Jonathan George's Blog

Optimising an ASP.NET MVC web site, part 4: Output caching in the brave new world of MVC

Posted in Technical Stuff by Jonathan on November 3, 2009

Note: This was originally posted on my old blog at the EMC Consulting Blogs site.

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.

Page layout

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.

@jon_george1

Optimising an ASP.NET MVC web site part 1 – Introduction

Posted in Technical Stuff by Jonathan on October 3, 2009

Note: This was originally posted on my old blog at the EMC Consulting Blogs site.

One of the things I’ve been involved in over the past couple of months is performance tuning work for my current project (now live at www.fancydressoutfitters.co.uk). One of my EMC Consulting colleagues, Marcin Kaluza, has recently started posting on this subject and I’ve been encouraged by Howard to post some “war stories” of the kind of things I’ve encountered whilst doing this on projects, starting with the most recent.

So first, some background. It’s an public facing website project, and is based on Billy McCafferty’s excellent S#arp Architecture – which means it’s ASP.NET MVC with NHibernate talking to SQL Server 2008 databases. We’re using the Spark View Engine instead of the out of the box one, and the site uses N2 CMS to provide content management capabilities (James posted a while back on the reasons for choosing N2.) Finally, we use Solr to provide our search functionality, integrated using Solrnet. I joined the team a few months into the project, by which point they had laid a firm foundation and were about to be abandoned for 6 weeks by their technical lead who had inconsiderately booked his wedding and an extended honeymoon right in the middle of the project.

When the project was set up it was done so in strictly in accordance with agile principles. A small team was given a fixed date for go-live and the directive to spend the client’s money as if it were their own. One of the first things that happened was the adoption of a number of principles from the excellent 37signals e-book “Getting  Real”. A product backlog was assembled, and then – in accordance with the “build less” maxim – divided into “core” and “non-core” user stories. The core stories were what was essential for go live – things the client couldn’t live without, such as basic search and content management. The non-core stories are things that might enhance the site but aren’t essential – for example, advanced search features such as faceted navigation.

The absolute focus the team maintained on the core functionality and target delivery date has made this one of the best and most successful agile projects I’ve worked on – we reached our go live date on budget and were able to substantially over deliver on functionality. Whilst the site is relatively basic compared to some I’ve worked on, it stands out amongst its peers and provides a great platform for new functionality to be built on.

However, now I’ve extolled the virtues of the approach that was taken, I should talk about the performance optimisation and testing work we did. Since I have some experience from previous projects, I took on the task of testing the site to make sure it could handle an acceptable level of load without falling over in an embarrassing heap. However, before I started on that, we did some optimisation work on the site.

The aim was to hit the major pain points, since we knew performance had degraded over the previous few sprints. Once this was done, we could run some load testing and perform further tuning and optimisation work as required. I was originally intending to write a single post covering the optimisation process, then follow that up with one about the load testing process. However, that resulted in a rather lengthy post, so I’m splitting it up into several parts that I will post over the next week or two:

In addition, I’ve already covered the work we did to correctly configure IIS in my post How to improve your YSlow score under IIS7.

I hope you find these posts interesting – please let me know what you think by leaving a comment.

@jon_george1