Cache-Control – How to Properly Configure It

Cache-Control

What is Cache-Control?

Cache-Control is an HTTP cache header comprised of a set of directives that allow you define when / how a response should be cached and for how long. HTTP caching occurs when a browser stores copies of resources for faster access. Access to these copied resources is much faster as the browser does not need to make a request to the server in order to receive the same files every time. You can configure your server to attach the Cache-Control header in the response, specifying which directives to use.

Cache-Control Directives

The following is a list of the common directives used and configured when using the Cache-Control header. See HTTP/1.1 section 14.9 for a further explanation of the directives available.

Cache-Control no-cache

no-cache uses the etag header to tell caches that this resource cannot be reused without first checking if the resource has changed on the origin server. This means that no-cache will make a trip back to the server to ensure the response has not changed and therefore is not required to download the resource if that is the case.

Cache-Control no-store

no-store is similar to no-cache in that the response cannot be cached and re-used, however there is one important difference. no-store requires the resource to be requested and downloaded from the origin server each time. This is an important feature when dealing with private information.

Cache-Control public & private

A response containing the public directive signifies that it is allowed to be cached by any intermediate cache. This however is usually not included in responses as other directives already signify if the response can be cached (e.g max-age).

The private directive signifies that the response can only be cached by the browser that is accessing the file. This disallows any intermediate caches to store the response.

Cache-Control max-age

This directive tells the browser or intermediary cache how long the response can be used from the time it was requested. A max-age of 3600 means that the response can be used for the next 60 minutes before it needs to fetch a new response from the origin server.

Cache-Control s-maxage

s-maxage is similar to the above mentioned max-age however the “s” stands for shared and is relevant only to CDNs or other intermediary caches. This directive overrides the max-age and expires header.

Cache-Control no-transform

Intermediate proxies sometimes change the format of your images and files in order to improve performance. The no-transform directive tells the intermediate proxies not to alter the format or your resources.

Each of these directives serves it’s own purpose and can be used in a variety of scenarios. To help further simplify things, Ilya Grigorik, a developer at Google, created the decision tree below to help determine what directives should be set for a particular resource.

http-cache-decision-treeCache-Control Decision Tree Src: Google Developers

Cache-Control Configuration

The HTTP Cache-Control header can be implemented on the server or can even be added within the code. The following are examples of how to implement cache-control in Apache, Nginx, or within your PHP code.

Apache

The following snippet can be added to your .htaccess file to tell the server to set the Cache-Control header’s max-age to 84600 seconds and to “public” for the listed files. Expires and Cache-Control headers can also be included with Apache by using the mod_expires module.

 <filesMatch ".(ico|pdf|flv|jpg|jpeg|png|gif|js|css|swf)$">
 Header set Cache-Control "max-age=84600, public"
 </filesMatch>

Nginx

This snippet can be added to your Nginx configuration file. The example below uses the Cache-Control header directives “public” and “no-transform” with an expire setting set to 2 days.

location ~* \.(js|css|png|jpg|jpeg|gif|ico)$ {
    expires 2d;
    add_header Cache-Control "public, no-transform";
}

PHP

Cache-Control headers can also be added directly in your code. This example demonstrates using the PHP header to include Cache-Control setting a max-age of 1 day.

header('Cache-Control: max-age=84600');

Conclusion

Cache-Control is a powerful HTTP header when it comes to speeding up websites with the use of browser and intermediary cache. Although its ability to increase website speed is not it’s only as it is also quite useful to help make private information less vulnerable. The settings you choose to apply to the Cache-Control directives are dependent on the nature of information that is being delivered as well the desired expiration time of those assets.

2 Comments

  1. Alex Lindgren

    How does KeyCDN treat “must-revalidate”? Does it ignore it and pass it to the client? (I would hope so, and that “proxy-revalidate” would indicate that the CDN should revalidate.)

    I am asking because I have max-age=0 and s-maxage set to 1 year for dynamically (CMS) generated content. I then purge when content is updated, but I am finding browsers still cache it for a while even though max-age is zero. So I am thinking of adding “must-revalidate” but I can’t if the CDN will start re-validating every request.

    1. Cody

      That is correct, KeyCDN treats those Cache-Control directives in the same way that you mentioned. The “must-revalidate” will apply only to the user agent and the proxy-revalidate would be used in order to implement must-revalidate’s functionality on the CDN side.

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