One of the new features brought in with Squid-3.2 is dynamic helpers. A brief name for a very useful administrative tool and like all tools can be both easy and tricky to use at the same time.
If you have a proxy using helper processes but only a small cache (or none) this is a feature for you.
The good news
Configuration is super easy – just set the initial startup, maximum number of helpers and an idle value for how many to start when new ones are needed to handle the request load.
Dying helpers have a higher threshold before they kill Squid. It is not perfectly tuned yet in the code so improvements will contnue to happen here, but already we see small bursts of helper failures being suppressed by re-started replacements without that all too familiar Squid halt with “helper dying too quickly” messages. Note that this is just higher, not gone.
The bad news
Determining what those values should be is no more easy or straightforward than before. Squid uses fork() to start new helpers. The main side effect of this is that helper instances started while Squid is running will require a virtual memory size equivalent to the Squid worker process memory at the time they are started. If your proxy is pushing the box to its limit on RAM, dynamically started helpers could easily push it over to swapping memory at the worst possible time (peak load starting to arrive). Also on the bad news side is that the helpers are run per-worker. Which has the potential to compound the RAM usage problems.
We do have a proposal put to the development team which will almost completely remove this problem. Having the coordinator or a special spawner kid do the forking instead of the heavy workers. But as of this writing nobody is working on it (volunteers welcome, please contact the squid-dev mailing list).
While it may look like the bad news is worse than the good news it does turn out that most installations are small instances or non-caching worker proxies these days. All of which may need lots of helpers, but are not heavy on the RAM requirements. For all these installations dynamic helpers are ideal and in a lot of cases can even be set with zero helpers on startup for a very speedy delay to first request accepted time.
The caching proxy installations with higher memory requirements in the workers can still make use of the dynamic nature to avoid complete outages in the worst-case situations where peak traffic overloads the planned helpers. But should normally be configured as before with enough helpers to meet most needs started before the RAM requirements become too onerous on the worker.
Until at least the bad news problems above are resolved the default behaviour for Squid will continue to be starting all the maximum helpers on startup. So there are no unexpected surprises for upgrading, and the old advice on calculating helper requirements is still useful for determining that maximum.