Let’s say we’re architecting a high-performance website. We know from Steve Sounders’ books we see the most performance gains by focusing on frontend optimizations.
To start improving performance, we may do the following:
However, this architecture has a known problem. Technically, anytime you implement browser caching you will encounter this problem. Let’s take a closer look at this problem and a common solution.
There are only two hard things in Computer Science: cache invalidation and naming things.
While true, invalidating the cache is not so hard in this case. Due to the nature of the web, we have a centralized cache rather than a distributed cache. When a user requests our web page, we have the opportunity to invalidate the cache and load new assets.
A common practice is to version file names or append a query string parameter. While you can do this manually, it’s likely the tool you use to concatenate and minify your files can do this too. I recommend using checksum hashes as opposed to version numbers.
Now the next time a user requests our web page, the paths to the assets will be different causing them to be downloaded and cached.
Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth
The primary goal of this architecture is for users to only download these assets once. Then, on subsequent visits, these assets would load from their local browser cache greatly improving performance.
This architecture achieves this goal. Yet it’s only optimized for the sad path. That is when a user has an empty or stale cache. In doing, so we’ve actually degraded the performance of the happy path. That is when a user has a primed cache.
Sites with assets that don’t change frequently or don’t have high traffic may not notice this trade off. Hence the double entendre in the title of edge case. Nonetheless, I want to emphasize this trade off as similar articles rarely do.
Let’s play through a user flow under this architecture:
On the surface this seems good. The user downloaded the assets and utilized the cache upon a subsequent visit. Then when we updated the assets, the user downloaded the new assets the next time they visited the site.
The problem is with the last step. The user downloaded all the assets again. While these assets were indeed new, it’s likely only a small amount of the file changed. As such, having a user with a primed cache download everything again is not optimal.
Now if we play through the same user flow the last step becomes User downloads only changed assets. This is far more optimized. Especially for high traffic websites. If we consider separating out jQuery (40KB minimized) for a site with 1 million hits per month, that’s 40GB of savings. Although that may not sound like much in the modern age of the internet, that could be the difference between plan tiers with your CDN.
Originally published at jason.pureconcepts.net.
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