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Caching with Rails: An overview

Everyone caches. This guide will teach you what you need to know about avoiding that expensive round-trip to your database and returning what you need to return to those hungry web clients in the shortest time possible.

After reading this guide, you should be able to use and configure:

1 Basic Caching

This is an introduction to the three types of caching techniques that Rails provides by default without the use of any third party plugins.

To get started make sure config.action_controller.perform_caching is set to true for your environment. This flag is normally set in the corresponding config/environments/*.rb. By default, caching is disabled for development and test, and enabled for production.

config.action_controller.perform_caching = true

1.1 Page Caching

Page caching is a Rails mechanism which allows the request for a generated page to be fulfilled by the webserver, without ever having to go through the Rails stack at all. Obviously, this is super-fast. Unfortunately, it can’t be applied to every situation (such as pages that need authentication) and since the webserver is literally just serving a file from the filesystem, cache expiration is an issue that needs to be dealt with.

So, how do you enable this super-fast cache behavior? Suppose you have a controller called ProductsController and an index action that lists all the products. You could enable caching for this action like this:

class ProductsController < ActionController caches_page :index def index; end end

The first time anyone requests products/index, Rails will generate a file called index.html. If a web server see this file, it will be served in response to the next request for products/index, without your Rails application being called.

By default, the page cache directory is set to Rails.public_path (which is usually set to File.join(self.root, "public") – that is, the public directory under your Rails application’s root). This can be configured by changing the configuration setting config.action_controller.page_cache_directory. Changing the default from /public helps avoid naming conflicts, since you may want to put other static html in /public, but changing this will require web server reconfiguration to let the web server know where to serve the cached files from.

The page caching mechanism will automatically add a .html extension to requests for pages that do not have an extension to make it easy for the webserver to find those pages. This can be configured by changing the configuration setting config.action_controller.page_cache_extension.

In order to expire this page when a new product is added you could extend the products controller like this:

class ProductsController < ActionController caches_page :index def index; end def create expire_page :action => :index end end

If you want a more complicated expiration scheme, you can use cache sweepers to expire cached objects when things change. This is covered in the section on Sweepers.

Note: Page caching ignores all parameters, so /products/list?page=1 will be written out to the filesystem as /products/list.html and if someone requests /products/list?page=2, they will be returned the same result as page=1. Be careful when page caching GET parameters in the URL!

1.2 Action Caching

One of the issues with page caching is that you cannot use it for pages that require checking code to determine whether the user should be permitted access. This is where Action Caching comes in. action caching works like page caching except for the fact that the incoming web request does go from the web server to the Rails stack and Action Pack so that before filters can be run on it before the cache is served. This allows you to use authentication and other restrictions while still serving the result of the output from a cached copy.

Clearing the cache works in the exact same way as with page caching.

Let’s say you only wanted authenticated users to edit or create a Product object, but still cache those pages:

class ProductsController < ActionController before_filter :authenticate, :only => [ :edit, :create ] caches_page :index caches_action :edit def index; end def create expire_page :action => :index expire_action :action => :edit end def edit; end end

You can also use :if (or :unless) to pass a Proc that specifies when the action should be cached. Also, you can use :layout => false to cache without layout so that dynamic information in the layout such as the name of the logged-in user or the number of items in the cart can be left uncached. This feature is available as of Rails 2.2.

You can modify the default action cache path by passing a :cache_path option. This will be passed directly to ActionCachePath.path_for. This is handy for actions with multiple possible routes that should be cached differently. If a block is given, it is called with the current controller instance.

Finally, if you are using memcached, you can also pass :expires_in. In fact, all parameters not used by caches_action are sent to the underlying cache store.

1.3 Fragment Caching

Life would be perfect if we could get away with caching the entire contents of a page or action and serving it out to the world. Unfortunately, dynamic web applications usually build pages with a variety of components not all of which have the same caching characteristics. In order to address such a dynamically created page where different parts of the page need to be cached and expired differently Rails provides a mechanism called Fragment Caching.

Fragment Caching allows a fragment of view logic to be wrapped in a cache block and served out of the cache store when the next request comes in.

As an example, if you wanted to show all the orders placed on your website in real time and didn’t want to cache that part of the page, but did want to cache the part of the page which lists all products available, you could use this piece of code:

<% Order.find_recent.each do |o| %> <%= %> bought <% %> <% end %> <% cache do %> All available products: <% Product.find(:all).each do |p| %> <%= link_to, product_url(p) %> <% end %> <% end %>

The cache block in our example will bind to the action that called it and is written out to the same place as the action cache, which means that if you want to cache multiple fragments per action, you should provide an action_suffix to the cache call:

<% cache(:action => 'recent', :action_suffix => 'all_prods') do %> All available products:

You can expire the cache using the expire_fragment method, like so:

expire_fragment(:controller => 'products', :action => 'recent', :action_suffix => 'all_prods)

If you don’t want the cache block to bind to the action that called it, you can also use globally keyed fragments. To do this, call the cache method with a key, like so:

<% cache(:key => ['all_available_products', @latest_product.created_at].join(':')) do %> All available products: <% end %>

This fragment is then available to all actions in the ProductsController using the key and can be expired the same way:

expire_fragment(:key => ['all_available_products', @latest_product.created_at].join(':'))

1.4 Sweepers

Cache sweeping is a mechanism which allows you to get around having a ton of expire_{page,action,fragment} calls in your code. It does this by moving all the work required to expire cached content into na ActionController::Caching::Sweeper class. This class is an Observer that looks for changes to an object via callbacks, and when a change occurs it expires the caches associated with that object in an around or after filter.

Continuing with our Product controller example, we could rewrite it with a sweeper like this:

class StoreSweeper < ActionController::Caching::Sweeper # This sweeper is going to keep an eye on the Product model observe Product # If our sweeper detects that a Product was created call this def after_create(product) expire_cache_for(product) end # If our sweeper detects that a Product was updated call this def after_update(product) expire_cache_for(product) end # If our sweeper detects that a Product was deleted call this def after_destroy(product) expire_cache_for(product) end private def expire_cache_for(record) # Expire the list page now that we added a new product expire_page(:controller => '#{record}', :action => 'list') # Expire a fragment expire_fragment(:controller => '#{record}', :action => 'recent', :action_suffix => 'all_products') end end

The sweeper has to be added to the controller that will use it. So, if we wanted to expire the cached content for the list and edit actions when the create action was called, we could do the following:

class ProductsController < ActionController before_filter :authenticate, :only => [ :edit, :create ] caches_page :list caches_action :edit cache_sweeper :store_sweeper, :only => [ :create ] def list; end def create expire_page :action => :list expire_action :action => :edit end def edit; end end

1.5 SQL Caching

Query caching is a Rails feature that caches the result set returned by each query. If Rails encounters the same query again during the current request, it will used the cached result set as opposed to running the query against the database.

For example:

class ProductsController < ActionController before_filter :authenticate, :only => [ :edit, :create ] caches_page :list caches_action :edit cache_sweeper :store_sweeper, :only => [ :create ] def list # Run a find query Product.find(:all) ... # Run the same query again Product.find(:all) end def create expire_page :action => :list expire_action :action => :edit end def edit; end end

In the ‘list’ action above, the result set returned by the first Product.find(:all) will be cached and will be used to avoid querying the database again the second time that finder is called.

Query caches are created at the start of an action and destroyed at the end of that action and thus persist only for the duration of the action.

1.6 Cache Stores

Rails (as of 2.1) provides different stores for the cached data created by action and fragment caches. Page caches are always stored on disk.

Rails 2.1 and above provide ActiveSupport::Cache::Store which can be used to cache strings. Some cache store implementations, like MemoryStore, are able to cache arbitrary Ruby objects, but don’t count on every cache store to be able to do that.

The default cache stores provided with Rails include:

1) ActiveSupport::Cache::MemoryStore: A cache store implementation which stores everything into memory in the same process. If you’re running multiple Ruby on Rails server processes (which is the case if you’re using mongrel_cluster or Phusion Passenger), then this means that your Rails server process instances won’t be able to share cache data with each other. If your application never performs manual cache item expiry (e.g. when you‘re using generational cache keys), then using MemoryStore is ok. Otherwise, consider carefully whether you should be using this cache store.

MemoryStore is not only able to store strings, but also arbitrary Ruby objects.

MemoryStore is not thread-safe. Use SynchronizedMemoryStore instead if you need thread-safety.

ActionController::Base.cache_store = :memory_store

2) ActiveSupport::Cache::FileStore: Cached data is stored on the disk. This is the default store and the default path for this store is: /tmp/cache. Works well for all types of environments and allows all processes running from the same application directory to access the cached content. If /tmp/cache does not exist, the default store becomes MemoryStore.

ActionController::Base.cache_store = :file_store, "/path/to/cache/directory"

3) ActiveSupport::Cache::DRbStore: Cached data is stored in a separate shared DRb process that all servers communicate with. This works for all environments and only keeps one cache around for all processes, but requires that you run and manage a separate DRb process.

ActionController::Base.cache_store = :drb_store, "druby://localhost:9192"

4) MemCached store: Works like DRbStore, but uses Danga’s MemCache instead. Rails uses the bundled memcached-client gem by default. This is currently the most popular cache store for production websites.

Special features:

  • Clustering and load balancing. One can specify multiple memcached servers, and MemCacheStore will load balance between all available servers. If a server goes down, then MemCacheStore will ignore it until it goes back online.
  • Time-based expiry support. See write and the :expires_in option.
  • Per-request in memory cache for all communication with the MemCache server(s).

It also accepts a hash of additional options:

  • :namespace- specifies a string that will automatically be prepended to keys when accessing the memcached store.
  • :readonly- a boolean value that when set to true will make the store read-only, with an error raised on any attempt to write.
  • :multithread – a boolean value that adds thread safety to read/write operations – it is unlikely you’ll need to use this option as the Rails threadsafe! method offers the same functionality.

The read and write methods of the MemCacheStore accept an options hash too. When reading you can specify :raw => true to prevent the object being marshaled (by default this is false which means the raw value in the cache is passed to Marshal.load before being returned to you.)

When writing to the cache it is also possible to specify :raw => true. This means that the value is not passed to Marshal.dump before being stored in the cache (by default this is false).

The write method also accepts an :unless_exist flag which determines whether the memcached add (when true) or set (when false) method is used to store the item in the cache and an :expires_in option that specifies the time-to-live for the cached item in seconds.

ActionController::Base.cache_store = :mem_cache_store, "localhost"

5) ActiveSupport::Cache::SynchronizedMemoryStore: Like ActiveSupport::Cache::MemoryStore but thread-safe.

ActionController::Base.cache_store = :synchronized_memory_store

6) ActiveSupport::Cache::CompressedMemCacheStore: Works just like the regular MemCacheStore but uses GZip to decompress/compress on read/write.

ActionController::Base.cache_store = :compressed_mem_cache_store, "localhost"

7) Custom store: You can define your own cache store (new in Rails 2.1)

ActionController::Base.cache_store ="parameter")

config.cache_store can be used in place of

ActionController::Base.cache_store in the block in environment.rb.

In addition to all of this, Rails also adds the ActiveRecord::Base#cache_key method that generates a key using the class name, id and updated_at timestamp (if available).

An example:"city") # => nil Rails.cache.write("city", "Duckburgh")"city") # => "Duckburgh"

2 Conditional GET Support

Conditional GETs are a feature of the HTTP specification that provide a way for web servers to tell browsers that the response to a GET request hasn’t changed since the last request and can be safely pulled from the browser cache.

They work by using the HTTP_IF_NONE_MATCH and HTTP_IF_MODIFIED_SINCE headers to pass back and forth both a unique content identifier and the timestamp of when the content was last changed. If the browser makes a request where the content identifier (etag) or last modified since timestamp matches the server’s version then the server only needs to send back an empty response with a not modified status.

It is the server’s (i.e. our) responsibility to look for a last modified timestamp and the if-none-match header and determine whether or not to send back the full response. With conditional-get support in rails this is a pretty easy task:

class ProductsController < ApplicationController def show @product = Product.find(params[:id]) # If the request is stale according to the given timestamp and etag value # (i.e. it needs to be processed again) then execute this block if stale?(:last_modified => @product.updated_at.utc, :etag => @product) respond_to do |wants| # ... normal response processing end end # If the request is fresh (i.e. it's not modified) then you don't need to do # anything. The default render checks for this using the parameters # used in the previous call to stale? and will automatically send a # :not_modified. So that's it, you're done. end

If you don’t have any special response processing and are using the default rendering mechanism (i.e. you’re not using respond_to or calling render yourself) then you’ve got an easy helper in fresh_when:

class ProductsController < ApplicationController # This will automatically send back a :not_modified if the request is fresh, # and will render the default template (product.*) if it's stale. def show @product = Product.find(params[:id]) fresh_when :last_modified => @product.published_at.utc, :etag => @article end end

3 Advanced Caching

Along with the built-in mechanisms outlined above, a number of excellent plugins exist to help with finer grained control over caching. These include Chris Wanstrath’s excellent cache_fu plugin (more info “here”: and Evan Weaver’s interlock plugin (more info “here”: Both of these plugins play nice with memcached and are a must-see for anyone seriously considering optimizing their caching needs.

Also the new Cache money plugin is supposed to be mad cool.

4 References

5 Changelog

Lighthouse ticket

  • February 22, 2009: Beefed up the section on cache_stores
  • December 27, 2008: Typo fixes
  • November 23, 2008: Incremental updates with various suggested changes and formatting cleanup
  • September 15, 2008: Initial version by Aditya Chadha