button to go back to the previous page rather than the previous state. 
  • Memory leaks: Loss of available memory can occur in a SPA due to event handlers. This can significantly slow down systems.
  • Security issues: SPAs are more likely to be targeted by cross-site scripting (XSS) attacks.

FAQs

What is the best JavaScript framework for a multi-page app?

There is no single best framework, but Vue.js, React, Angular, and Next.js are some of the most popular frameworks for building MPAs.

Can a SPA have multiple pages?

By definition, a single-page application has only one page in which it loads additional content, as requested by the user. A hybrid application can use both SPA and MPA elements and approaches.

What is the difference between a web application and a single-page application?

The usual way of building a web application is the so-called round-trip model in which most of the application’s logic is executed on the server, with the browser serving as a rending engine. With a single-page application, after the initial HTML is loaded, it is not reloaded, the application’s logic is performed in the web browser, and communication with the server occurs mainly through APIs.

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