Why even bother making cachable content?

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I see so many sites pop up in some Squid logs which seem to try and avoid any attempt at caching. I’m not sure why, but I’m going to try and cover a few points here.

  1. I want to know exactly how many bits I’m shipping! This is especially prevalent in the American internet scene. Everyone’s about shipping bits. The more bits you ship the “better” you are. (There’s some talk about the “number of prefixes you advertise” also being linked to how “big” your network is; or maybe people are just lazy at trying to aggregate their BGP announcements. I digress..) Sure, if you graph your outbound links this is true. But you can do HTTP tricks to know exactly how many requests you’re handling without shifting the whole object out. Just set the objects to “must revalidate” rather than being immediately expired; let the web cache always revalidate the request via an If-Modified-Since request. You’ll get the IMS and can send back a “not-modified” reply; you can then synthesise a graph based on what you -would- be serving. Voila, free bits. This can be quite substantial if you have lots and lots of images on your site.
  2. I want to know how many people are accessing my site! This is definitely a left-over from the 90s and even then the problem was solved. If you absolutely positively need to know about page impressions then just embed a non-cachable 1×1 transparent gif somewhere where it won’t slow the page rendering down. Leave the rest of the site cachable. Really though, these days people should just use javascript and cookies (a la the Google “urchin”) if they want accurate “people” and “impression” counts. Trying to do it based on page accesses and unique IPs just isn’t going to cut it.
  3. I don’t want people to cache the data; they have to login first! You can tell proxy caches that they must first revalidate the authentication information from the origin server before serving out content. You can have your cake and eat it too.
  4. Making my content cachable is too damned hard! How do I know what headers when and where? Its not all that difficult. Mark Nottingham’s Caching Tutorial covers a lot of useful information about building cachable websites. You can keep control of your authenticated content and push out more content than you’re actually buying transit for.

Just remember a few simple rules:

  • Don’t hide static content behind query URLs (ie, stuff with a ‘?’ in them). Caches won’t cache them (unless, of course, they’re built by me. But then, I am pretty evil.) I see plenty of websites which hide all of their images and flash videos behind a CGI script with a ? in the path – caches just won’t bother trying to cache it. Amusingly, most of those sites hide static content behind CGI scripts! Just imagine what it’d be like to be able to push five or ten times the amount of content to clients behind proxy caches.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help in how to optimise your site for forward caching. Heck, even asking on the squid-users mailing list will probably get you sorted out without too much trouble.
  • There are people behind proxy caches – the developing world for one, but there’s plenty of caches to be found in schools, offices, wired buildings, wireless mesh networks and the like. Bandwidth isn’t free and never will be. You might be able to buy a 40gbit pipe to your favourite transit provider in North America but that won’t help people in South Africa or Australia where international bandwidth is still expensive and will remain so for the forseeable future. And yes, we like watching Youtube as much as the next person.
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