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Ways to Poll a Server for Changes in JavaScript

Posted by Stephen Wrighton on 07 Jun 2023


In the world of web development, staying updated with real-time data is crucial for many applications. Whether it’s displaying live chat messages, monitoring stock prices, or tracking the progress of an ongoing process, being able to fetch new data from a server at regular intervals is essential. This process is known as server polling, and JavaScript offers several techniques to accomplish it.

In this article, we will explore various ways to poll a server for changes using JavaScript. We will dive into the implementation details of each method, providing you with step-by-step instructions and example code. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced developer, this comprehensive guide will equip you with the knowledge and tools to implement server polling effectively in your web applications.

Callback-Based Server Polling

Polling a server using callbacks is one of the simplest and most straightforward methods. It involves making an HTTP request to the server at regular intervals and processing the response using a callback function. Here’s how you can implement callback-based server polling in JavaScript:

  1. Define a callback function that handles the server response.
  2. Use the setInterval function to trigger the HTTP request at specified intervals.
  3. Make an AJAX request to the server using the XMLHttpRequest or fetch API.
  4. In the callback function, process the server response and update your application accordingly.

By following these steps, you can ensure that your application regularly fetches new data from the server and keeps the user interface up to date. However, callback-based server polling may not be the most efficient method, especially if the interval between requests is short. In such cases, other techniques like long polling or WebSockets might be more suitable.

Interval-Based Server Polling

Interval-based server polling involves making periodic requests to the server at fixed intervals, regardless of whether there are any updates. This approach is simple to implement but can lead to unnecessary network traffic if there are no changes on the server. Here’s how you can perform interval-based server polling:

  1. Set the desired polling interval using the setInterval function.
  2. Make an AJAX request to the server at each interval.
  3. Process the server response and update your application if necessary.

Interval-based server polling is suitable for scenarios where real-time updates are not critical, and the frequency of changes on the server is relatively low. However, it’s important to consider the potential impact on server resources and network bandwidth, especially in high-traffic applications.

Long Polling

Long polling is an alternative

approach to server polling that reduces the amount of unnecessary network traffic compared to interval-based polling. Instead of making requests at fixed intervals, the client sends a request to the server and keeps the connection open until there is new data available. Here’s how you can implement long polling in JavaScript:

  1. Make an AJAX request to the server.
  2. On the server side, if there is no new data available, hold the request open.
  3. When new data becomes available, send a response to the client.
  4. Upon receiving the response, process the data and initiate another long polling request.

Long polling allows you to receive updates almost instantly when they occur, reducing the delay between changes on the server and updates in your application. However, it requires more complex server-side logic and may not be supported by all server environments.


WebSockets provide a bidirectional communication channel between the client and the server, allowing real-time data updates without the need for frequent polling. The WebSocket protocol maintains a persistent connection, enabling efficient data transmission in both directions. Here’s how you can use WebSockets for server communication:

  1. Establish a WebSocket connection between the client and the server.
  2. Send and receive data through the WebSocket connection using JavaScript APIs.
  3. Handle incoming data on the client side and update your application accordingly.

WebSockets are ideal for applications requiring real-time updates and low latency. However, they require WebSocket support on both the client and server side, and not all browsers and server environments may provide full compatibility.

Server-Sent Events

Server-Sent Events (SSE) is another technique for real-time communication between the server and the client. SSE allows the server to send data to the client without the need for explicit client requests. The server maintains an open connection, pushing updates to the client as soon as they occur. Here’s how you can implement SSE in JavaScript:

  1. Set up a server-side endpoint that supports SSE.
  2. In the client-side JavaScript code, create an EventSource object and specify the SSE endpoint.
  3. Listen for incoming events using the onmessage event handler.
  4. Process the received data and update your application as needed.

Server-Sent Events provide a reliable and efficient way to receive real-time updates from the server. However, they are unidirectional, meaning the server can only send data to the client, and the client cannot send requests or updates back to the server.

Comparing Polling Techniques

In this section, we will compare the different polling techniques discussed so far and highlight their advantages and disadvantages. Each approach has its own strengths and is suited for different use cases. By understanding the trade-offs, you can choose the most appropriate method for your specific application requirements.

Callback-Based Server Polling



Interval-Based Server Polling



Long Polling






Server-Sent Events



When choosing a polling technique, consider factors such as real-time requirements, server resources, network bandwidth, and compatibility with target browsers and server environments. Each technique has its strengths, and selecting the right one will depend on the specific needs of your application.

Considerations for Scalability

When implementing server polling in your application, scalability is an important consideration. As the number of clients increases, the server must efficiently handle multiple simultaneous requests and distribute data updates without significant delays. Here are some key considerations for ensuring scalability:

  1. Optimize server-side code to handle concurrent requests efficiently.
  2. Employ caching mechanisms to reduce unnecessary database queries or computations.
  3. Implement load balancing techniques to distribute requests across multiple server instances.
  4. Use asynchronous I/O to maximize server performance and responsiveness.

By following these best practices, you can ensure that your server can handle a large number of simultaneous client connections and provide real-time updates without sacrificing performance.

Error Handling and Retry Strategies

In any network-based communication, errors can occur due to various reasons, such as network interruptions, server unavailability, or request timeouts. It’s important to handle these errors gracefully and implement retry strategies to maintain a reliable connection with the server. Here are some tips for effective error handling and retry strategies:

  1. Implement error handling mechanisms in your client-side JavaScript code to catch and handle network errors.
  2. Define a retry mechanism that attempts to reconnect or resend requests in case of errors.
  3. Implement exponential backoff algorithms to progressively increase the delay between retry attempts.
  4. Provide appropriate error messages or notifications to the user when errors occur.

By implementing robust error handling and retry strategies, you can enhance the stability and reliability of your server polling implementation.

Optimizing Server Polling Performance

To ensure optimal performance and efficiency in server polling, it’s important to consider various factors that can impact performance. Here are some tips to optimize the performance of your server polling implementation:

  1. Minimize the payload size of the server responses by sending only the necessary data.
  2. Implement client-side caching mechanisms to reduce the number of unnecessary requests to the server.
  3. Fine-tune the polling interval based on the specific needs of your application.
  4. Use compression techniques like GZIP to reduce the size of the data transferred over the network.

By optimizing server polling performance, you can reduce bandwidth usage, minimize latency, and provide a smoother user experience.

Security Considerations

When implementing server polling, it’s crucial to consider security aspects to protect your application and its data. Here are some security considerations to keep in mind:

  1. Use secure connections (HTTPS) to protect data transmitted between the client and server.
  2. Implement proper authentication and authorization mechanisms to ensure that only authorized clients can access the server.
  3. Validate and sanitize user input on the server to prevent security vulnerabilities like SQL injection or cross-site scripting (XSS).
  4. Regularly update server-side libraries and frameworks to patch any security vulnerabilities.

By following these security best practices, you can safeguard your application and ensure the integrity and confidentiality of your data.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. Q: Is server polling the only way to achieve real-time updates in JavaScript applications? A: No, there are other techniques like WebSockets and Server-Sent Events that provide more efficient and real-time communication between the server and the client.

  2. Q: How often should I poll the server for updates? A: The polling interval depends

on the specific needs of your application. Consider factors such as the frequency of updates, server resources, and network bandwidth.

  1. Q: Can I implement server polling in a mobile application? A: Yes, server polling can be implemented in mobile applications using JavaScript frameworks like React Native or frameworks that provide native HTTP request capabilities.

  2. Q: What happens if the server is temporarily unavailable during a polling request? A: In such cases, proper error handling and retry strategies should be implemented to ensure that the connection is reestablished once the server becomes available.

  3. Q: Can server polling negatively impact server performance? A: Server polling can generate additional network traffic and increase the load on the server. It’s important to optimize the implementation and consider scalability considerations to mitigate potential performance issues.

  4. Q: Is server polling suitable for highly concurrent applications with a large number of clients? A: Depending on the specific requirements, other techniques like WebSockets or Server-Sent Events might be more suitable for highly concurrent applications.

  5. Q: Can I implement server polling using third-party libraries or frameworks? A: Yes, there are several libraries and frameworks available that provide abstractions and simplified APIs for implementing server polling in JavaScript applications.

  6. Q: Are there any security risks associated with server polling? A: Server polling itself doesn’t introduce significant security risks. However, it’s important to follow security best practices to protect against potential vulnerabilities in your application.

  7. Q: How can I test and debug my server polling implementation? A: Use browser developer tools to monitor network requests, inspect server responses, and debug your client-side JavaScript code.

  8. Q: Are there any alternatives to server polling for real-time updates? A: Yes, alternatives like WebSockets, Server-Sent Events, or using third-party real-time communication services can provide more efficient and scalable solutions for real-time updates.


In this article, we explored various ways to poll a server for changes in JavaScript. We discussed techniques such as callback-based server polling, interval-based server polling, long polling, WebSockets, and Server-Sent Events. Each technique has its own advantages and considerations, allowing you to choose the most suitable method based on your application’s requirements.

We also covered important aspects like scalability, error handling and retry strategies, performance optimization, and security considerations when implementing server polling. By considering these factors and following best practices, you can ensure an efficient and reliable server polling implementation.

Remember to choose the appropriate technique based on your specific use case and carefully evaluate the trade-offs between real-time updates, server resources, network bandwidth, and compatibility with browsers and server environments.

Server polling is a powerful tool for fetching real-time updates from a server and keeping your web applications up to date with the latest data. By implementing the techniques and recommendations discussed in this article, you can effectively leverage server polling in your JavaScript applications and provide an enhanced user experience.

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