Web Caching Basics: Terminology, HTTP Headers, and Caching Strategies
Intelligent content caching is one of the most effective ways to improve the experience for your site’s visitors. Caching, or temporarily storing content from previous requests, is part of the core content delivery strategy implemented within the HTTP protocol. Components throughout the delivery path can all cache items to speed up subsequent requests, subject to the caching policies declared for the content.
In this guide, we will discuss some of the basic concepts of web content caching. This will mainly cover how to select caching policies to ensure that caches throughout the internet can correctly process your content. We will talk about the benefits that caching affords, the side effects to be aware of, and the different strategies to employ to provide the best mixture of performance and flexibility.
What Is Caching?
Caching is the term for storing reusable responses in order to make subsequent requests faster. There are many different types of caching available, each of which has its own characteristics. Application caches and memory caches are both popular for their ability to speed up certain responses.
Web caching, the focus of this guide, is a different type of cache. Web caching is a core design feature of the HTTP protocol meant to minimize network traffic while improving the perceived responsiveness of the system as a whole. Caches are found at every level of a content’s journey from the original server to the browser.
Web caching works by caching the HTTP responses for requests according to certain rules. Subsequent requests for cached content can then be fulfilled from a cache closer to the user instead of sending the request all the way back to the web server.
Effective caching aids both content consumers and content providers. Some of the benefits that caching brings to content delivery are:
- Decreased network costs: Content can be cached at various points in the network path between the content consumer and content origin. When the content is cached closer to the consumer, requests will not cause much additional network activity beyond the cache.
- Improved responsiveness: Caching enables content to be retrieved faster because an entire network round trip is not necessary. Caches maintained close to the user, like the browser cache, can make this retrieval nearly instantaneous.
- Increased performance on the same hardware: For the server where the content originated, more performance can be squeezed from the same hardware by allowing aggressive caching. The content owner can leverage the powerful servers along the delivery path to take the brunt of certain content loads.
- Availability of content during network interruptions: With certain policies, caching can be used to serve content to end users even when it may be unavailable for short periods of time from the origin servers.
When dealing with caching, there are a few terms that you are likely to come across that might be unfamiliar. Some of the more common ones are below:
- Origin server: The origin server is the original location of the content. If you are acting as the web server administrator, this is the machine that you control. It is responsible for serving any content that could not be retrieved from a cache along the request route and for setting the caching policy for all content.
- Cache hit ratio: A cache’s effectiveness is measured in terms of its cache hit ratio or hit rate. This is a ratio of the requests able to be retrieved from a cache to the total requests made. A high cache hit ratio means that a high percentage of the content was able to be retrieved from the cache. This is usually the desired outcome for most administrators.
- Freshness: Freshness is a term used to describe whether an item within a cache is still considered a candidate to serve to a client. Content in a cache will only be used to respond if it is within the freshness time frame specified by the caching policy.
- Stale content: Items in the cache expire according to the cache freshness settings in the caching policy. Expired content is “stale”. In general, expired content cannot be used to respond to client requests. The origin server must be re-contacted to retrieve the new content or at least verify that the cached content is still accurate.
- Validation: Stale items in the cache can be validated in order to refresh their expiration time. Validation involves checking in with the origin server to see if the cached content still represents the most recent version of item.
- Invalidation: Invalidation is the process of removing content from the cache before its specified expiration date. This is necessary if the item has been changed on the origin server and having an outdated item in cache would cause significant issues for the client.
There are plenty of other caching terms, but the ones above should help you get started.
What Can be Cached?
Certain content lends itself more readily to caching than others. Some very cache-friendly content for most sites are:
- Logos and brand images
- Non-rotating images in general (navigation icons, for example)
- Style sheets
- Downloadable Content
- Media Files
These tend to change infrequently, so they can benefit from being cached for longer periods of time.
Some items that you have to be careful in caching are:
- HTML pages
- Rotating images
- Content requested with authentication cookies
Some items that should almost never be cached are:
- Assets related to sensitive data (banking info, etc.)
- Content that is user-specific and frequently changed
In addition to the above general rules, it’s possible to specify policies that allow you to cache different types of content appropriately. For instance, if authenticated users all see the same view of your site, it may be possible to cache that view anywhere. If authenticated users see a user-sensitive view of the site that will be valid for some time, you may tell the user’s browser to cache, but tell any intermediary caches not to store the view.
Locations Where Web Content Is Cached
Content can be cached at many different points throughout the delivery chain:
- Browser cache: Web browsers themselves maintain a small cache. Typically, the browser sets a policy that dictates the most important items to cache. This may be user-specific content or content deemed expensive to download and likely to be requested again.
- Intermediary caching proxies: Any server in between the client and your infrastructure can cache certain content as desired. These caches may be maintained by ISPs or other independent parties.
- Reverse Cache: Your server infrastructure can implement its own cache for backend services. This way, content can be served from the point-of-contact instead of hitting backend servers on each request.
Each of these locations can and often do cache items according to their own caching policies and the policies set at the content origin.
Caching policy is dependent upon two different factors. The caching entity itself gets to decide whether or not to cache acceptable content. It can decide to cache less than it is allowed to cache, but never more.
The majority of caching behavior is determined by the caching policy, which is set by the content owner. These policies are mainly articulated through the use of specific HTTP headers.
Through various iterations of the HTTP protocol, a few different cache-focused headers have arisen with varying levels of sophistication. The ones you probably still need to pay attention to are below:
Expiresheader is very straight-forward, although fairly limited in scope. Basically, it sets a time in the future when the content will expire. At this point, any requests for the same content will have to go back to the origin server. This header is probably best used only as a fall back.
Cache-Control: This is the more modern replacement for the
Expiresheader. It is well supported and implements a much more flexible design. In almost all cases, this is preferable to
Expires, but it may not hurt to set both values. We will discuss the specifics of the options you can set with
Cache-Controla bit later.
Etagheader is used with cache validation. The origin can provide a unique
Etagfor an item when it initially serves the content. When a cache needs to validate the content it has on-hand upon expiration, it can send back the
Etagit has for the content. The origin will either tell the cache that the content is the same, or send the updated content (with the new
Last-Modified: This header specifies the last time that the item was modified. This may be used as part of the validation strategy to ensure fresh content.
Content-Length: While not specifically involved in caching, the
Content-Lengthheader is important to set when defining caching policies. Certain software will refuse to cache content if it does not know in advanced the size of the content it will need to reserve space for.
Vary: A cache typically uses the requested host and the path to the resource as the key with which to store the cache item. The
Varyheader can be used to tell caches to pay attention to an additional header when deciding whether a request is for the same item. This is most commonly used to tell caches to key by the
Accept-Encodingheader as well, so that the cache will know to differentiate between compressed and uncompressed content.
An Aside about the Vary Header
Vary header provides you with the ability to store different versions of the same content at the expense of diluting the entries in the cache.
In the case of
Accept-Encoding, setting the
Vary header allows for a critical distinction to take place between compressed and uncompressed content. This is needed to correctly serve these items to browsers that cannot handle compressed content and is necessary in order to provide basic usability. One characteristic that tells you that
Accept-Encoding may be a good candidate for
Vary is that it only has two or three possible values.
User-Agent might at first glance seem to be a good way to differentiate between mobile and desktop browsers to serve different versions of your site. However, since
User-Agent strings are non-standard, the result will likely be many versions of the same content on intermediary caches, with a very low cache hit ratio. The
Vary header should be used sparingly, especially if you do not have the ability to normalize the requests in intermediate caches that you control (which may be possible, for instance, if you leverage a content delivery network).
How Cache-Control Flags Impact Caching
Above, we mentioned how the
Cache-Control header is used for modern cache policy specification. A number of different policy instructions can be set using this header, with multiple instructions being separated by commas.
Some of the
Cache-Control options you can use to dictate your content’s caching policy are:
no-cache: This instruction specifies that any cached content must be re-validated on each request before being served to a client. This, in effect, marks the content as stale immediately, but allows it to use revalidation techniques to avoid re-downloading the entire item again.
no-store: This instruction indicates that the content cannot be cached in any way. This is appropriate to set if the response represents sensitive data.
public: This marks the content as public, which means that it can be cached by the browser and any intermediate caches. For requests that utilized HTTP authentication, responses are marked
privateby default. This header overrides that setting.
private: This marks the content as
private. Private content may be stored by the user’s browser, but must not be cached by any intermediate parties. This is often used for user-specific data.
max-age: This setting configures the maximum age that the content may be cached before it must revalidate or re-download the content from the origin server. In essence, this replaces the
Expiresheader for modern browsing and is the basis for determining a piece of content’s freshness. This option takes its value in seconds with a maximum valid freshness time of one year (31536000 seconds).
s-maxage: This is very similar to the
max-agesetting, in that it indicates the amount of time that the content can be cached. The difference is that this option is applied only to intermediary caches. Combining this with the above allows for more flexible policy construction.
must-revalidate: This indicates that the freshness information indicated by
Expiresheader must be obeyed strictly. Stale content cannot be served under any circumstance. This prevents cached content from being used in case of network interruptions and similar scenarios.
proxy-revalidate: This operates the same as the above setting, but only applies to intermediary proxies. In this case, the user’s browser can potentially be used to serve stale content in the event of a network interruption, but intermediate caches cannot be used for this purpose.
no-transform: This option tells caches that they are not allowed to modify the received content for performance reasons under any circumstances. This means, for instance, that the cache is not able to send compressed versions of content it did not receive from the origin server compressed and is not allowed.
These can be combined in different ways to achieve various caching behavior. Some mutually exclusive values are:
no-store, and the regular caching behavior indicated by absence of either
no-store option supersedes the
no-cache if both are present. For responses to unauthenticated requests,
public is implied. For responses to authenticated requests,
private is implied. These can be overridden by including the opposite option in the
Developing a Caching Strategy
In a perfect world, everything could be cached aggressively and your servers would only be contacted to validate content occasionally. This doesn’t often happen in practice though, so you should try to set some sane caching policies that aim to balance between implementing long-term caching and responding to the demands of a changing site.
There are many situations where caching cannot or should not be implemented due to how the content is produced (dynamically generated per user) or the nature of the content (sensitive banking information, for example). Another problem that many administrators face when setting up caching is the situation where older versions of your content are out in the wild, not yet stale, even though new versions have been published.
These are both frequently encountered issues that can have serious impacts on cache performance and the accuracy of content you are serving. However, we can mitigate these issues by developing caching policies that anticipate these problems.
While your situation will dictate the caching strategy you use, the following recommendations can help guide you towards some reasonable decisions.
There are certain steps that you can take to increase your cache hit ratio before worrying about the specific headers you use. Some ideas are:
- Establish specific directories for images, css, and shared content: Placing content into dedicated directories will allow you to easily refer to them from any page on your site.
- Use the same URL to refer to the same items: Since caches key off of both the host and the path to the content requested, ensure that you refer to your content in the same way on all of your pages. The previous recommendation makes this significantly easier.
- Use CSS image sprites where possible: CSS image sprites for items like icons and navigation decrease the number of round trips needed to render your site and allow your site to cache that single sprite for a long time.
In terms of selecting the correct headers for different items, the following can serve as a general reference:
- Allow all caches to store generic assets: Static content and content that is not user-specific can and should be cached at all points in the delivery chain. This will allow intermediary caches to respond with the content for multiple users.
- Allow browsers to cache user-specific assets: For per-user content, it is often acceptable and useful to allow caching within the user’s browser. While this content would not be appropriate to cache on any intermediary caching proxies, caching in the browser will allow for instant retrieval for users during subsequent visits.
- Make exceptions for essential time-sensitive content: If you have content that is time-sensitive, make an exception to the above rules so that the out-dated content is not served in critical situations. For instance, if your site has a shopping cart, it should reflect the items in the cart immediately. Depending on the nature of the content, the
no-storeoptions can be set in the
Cache-Controlheader to achieve this.
- Always provide validators: Validators allow stale content to be refreshed without having to download the entire resource again. Setting the
Last-Modifiedheaders allow caches to validate their content and re-serve it if it has not been modified at the origin, further reducing load.
- Set long freshness times for supporting content: In order to leverage caching effectively, elements that are requested as supporting content to fulfill a request should often have a long freshness setting. This is generally appropriate for items like images and CSS that are pulled in to render the HTML page requested by the user. Setting extended freshness times, combined with fingerprinting, allows caches to store these resources for long periods of time. If the assets change, the modified fingerprint will invalidate the cached item and will trigger a download of the new content. Until then, the supporting items can be cached far into the future.
- Set short freshness times for parent content: In order to make the above scheme work, the containing item must have relatively short freshness times or may not be cached at all. This is typically the HTML page that calls in the other assisting content. The HTML itself will be downloaded frequently, allowing it to respond to changes rapidly. The supporting content can then be cached aggressively.
The key is to strike a balance that favors aggressive caching where possible while leaving opportunities to invalidate entries in the future when changes are made. Your site will likely have a combination of:
- Aggressively cached items
- Cached items with a short freshness time and the ability to re-validate
- Items that should not be cached at all
The goal is to move content into the first categories when possible while maintaining an acceptable level of accuracy.
Taking the time to ensure that your site has proper caching policies in place can have a significant impact on your site. Caching allows you to cut down on the bandwidth costs associated with serving the same content repeatedly. Your server will also be able to handle a greater amount of traffic with the same hardware. Perhaps most importantly, clients will have a faster experience on your site, which may lead them to return more frequently. While effective web caching is not a silver bullet, setting up appropriate caching policies can give you measurable gains with minimal work.