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Real DOM and Virtual DOM - Concept behind React

Real DOM and Virtual DOM - Concept behind React

Why React is very fast and efficient instead to other frameworks or vanilla javascript?

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Abhinandan Mishra
·Feb 3, 2023·

5 min read

What is Real DOM or DOM?

DOM refers to Document Object Model and it is a tree data structure that represents the HTML document and nodes of the tree are HTML tags or elements in the document.

DOM is an abstraction of the HTML of web pages.

Who Creates this document object?

The browser creates the Document Object Model (DOM) when it receives an HTML document from a server in response to a user's request for a web page. The browser parses the HTML document and creates a tree-like structure, known as the DOM, to represent the content and structure of the web page.

This DOM can then be manipulated by JavaScript and other scripting languages to provide dynamic and interactive functionality on the web page.

Here's an example of a basic html file and its representation in the DOM tree:

<!DOCTYPE html>
  <meta charset="UTF-8">
  <title>My HTML Page</title>
  <h1> heading </h1>
  <p> paragraph </p>
    Div content

DOM Tree Representation

The inefficiency of DOM and the concept of Virtual DOM

The DOM was created for web pages that don't require updates. When the DOM updates, it updates each node and redraws the page with its corresponding CSS and layout. This can be slow, especially when dealing with large numbers of nodes.

Let's say we have a list of books:

let books = [
  { title: 'The Great Gatsby', author: 'F. Scott Fitzgerald' },
  { title: 'To Kill a Mockingbird', author: 'Harper Lee' },
  { title: 'Pride and Prejudice', author: 'Jane Austen' }

If we want to update the list to change the author of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' from 'Harper Lee' to 'Nelle Harper Lee', we have to create a whole new array:

let books = [
  { title: 'The Great Gatsby', author: 'F. Scott Fitzgerald' },
  { title: 'To Kill a Mockingbird', author: 'Nelle Harper Lee' },
  { title: 'Pride and Prejudice', author: 'Jane Austen' }

More efficiently, we could simply update the single element in the array:

books[1].author = 'Nelle Harper Lee'

However, in Single-Page Applications (SPAs), it's common to have thousands of elements like books. Redrawing the entire page for each change can be slow and affect the user experience.

To solve this problem, it's better to only update the elements that have changed, leaving the rest of the page as-is. This is the concept behind the virtual DOM in React.

Virtual DOM

The Virtual DOM is an abstraction of the real DOM. That means it is an abstraction of abstraction ( because DOM is also an abstraction of HTML ).

It's a lightweight copy of the real DOM. Lightweight means it has lesser properties than real DOM. It has all the same properties as the real DOM object but can’t write to the screen like the real DOM.

Because virtual DOM is lightweight, it is fast and efficient and on every re-render, a new virtual DOM is created.

Reconciliation is a process to compare and keep in sync the two files (Real and Virtual DOM).

Diffing algorithm is a technique of reconciliation that is used by React.

How does update work in React?

  • The React DOM first creates a Virtual DOM and real DOM tree during the initial render with ReactDOM.render()

  • Whenever an event (such as a key press or API response) occurs, the virtual DOM tree nodes are notified of a state change.

  • If the properties used in the node are updated, the node updates itself, otherwise, it remains unchanged.

  • React compares the updated virtual DOM with the real DOM using the Diffing Algorithm and updates the real DOM accordingly.

  • The updated real DOM is repainted on the browser, allowing users to see the updated changes.

  • In summary, the React DOM uses the Virtual DOM to efficiently update the real DOM only where necessary, leading to faster and smoother updates on the screen.

Let's understand how only one component is updating by an example:

The code contains an input element and a div that displays the {count} variable.

The div updates every second, but the whole App component does not change because if it gets changed then the text inside the input field must be cleared on every render.

This efficiency and smoothness are achieved by the use of Virtual DOM, by updating the Real DOM where change is required.

Why key prop is required for list elements in react?

When using React to render a list of items, it's important to give each item a unique "key" property. This is because React's Virtual DOM uses the key to keep track of every item in the list during the process of updating the real DOM.

The key helps React know which items have been added, removed, or moved in the list, which makes it easier and faster to update only the necessary parts of the real DOM. If the key is not provided, React will have a harder time determining which elements have changed, which can slow down the updating process and potentially impact performance.

So, to ensure optimal performance, it's always recommended to include a unique key for each item in a list when using React. Although it's possible to render the list without the key, the performance may not be as good.

That's all about Virtual DOM and the concept behind React.

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