Making your Catalyst App Cache-friendly

Web caches are very powerful and are used in many places throughout the internet. Most cache servers have complex builtin routines designed to guess how long it should cache a particular piece of content. This is because many web applications provide no information regarding the cache-ability of the content they generate. Most of these guessing-routines treat dynamically generated pages (anything with a ? in the URL) as completely un-cacheable.

This is a tragedy, as wise usage of cache policy can do more for your web-application in terms of scalability than any other change you can make in your application. Adding a front-end cache such as Squid to your web server can reduce your application-server load significantly while improving responsiveness to your users.

I can already hear you saying to yourself: "If it's so powerful, why isn't it used more often?" The answer is simple. Most web developers seem to think that it's difficult to manage cache limits within a complex web application. In many cases they are right. Fortunately for us, Catalyst's many built-in features make setting up a fine-grained cache policy very easy.

Today I'm going to give you the quick low-down on cache control and show you how to add a fine-grained cache policy to your application.

How to Control your Cache

The heart of web-cache management is the Cache-Control HTTP header. It is a very powerful header and has a large number of options which you can read about in the HTTP 1.1 RFC (if you are into that particular form of torture.)

If, on the other hand, you would just like to hit the ground running, I'll show you the two main options you need to know about.

Don't cache this

Every application is going to have data that is only valid at the time requested or for the user making the request, so it is important to know how to tell any caches along the way that the data you are sending should not be cached at all.

The way you do this is to send the Cache-Control header with the value no-cache:

Cache-Control: no-cache

It doesn't get any simpler than that. Now let's move on to the one we are most interested in today...

How long can this be cached?

There are several ways to specify how long the page you are providing is valid. The 'Expires' header is often used to set a date and time whereupon the page will no longer be valid. This is a good header to use if you know exactly when a page will no longer be valid. In my experience, however, when working with web applications you more often want to indicate how long a piece of data is good before it needs to be refreshed. Usually, this is in relation to the time the data is requested.

In other words, you usually want to say 'this is valid for the next 10 minutes, after that you should refresh.' You can still use the Expires header for this, but there is a better way.

The Cache-Control header has a directive called max-age. Put simply, max-age allows you to specify how long in seconds the page can be cached. This fits perfectly with what you most often want to do when working with a web-app. The max-age countdown always starts at the time the page is requested, so you avoid the issues of clock synchronization and drift that you can run into when using the 'Expires' header. A Cache-Control header specifying a maximum age of 15 minutes would be:

Cache-Control: max-age=900

That's not so difficult, is it?

Our madness

Now that we know how to inform cache servers of our intentions, how do we integrate that into our Catalyst app? More importantly, how do we deal with the numerous paths through our application that might generate a page while still providing a sensible cache value?

The method I usually use is to have a default maximum time limit for any given page in the application. This default does not need to be huge, even 1 hour (3600 seconds) is enough to drastically reduce the load on your web application (think 1 request for that resource per hour and you start to get the picture.)

After you have decided on a default max time, you can reduce that amount as appropriate for any given action in your application - setting the news page to expire no less frequently than every 10 minutes, for example.

The problem that remains, however, is that in a state of the art Catalyst application, very rarely does one action create an entire page. In most cases other actions are called in the process of handling the result. This may happen either by built-in features such as the Chained dispatch type, or by simply calling $c->forward() within your action code. Any one of these actions may cause an event which will change the cacheability of the returned page. This is both a common and desired practice, so handling of cache times needs to account for this.

The Method

The way we handle this is to simply work with the tools Catalyst provides to allow any action to specify its own constraint on the cacheability of the page being generated.

We do this by adding a hash to the stash called cachecontrol. Each action can add an element to this hash containing the maximum time in seconds that the resultant page can be cached. By doing this, each action is essentially stamping a maximum-lifespan onto only the data it generated. This maximum-lifespan will apply regardless of the path taken to reach that particular section of code. An example of this is below:

sub newslinks : Private {
    my ($self, $c) = @_;

    # Don't allow newslinks to last more than 5 minutes
    $c->stash->{'cachecontrol'}{'newslinks'} = 300;

    # do whatever else the newslinks action does
    # ...
}

Marking a path as uncacheable is just as easy:

sub processlogin : Private {
    my ($self, $c) = @_;

    # Never cache the result of a login attempt
    $c->stash->{'cachecontrol'}{'processlogin'} = 0;

    if ($c->authenticate({ ... })) {
        # ...
    }
}

Setting an element in the cachecontrol hash allows any action to specify its intentions with regard to cacheability. These intentions will be clear regardless of how the action was reached. Keep in mind also that only actions which affect the cacheability of the page should set a cachecontrol element. Other actions need not specify any cachecontrol data at all.

Using this method, by the end of action processing, the cacheability of the generated data is clear to us, but we still have not communicated this to the requesting browser or cache server. Fortunately for us, Catalyst gives us the perfect place to handle this: the Root end action.

All we need to do is place a short routine in our end action that examines all the elements of the cachecontrol hash to locate the shortest cache time, then we set the Cache-Control header accordingly.

sub end : ActionClass('RenderView') {
    my ( $self, $c ) = @_;

    # begin by setting our minumum cache time to our default cache time in seconds.
    my $cachetime = 3600;

    # check to see if we have an error — we don't want error pages to be cached
    # so we force our cache-time to 0 in that case.
    if ( scalar @{ $c->error }) {
        $cachetime = 0;
    } else {
        # Look at each element of cachecontrol to find the shortest
        # cache time set. 

        foreach my $section ( keys %{$c->stash->{'cachecontrol'}} ) {

            # if the currently selected cache-control element is less
            # than the page's cache-time — we drop the cache-time to 
            # match the new limit.
            if ($c->stash->{'cachecontrol'}{$section} < $cachetime) {
                $cachetime = $c->stash->{'cachecontrol'}{$section};
            }
        }
    }

    # at this point - $cachetime should be set to the most restrictive
    # time set by all of the actions. Now it's time to turn it into 
    # a header that the cache server / browser can understand.  

    if ($cachetime == 0) {

        # if $cachetime is 0 - then we can't cache the page and we 
        # need to tell our requesting server / browser that.

        $c->response->header('Cache-Control' => 'no-cache')

    } else {

        # otherwise we set max-age to the cache-time specified.
        $c->response->header('Cache-Control' => 'max-age=' . $cachetime);
    }

}

Et voila. Your application is now cache-friendly.

But WAIT! or 'The Gotchas'

Adding cache times to your application is fine if the entirety of your site is public. If your application allows authentication and/or your pages are customized on a per-user basis then you have a bit more to think about.

Any time your content is customized on a per-user basis, you are likely destroying the cacheability of that content. This means that you need to be very careful to set your $c->stash->{'cachecontrol'} appropriately whenever you are performing actions that rely on an authenticated user. This can be tricky as any action may respond differently depending on whether the user is authenticated.

The simplest solution to this particular problem is to simply force cachetime to 0 if a user is authenticated. This is as simple as adding the following to the end routine above:

sub end : ActionClass('RenderView') {
    my ( $self, $c ) = @_;

    # begin by setting our minimum cache time to our default cache time in seconds.
    my $cachetime = 3600;

    if ( $c->user_exists() ) {
        $cachetime = 0;
    }

    ## rest of routine from above
    ...
}

There are some remaining issues you need to be aware of when working with caching—particularly if you are running cache-servers in front of your web application. First, using the above method means that no logged-in users will generate pages that stay in your cache. This can be problematic, especially if your application caters mainly to registered users. The other problem is that when an unregistered user DOES cause a page to be cached, registered users will receive that cached copy, even if they are logged in.

To make matters worse, when you are making your site cacheable, you must pay attention not only to the code, but to the design and templates used on your site also.

Visual Design, Templates and Cacheability

It is a very common practice these days for web-sites to provide any logged in user with a conspicuous reminder that they are logged in. This usually comes in the form of a 'Welcome back Joe User!' or other customized content somewhere in the page. Many designers place this reminder on every page on the site. This presents a difficult problem for anyone wanting to make the site cacheable. How do you provide for personalization while still keeping your site cacheable?

A few short years ago, this was a very difficult problem to solve indeed. Fortunately for us web technology has advanced to the point where it can be solved fairly easily. There are two obvious possibilities, depending on the complexity of the personalized content.

If the content is simply a customized welcome message, the old standby of JavaScript + cookies provides a fairly neat solution. Set your custom message (or even just the User name) in a cookie, and let JavaScript display the custom message if the cookie is present. Your pages remain cacheable, and the non-JS degraded mode page simply lacks the custom message.

If the custom data is more complex, a 'News items for Joe User!' block, for example, the problem again becomes more complex. However, this too can be solved fairly easily using AJAX. If you make the custom block load via JS, the rest of the page can be cached, and only the customized content will be uncacheable. (In fact, with the judicious use of cookies, you can make the AJAX request contain all the necessary data required to fulfill the request, and the response will become cacheable as well.)

Finally...

Apart from playing nicely with existing cache servers out there on the Internet, adding cache control to your site can have a tremendous impact on the robustness and scalability of your application. Today we covered how to add fine-grained cache control to your application in an extremely painless way. When applied well, a front-end caching server can allow your application to handle hundreds of times the traffic that it would otherwise be able to.

Solving the technical problem is often only part of the puzzle. Balancing cacheability and personalization can be difficult. However, if you are conscious of the trade-offs while designing your application most customization can be accomplished, while still retaining good performance-increasing cacheability.

Good luck, and happy caching!

AUTHOR

jayk - Jay Kuri <jayk@cpan.org>

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