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Periodic Background Sync

Written: 2019-09-30
Updated: 2019-09-30

Periodic Background Sync is a method that enables web applications to periodically synchronize data in the background, building on the Background Sync specification that defines a method for one-off synchronization.

The original explainer included a thorough exploration of this capability, but it neither got specified, nor ever shipped in a browsing engine. This was caused by a combination of low interest from both developers and other browser engines, and high complexity due to an unclear permission model. We believe the situation has changed since.

If this proposal stands, we plan to extend the Background Sync specification to describe this ability as well, and move the document to the standardization track.

Use cases

Consider a website that's offline enabled. It uses service workers to provide an almost instantaneous loading experience. However, it may have to show stale content and switch it out shortly after the user visits the site, once it has downloaded the latest content. This app will benefit from updating its state and content when the device has network connectivity, before the user navigates to its web page. This way, it can delight its users by presenting the most up to date content, right away at launch time.

Here are two main types of updates that are beneficial if done opportunistically:

  1. Updating state: This is the data required for the correct functioning of the app. Examples:

    • Updated search index for a search app.
    • A critical application update.
    • Updated icons.
  2. Updating content: Periodic content producers can push content to user devices, to be consumed at a later, more convenient time. Examples:

    • Fresh articles from news sites. Push API can be used here, but the updates will be too frequent, so the content site will have to batch the push messages. The browser is in a much better position to do that.
    • List of badges the user has earned, in a fitness app.
    • List of new songs from their favorited artists, in a songs app, to be downloaded using Background Fetch if the user clicks on "Download".

Currently, the Push API enables this, but it requires setting up a server that speaks the Web Push protocol, and maintaining a backend. Periodic Background Sync offers a simpler, more accessible solution.

Why do we care?

  • Native apps currently have the ability to offer fresh content to users, even when they're offline. This API will enable web apps to do so too.
  • Websites can already push notifications to update content, but the timing of those notifications is decided by the developer. This API enables the browser to decide on the timing, so it can be be more respectful of user's intents like 'Do Not Disturb', and prevent notification fatigue. In addition, this control on timing allows the browser to optimize resource usage and prevent resource abuse. For instance, the browser may decide how often each website should be allowed to run their tasks. It may also choose to only run periodic tasks swhen the device is sufficiently charged, or has a certain connectivity.

Goals

  • Enable a web app to run tasks periodically while the device has network connectivity.

Non-goals

  • Triggering events at a specific time is an explicit non-goal. A more generalized alarms API can enable that.
  • Guaranteed cadence of the periodic sync tasks. The browser decides this cadence for each origin. An origin can thus register multiple periodic tasks, but the frequency decided by the browser for the tasks might be the same.
  • Shared namespace for one-shot and periodic sync tasks is not a goal. The same tag can thus be used for a one-shot and a periodic sync task. However, two one-shot Background Sync tasks or two periodic Background Sync tasks can't share a tag.

Example code

Please see periodicsync-WebIDL.md for the proposed WebIDL.

Requesting a periodic sync

// index.html

navigator.serviceWorker.ready.then(registration => {
  registration.periodicSync.register('get-latest-news', {
    // Minimum interval at which the sync may fire.
    minInterval: 24 * 60 * 60 * 1000,
  });
});

Responding to a periodic sync event

// service_worker.js

self.addEventListener('periodicsync', event => {
  if (event.tag == 'get-latest-news') {
    event.waitUntil(fetchAndCacheLatestNews());
  }
});

Checking if a periodic sync task with a given tag is registered

// index.html

navigator.serviceWorker.ready.then(registration => {
  registration.periodicSync.getTags().then(tags => {
    if (tags.includes('get-latest-news'))
      skipDownloadingLatestNewsOnPageLoad();
  });  
});

Removing a periodic sync to stop syncing articles in the background

// index.html

navigator.serviceWorker.ready.then(registration => {
  registration.periodicSync.unregister('get-latest-news');
});

Security and Privacy

One-shot Background Sync allows the web page’s logic to live a little longer (service worker execution time) after the page has been closed by the user. Periodic Background Sync extends it to potentially run at regular periods, for a few minutes at a time. Here are some privacy concerns:

  • There might be no notification to the user, depending on the implementation.
  • A periodic sync can be enabled while the user is connected to one network, and the sync event can be fired later when they're connected to another network. This can cause inadvertent leakage of browsing history on an unintended network. This concern applies to other background tasks such as one-shot Background Sync and Background Fetch as well.
  • Location tracking: The user’s IP address can be revealed to the website every time the periodic task is run. This risk is also present with any tasks run in a service worker, but Periodic Sync allows persistent tracking. Note that this risk is also present with push messages, but they require explicit user permission.

To mitigate these privacy concerns, the user agent can limit the number of times periodic tasks are run for a site if the user isn't currently visiting the site. It can also limit how long the service worker is allowed to be awake for running periodic tasks.

An additional periodic-background-sync permission will be exposed through the Permissions API to allow developers to query whether the API can be used. The user or the user agent on behalf of the user must set this permission to 'granted' before the website can use this capability.

Design decisions

Separate interface or extending one-shot Background Sync?

We think that the use cases for periodic background sync are sufficiently different from the use cases for one-shot Background Sync to justify having a separate event in the developer's service worker: synchronizing data in response to a user action versus opportunistically refreshing content. In addition, there are different timing guarantees: one-shot Background Sync has to run as soon as possible, where the browser has the final timing decision for periodic sync, as long as it honors the requested minInterval between two consecutive events.

The interfaces mimic regular Background Sync, but substitute navigator.sync with navigator.periodicSync for symmetry with the event that will be fired in the service worker.

Power and Network conditions

The original explainer allowed the website to specify power and network conditions under which the periodic task should be run. This proposal leaves those decisions to the browser implementation, because we believe the browser is better positioned to make those choices for the user. This also makes for a simpler interface for developers.

When the device is in either battery or data saving mode, the periodicsync event SHOULD not be fired. This would also cover some situations where the browser incorrectly detects whether the device is connected to an unmetered connection.

Timing of periodic sync tasks

The API allows the developer to specify a minInterval for each periodic sync task. The browser is expected to guarantee a minimum of this time interval between two periodic sync events. However, the interval between any two periodic sync events can be greater than the requested minInterval, and is up to the browser implemetation. Also, the interval between any two periodic sync events for a registration doesn't have to be the same.

Since a website will most likely download resources from the network when processing a periodicsync event, multiple periodicsync events can cause a lot of data consumption. Like other service worker events, periodicsync MAY be subject to the service worker execution timeout. Every time the browser dispatches these events, the browser will potentially be kept awake for this duration, which COULD be a few minutes. This can cause battery drain. The browser implementation SHOULD therefore ensure an appropriate interval for firing these events. It MAY cap this interval per origin and across origins. The browser MAY also use other considerations, such as as user engagement with the origin, to make this decision.

To decide what an appropriate interval is, consider how often the underlying operating system allows scheduling repetetive tasks. Android and iOS impose a minimum interval of 15 and 10 minutes, respectively, at the time of writing. For installed web apps, however, this interval is too small. This is because firing the event in the browser from an installed web app puts a higher strain on the system and is more resource intensive.

References and acknowledgements

Author: @mugdhalakhani

Many thanks to the authors of the original explainer for starting the project back in 2015. Thanks to @beverloo, @jakearchibald and @rayankans for their ideas, input and discussion.

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