Cache them if you can
“The fastest HTTP request is the one not made.”
I always smile when I hear a web performance speaker say this. I forget who said it first, but I’ve heard it numerous times at conferences and meetups over the past few years. It’s true! Caching is critical for making web pages faster. I’ve written extensively about caching:
- Call to improve browser caching
- (lack of) Caching for iPhone Home Screen Apps
- Redirect caching deep dive
- Mobile cache file sizes
- Improving app cache
- Storager case study: Bing, Google
- App cache & localStorage survey
- HTTP Archive: max-age
Things are getting better – but not quickly enough. The chart below from the HTTP Archive shows that the percentage of resources that are cacheable has increased 10% during the past year (from 42% to 46%). Over that same time the number of requests per page has increased 12% and total transfer size has increased 24% (chart).
Perhaps it’s hard to make progress on caching because the problem doesn’t belong to a single group – responsibility spans website owners, third party content providers, and browser developers. One thing is certain – we have to do a better job when it comes to caching.
I’ve gathered some compelling statistics over the past few weeks that illuminate problems with caching and point to some next steps. Here are the highlights:
- 55% of resources don’t specify a max-age value
- 46% of the resources without any max-age remained unchanged over a 2 week period
- some of the most popular resources on the Web are only cacheable for an hour or two
- 40-60% of daily users to your site don’t have your resources in their cache
- 30% of users have a full cache
- for users with a full cache, the median time to fill their cache is 4 hours of active browsing
Read on to understand the full story.
My kingdom for a max-age header
Many of the caching articles I’ve written address issues such as size & space limitations, bugs with less common HTTP headers, and outdated purging logic. These are critical areas to focus on. But the basic function of caching hinges on websites specifying caching headers for their resources. This is typically done using max-age in the Cache-Control response header. This example specifies that a response can be read from cache for 1 year:
Since you’re reading this blog post you probably already use max-age, but the following chart from the HTTP Archive shows that 55% of resources don’t specify a max-age value. This translates to 45 of the average website’s 81 resources needing a HTTP request even for repeat visits.
Missing max-age != dynamic
Why do 55% of resources have no caching information? Having looked at caching headers across thousands of websites my first guess is lack of awareness – many website owners simply don’t know about the benefits of caching. An alternative explanation might be that many resources are dynamic (JSON, ads, beacons, etc.) and shouldn’t be cached. Which is the bigger cause – lack of awareness or dynamic resources? Luckily we can quantify the dynamicness of these uncacheable resources using data from the HTTP Archive.
The HTTP Archive analyzes the world’s top ~50K web pages on the 1st and 15th of the month and records the HTTP headers for every resource. Using this history it’s possible to go back in time and quantify how many of today’s resources without any max-age value were identical in previous crawls. The data for the chart above (showing 55% of resources with no max-age) was gathered on Feb 15 2012. The chart below shows the percentage of those uncacheable resources that were identical in the previous crawl on Feb 1 2012. We can go back even further and see how many were identical in both the Feb 1 2012 and the Jan 15 2012 crawls. (The HTTP Archive doesn’t save response bodies so the determination of “identical” is based on the resource having the exact same URL, Last-Modified, ETag, and Content-Length.)
46% of the resources without any max-age remained unchanged over a 2 week period. This works out to 21 resources per page that could have been read from cache without any HTTP request but weren’t. Over a 1 month period 38% are unchanged – 17 resources per page.
This is a significant missed opportunity. Here are some popular websites and the number of resources that were unchanged for 1 month but did not specify max-age:
- http://www.toyota.jp/ – 172 resources without max-age & unchanged for 1 month
- http://www.sfgate.com/ – 133
- http://www.hasbro.com/ – 122
- http://www.rakuten.co.jp/ – 113
- http://www.ieee.org/ – 97
- http://www.elmundo.es/ – 80
- http://www.nih.gov/ – 76
- http://www.frys.com/ – 68
- http://www.foodnetwork.com/ – 66
- http://www.irs.gov/ – 58
- http://www.ca.gov/ – 53
- http://www.oracle.com/ – 52
- http://www.blackberry.com/ – 50
Recalling that “the fastest HTTP request is the one not made”, this is a lot of unnecessary HTTP traffic. I can’t prove it, but I strongly believe this is not intentional – it’s just a lack of awareness. The chart below reinforces this belief – it shows the percentage of resources (both cacheable and uncacheable) that remain unchanged starting from Feb 15 2012 and going back for one year.
The percentage of resources that are unchanged is nearly the same when looking at all resources as it is for only uncacheable resources: 44% vs. 46% going back 2 weeks and 35% vs. 38% going back 1 month. Given this similarity in “dynamicness” it’s likely that the absence of max-age has nothing to do with the resources themselves and is instead caused by website owners overlooking this best practice.
3rd party content
If a website owner doesn’t make their resources cacheable, they’re just hurting themselves (and their users). But if a 3rd party content provider doesn’t have good caching behavior it impacts all the websites that embed that content. This is both bad a good. It’s bad in that one uncacheable 3rd party resource can impact multiple sites. The good part is that shifting 3rd party content to adopt good caching practices also has a magnified effect.
So how are we doing when it comes to caching 3rd party content? Below is a list of the top 30 most-used resources according to the HTTP Archive. These are the resources that were used the most across the world’s top 50K web pages. The max-age value (in hours) is also shown.
- http://www.google-analytics.com/ga.js (2 hours)
- http://ssl.gstatic.com/s2/oz/images/stars/po/Publisher/sprite2.png (8760 hours)
- http://pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/r20120208/r20110914/show_ads_impl.js (336 hours)
- http://pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/render_ads.js (336 hours)
- http://pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js (1 hour)
- https://apis.google.com/_/apps-static/_/js/gapi/gcm_ppb,googleapis_client,plusone/[...] (720 hours)
- http://pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/osd.js (24 hours)
- http://pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/expansion_embed.js (24 hours)
- https://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js (1 hour)
- http://googleads.g.doubleclick.net/pagead/drt/s?safe=on (1 hour)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/y7/r/ql9vukDCc4R.png (3825 hours)
- http://connect.facebook.net/rsrc.php/v1/yQ/r/f3KaqM7xIBg.swf (164 hours)
- https://ssl.gstatic.com/s2/oz/images/stars/po/Publisher/sprite2.png (8760 hours)
- https://apis.google.com/_/apps-static/_/js/gapi/googleapis_client,iframes_styles[...] (720 hours)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/yv/r/ZSM9MGjuEiO.js (8742 hours)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/yx/r/qP7Pvs6bhpP.js (8699 hours)
- https://plusone.google.com/_/apps-static/_/ss/plusone/[...] (720 hours)
- http://b.scorecardresearch.com/beacon.js (336 hours)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/yx/r/lP_Rtwh3P-S.css (8710 hours)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/yA/r/TSn6F7aukNQ.js (8760 hours)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/yk/r/Wm4bpxemaRU.js (8702 hours)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/yZ/r/TtnIy6IhDUq.js (8699 hours)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/yy/r/0wf7ewMoKC2.css (8699 hours)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/yO/r/H0ip1JFN_jB.js (8760 hours)
- http://platform.twitter.com/widgets/hub.1329256447.html (87659 hours)
- http://static.ak.fbcdn.net/rsrc.php/v1/yv/r/T9SYP2crSuG.png (8699 hours)
- http://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js (1 hour)
- https://plusone.google.com/_/apps-static/_/js/plusone/[...] (720 hours)
- http://pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/graphics.js (24 hours)
- http://s0.2mdn.net/879366/flashwrite_1_2.js (720 hours)
There are some interesting patterns.
- simple URLs have short cache times – Some resources have very short cache times, e.g., ga.js (1), show_ads.js (5), and twitter.com/widgets.js (27). Most of the URLs for these resources are very simple (no querystring or URL “fingerprints”) because these resource URLs are part of the snippet that website owners paste into their page. These “bootstrap” resources are given short cache times because there’s no way for the resource URL to be changed if there’s an emergency fix – instead the cached resource has to expire in order for the emergency update to be retrieved.
- long URLs have long cache times – Many 3rd party “bootstrap” scripts dynamically load other resources. These code-generated URLs are typically long and complicated because they contain some unique fingerprinting, e.g., http://pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/js/r20120208/r20110914/show_ads_impl.js (3) and http://platform.twitter.com/widgets/hub.1329256447.html (25). If there’s an emergency change to one of these resources, the fingerprint in the bootstrap script can be modified so that a new URL is requested. Therefore, these fingerprinted resources can have long cache times because there’s no need to rev them in the case of an emergency fix.
- where’s Facebook’s like button? – Facebook’s like.php and likebox.php are also hugely popular but aren’t in this list because the URL contains a querystring that differs across every website. Those resources have an even more aggressive expiration policy compared to other bootstrap resources – they use
no-cache, no-store, must-revalidate. Once the like[box] bootstrap resource is loaded, it loads the other required resources: lP_Rtwh3P-S.css (19), TSn6F7aukNQ.js (20), etc. Those resources have long URLs and long cache times because they’re generated by code, as explained in the previous bullet.
- short caching resources are often async – The fact that bootstrap scripts have short cache times is good for getting emergency updates, but is bad for performance because they generate many Conditional GET requests on subsequent requests. We all know that scripts block pages from loading, so these Conditional GET requests can have a significant impact on the user experience. Luckily, some 3rd party content providers are aware of this and offer async snippets for loading these bootstrap scripts mitigating the impact of their short cache times. This is true for ga.js (1), plusone.js (9), twitter.com/widgets.js (27), and Facebook’s like[box].php.
These extremely popular 3rd party snippets are in pretty good shape, but as we get out of the top widgets we quickly find that these good caching patterns degrade. In addition, more 3rd party providers need to support async snippets.
Cache sizes are too small
In January 2007 Tenni Theurer and I ran an experiment at Yahoo! to estimate how many users had a primed cache. The methodology was to embed a transparent 1×1 image in the page with an expiration date in the past. If users had the expired image in their cache the browser would issue a Conditional GET request and receive a 304 response (primed cache). Otherwise they’d get a 200 response (empty cache). I was surprised to see that 40-60% of daily users to the site didn’t have the site’s resources in their cache and 20% of page views were done without the site’s resources in the cache.
Numerous factors contribute to this high rate of unique users missing the site’s resources in their cache, but I believe the primary reason is small cache sizes. Browsers have increased the size of their caches since this experiment was run, but not enough. It’s hard to test browser cache size. Blaze.io’s article Understanding Mobile Cache Sizes shows results from their testing. Here are the max cache sizes I found for browsers on my MacBook Air. (Some browsers set the cache size based on available disk space, so let me mention that my drive is 250 GB and has 54 GB available.) I did some testing and searching to find max cache sizes for my mobile devices and IE.
- Chrome: 320 MB
- Internet Explorer 9: 250 MB
- Firefox 11: 830 MB (shown in about:cache)
- Opera 11: 20 MB (shown in Preferences | Advanced | History)
- iPhone 4, iOS 5.1: 30-35 MB (based on testing)
- Galaxy Nexus: 18 MB (based on testing)
I’m surprised that Firefox 11 has such a large cache size – that’s almost close to what I want. All the others are (way) too small. 18-35 MB on my mobile devices?! I have seven movies on my iPhone – I’d gladly trade Iron Man 2 (1.82 GB) for more cache space.
Caching in the real world
In order to justify increasing browser cache sizes we need some statistics on how many real users overflow their cache. This topic came up at last month’s Velocity Summit where we had representatives from Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Opera, and Silk. (Safari was invited but didn’t show up.) Will Chan from the Chrome team (working on SPDY) followed-up with this post on Chromium cache metrics from Windows Chrome. These are the most informative real user cache statistics I’ve ever seen. I strongly encourage you to read his article.
Some of the takeaways include:
- ~30% of users have a full cache (capped at 320 MB)
- for users with a full cache, the median time to fill their cache is 4 hours of active browsing (20 hours of clock time)
- 7% of users clear their cache at least once per week
- 19% of users experience “fatal cache corruption” at least once per week thus clearing their cache
The last stat about cache corruption is interesting – I appreciate the honesty. The IE 9 team experienced something similar. In IE 7&8 the cache was capped at 50 MB based on tests showing increasing the cache size didn’t improve the cache hit rate. They revisited this surprising result in IE9 and found that larger cache sizes actually did improve the cache hit rate:
In IE9, we took a much closer look at our cache behaviors to better understand our surprising finding that larger caches were rarely improving our hit rate. We found a number of functional problems related to what IE treats as cacheable and how the cache cleanup algorithm works. After fixing these issues, we found larger cache sizes were again resulting in better hit rates, and as a result, we’ve changed our default cache size algorithm to provide a larger default cache.
Will mentions that Chrome’s 320 MB cap should be revisited. 30% seems like a low percentage for full caches, but could be accounted for by users that aren’t very active and active users that only visit a small number of websites (for example, just Gmail and Facebook). If possible I’d like to see these full cache statistics correlated with activity. It’s likely that user who account for the biggest percentage of web visits are more likely to have a full cache, and thus experience slower page load times.
The data presented here suggest a few areas to focus on:
Website owners need to increase their use of a Cache-Control max-age, and the max-age times need to be longer. 38% of resources were unchanged over a 1 month period, and yet only 11% of resources have a max-age value that high. Most resources, even if they change, can be refreshed by including a fingerprint in the URL specified in the HTML document. Only bootstrap scripts from 3rd parties should have short cache times (hours). Truly dynamic responses (JSON, etc.) should specify must-revalidate. A year from now rather than seeing 55% of resources without any max-age value we should see 55% cacheable for a month or more.
3rd party content providers need wider adoption of the caching and async behavior shown by the top Google, Twitter, and Facebook snippets.
Browser developers stand to bring the biggest improvements to caching. Increasing cache sizes is a likely win, especially for mobile devices. Data correlating cache sizes and user activity is needed. More intelligence around purging algorithms, such as IE 9′s prioritization based on mime type, will help when the cache fills up. More focus on personalization (what are the sites I visit most often?) would also create a faster user experience when users go to their favorite websites.
It’s great that the number of resources with caching headers grew 10% over the last year, but that just isn’t enough progress. We should really expect to double the number of resources that can be read from cache over the coming year. Just think about all those HTTP requests that can be avoided!