Re: criticism of http 1.1 caching

    I have written a paper which extensively criticizes HTTP 1.1's
    cache consistency features.  The paper recommends numerous small
    but important changes to the specification.  I presented the paper
    at the Web Caching workshop this week in Warsaw, Poland

First of all, I'd suggest that people interested in Web caching
take a look at the online papers available from this page.  Does
anyone know if a printed proceedings is available to non-attendees?
    The paper is on the Web at
I enjoyed reading this paper, even if I don't agree with all of
the points you raised.  It's clear that you have given this a
lot of careful thought, and your Java implementation shows that
the HTTP/1.1 spec probably does not require a tremendous amount
of code to implement at the proxy (although you only implemented
part of it, so far).

One general comment: in many cases, you point out that the HTTP/1.1
spec is silent about certain aspects of cache behavior, and you
recommend that it be more explicit.  We tried not to constrain
cache implementors more than necessary for ensuring interoperability
and "correct" operation (whatever "correct" was taken to mean), and
so we intentionally left some things unspecified.  This clearly
gives some freedom to a cache implementor, either to do something
clever that we hadn't considered, or do the minimum necessary
implementation, or (in some cases) to do something that is stupid
and inefficient, but still interoperable.

For example, the spec does not say anything (that I can recall)
about prefetching or postfetching, which you write about
under "When to update cached pages".  As long as the prefetching
or postfetching doesn't violate the rest of the spec, it is
not necessary for the spec to say anything about it.  Especially
since we don't really know exactly what the best policies might be.

Specific comments:
    Thus, the notion of whether a page is stale or fresh at a given
    time is independent of any single user request for that page; this
    fact is not stated clearly in the HTTP 1.1 specification, and
    should be.

Actually, if you read these four definitions together:
    explicit expiration time
      The time at which the origin server intends that an entity should no
      longer be returned by a cache without further validation.
    heuristic expiration time
      An expiration time assigned by a cache when no explicit expiration
      time is available.
    freshness lifetime
      The length of time between the generation of a response and its
      expiration time.
      A response is fresh if its age has not yet exceeded its freshness

then you should be able to see that whether or not a response is
fresh depends on the current time, and either:
	(1) the explicit expiration time supplied by the origin server
	(2) a heuristic expiration time assigned by a cache
which implicitly excludes any dependency on the specific request.


    The HTTP 1.1 specification refers to "the least [sic] restrictive
    freshness requirement of the client, server, and cache", a related
    concept, in section 13.1.1 "Cache Correctness". First, this is
    certainly an error: the term "least" should be "most".

Actually, this is really what was intended.  The reason is that
some people believe that a client ought to be able to loosen
the freshness requirement beyond what is specified by the
origin server.

The confusion may come, as you note, because the next item:

  3. It includes a warning if the freshness demand of the client or the
     origin server is violated (see section 13.1.5 and 14.45).

seems to result in a contradiction.  For example, if the origin
server says "max-age=10", the client says "max-age=100", and
the actual age is 50, a response with a Warning is consistent
with both conditions (#2, which you quote from, and #3 above).

The missing piece is that this particular section does not
explictly require a Warning in this case, although this is
clearly required by the specification of Warning in 14.45.
That is, 13.1.1 describes some but not all of the criteria
for correctness.

It seems reasonable that we should try to reword 13.1.1 so
that it makes this point clearer, although the current wording
is not actually in error.


    There has been some controversy over how to handle
    If-Modified-Since in a cache hierarchy.  Apparently some people
    feel that every If-Modified-Since request should be passed all the
    way up the cache hierarchy to the origin server; others feel that
    If-Modified-Since requests should stop at some point on the cache
    hierarchy if a cache has a copy of the requested page that is new
    enough. The HTTP 1.1 specification is unfortunately vague in this

During our discussions, I believe it was implicitly agreed that
if a conditional (e.g., If-Modified-Since or If-None-Match) request
is satisfiable by an intermediate cache, then it should not be
forwarded all the way to the origin server.  
Also, 13.1.1 allows a cache to respond with an "appropriate 304
(Not Modified)" message, which would only be possible if it were
intercepting conditional requests.  So I think any reasonable
reading of the HTTP/1.1 spec allows the interception behavior
(although it does not make it mandatory).


    In fact, in the definition of cache correctness in section 13.1.1
    the specification lists Not Modified responses as being exempt from
    the freshness requirements placed on responses containing a
    document; this implies that Not Modified responses may be
    arbitrarily old! (The specification text does say "4. It is an
    appropriate 304 (Not Modified) ... response message", but it is
    anyone's guess just what the adjective "appropriate" means here.)

you apparently failed to read this section:

    13.4 Response Cachability

    A response received with any other status code MUST NOT be returned
    in a reply to a subsequent request unless there are Cache-Control
    directives or another header(s) that explicitly allow it. For
    example, these include the following: an Expires header (section
    14.21); a "max-age", "must-revalidate", "proxy-revalidate",
    "public" or "private" Cache- Control directive (section 14.9).

So, if you think about it, the "304 (Not Modified)" message cannot
be fresh any longer than the actual response would have been.

As you point out, there may be some ambiguity in the wording in 13.1.1.
Perhaps this sentence:
      4. It is an appropriate 304 (Not Modified), 305 (Proxy Redirect), or
	 error (4xx or 5xx) response message.

should be    

      4. It is an appropriate 304 (Not Modified), 305 (Proxy Redirect), or
	 error (4xx or 5xx) response message, generated at that cache.


    Section 13.1.1 "Cache Correctness" of the HTTP 1.1 specification
    says that a response must include a warning "if the freshness
    demand of the client or the origin server is violated". HTTP 1.1
    defines a warning "10 Response is stale" to be issed when the
    server's maximum age requirement is violated, even if the server's
    age requirement is explicitly relaxed by the client. Unfortunately,
    the specification defines no warning to be issued when the client's
    freshness demand is violated!

This is a good point.  However, it might be acceptable to let
Warning 10 apply to this case, too (by changing the definition);
is there any real need to distinguish the two cases?


You end by summarizing about 15 recommended changes to the
specification.  I think it might be helpful if you could divide
these into three categories:

	(1) issues where an actual change to the intent of the
	specification is required, or at least where a change
	might be useful.

	(2) ways in which the specification's wording or organization
	leads to confusion, although the actual intent is right.
	I.e., clarification is needed.
	(3) "advice to implementors": areas where the specification
	properly leaves some freedom to implementors, but we can
	give some advice that seems to be "best current practice".
We have decided that items in category #3 should not appear in
the actual specification.  Martin Hamilton (MARTIN@MRRL.LUT.AC.UK)
was collecting a set of these, for possible use in a companion


Received on Friday, 11 October 1996 16:07:46 UTC