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Cache Channels for Squid

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Cache Channels for Squid

Copyright (c) 2007-2010 Yahoo! Inc. See src/ for license.

What are Cache Channels?

A Cache Channel is an out-of-band communication path between Web servers and Web caches. When a cache is subscribed to a channel, it can find out things about the content it has stored from the origin server and act on it, significantly increasing its efficiency, and giving the publisher finer-grained control.

A channel is associated with content by sending a HTTP header containing the channel's URI along with the response. For example:

Cache-Control: max-age=30, channel=""

When the cache sees this, it knows that it should subscribe to that channel and listen for events.

Neither the protocol used for the channel nor the types of events it can carry are fixed by the specification. See the Internet-Draft for more information.

This implementation of Cache Channels uses a separate Squid helper process to subscribe to and monitor Atom channels.


What can they do for me?

Currently, there is one application of cache channels; when a response also says channel-maxage, it allows a cache that is subscribed to the indicated channel to indefinitely extend the freshness lifetime of that response until the channel says otherwise, with an applicable stale event.

This is useful in situations where you want to keep tight control over the freshness of responses served, but still want the efficiency boost of caching. Instead of trading off the control of a short max-age against the efficiency of a long one, you can have the best of both worlds.

Additionally, cache channels allows you to make responses stale not only by their request-URI, but also by their group. Since a group URI can be associated with many responses, this allows many cached responses to be marked stale with just one invalidation event. Additionally, since it's not necessary to track all of the request-URIs that are associated with one concept, it offers a powerful way to manage cached search results (for example).

Example: Using Channels with an HTTP Accelerator

Imagine that you have a Web server, with Squid in front of it as an accelerator, and you're serving thousands of different URLs through it, including static images, HTML pages, and search results.

Since you're using a cache in front of the server, you've set the Cache-Control: max-age header, so that you control how often the cache checks to see if something has changed:

Cache-Control: max-age=300

However, you find that doing so is a trade-off; if you make max-age too large, you lose control over your content, and if you make it too small, the cache doesn't add a lot of efficiency. Many sites have business or legal requirements for how quickly changes need to be reflected on the 'live' site, so usually a compromise is made and this number is quite small (in the example above, five minutes).

Cache Channels provide another option. By associating all of the content on the site with a single channel, you can increase the cacheability of the site's responses while keeping control of them. That's done by adding a channel Cache-Control directive to each of the responses that you want covered by that channel:

Cache-Control: max-age=300, channel="", channel-maxage

Now, the accelerator can monitor that channel for stale events, so that it doesn't have to check back with the server every time a response becomes stale in its cache. Every time something changes on your server, you'll need to push an event into the channel to notify the subscribing caches that something has become stale.

Caches subscribed to the channel will know about this in a bounded amount of time, called the channel's precision (by default, one minute).

Group Invalidation

The approach outlined above works when you know the URL of what you want to invalidate, but what if you don't? For example, if you're caching the results of a query interface, one piece of information might be included in a number of different responses. All of the following search URLs may become invalid when something happens to Paris Hilton:

Storing these URIs so that you can send events about them later is impractical. Instead, there's another option; groups. By associating a single group with all of these query responses, they're tied together with one "synthetic" URI:

Cache-Control: max-age=300, channel="",
  channel-maxage, group="/paris-hilton"

so that you can mark them stale in one go, by marking

as stale.

You can also associate a number of groups (within reason) with a single response. For example, the "Hilton" query might need to be associated with a few:

Cache-Control: max-age=300, channel="",
  channel-maxage, group="/paris-hilton", group="/hilton-hotels"

What are their limitations?

Cache channels make several trade-offs to assure that the don't unduly load the network, offer reasonable guarantees about operation, and handle failure modes appropriately. Please keep the following in mind with using them;

  • This implementation uses HTTP polling of the channel to discover new events. This scales well, in that as long as the channel representations are cacheable for an appropriate amount of time (e.g., 15 seconds), many caches can share the same responses. However, if the polling interval is too frequent, the benefits of using channels may be lost due to the increased network traffic and server load.
  • The maximum size of a HTTP response header is limited in most implementations, and as a result the number of group-URIs associated with a response cannot be too large. Practically, headers should not be larger than 2K.
  • Channel events are not propagated instantly. However, the system does guarantee that an event will be propagated within the precision period of time indicated by the channel (by default, 30 seconds).
  • Channel events are not synchronised across multiple caches; however, if the caches are tied together using ICP, or use the same parent, events should be applied closely together.
  • In the event that the channel goes down, the system will default back to using the normal cacheability information in responses. This may substantially increase the load on your origin servers.

How do I use them?

This implementation currently supports only Atom channels and "stale" events, respectively. Together, they can be used to offer a new way of controlling cache freshness to origin servers.

When Squid starts, it will launch one copy of the channel manager, and asks the channel manager whether a stale response's freshness can be extended before refreshing it. Using this stream of requests, the channel manager is able to subscribe to and keep the appropriate state nearby.

Channel Manager Configuration

To use the channel manager, you will need:

To configure Squid for cache channels,

  1. Place the script in an appropriate location (e.g., /usr/local/libexec/squid/

  2. Place the configuration file in an appropriate location (e.g., /usr/local/etc/squid/channel_manager.conf). Edit the configuration file as instructed therein.

  3. Add the following line to your squid.conf::

    external_refresh_check children=1 concurrency=99 %CACHE_URI %AGE %RES{Cache-Control} /path/to/this/program /path/to/conf/file``

    (with the paths you chose)

  4. Optionally, you can configure logging thorugh squid in squid.conf:

    logformat refreshcheck %ts %ru %{Age}<h %{Cache-Control}<h %{Link}<h %Ss %ef
    access_log /var/log/squid/channel_handler.log refreshcheck``
  5. Reload Squid configuration; > squid -k reconfigure

That's it; Squid will automatically be subscribed to channels that it sees advertised in Cache-Control response headers.

A sample snippet of squid.conf:

external_refresh_check children=1 concurrency=99 %CACHE_URI %AGE %RES{$(control_header)}
%RES{Link} /usr/local/libexec/squid/ /usr/local/etc/squid/channel_manager.conf

logformat refreshcheck %ts %ru %{Age}<h %{Cache-Control}<h %{Link}<h %Ss %ef access_log /var/logs/squid/channel_handler.log refreshcheck

Note that the external_refresh_check line has been wrapped.

Publishing Channels

There are a variety of ways to publish an Atom channel. To make an Atom feed usable for Cache Channels, it's important to:

  1. Turn the feed into an Archived feed, as per RFC5005. This means that each "page" should have at least a prev-archive link relation, and an archive flag when appropriate.
  2. Each entry in the feed that intends to mark a URI as stale needs to include a <cc:stale/> flag, where the cc namespace prefix is mapped to the URI
  3. Stale entries should indicate the URI to mark stale using the alternate link relation.

A sample database-backed PHP implementation of a channel publisher is included in the src directory.

Associating Channels with Responses

To associate content with a channel, send the following Cache-Control directives in all responses associated with it;

  1. channel-maxage[=nnn] (indicates that its freshness can be extended by a channel)
  2. channel="uri_to_channel" (tells caches where the channel is)
  3. max-age=nn (tells caches that it's cacheable in the first place)

For example:

Cache-Control: max-age=60, channel-maxage, channel=""

There are a variety of ways to set Cache-Control headers, depending upon your Web server and publishing environment. See the caching tutorial for more information.

Note that there should be a feed document at the channel URI as soon as you start advertising it in headers; if it is not present, subscribing caches will consider it 'down'.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many channels should I use for my content?

Usually, the fewer the better. In most scenarios, it makes sense to associate all of a Web server's content with one channel URI; sometimes, it makes sense to associate more than one site's content with a channel (for example, if the contents of several sites are tightly interrelated). Having the fewest possible number of channels increases the efficiency of the system and decreases load on the server where the channel lives.

You may want to use separate channels if you have an administrative need to do so; e.g., different people own the content, you want to use different access controls over the channel contents, or if they need different parameters (e.g., precision).

How quickly will my stale event be honoured by a cache?

At most, it will take precision seconds for an event to propagate. If there is a failure in the system somewhere, the cache will notice this before that amount of time, so it's a fairly solid guarantee.

The one exception to this is when the cache goes to the origin server to fetch a response (either the first time, or on a subsequent refresh); then, it will be served fresh for as long as HTTP allows it to be.

For example, if your channel's precision is 30 seconds, but the response has a Cache-Control: max-age=300 header associated with it, the cache won't start looking in the channel for stale events that apply to this response until five minutes have passed; then, it will notice such events within 30 seconds.

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