Back in the dark ages (a year or so ago) most ASP developers were happy
when they got their code to actually run. Then they either went home
for some much needed rest or went out to celebrate the fact that their
code actually worked and the project was finished.
Well that was then and this is now. Now your code not only has to work,
it has to be scalable enough to handle thousands of users. On top of
that, it also needs to be fast for all these users (because somewhere
along the line the average user went from a slow analog modem to a cable
modem or DSL line that's almost as fast as your server). Unfortunately,
this means that you can't immediately blame the graphic designers
anymore and you've got to make sure your code runs as quickly as
possible (if not quicker). Throwing more hardware at the problem will
sometimes help, but if you can't afford it (or can't get it approved by
your boss) you're not left with too many choices except trying to
increase the speed of your code. This is where caching can come into
In general when you mention caching most ASP developers immediately get
scared. This is understandable because caching and dynamic content
generally don't work well together, but used correctly, caching can
help solve many of your performance and scalability problems and turn a
sluggish site into a real speed demon.
Types of Server-Side Caching
First let me emphasize that I'm not talking about client-side or
proxy server caching. While these are great technologies, they're not
going to do us much good from the point of view of dynamic content.
In addition, they are usually outside of our control except for the
setting of some expiration headers that we can't even ensure that
they will pay attention to.
What I am talking about is moving your data as close as possible
to the state in which it'll be delivered to the client. I'll illustrate
the point using a very common example, which I'm sure everyone has seen:
an html <select> element which contains a list of states from
which you're supposed to choose your home state.
To start with, let's assume you have a table in a database with the
names and abbreviations of each state (if you don't you will once you
download the code at the end of this article). The goal is to build the
dropdown box using the database so that as you add states or need to
make changes, those changes are reflected in your web pages. That being
said, how often do we actually add a state and need to change this
information in our forms? Well not being a big history buff, I'm not
sure, but what I am sure of is that it won't be happening in the next
couple hours in which time hundreds of people could possibly be hitting
your web page. So why should you hit the database to dynamically build
the dropdown each time? The answer is you shouldn't be!
I'm going to illustrate 4 different methods of building the state
selection box. They are:
Hits the data source for each request of the page
Stores the data in a temporary high-speed location and then builds the output using it
Takes the data and transforms it into the appropriate output and then caches the output
Caches the whole page and saves it as an file
This is the easiest method and doesn't really need much discussion. I
only mention it to provide a baseline for the others. This is the only
option for truly dynamic data. Most people wouldn't appreciate it if
when they went to see their stock quotes or bank statement they weren't
up to date. Similarly, shopping carts and any other real-time data
generally shouldn't be cached.
What I mean by Data Caching is taking a copy of the data from the
database or other slow data source (like external web pages) and storing
it in a faster location. Where you store it is really dependent on how
it'll be used and how quickly it needs to be accessed. In general, I
tend to use Application level variables to store a disconnected / custom
recordset or an array. Text or XML files can also be very
useful for larger amounts of data that you're not willing to devote the
memory to by storing it in an Application variable. The main issue with
using files is that it slows things down. So, unless you're caching
data from a very slow link, you might actually be slowing things down.
That being said, I've used it quite often for caching
http requests from other servers. Eventually this won't be needed, but
with all the progress we've made, the web still isn't 100% reliable and
it certainly isn't always fast. This way if I don't get an answer back
or if it takes too long I can go to the cached version and at least give
the user something besides an error!
While this method can substantially increase performance it still leaves
us with the data in a state that we can manipulate it. In our example,
we can not only build a select box of states, we could also display them in a
table of the new quarters that have been released by the US Mint, or
sort them into reverse order to really confuse people. In short, the
data is still flexible and we can manipulate it easily in order to use
it for a variety of purposes.
This takes Data Caching and goes one step further. If you know you're
always going to be building a select box out of the state data then why
are you caching the data itself and not the select box? The concept
here is to speed things up even more by only doing the processing to
build the box once and then caching the output. Then when you want to
display the box again it's as quick and easy as simply doing a
While this method is faster and just as easy as Data Caching, the one
drawback is that you do lose some of the flexability. Trying to build
a table of states from a string containing a select box of the states is
a lot of work and at that point it's probably easier to go back to the
database to get the data again!
This is the ultimate in server-side caching. In this scenario we do all
the processing ahead of time and build static .htm files. The benefit
here is that there's no processing involved at all when requesting the
cached files. The ASP interpreter never gets involved once the page is
built. It's just as fast as if you had hand written the page and hard
coded the data in... except for the fact that you didn't have to do it
by hand! There are a couple different ways to build the files. In the
example I just use the FileSystemObject to write the text I want in the
file because it's simple to illustrate and you won't need to install a
component. Many people find using a HTTP component to retrieve the
dynamic file from the web server and then writing it out to a static
file to be easier... especially if you're attempting to cache multiple
The main drawback here is that determining when to refresh the cache can
be a little difficult since no processing is happening. You can't do it
in the page itself since it doesn't process. You also can't use
global.asa unless you've got other asp files in the web being requested
so it'll run (a decent option if you're just caching a few high traffic
pages). Otherwise, you're pretty much left to refreshing the cache on
your own or setting up a scheduler to do it for you.
Because this is a little more complex and I know there's a product that
does this well, I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't mention XBuilder and
XCache. Both products address page level caching, but they do it in
slightly different ways. For more information see the link at the end
of this article.
Refreshing the Cache
The most difficult part of any caching system is knowing when the
content should not be cached anymore. If you don't cache it long
enough, it can defeat the whole point of doing it at all. On the
other hand, if you don't refresh often enough you'll be dealing with
old data and that's not good either.
Unfortunately this is an issue you'll need to decide for yourself. It's
really dependent on the volatility of the data. In our example, I was
joking around about how rarely it changes, but in all seriousness that's
why I choose it. It's content like this, that's really in the database
just for management and is used a lot but rarely changes that is the
perfect candidate for some form of caching.
Ok so enough talk already... here's what you're really after...
the code. I've included the database
of the states and a quick example of each of the 4 methods mentioned.
I use Application variables to cache for the Data and Element Caching
samples and the file system (naturally) for Page Caching. This means
you'll need to have an Application setup and you'll need permission to
write to the file system to run the Page Caching sample, but besides
that they should all be pretty easy to get to run.
So now that you've read about the options and played with the code how
do you actually go about getting started? I usually look for pages on
which to implement caching based on two criteria: traffic to the page
and the amount of rarely changing data that the page uses. If a page
gets a lot of traffic then you want it to be as fast as possible and use
as few resources as possible. Even a small performance increase on a
busy page can make a big difference in your site's apparent speed and
processor utilzation on your server. Along the same lines, if a page
uses a lot of slow data sources then the page is a natural candidate for
caching even if it doesn't get a lot of traffic just so that it loads
faster when it is requested.