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Caching web sites and web applications...

Published at May 25, 2011 | Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,

...Why, Where, What and How of caching web sites

Basics of web page load: Every time when you open an webpage this results in a series of requests and responses between the client(your browser) and the web server that hosts the requested sites(most of the times this includes more the one servers). Each request tells the server that the client wants specific resource(CSS/JavaScript/image/etc.) and each response carries the resource content.

Client-Server

The main purposes of caching is to decrease bandwidth and to improve website performance.

Where are resources cached: According to the image above there are 2 places where content can be cached: on the client(browser cache) and on the server(server cache). The first one(browser cache) is more suitable when the client often requests single recourse again and again. As an example for this can be pointed CSS-files/JavaScripts/Images and other resources that form the page layout(these are requested on every page load). The second one(server cache) is hold on the server. It also can be split in two major pieces web server cache(when entire resource is cached) and application cache(when data chunks inside the application are cached).

How browser cache works: In order to tell the browser to cache such resources you have to supply each response with the following headers:

  • Last-Modified - datetime indication of when the content was last modified/updated on the server
  • Expires - the datetime after which the response will be considered "out of date"
  • Cache-Control - a directives about whether the resource must be cached and its maximal age of validity
  • Date - origin servers datetime

When the client request the resource for a first time the response contains both the resource data and the headers mentioned above. This tells the browser to store the response body(data) into its own cache. On the next request for the same resource the browser sends "If-Modified-Since" header with datetime value identical to the "Last-Modified" received from the server on the previous request. If the cache is still valid the web server returns HTTP Status code "304 Not Modified" which tell the browser to retrieve the content from its cache. Otherwise if the resource is modified between the two requests the response contains the new data along with the corresponding date headers.
This one is extremely useful to decrease websites bandwidth and speed up their loading because the common resources are read directly from the client and not pulled again and again from the server over the network.
For static resources this can be set in the webserver configuration. For dynamic ones(generated images or resources pulled from the database) these headers must be provided and checked from the application itself.

How server cache works: As I stated above the server cache can can be split into web server cache and application cache. Both are used when a single resource is requested by multiple of clients. For example the pages HTML is requested by every site visitor. If the content is the same for all of them then the HTML computation(for dynamically generated pages) can be done only for the first request and the latter ones can get the precomputed one from cache. For this you will need a caching proxy. The most common applications that are used for this purpose are Squid, Varnish and NginX

The process is similar to the one on the first figure but here the client communicates with the proxy instead of directly to the web server. If the proxy does not has a copy of the requested resource it gets if from the web server and then serves it to the client. Otherwise it pulls the content from its cache and return it directly.

Application cache: Sometimes caching full page is not an option. For example if you have a news website with two columns: one that is same for all users and one that is customizable by user preferences you can not serve every one with the same page. But you can pre-compute first column HTML, store it in the application cache and retrieve it when need instead of computing it for every user. The most common tool for this is Memcached. Its implementation is application specific but in pseudo code it works the following way:

key = 'cached_item_unique_key'
result = cache.get(key)
if not result:
   # do some computation here
   result = computed_result
   cache.set(key, result, is_valid_period)
return result

Each cached item is represented in the cache with unique key. When requested if there is such data in the cache it is pulled directly from there and server. Otherwise the date is computed, stored in the cache and then served. Server cache will decrease server load and allow your pages to be computed faster.

Final words: Caching is a double-edge razor. Using if carefully and with comprehension will make your life easier. Playing with it without knowing what you do may ruin your application. Do not cache rarely requested content. Do not try to cache everything, cache also has its limits. Use it wise.
If there is something not well explained, or missed, or wrong feel free to ask/comment. Your participation will be appreciated. Also if you find this article helpful share it and help other too.