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Full page caching in Rails with Nginx and Redis

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Update Oct 4, 2020: I wrote another post on full page caching with memcached and middleware as a simpler alternative that requires fewer dependencies. Check that out too if you prefer using a cluster for your cache instead of a standalone instance, for scalability.


The app I am currently working on is a CMS that allows users to create their own sites. These sites are publicly accessible and do not require authentication or user-customised content, so they are a great candidate for full page caching.

Out of the box, Rails comes with several great caching features that make implementing caching very easy in most cases. However for full page caching a gem is required. The functionality to cache entire pages was in fact extracted from Rails into a separate gem a while ago, because cache invalidation with this kind of technique can be tricky and therefore fragment caching is the recommended caching method for most use cases, especially with the "Russian Doll" technique.

But like I said, pages that look and behave the same for everyone and do not require authentication would benefit more from full page caching, which offers the best performance possible since a webserver like Nginx can serve pages directly, completely bypassing the entire Rails application stack.

My first implementation of full page caching for this app was with the default functionality of the gem, which caches pages to disk; in order to share the cache among multiple servers, I was also using NFS. It worked well but, despite I tried to implement file operations carefully, I had a couple of issues that I think were caused by a race condition between cache invalidation and site preloading, which are two features in the toolbox of my CMS.

Besides that, there are some known "risks" with a network based file system like NFS. There are other options that might be more reliable, but that would just add more complexity to my setup.

For these reasons, I decided to switch to Redis as cache store. This way my cache can be still shared by multiple servers and should also be slightly faster since there isn't the overhead of a filesystem over the network.

Nginx can use Redis for caching with a module, but this module isn't included with the version of Nginx that comes with default packages for Linux distributions, so you need to compile it from source in order to add the required module. It requires a few more steps but it's not complicated. You could also use Memcached instead of Redis, since Nginx has built in support for it, but Memcached doesn't have a feature that allows to selectively delete a bunch of keys matching a pattern in one shot. Redis does.

Installing Nginx from source with the Redis module

I do all of this in Docker, so here I will just add the relevant commands. The configure-compile-install steps for Nginx with the Redis module are super easy, but you need to install some dependencies first. On Debian and Ubuntu you can install these dependencies with the following commands:

apt-get update
apt-get install libpcre3 libpcre3-dev perl libperl-dev libgd3 \
  libgd-dev libgeoip1 libgeoip-dev geoip-bin libxml2 libxml2-dev libxslt1.1 libxslt1-dev

Then, run the following simple commands to compile and install Nginx with the Redis module:

wget http://nginx.org/download/nginx-1.18.0.tar.gz
tar xfvz nginx-1.18.0.tar.gz

wget https://people.freebsd.org/~osa/ngx_http_redis-0.3.9.tar.gz
tar xvfz ngx_http_redis-0.3.9.tar.gz

cd nginx-1.18.0

./configure --with-ld-opt='-Wl,-z,relro -Wl,-z,now -fPIC' --prefix=/usr/share/nginx --conf-path=/etc/nginx/nginx.conf \
--http-log-path=/var/log/nginx/access.log --error-log-path=/var/log/nginx/error.log --lock-path=/var/lock/nginx.lock \
--pid-path=/run/nginx.pid --modules-path=/usr/lib/nginx/modules --http-client-body-temp-path=/var/lib/nginx/body \
--http-fastcgi-temp-path=/var/lib/nginx/fastcgi --http-proxy-temp-path=/var/lib/nginx/proxy \
--http-scgi-temp-path=/var/lib/nginx/scgi --http-uwsgi-temp-path=/var/lib/nginx/uwsgi --with-debug --with-pcre-jit \
--with-http_ssl_module --with-http_stub_status_module --with-http_realip_module --with-http_auth_request_module \
--with-http_v2_module --with-http_dav_module --with-http_slice_module --with-threads --with-http_addition_module \
--with-http_geoip_module=dynamic --with-http_gunzip_module --with-http_gzip_static_module \
--with-http_image_filter_module=dynamic --with-http_sub_module --with-http_xslt_module=dynamic --with-stream=dynamic \
--with-stream_ssl_module --with-stream_ssl_preread_module --with-mail=dynamic --with-mail_ssl_module \
--add-dynamic-module=../ngx_http_redis-0.3.9

make
make install

The configuration options should match those of a default installation with a distro's package. Note the bit that adds the Redis module at the end of the configure command. Compiling will take a minute or so.

We also need a script to start/stop Nginx - I borrowed the following from somewhere:

#!/bin/sh

### BEGIN INIT INFO
# Provides:      nginx
# Required-Start:    $local_fs $remote_fs $network $syslog $named
# Required-Stop:     $local_fs $remote_fs $network $syslog $named
# Default-Start:     2 3 4 5
# Default-Stop:      0 1 6
# Short-Description: starts the nginx web server
# Description:       starts nginx using start-stop-daemon
### END INIT INFO

PATH=/usr/local/sbin:/usr/local/bin:/sbin:/bin:/usr/sbin:/usr/bin
DAEMON=/usr/sbin/nginx
NAME=nginx
DESC=nginx

# Include nginx defaults if available
if [ -r /etc/default/nginx ]; then
    . /etc/default/nginx
fi

STOP_SCHEDULE="${STOP_SCHEDULE:-QUIT/5/TERM/5/KILL/5}"

test -x $DAEMON || exit 0

. /lib/init/vars.sh
. /lib/lsb/init-functions

# Try to extract nginx pidfile
PID=$(cat /etc/nginx/nginx.conf | grep -Ev '^\s*#' | awk 'BEGIN { RS="[;{}]" } { if ($1 == "pid") print $2 }' | head -n1)
if [ -z "$PID" ]; then
    PID=/run/nginx.pid
fi

if [ -n "$ULIMIT" ]; then
    # Set ulimit if it is set in /etc/default/nginx
    ulimit $ULIMIT
fi

start_nginx() {
    # Start the daemon/service
    #
    # Returns:
    #   0 if daemon has been started
    #   1 if daemon was already running
    #   2 if daemon could not be started
    start-stop-daemon --start --quiet --pidfile $PID --exec $DAEMON --test > /dev/null \
        || return 1
    start-stop-daemon --start --quiet --pidfile $PID --exec $DAEMON -- \
        $DAEMON_OPTS 2>/dev/null \
        || return 2
}

test_config() {
    # Test the nginx configuration
    $DAEMON -t $DAEMON_OPTS >/dev/null 2>&1
}

stop_nginx() {
    # Stops the daemon/service
    #
    # Return
    #   0 if daemon has been stopped
    #   1 if daemon was already stopped
    #   2 if daemon could not be stopped
    #   other if a failure occurred
    start-stop-daemon --stop --quiet --retry=$STOP_SCHEDULE --pidfile $PID --name $NAME
    RETVAL="$?"
    sleep 1
    return "$RETVAL"
}

reload_nginx() {
    # Function that sends a SIGHUP to the daemon/service
    start-stop-daemon --stop --signal HUP --quiet --pidfile $PID --name $NAME
    return 0
}

rotate_logs() {
    # Rotate log files
    start-stop-daemon --stop --signal USR1 --quiet --pidfile $PID --name $NAME
    return 0
}

upgrade_nginx() {
    # Online upgrade nginx executable
    # http://nginx.org/en/docs/control.html
    #
    # Return
    #   0 if nginx has been successfully upgraded
    #   1 if nginx is not running
    #   2 if the pid files were not created on time
    #   3 if the old master could not be killed
    if start-stop-daemon --stop --signal USR2 --quiet --pidfile $PID --name $NAME; then
        # Wait for both old and new master to write their pid file
        while [ ! -s "${PID}.oldbin" ] || [ ! -s "${PID}" ]; do
            cnt=`expr $cnt + 1`
            if [ $cnt -gt 10 ]; then
                return 2
            fi
            sleep 1
        done
        # Everything is ready, gracefully stop the old master
        if start-stop-daemon --stop --signal QUIT --quiet --pidfile "${PID}.oldbin" --name $NAME; then
            return 0
        else
            return 3
        fi
    else
        return 1
    fi
}

case "$1" in
    start)
        log_daemon_msg "Starting $DESC" "$NAME"
        start_nginx
        case "$?" in
            0|1) log_end_msg 0 ;;
            2)   log_end_msg 1 ;;
        esac
        ;;
    stop)
        log_daemon_msg "Stopping $DESC" "$NAME"
        stop_nginx
        case "$?" in
            0|1) log_end_msg 0 ;;
            2)   log_end_msg 1 ;;
        esac
        ;;
    restart)
        log_daemon_msg "Restarting $DESC" "$NAME"

        # Check configuration before stopping nginx
        if ! test_config; then
            log_end_msg 1 # Configuration error
            exit $?
        fi

        stop_nginx
        case "$?" in
            0|1)
                start_nginx
                case "$?" in
                    0) log_end_msg 0 ;;
                    1) log_end_msg 1 ;; # Old process is still running
                    *) log_end_msg 1 ;; # Failed to start
                esac
                ;;
            *)
                # Failed to stop
                log_end_msg 1
                ;;
        esac
        ;;
    reload|force-reload)
        log_daemon_msg "Reloading $DESC configuration" "$NAME"

        # Check configuration before stopping nginx
        #
        # This is not entirely correct since the on-disk nginx binary
        # may differ from the in-memory one, but that's not common.
        # We prefer to check the configuration and return an error
        # to the administrator.
        if ! test_config; then
            log_end_msg 1 # Configuration error
            exit $?
        fi

        reload_nginx
        log_end_msg $?
        ;;
    configtest|testconfig)
        log_daemon_msg "Testing $DESC configuration"
        test_config
        log_end_msg $?
        ;;
    status)
        status_of_proc -p $PID "$DAEMON" "$NAME" && exit 0 || exit $?
        ;;
    upgrade)
        log_daemon_msg "Upgrading binary" "$NAME"
        upgrade_nginx
        log_end_msg $?
        ;;
    rotate)
        log_daemon_msg "Re-opening $DESC log files" "$NAME"
        rotate_logs
        log_end_msg $?
        ;;
    *)
        echo "Usage: $NAME {start|stop|restart|reload|force-reload|status|configtest|rotate|upgrade}" >&2
        exit 3
        ;;
esac

Copy the script to /etc/init.d/nginx. Then you need to either change the path of the nginx executable in the script, or just create a symlink with the command below, since installing from source installs the executable in a different location than the one specified in the script:

ln -s /usr/share/nginx/sbin/nginx /usr/sbin/nginx

Patching the page caching gem to use Redis instead of the file system

Nginx is now installed, so we can jump to the Rails part. Like I mentioned earlier, by default the actionpack-page_caching gem caches pages to disk. Rather than recreating the same functionality from scratch just because of Redis, I opted for a simple monkey patch that overrides the delete and write methods to use Redis (check the source code of the gem to see the original implementation). This could become a PR.

So after adding the gem, I added the following to an initializer:

require "action_controller/caching/pages"

Rails.configuration.to_prepare do
  ActionController::Caching::Pages::PageCache.class_eval do
    private

    def delete(path)
      return unless path
      Rails.cache.delete(path)
    end        
  
    def write(content, path, gzip)
      return unless path
      Rails.logger.info "REDIS CACHE: #{path}"
      Rails.cache.write(path, content, raw: true)
    end        
  
    def cache_path(path, extension = nil)
      domain = normalized_cache_directory.gsub(/\/app\/(.*)/, "\\1")
      path = "#{domain}#{path}"
      path = path + "/" unless path.ends_with?("/")
      path
    end        
  end
end

Pretty simple. In my case, because user sites can have custom domains, I add the domain to the path that is used as key in Redis. This way, if I want to invalidate the cache for just one domain without affecting the cache for the other domains, I can use a delete-by-pattern feature available with the Redis cache store, e.g.

Rails.cache.delete_matched "#{domain}*"

Configuring the cache store

Of course, we need to ensure that Redis is used as cache store, since that's not the default in Rails. To do this, open development.rb or production.rb and change any line that starts with config.cache_store with:

config.cache_store = :redis_cache_store, { url: ... }

of course you'll need to specify the correct URL for your Redis instance. Note that caching is disabled by default for the development environment, so to test in development you'll need to run

rails dev:cache

which will enable caching. You can find more details on using Redis as cache store here.

Enabling the caching in the controller

Enabling the full page caching is now just a matter of specifying which actions in a controller we want to cache, e.g.

caches_page :index

The above will enable the cache for the index action only, but you can specify multiple actions separated by commas.

In my app, because I am using custom domains, I want to prefix the path used as cache key with the domain, so that I can expire the cache for a single domain as shown earlier. To do this, I have added the following to the controller, before the caches call:

self.page_cache_directory = -> { request.hostname }

Making Nginx aware of the Redis cache

Nginx is not yet configured to use the Redis cache, so we need to do that next. In the server block for your app add the following:

set $redis_db "0";
set $redis_key $host$uri;
set $use_redis_cache 1;

if ($request_method != GET ) {
  set $use_redis_cache 0;
}

So we specify the Redis database to use (this must match the db number specified in the connection URL in Rails), and define the cache key so that it is made of the domain and the request path, just as configured in Rails. If you don't use multiple domains, the request path ($uri) is enough.

Then we make sure we only query the cache if it's a GET request. This way POST and other kinds of requests that change data will bypass the cache and go straight to the app.

Next, we'll use these variables in a location block as follows:

    location / {
      default_type "text/html";

      if ($use_redis_cache = 1) {
        redis_pass <redis-host-and-port>;
        error_page 404 = @app;
      }

      try_files index.html @app;
    }

As you can see, if the cache is enabled we first check with Redis if the given key is present, and if that's the case the content of the key is returned as response. We set a default content type otherwise Nginx wouldn't know which content type to use for the content fetched from Redis. If the key is not present, resulting in a 404, we pass the request to the app. Similarly, if the cache is disabled because it's not a GET request, we go straight to the app. The @app definition can be something like the following:

    location @app {
      proxy_set_header X-Forwarded-For $proxy_add_x_forwarded_for;
      proxy_set_header Host $http_host;
      proxy_redirect off;
      proxy_pass <app host or upstream>$request_uri;
    }

Finally, we just need to start the Nginx service:

service nginx start

That's it. GET requests should now be cached in Redis and go to the app only if the relevant keys are not present in Redis, resulting in much better performance when serving those pages.

Conclusions

I have simplified the configuration a lot for this post. The actual configuration for my app is quite a bit more complex because there are various things involved, but this example should get you started. I'm happy with this caching setup because I have very good performance with a cache that can be shared by multiple servers and I can avoid complications that come with using a network file system instead of Redis. In my case I needed to be able to expire the cache for a specific domain without having to delete all the keys for all the pages of that domain manually; this is easy with Redis cache store but is not available with Memcached. If you don't need this in your app and only need to delete specific keys each time, then perhaps I'd go with Memcached since it's supported by Nginx without additional modules.

Like I said I added only basic information for you to get started so to keep this post short, but let me know in the comments if you need some more info or if you get stuck. Hope it helps.

Vito Botta

I am a passionate web developer based in Espoo, Finland. I am the founder and developer of www.dynablogger.com, a new blogging platform. Besides computing, I love boxing, martial arts, and good food!"
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