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ESI - Full page caching with Symfony2

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 10 December 2010.
Planet PHP

Launched about a month ago, runs on the Symfony2 PHP framework, which is still undergoing heavy development but is already a great framework.

Full page caching basics

Don't get me wrong, the framework is fast, pages are rendered by our fairly modest server in 40-50ms on average, so it hardly needs optimization. However I still wanted to try and squeeze more speed out of it, and also get a chance to play with cool stuff, so I decided to implement full page caching with ESI into the application.

The way this works is that you typically install some reverse proxy like Varnish, which will sit between the web and your http server. More complex setups might include another http server in front of varnish to gzip output but I won't go into details on that in this post. The purpose of the reverse proxy is that it will cache the output of your application, for as long as you specify in your Cache-Control header. Once a page is cached, it will just return the output to the clients straight, without ever hitting your http server, php, or your application. Needless to say this is ideal for performance. Symfony2 is a great match for this type of cache because it's supported natively as I'll show, and it also implements a reverse proxy layer in php, that can be used for development or on hostings where you can't have access to Varnish. It acts just the same and is automatically turned off if an ESI-capable proxy is added in front of php.

ESI awesomeness

Of course the issue with caching the entire output is that most sites have areas with dynamic content, especially when users are logged in. This is where ESI comes into play. ESI stands for Edge Side Includes, and is a standard that defines a way to tell reverse proxies how to assemble pages out of smaller bits, that can be cached for various amounts of time, or fully dynamic.

So if you take for example an event page on techup, you have two user-dependent areas, the "login with twitter" button, which turns into "@username" once you're logged in, and the "attend" button is also showing attend or unattend depending on the user viewing the page. Those two areas are ESI includes. What this means for the reverse proxy is that it will first try and fetch the main page content out of its cache, and if found, it will then process the tags that it finds. Those tags contain the url to a sub-component of the page. So one url will point to an action in one of my controllers that only outputs an attend button, green or red depending on the user viewing it. The rest of the page is still taken out of the cache.

Each of those sub-components have their own Cache-Control header, which means that you can composite a page with various components that expire after various durations.

The way this is done in Symfony2 is pretty straightforward. Your controller actions must always return a response object, and all you need for the reverse proxy cache length is to set the shared max age of the response - beware, max age will apply to the entire page, so you really want to use the shared variant. It's as simple as calling $response-setSharedMaxAge(3600);, 3600 being the length in seconds.

In your templates, if you use Twig, and you really should with Symfony2, it is also quite easy to define an tag. You call out the controller/action that you want to execute, give it some parameters, and specify it as being standalone which means it's an ESI include, for example {% render 'FooBundle:Default:attendButton' with ['event_id':], ['standalone': true] %}. For more info on how to set that up feel free to go read the Symfony2 docs on the topic.

Invalidation woes

The tricky part, which is also a slightly controversial topic, is invalidation. In theory if you say that a page or sub-component is cache-able for X seconds, you should just live with it and let it be cached, even if the data changed. Now this is an acceptable downside on really high traffic sites, or in cases where only admins publish content and it doesn't really matter if it takes a few seconds/minutes to appear to the end users. But I like to give our users feedback when they add or change data, and I think they should see it straight away, so I decided to invalidate the cached pages in the proxy whenever the data is modified.

I will refer you to the docs as to how to actually setup support for purging (invalidating) caches in your proxy of choice, no p

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