Optimising an ASP.NET MVC web site, part 4: Output caching in the brave new world of MVC
This is the penultimate part in a series of posts on optimisation work we carried out on my last project, www.fancydressoutfitters.co.uk – an ASP.NET MVC web site built using S#arp Architecture, NHibernate, the Spark view engine and Solr. Please also take the time to read parts 1, 2 and 3 for the full picture.
Output caching is something I’ve used extensively on previous ASP.NET WebForm projects, and I was surprised when I found out that it’s relatively immature in ASP.NET MVC. The core library contains the OutputCache filter, which does the same under the covers as the @OutputCache declaration in ASP.NET Web Forms. However, caching a full page is something that rarely suits in the current climate of dynamic and personalised websites – for example (and in common with most ecommerce websites) our site includes a summary of the user’s basket on every page. In the world of web forms, I’d use the asp:substitution control to implement donut caching, or implement fragment caching. Unfortunately neither of those options exist in the brave new world of ASP.NET MVC (if you’re a Java/Ruby/etc developer… stop sniggering, we’re catching you up :-) )
So there are a few ways round this that I’m aware of. The first involves using the partial views to do something similar to the old style ASP.NET Fragment Caching approach. In the WebForms world, this is implemented by splitting your page up into multiple user controls, and applying output caching as appropriate to the individual controls. Here’s a pretty basic example of how a product page on an ecommerce website might be laid out.
The boxes coloured blue, green and purple can all be cached – albeit with different cache lifetimes and keys. The red box, which displays my user basket total is unlikely to be cachable – at least not at the rendering level. Using the classic ASP.NET fragment caching approach, each of my coloured boxes would be implemented as a separate user control with appropriate OutputCache directives set. The ASPX page itself would contain very little other than the instances of these controls.
So how does this translate into MVC? It turns out that it’s pretty much the same. You create a number of partial views and add an OutputCache directive to their markup. Phil Haack covers the approach in this blog post. There’s just one downside: that approach only works with the standard WebForms view engine, and we’re using Spark, so we can’t go down this route.
I did hear a suggestion that making use of the RenderAction method from ASP.NET MVC 1.0 Futures could be the way forward. Essentially, each of my coloured boxes from the diagram would end up corresponding to a separate controller action, each of which would have an OutputCache action filter applied. These would then be pulled together by a “dumb” controller action whose corresponding view had multiple calls to Html.RenderAction to compose the chunks of the view together.
On the face of it – and assuming you were willing to accept the overhead involved in repeatedly invoking the full MVC request pipeline – it would work. However, there has been mention of a bug with MVC 1.0 which causes the OutputCache filter on an action method called with RenderAction to be applied to the overall request, not just the chunk being dealt with. This kind of thing is probably why the RenderAction method was bumped into MVC Futures instead of being shipped as part of the core MVC 1.0 release.
Phil Haack blogged something else that didn’t quite make it to MVC 1.0 which looked good on the surface. Essentially, it’s an HtmlHelper extension that hooks into the API used by the asp:substitution control. However, I had a bit of a headache in trying to work out how to use it. The problem is that within the callback you supply to the Substitute method, you don’t have access to your ViewData – not a massive surprised once you understand how the post-cache substitution mechanism in ASP.NET works. This means that you need to code some other method – which is going to be a static method you’ve stashed alongside your controllers – that will do all the necessary work, pulling bits of data out of the supplied HttpContext and returning a string to be dumped directly into the view.
There’s no doubt that this would work, and with some thought could be done without losing the testability and separation of concerns that makes the MVC pattern great. However, it’s not an ideal approach for me because it does mean that the pattern and conventions are broken to support what’s essentially an optimisation step. Because of this it will make it harder for people to see what’s going on in the code. I’ve already covered the caching we applied in the service layer; to me, output caching should be contained within the View Engine layer and should not leak beyond that. After all, there’s nothing else in my controller layer or below that couples my code to Spark, so I have no desire to introduce something that does.
Fortunately it turns out that the 1.1 version of the Spark view engine will contain pretty comprehensive output caching. This isn’t part of the v1.0 release, but has been in the development builds for several months now and is stable. It’s absolutely perfect for what I wanted as it allowed me to implement output caching with very few changes outside the views.
Unlike the ASP.NET WebForms fragment caching approach, you aren’t required to split your view into partials – you simply add <cache> elements around the sections of the page you want to cache. These sections can be dependent on different keys and cached for different durations, and there’s also a signalling mechanism that allows cached content to be expired on demand. In our case, we had already tackled the issue of cache keys for a ViewModels when we looked at caching in the controller layer, so it was a simple matter to use these same cache keys to control our output caching.
Spark also contains something called the ValueHolder which effectively allows you to defer the gathering of model data until it’s needed. This means that rather than build up the model for every request, only to pass it to a view which doesn’t need it because it’s entirely output cached, you can build your model using ValueHolder objects containing lambda functions that will only be executed if the data is needed. This seems like an interesting approach, but it’s not one I explored in detail because the caching we’d already implemented on the controllers made it less relevant.
One of my major hopes, which was unfortunately not realised, was that we’d be able to connect Spark’s output caching service to our distributed cache, Velocity. This would further reduce the workload across the web farm because it would mean that once a page was served from one webhead, it would be available pre-built to all of the others. However the output caching mechanism in Spark places unserializable objects into the cache, making it difficult to use with an out-of-process caching mechanism. This is a shame but by no means a deal breaker.
I’ve seen a few discussions around the value of output caching in the MVC world, with some saying that because the views are essentially just writing text to a stream, there is little gain to be had from caching. On a purely subjective level, the output caching did seem to make the site faster. It’s difficult to be sure because there is no way of enabling/disabling output caching via config in Spark, so it’s not easy to do comparative tests in a realistic environment. I can see the argument, and I’d certainly agree that out of the different focus areas output caching made the least difference to overall performance, but I believe it did make a difference and for the minimal effort involved in implementing it, was worth it.
In the final section, I’ll talk about my views on optimising this MVC based site compared to my experiences in the WebForms world, and share some hard numbers gained from our performance testing.