Caching is one of those weird things in programming, like inheritance and concurrency, where everyone parrots the line about how tough it is then immediately turns to it when they have a problem.
Chances are good that somewhere in your app, you’ve got a cache. Probably several.
Chances are also pretty good that at least some of that caching is causing invalid results. There’s even an outside possibility it’s making things slower. In this post I’ll talk through how to think about caching to be sure it’s worth the pains it can cause.
First, applicable scope
I’m only talking about read-through caches. Ones where we update the cache synchronously when reads come up empty/expired. It’s one of the most common forms of caching.
The standard Rails low-level cache (i.e.
Rails.cache.fetch) is an example.
Other caching techniques might change the thought process, so if you’re looking at one of those be careful using this logic.
Good reasons for caching
Before we get into “is a cache worthwhile” questions, let’s talk through the reasons you might be adding caching.
This is the big one. You’re doing work to obtain results that don’t change, so reusing the results avoids repeating that work.
The goal is to improve user experiences by making things faster.
Although making things faster is generally desirable, it’s important to qualify (not quantify) this improvement. For most use cases, optimizing a 10ms request into a 1ms request isn’t particularly useful. 10ms already feels fast, so users won’t notice that it’s 10x faster.
Thankfully, there’s been some study in this area.
First off, we’ll look to Jakob Nielsen for tiers of user perception on waiting for a task:
- < 0.1s - feels instantaneous
- < 1.0s - keep your flow of thought
- < 10.0s - keep your focus
A cache that moves your user from one tier into another is helping immensely, even if the overall improvement doesn’t seem impressive.
Combining these, we can regard 1s increments as valuable changes, >10s request times as extremely problematic, and getting under 1s and especially 0.1s as huge improvements. Moving about inside those 1s increments, and especially underneath 0.1s, is less valuable than crossing a boundary.
Insulating a data store
This is also a common reason for caching. Here your goal isn’t speed, but availability. You’re trying to protect your data store from workloads it can’t handle by avoiding some of that work.
This requires different thought and planning. Scenarios where your cache isn’t available are a system problem, not a user experience one. For example, if your frontend servers lose their in-memory caches during a deploy, the data store will be on its own until the caches refill. If it can’t handle that load spike, you go down.
It’s not uncommon to initially deploy a cache for efficiency reasons, only to have request growth turn it into an “insulate the data store” cache.
For this caching goal, hit rate is more important than raw performance. The overhead of reaching across a network to a dedicated caching server is usually acceptable compared to your app servers needing to refill in-memory caches.
Bad reasons for caching
There are a few common cases where people think they should be caching, when it’s somewhere between a Band-Aid and harmful.
Very slow queries
Read-through caching cannot “fix” queries that run longer than your app server’s timeout. If your query times are approaching your timeouts, at best a cache will make the error intermittent. That’s better than nothing, but not good.
In these cases, first focus on speeding up the queries. Often queries are either over-fetching data or filtering against columns that aren’t properly indexed.
Slow view fragments
Similar to the above about queries, sometimes people turn to caching to solve problems with request timeouts during view rendering. Again, this isn’t going to actually solve the problem, just (maybe) push it off for a bit.
Usually, those slow view renderings are database queries in disguise. Look for N+1 query behavior. Are you loading too much data in a page?
It “might” be slow
Often people slap caching on things they think will be slow. Equally often, they’re wrong. Unless you’ve done analysis to back up the idea, this is premature optimization. You’re ponying up for the costs of caching without being sure they’re worth paying.
The costs of caching
Although adding a cache could increase your server costs, that’s no the most important one. The most important cost of caching lies with developers and users, not servers. Caches are very hard to reason about, which makes them easy to get wrong, which can cause all kinds of havoc.
In a system without caching, every result simply is what the source of truth says. A user changes a record, that gets committed to the database, the next request shows the new data. Easy peasy.
When caching is involved, stale caches mean what your database tells you isn’t always what users see. This can undermine trust, and in worst cases cause incorrect behavior.
Beyond user-facing consequences, caching means more code. Every data change also needs to worry about caching. Invalidating just the relevant cache keys is a hard problem. Get it wrong and your hit rates plummet, or you serve stale data, or maybe both at once.
Ultimately, we have to weigh the benefits against these costs. Unfortunately, it’s a difficult comparison. The benefits are easily quantifiable and the costs are highly subjective.
The caching equation
When trying to answer “is a cache making things faster”, there’s a relatively simple formula to use. Keep in mind that our cache system is its own data store, with its own access time.
hit_rate # % of cache lookups with validly cached data miss_rate # 100 - hit_rate lookup_time # time (ms) to consult the cache (hit or miss) query_time # time(ms) to run the query fractional_hit_cost = hit_rate * lookup_time fractional_miss_cost = miss_rate * (lookup_time + query_time) cached_query_time = fractional_hit_cost + fractional_miss_cost
The difference between
query_time is how much caching is helping (or possibly hurting) you.
The beauty is that you can plug all this into a spreadsheet and play with the numbers. Fill in what you think the hit rate would be, along with lookup and query times, and you’re able to tweak numbers to explore the benefits before doing any coding. What happens if your hit rate is half what you expect? Or if reading from the cache is twice as expensive? Feeling out the edges of this new system before introducing it is very useful.
What is a “good” hit rate
This is a pretty natural question as part of caching decision making, but I think it’s the wrong question.
A better question would be “is caching worth it”, and the hit rate is only part of that.
If the benefit you’re looking for is in user experience, then will caching move users between those 0.1/1/10 second thresholds? How much developer complexity and user uncertainty is it adding?
If the benefit you want is insulating your data store, how effectively is it doing that? How much load are you eliminating? Are you protected in high usage scenarios? A high hit rate cache of an inexpensive query may not be as useful to you as a lower hit rate for an expensive one.
This isn’t to say that hit rates aren’t important, they definitely can be, just that hard and fast numbers aren’t the best way to evaluate this problem.
When should I cache?
That’s the real question, huh. Unfortunately, like most other complicated things in this discipline, the answer is “it depends”. Hopefully now you’re able to say that too.
You have to weigh the potential user and system benefits against the developer costs in getting caching right, and the business costs when you get it wrong. Those things aren’t reducible to simple math problems, but it definitely helps to go into the situation with them in mind.