Where are your Images?

Websites start simple. They might even start as an html mockup served off your local filesystem without a web server. But they don’t stay simple. Since you don’t have a webserver, you use relative urls to point to images in the directory next to your stylesheets. But soon a backend gets involved, and web servers and deployment scripts. Eventually you work through this by setting up a simple webserver on your development machine so that you can use absolute paths. That is until your client informs you that the application will now be deployed into a non-root url path and you have to go hunting urls on a search and replace safari.

Some time passes and you hear that you can give your users a faster page load experience if you add some DNS names and serve your static assets across several “asset hosts”. So now you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. How will you develop stylesheets where assets are hosted from four different “servers”? But a developer shows you that you can now edit your /etc/hosts file and map all the production urls to your development machine. But now you can’t see what the production website is really up to – without editing that file again.

Some more time passes and you’re a /etc/hosts editing pro now when the devs tell you that they’re going to be moving to a CDN to give distributed image hosting and an even faster page load to the end-users. That’s great… for the users. But now you have a different url for images in staging and production and you’re not sure how you’re going to manage that at all. So a developer whips up a script that can find the urls and convert them to the right host. Whew, disaster averted. Of course, now you have to process these stylesheets all the time. But you manage.

You’re moving on to your next website now and you’ve decided that there’s some re-usable bits from your last site that you can use again – but those bits use some images and so you convert the dns names from the last site to relative urls and start the cycle over again. Then it dawns on you…

You have no clue where your images will be hosted

Where you host images is a deployment concern, not a development concern. Ruby-on-Rails understands this – which is why they provide a helper function called image_tag that keeps the html templates free of any assumptions about where the images are at. Those clever developers – no wonder they’re always moving things around without a care in the world.

Of course, compass has had a solution for this problem for a while now.

image-url – Refer to an image no matter where it is!

Compass provides a suite of helper functions to help you find your assets no matter where the developers decide to put them. They are trivially easy to use:

#nav {
  background: #DDD image-url("nav_bg.png") repeat-x scroll top center;

But I often find experienced compass and sass users who do not take advantage of this simple tool.

Once you use these helpers religiously, then you can decide where you want to server your assets. Want to access them without a webserver? Set this in your compass configuration:

relative_assets = true

Since Compass & Sass know where images are and what stylesheets are being generated at the time of the call, this feature works relative to the generated css file, not the sass files – so don’t worry about referring to images in mixins or stylesheets that get imported and combined with others. It just works.

If you need to set the path where your site is hosted, Compass will adjust accordingly:

http_path = "/my-client/"

You can set the images directory relative to your http_path:

http_images_dir = "assets/images"

Or you can change just the location of the images themselves:

http_images_path = "http://assets.my-client.com/images/"

Want to distribute the host to one of four hosts in your domain? Set this in your config:

asset_host do |path|
  "http://%d.my-domain.com" % (path.hash % 4)

Additionally, compass will automatically add cache busters to your images based on image timestamps. This will keep browser caches from displaying the wrong image if you change the image but not the url. If you don’t want this behavior, it is easy to configure or disable:

asset_cache_buster do |http_path, real_path|

Extension Developers, Rejoice

If a single site cannot be expected to know where their images are – then how can extensions? jQuery UI extensions work around this by dumping images relative to the stylesheets they give you. This works, but forces you to put images in a non-standard location that is not taking advantage of the user’s infrastructure.

Compass extensions can install images into the user’s location of choice and refer to them safely from within library code.

A Stylesheet Authoring Framework

Compass is a stylesheet authoring framework – not a CSS framework, because compass provides tools to manage the development of stylesheets from prototype to production. If you’re a compass user, there’s no excuse to not be using these simple helpers.

And if you’re not a compass user – why not?