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Chapter 16. HTTP Headers for Optimal Performance

Header composition is often neglected in the CGI world. Dynamic content is dynamic, after all, so why would anybody care about HTTP headers? Because pages are generated dynamically, one might expect that pages without a Last-Modified header are fine, and that an If-Modified-Since header in the client's request can be ignored. This laissez-faire attitude is a disadvantage when you're trying to create a server that is entirely driven by dynamic components and the number of hits is significant.

If the number of hits on your server is not significant and is never going to be, then it is safe to skip this chapter. But if keeping up with the number of requests is important, learning what cache-friendliness means and how to cooperate with caches to increase the performance of the site can provide significant benefits. If Squid or mod_proxy is used in httpd accelerator mode (as discussed in Chapter 12), it is crucial to learn how best to cooperate with it.

In this chapter, when we refer to a section in the HTTP standard, we are using HTTP standard 1.1, which is documented in RFC 2616. The HTTP standard describes many headers. In this chapter, we discuss only the headers most relevant to caching. We divide them into three sets: date headers, content headers, and the special Vary header.

16.1. Date-Related Headers

The various headers related to when a document was created, when it was last modified, and when it should be considered stale are discussed in the following sections.

16.1.2. Last-Modified Header

Section 14.29 of the HTTP standard covers the Last-Modified header, which is mostly used as a weak validator. Here is an excerpt from the HTTP specification:

A validator that does not always change when the resource changes is a "weak 

One can think of a strong validator as one that changes whenever the bits of an 
entity changes, while a weak value changes whenever the meaning of an entity changes.

What this means is that we must decide for ourselves when a page has changed enough to warrant the Last-Modified header being updated. Suppose, for example that we have a page that contains text with a white background. If we change the background to light gray then clearly the page has changed, but if the text remains the same we would consider the semantics (meaning) of the page to be unchanged. On the other hand, if we changed the text, the semantics may well be changed. For some pages it is not quite so straightforward to decide whether the semantics have changed or not. This may be because each page comprises several components, or it might be because the page itself allows interaction that affects how it appears. In all cases, we must determine the moment in time when the semantics changed and use that moment for the Last-Modified header.

Consider for example a page that provides a text-to-GIF renderer that takes as input a font to use, background and foreground colors, and a string to render. The images embedded in the resultant page are generated on the fly, but the structure of the page is constant. Should the page be considered unchanged so long as the underlying script is unchanged, or should the page be considered to have changed with each new request?

Actually, a few more things are relevant: the semantics also change a little when we update one of the fonts that may be used or when we update the ImageMagick or equivalent image-generating program. All the factors that affect the output should be considered if we want to get it right.

In the case of a page comprised of several components, we must check when the semantics of each component last changed. Then we pick the most recent of these times. Of course, the determination of the moment of change for each component may be easy or it may be subtle.

mod_perl provides two convenient methods to deal with this header: update_mtime( ) and set_last_modified( ). These methods and several others are unavailable in the standard mod_perl environment but are silently imported when we use Apache::File. Refer to the Apache::File manpage for more information.

The update_mtime( ) function takes Unix's time(2) (in Perl the equivalent is also the time( ) function) as its argument and sets Apache's request structure finfo.st_mtime to this value. It does so only when the argument is greater than the previously stored finfo.st_mtime.

The set_last_modified( ) function sets the outgoing Last-Modified header to the string that corresponds to the stored finfo.st_mtime. When passing a Unix time(2) to set_last_modified( ), mod_perl calls update_mtime( ) with this argument first.

The following code is an example of setting the Last-Modified header by retrieving the last-modified time from a Revision Control System (RCS)-style of date tag.

use Apache::File;
use Date::Parse;
$Mtime ||= Date::Parse::str2time(
    substr q$Date: 2004/12/15 23:33:56 $, 6);

Normally we would use the Apache::Util::parsedate function, but since it doesn't parse the RCS format, we have used the Date::Parse module instead.

16.1.3. Expires and Cache-Control Headers

Section 14.21 of the HTTP standard deals with the Expires header. The purpose of the Expires header is to determine a point in time after which the document should be considered out of date (stale). Don't confuse this with the very different meaning of the Last-Modified header. The Expires header is useful to avoid unnecessary validation from now until the document expires, and it helps the recipients to clean up their stored documents. Here's an excerpt from the HTTP standard:

The presence of an Expires field does not imply that the original resource will 
change or cease to exist at, before, or after that time.

Think carefully before setting up a time when a resource should be regarded as stale. Most of the time we can determine an expected lifetime from "now" (that is, the time of the request). We do not recommend hardcoding the expiration date, because when we forget that we did it, and the date arrives, we will serve already expired documents that cannot be cached. If a resource really will never expire, make sure to follow the advice given by the HTTP specification:

To mark a response as "never expires," an origin server sends an Expires date 
approximately one year from the time the response is sent.  HTTP/1.1 servers SHOULD 
NOT send Expires dates more than one year in the future.

For example, to expire a document half a year from now, use the following code:

               HTTP::Date::time2str(time + 180*24*60*60));


               Apache::Util::ht_time(time + 180*24*60*60));

The latter method should be faster, but it's available only under mod_perl.

A very handy alternative to this computation is available in the HTTP/1.1 cache-control mechanism. Instead of setting the Expires header, we can specify a delta value in a Cache-Control header. For example:

$r->header_out('Cache-Control', "max-age=" . 180*24*60*60);

This is much more processor-economical than the previous example because Perl computes the value only once, at compile time, and optimizes it into a constant.

As this alternative is available only in HTTP/1.1 and old cache servers may not understand this header, it may be advisable to send both headers. In this case the Cache-Control header takes precedence, so the Expires header is ignored by HTTP/1.1-compliant clients. Or we could use an if...else clause:

if ($r->protocol =~ /(\d\.\d)/ && $1 >= 1.1) {
    $r->header_out('Cache-Control', "max-age=" . 180*24*60*60);
else {
                   HTTP::Date::time2str(time + 180*24*60*60));

Again, use the Apache::Util::ht_time( ) alternative instead of HTTP::Date::time2str( ) if possible.

If the Apache server is restarted regularly (e.g., for log rotation), it might be beneficial to save the Expires header in a global variable to save the runtime computation overhead.

To avoid caching altogether, call:


which sets the headers:

Pragma: no-cache
Cache-control: no-cache

This should work in most browsers.

Don't set Expires with $r->header_out if you use $r->no_cache, because header_out( ) takes precedence. The problem that remains is that there are broken browsers that ignore Expires headers.

Copyright © 2003 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved.

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