27 Jan 2016

Getting started with Service Workers

Service Workers enables the ability to cache files for offline use, serve as a network proxy, enable the ability for push notification, and even background data sync. AppCache was an attempt to solve this problem but it made many assumptions about intended uses and in the end just caused more fustration than anything, so it became deprecated. Service Workers is AppCache's successor, which greatly superceeds it by giving the developer a lot more granular control.

I will be walking you through a quick tutorial on using service workers for caching assets.

Offline First

With an offline first approach, the browser can serve up a cached version of your site first before reaching out to the network for more data. It's the same approach that native mobile application use which gives the impression that the app is ready to use as soon as you open it.

Service Worker Lifecycle

  1. First the service worker must be registered. The application must be served under HTTPS otherwise it will not register, unless it is on localhost.
  2. When registered successfully the service worker is executed in it's own context. It is similar to the main thread context except there is no DOM access.
  3. The browser will proceed to install assets to the cache specified by the service worker.
  4. If install is successful then the service worker is activated and can control pages.

Registering Service Worker

We register the service worker with serviceWorkerContainer.register() and pass the path of the service worker file.

The service worker path needs to be relative to the site's origin, rather than the directory it is in. the service worker file must be hosted under the same origin therefore it cannot be from a different origin.

// Feature detection for service worker
if ('serviceWorker' in navigator) {

  // Service worker to register for this site
  navigator.serviceWorker.register('/scripts/service-worker.js', {

    // Constrain access to a certain path
    scope: '/'
  }).then((serviceWorkerRegistration) => {
    console.log(`Service worker registered with scope ${serviceWorkerRegistration.scope}`);
  }).catch((error) => {
    console.log(`Service worker registration error: ${error}`);

Here scope constrains the service worker to only control the specified contents under that path. The scope property is optional and defaults to the entire site.

Caching Files

Service Workers come with a storage API called cache. The API persists the cached files until we tell it not to cache.

In service-worker.js:

self.addEventListener('install', (event) => {

    // Open a cache store called `v1`
    caches.open('v1').then((cache) => {

      // Cache all these files
      return cache.addAll([

The install event is fired when it has successfully completed the install.

Here event.waitUntil() takes a promise which is used to determine if all the files successfully installed. The service worker will only install if every file is properly cached.

The caches.open() method takes a name for the cache, and returns a promise for the created cache.

If it was able to successfully create the cache then we add assets using cache.addAll() which takes an array of file paths relative to the origin.

If all the promises resolve then the service worker activates.

If any of these promises get rejected then the service worker will not install.

Serving Cached Files

To make use of the cache we need to serve the cached files when there is a request to the file.

In service-worker.js:

self.addEventListener('fetch', (event) => {

    // Return cached file if it exists
    caches.match(event.request).catch(() => {

      // Otherwise make network request to fetch file
      return fetch(event.request);

The fetch event is fired whenever the resource under the service worker's scope is fetched.

We use event.respondWith() to hijack the HTTP response and be able to serve something else.

The catches.match() method takes filenames to retrieve from it's cache, which in this case event.request is the request object. If the cache is a miss then we want to go ahead and make an HTTP request to retrieve the file using the fetch API, otherwise the caches.match promise will be rejected and the resource will come up as not found in the network.

Saving New Files to Cache

After we fetch a file that is not in the cache we can store it in the cache so future requests can avoid making the round-trip to the network.

self.addEventListener('fetch', (event) => {

    // Return cached file if it exists
    caches.match(event.request).catch(() => {

      // Otherwise make network request to fetch file
      return fetch(event.request);
    }).then((response) => {

      // If fetch successful then cache it
      if (response.ok) {
        caches.open('v1').then((cache) => {
          cache.put(event.request, response);
        return response.clone();

      // Otherwise reject to proceed to catch callback
      return Promise.reject();
    }).catch(() => {

      // Serve default file if it has an image extension
      if (/(\.png|\.jpg)$/.test(event.request.url)) {
        return caches.match('/images/not-found.png');

As you can see we have augmented our code from before.

If the fetch was successful then We open the cache and store the new file using cache.put() which takes a request object and a response object.

Response objects can only be read once so we need to clone it with response.clone() and use the original response for the cache.

If fetch failed then we serve the user a default image.

Updating Service Worker

The client will keep using the same version of the service worker until there are no more pages keeping a reference to it. New versions of service workers are downloaded in the background on page refreshes but not activated. When the service worker is freed up then the latest version will be activated. Make sure to use a different cache key and update the cache install file list per your requirements.

Deleting Old Caches

The place to delete previous versions of the cache in the activate handler.

In service-worker.js;

self.addEventListener('activate', function(event) {
  var cacheWhitelist = ['v2'];

    caches.keys().then(function(keyList) {
      return Promise.all(keyList.map(function(key) {
        if (cacheWhitelist.indexOf(key) === -1) {
          return caches.delete(key);

We get all the keys of the cache and iterate over them, deleting the caches the do not match the versions in the whitelist.

Sending and Receiving Messages

Service workers provide a clients object which represents a container for service worker client objects. Clients are open pages currently controlled by the service worker.

To broadcast a message from the service worker to all the pages we use postMessage().

In service-worker.js:

// Broadcast to all open clients
self.clients.matchAll().then((clients) => {
  clients.map((client) => {
    return client.postMessage('This is message is from service worker.');

Bind to the messsage event on the main to thread to receive the messages from service worker:

navigator.serviceWorker.addEventListener('message', (event) => {
  console.log(`Received message from service worker: ${event.data}`);

Now to send message from the main thread to service worker we follow the same pattern.

In main thread:

navigator.serviceWorker.controller.postMessage('This is a message from main thread.');

Make sure to post messages only after the service worker has been activated, other the controller object will be null.

To receive message in service-worker.js:

self.addEventListener('message', (event) => {
  console.log(`Received message from main thread: ${event.data}`);

Direct messages

If we want to send messages to the service worker but only respond to the sender rather than broadcasting then it gets a bit complex.

function sendMessage(message) {
  return new Promise((resolve, reject) => {

    // Create a new message channel object
    const messageChannel = new MessageChannel();

    // Bind to `message` listener
    messageChannel.port1.onmessage = (event) => {
      resolve(`Received direct message from service worker: ${event.data}`);

    // Send the message
    navigator.serviceWorker.controller.postMessage(message, [messageChannel.port2])

First we need to create a new MessageChannel object. A message channel is basically a pipe with a port on each end.

Then we bind a listener to the message event on the first message channel port. When posting a message we pass a reference to second port of message channel that the service woker can reply to the specific client.

In service-worker.js:

self.addEventListener('message', (event) => {
  console.log(`Received message from main thread: ${event.data}`);

  // ports[0] is a reference of `port2` that we passed
  event.ports[0].postMessage(`Got message! Sending direct message back - "${event.data}"`);

Debugging Service Workers

To debug in Google Chrome head to chrome://inspect/#service-workers in the browser url bar. There it will display service worker activity such as requests and storage. To start and stop service workers as well as see detailed information head to chrome://serviceworker-internals.


Service workers give you granular control over caching, the ability to hijack requests, and notify clients with messages. Hope you found this guide useful. Check out the full example code on github at miguelmota/service-worker-example.