Written by Harry Roberts on CSS Wizardry.
The best request is the one that never happens: in the fight for fast websites, avoiding the network is far better than hitting the network at all. To this end, having a solid caching strategy can make all the difference for your visitors.
📊 How is your knowledge of caching and Cache-Control headers?— Harry Roberts (@csswizardry) 3 March, 2019
That being said, more and more often in my work I see lots of opportunities being left on the table through unconsidered or even completely overlooked caching practices. Perhaps it’s down to the heavy focus on first-time visits, or perhaps it’s a simple lack of awareness and knowledge? Whatever it is, let’s have a bit of a refresher.
One of the most common and effective ways to manage the caching of your assets
is via the
Cache-Control HTTP header. This header applies to individual
assets, meaning everything on our pages can have a very bespoke and granular
cache policy. The amount of control we’re granted makes for very intricate and
powerful caching strategies.
Cache-Control header might look something like this:
Cache-Control: public, max-age=31536000
Cache-Control is the header, and each of
Cache-Control header can accept one or more directives, and
it is these directives, what they really mean, and their optimum use-cases that
I want to cover in this post.
public means that any caches may store a copy of the response. This includes
CDNs, proxy servers, and the like. The
public directive is often redundant, as
the presence of other directives (such as
max-age) are implicit instructions
that caches may store a copy.
private, on the other hand, is an explicit instruction that only the end
recipient of the response (the client, or the browser) may store a copy of
the file. While
private isn’t a security feature in and of itself, it is
intended to prevent public caches (such as a CDN) storing a response that
contains information unique to one user.
max-age defines a unit of time in seconds (relative to the time of the
request) for which the response is deemed ‘fresh’.
Cache-Control header tells the browser that it can use this file from the
cache for the next 60 seconds without having to worry about revalidating it.
Once the 60 seconds is up, the browser will head back to the server to
revalidate the file.
If the server has a new file for the browser to download, it will respond with
200 response, download the new file, the old file will be ejected from the
HTTP cache, the new file will replace it, and will honour its caching headers.
If the server doesn’t have a fresher copy that needs downloading, the server
responds with a
304 response, doesn’t need to download any new file, and will
update the cached copy with the new headers. This means that, if the
Cache-Control: max-age=60 header is still present, the cached file’s 60
seconds starts again. 120 seconds overall cache time for one file.
Beware: There is one pretty large caveat with
max-age on its own…
max-age tells the browser that the asset in question is stale, but it doesn’t
tell the browser that it absolutely cannot use the stale version. A browser may
use its own heuristics to decide that it might release a stale copy of a file
without revalidating it. This behaviour is somewhat non-deterministic, so it’s
quite hard to know exactly what a browser will actually do. To this end, we have
a series of more explicit directives that we can augment our
Thanks to Andy Davies for helping me clarify
s-maxage (note the absence of the
age) will take
precedence over the
max-age directive but only in the context of shared
s-maxage in conjunction allows you to have
different fresh durations for private and public caches (e.g. proxies, CDNs)
What if we don’t want to cache a file? What if the file contains sensitive
information? Perhaps it’s an HTML page that contains your bank details? Or maybe
the information is time-critical? Perhaps a page that contains realtime stock
prices? We don’t want to store or serve any responses like this from cache at
all: we always want to discard sensitive information and fetch the freshest
realtime information. Now we’d use
no-store is a very strong directive not to persist any information to any
cache, private or otherwise. Any asset that carries the
will always hit the network, no matter what.
This is the one that trips most people up…
no-cache doesn’t mean ‘no cache’.
It means ‘do
not serve a copy from
cache until you’ve revalidated it with
the server and the server said you can use the cached copy’. Right. Sounds like
this should be called
must-revalidate! Except that’s not what it sounds like,
no-cache is actually a pretty smart way of always guaranteeing the freshest
content, but also being able to use the much faster cached copy if possible.
no-cache will always hit the network as it has to revalidate with the server
before it can release the browser’s cached copy (unless the server responds with
a fresher response), but if the server responds favourably, the network transfer
is only a file’s headers: the body can be grabbed from cache rather than
So, like I say, this is a smart way to combine freshness and the possibility of getting a file from cache, but it will hit the network for at least an HTTP header response.
A good use-case for
no-cache would be almost any dynamic HTML page. Think of
a news site’s homepage: it’s not realtime, nor does it contain any sensitive
information, but ideally we’d like the page to always show the freshest content.
We can use
cache-control: no-cache to instruct the browser to check back with
the server first, and if the server has nothing newer to offer (
reuse the cached version. In the event that the server did have some fresher
content, it would respond as such (
200) and send the newer file.
Tip: There is no use sending a
max-age directive alongside a
directive as the time-limit for revalidation is zero seconds.
Even more confusingly, while the above sounds like it should be called
must-revalidate, it turns out
must-revalidate is something different still
(but still similar).
Cache-Control: must-revalidate, max-age=600
must-revalidate needs an associated
max-age directive; above, we’ve set it
to ten minutes.
no-cache will immediately revalidate with the server, and only use
a cached copy if the server says it may,
must-revalidate is like
with a grace period. What happens here is that, for the first ten minutes, the
browser will not (I know, I know…) revalidate with the server, but the moment
that ten minutes passes, it’s back to the server we go. If the server has
nothing new for us, it responds with a
304 and the new
are applied to the cached file—our ten minutes starts again. If, after ten
minutes, there is a newer file on the server, we get a
200 response and its
body, and the local cache gets updated.
A great candidate for
must-revalidate is a blog like mine: static pages that
seldom change. Sure, the latest content is desirable, but given how infrequently
my site changes, we don’t need anything as heavy handed as
let’s assume everything is going to be good enough for ten minutes, then
revalidate after that.
In a similar vein to
proxy-revalidate is the public-cache specific
must-revalidate. It is simply ignored by private caches.
immutable is a pretty new and very neat directive that tells the browser
a little more about the type of file we’ve sent it—is its content mutable or
immutable? But, before we look at what
immutable does, let’s look at the
problem it’s solving:
A user refresh causes the browser to revalidate a file regardless of its freshness because a user refresh usually means one of two things:
…so let’s check if there’s anything more up to date on the server.
If there is a newer file available on the server, we definitely want to download
it. As such, we’ll get a
200 response, a fresh file, and—hopefully—the issue
is fixed. If, however, there wasn’t a new file on the server, we’ll bring back
304 header, no new file, but an entire roundtrip of latency. If we’re
revalidating many files that result in many
304s, that can add up to hundreds
of milliseconds of unnecessary overhead.
immutable is a way of telling the browser that a file will never change—it’s
immutable—and therefore never to bother revalidating it. We can completely cut
out the overhead of a roundtrip of latency. What do we mean by a mutable or
style.css: When we change the contents of this file, we don’t change its name at all. The file always exists, and its content always changes. This file is mutable.
style.ae3f66.css: This file is unique—it is named with a fingerprint based on its content, so the moment that content changes, we get a whole new file. This file is immutable.
We’ll discuss this in more detail in the Cache Busting section.
If we can somehow communicate to the browser that our file is immutable—that its content never changes—then we can also let the browser know that it needn’t bother checking for a fresher version: there would never be a fresher version as the file simply ceases to exist the moment its content changes.
This is exactly what the
immutable directive does:
Cache-Control: max-age=31536000, immutable
In browsers that support
immutable, a user refresh will never cause
a revalidation within the 31,536,000-second freshness lifespan. This means no
unnecessary roundtrips spent retrieving
304 responses, which potentially saves
us a lot of latency on the critical path (CSS blocks
high latency connections, this saving could be tangible.
Beware: You should not apply
immutable to any files that are not
immutable. You should also have a very robust cache busting strategy in place so
that you don’t inadvertently aggressively cache a file to which
I really, really wish there was better support for
We’ve talked a lot so far about revalidation: the process of the browser making
the trip back to the server to check whether a fresher file might be available.
On high latency connections, the duration of revalidation alone can be
noticeable, and that time is simply dead time—until we’ve heard from the server,
we can neither release a cached copy (
304) or download the new file (
stale-while-revalidate provides is a grace period (defined by us) in
which the browser is permitted to use an out of date (stale) asset while we’re
checking for a newer version.
Cache-Control: max-age=31536000, stale-while-revalidate=86400
This is telling the browser, ‘this file is good to use for a year, but after that year is up, you have one extra day in which you may continue to serve this stale resource while you revalidate it in the background’.
stale-while-revalidate is a great directive for non-critical resources that,
sure, we’d like the freshest version, but we know there’ll be no damage caused
if we use the stale response once more while we’re checking for updates.
In a similar manner to
stale-if-error allows the
browser a grace period in which it can permissibly return a stale response if
the revalidated resource returns a
Cache-Control: max-age=2419200, stale-if-error=86400
Here, we instruct the cache that the file is fresh for 28 days (2,419,200 seconds), and that if we were to encounter an error after that time, we allow an additional day (86,400 seconds) during which we will allow a stale asset to be served.
no-transform doesn’t have anything do with storing, serving, or revalidating
freshness, but it does instruct intermediaries that they cannot modify, or
transform, any of the response.
A common scenario in which an intermediary might modify a response is to make optimisations on behalf of developers for users: a telco provider might proxy image requests though their stack and make optimisations to them before passing them off to end users on mobile connections.
The issue here is that developers begin to lose control of the presentation of their resources, and the image optimisations made by the telco might be deemed too aggressive and unacceptable, or we might have already optimised the images to the ideal degree ourselves and anything further is unnecessary.
Here, we want to instruct this middleware not to transform any of our content.
no-transform header can sit alongside any other directives, and needs no
other directives for it to function itself.
N.B. Some transformations are a good idea: CDNs choosing between Gzip or Brotli encoding for users that need the former or could use the latter; image transformation services automatically converting to WebP; etc.
N.B. If you’re running over HTTPS—which you should be—then intermediaries
and proxies can’t modify payloads anyway, so
no-transform would be
It would be irresponsible to talk about caching without talking about cache busting. I would always recommend solving your cache busting strategy before even thinking about your caching strategy. To do it the other way round is the fast-path to headaches.
Cache busting solves the problem:
I just told the browser to use this file for
the next year, but I just changed it and I don’t want users to wait a whole year
before they get the fresh copy! How can I intervene?!
This is is the least-preferred thing to do: absolutely no cache busting whatsoever. This is a mutable file that we’d really struggle to cache bust.
You should be very wary of caching any files like these, because we lose almost all control over them once they’re on the user’s device.
Despite this example being a stylesheet, HTML pages fall squarely into this camp. We can’t change the file name of a webpage—imagine the havoc that would cause!—which is exactly why we tend not to cache them at all.
Here, we still have a mutable file, but we add a query string to its file path.
While better than the nothing option, it’s still not perfect. If anything were
to strip that query string away, we fall back into the previous category of
having no cache busting in place at all. A lot of proxy servers and CDNs will
not cache anything with a query string either by configuration (e.g. from
Cloudflare’s own documentation:
…a request for “), or
defensively (the query string might contain information specific to one
be normalised to just “
style.css” when serving from the cache.
Fingerprinting is by far the preferred method for cache busting a file. By
literally changing the file each time its content changes, we don’t technically
cache bust anything: we end up with a whole new file! This is very robust, and
permits the use of
immutable. If you can implement this on your static assets,
please do! Once you’ve managed to implement this very reliable cache busting
strategy, you can use the most aggressive form of caching:
Cache-Control: max-age=31536000, immutable
The key to this method is the changing of the filename, but it doesn’t have to be a fingerprint. All of the following examples have the same effect:
/assets/style.ae3f66.css: busting with a hash of the file’s contents.
/assets/style.1.2.14.css: busting with a release version.
/assets/1.2.14/style.css: busting by changing a directory in the URL.
However, the last example implies that we’re versioning each release rather than each individual file. This in turn implies that if we only needed to cache bust our stylesheet, we’d also have to cache bust all of the static files for that release. This is potentially wasteful, so prefer options (1) or (2).
I don’t want to go into too much detail in this post as
Cache-Control directive, but is in fact a whole new HTTP header.
Applying this header to any one of your origin’s assets will clear the cache for the entire origin, not just the file to which it is attached. That means that, if you needed to hard-purge your entire site from all visitors’ caches, you could apply the above header to just your HTML payload.
Browser support, at the time of writing, is limited to Chrome, Android Webview, Firefox, and Opera.
Tip: There are a number of directives that
Clear-Site-Data will accept:
"*" (which, naturally,
means ‘all of the above’).
Okay, let’s take a look at some scenarios and what kinds of
headers we might employ.
Something like an online banking app page that lists your recent transactions, your current balance, and perhaps sensitive bank account details needs to be up-to-date (imagine being served a page that listed your balance as it appeared a week ago!) and also kept very private (you don’t want your bank details to be stored in a shared cache (or any cache, really)).
To this end, let’s go with:
Request URL: /account/ Cache-Control: no-store
As per the spec, this would be sufficient to prevent a browser persisting the response to disk at all, across private and shared caches:
no-storeresponse directive indicates that a cache MUST NOT store any part of either the immediate request or response. This directive applies to both private and shared caches. ‘MUST NOT store’ in this context means that the cache MUST NOT intentionally store the information in non-volatile storage, and MUST make a best-effort attempt to remove the information from volatile storage as promptly as possible after forwarding it.
But if you wanted to be very defensive, perhaps you might opt for:
Request URL: /account/ Cache-Control: private, no-cache, no-store
This would explicitly instruct not to store anything in public caches (e.g. a CDN), to always serve the freshest possible copy, and not to persist anything to storage.
If we’re building a page that displays near-realtime information, we want to guarantee that the user always sees the best, most up-to-date information we can give them, if that information exists. Let’s use:
Request URL: /live-updates/ Cache-Control: no-cache
This simple directive will mean that the browser won’t show a response directly from cache without checking with the server that it is allowed to. This means that a user will never be shown out of date train information, but they could benefit from grabbing file from their cache if the server dictates that the cache mirrors the latest information.
This is usually a sensible default for almost all webpages: give us the latest possible content, but let us use the speed of the cache if possible.
A page like FAQs is likely to update very infrequently, and the content on it is unlikely to be time sensitive. It’s certainly not as critical as realtime sport scores or flight statuses. We can probably cache an HTML page like this for a little while and force the browser to check for fresh content periodically instead of every visit. Let’s go for this:
Request URL: /faqs/ Cache-Control: max-age=604800, must-revalidate
This tells the browser to cache the HTML page for one week (604,800 seconds), and once that week is up, we need to check with the server for updates.
Beware: Having differing caching strategies for different pages within the
same website could lead to a problem where your
no-cache homepage requests the
style.f4fa2b.css that it references, but your three-day cached FAQs
page is still pointing at
style.ae3f66.css. The effects of this may be slight,
but it’s a scenario you should be aware of.
Let’s say our
app.[fingerprint].js updates pretty frequently—potentially with
every release we do—but we’ve also put in the work to fingerprint the file every
time it changes (good work!) then we can do something like this:
Request URL: /static/app.1be87a.js Cache-Control: max-age=31536000, immutable
It doesn’t matter that we update our JS quite frequently: because of our ability to reliably cache bust it, we can cache it for as long as we like. In this case, we’ve chosen to cache it for a year. I picked a year because firstly, a year is a long time, but secondly, it’s pretty highly unlikely that a browser will actually hold onto a file for that long anyway (browsers have a finite amount of storage they can use for HTTP cache, so they periodically empty parts of it themselves; users may clear their own cache). Going anything beyond a year is likely to be no more effective.
Further, because this file’s content never changes, we can signal to the browser that this file is immutable. We don’t need to revalidate it for the whole year, even if a user refreshes the page. Not only do we get the speed benefits of using the cache, we avoid the latency penalty of revalidation.
Imagine a purely decorative photograph accompanying an article. It’s not an infographic or a chart, it doesn’t contain any content critical to understanding the rest of the page, and a user wouldn’t even really notice if it was completely missing anyway.
Images are usually a heavy asset to download, so we want to cache it; it’s not critical to the page, so we don’t need to fetch the latest version; and we could probably even get away with serving the image after it’s gone a little out of date. Let’s do this:
Request URL: /content/masthead.jpg Cache-Control: max-age=2419200, must-revalidate, stale-while-revalidate=86400
Here we’re telling the browser to store the image for 28 days (2,419,200 seconds), that we want to check with the server for updates after that 28-day time limit, and if the image is less than one day (86,400 seconds) out of date, let’s use that one while we fetch the latest version in the background.
immutabledirective for good measure.
stale-while-revalidatenot only give us the traditional benefits of a cache, but they also allow us to mitigate the cost of latency while revalidating.
Avoiding the network wherever possible makes for much faster experiences for our users (and much lower throughput for our infrastructure). By having a good view of our assets, and an overview of what’s available to us, we can begin to design very granular, bespoke, and effective caching strategies specific to our own applications.
Cache rules everything.
Before someone on Hacker News hauls me over the coals for my hypocrisy, it’s worth noting that my own caching strategy is so sub-par that I’m not even going to go into it.
Hi there, I’m Harry. I am an award-winning Consultant Front-end Architect, designer, developer, writer and speaker from the UK. I write, tweet, speak and share code about authoring and scaling CSS for big websites. You can hire me.
I am available for hire to consult, advise, and develop with passionate product teams across the globe.
I specialise in large, product-based projects where performance, scalability, and maintainability are paramount.