Page Caching Gotcha on Heroku

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Andrew noticed that his beer reviews weren't showing up on beerpad after he published them. His reviews were saved in the database and showed up on redeploy. I smelled a caching bug. Digging a little deeper, I found out that caches_page and expire_page are overridden on Heroku to set http caching headers rather than write a file to the local filesystem. While I was fixing this bug, I picked up on a lot of useful details about Rails action caching and configuration. Details and my fix after the jump.

With Heroku's read-only filesystem and dyno architecture, it doesn't make sense to write rendered pages to file. However, in order to be compatible with existing apps, Heroku uses the caches_page_via_http plugin to cache entire responses in the Varnish layer for a few minutes. The problem with this is that expire_page is overridden to be noop, so stale pages can be served to users even if your code calls expire_page in the correct places.

For example, my original code did the following:

  1. update a beer review
  2. expire the cached page for /reviews
  3. redirect to /reviews

After a user submits their review, they should see their review at the top of the reviews listing at /reviews. With Heroku's patch, step 2 becomes a noop, and caches_page sets /reviews Cache-Control header to have a max age of 5 minutes. If a user finishes writing a review in less than 5 minutes from the previous page cache, a stale page is served to them without their published review. As a user, you'd think "crap, my review got nuked". For example:

  1. GET /reviews - cached in Varnish and client browser for 5 minutes.
  2. GET /reviews/new - start a beer review.
  3. write quick review and submit in < 5 minutes.
  4. POST /reviews - should expire page, but is noop instead.
  5. redirect GET /reviews - stale page served from browser cache b/c < 5 minutes has elapsed.

After I figured this out, I switched my controller and sweepers to use caches_action and expire_action to make expiration work again.

A minor gotcha with expire_action is you cannot use restful route helpers by default. The default cache_path used to key a cached value includes the hostname. If you try to expire using the route helpers, your key won't match and the cached value won't be expired.

# original page caching expiration
expire_page reviews_path

# new action caching expiration, note that options for path_for are passed in
# instead of using restful route helpers.
expire_action :controller => 'reviews', :action => 'index'

Multiple Dynos

Replacing page caching with action caching solves the problem caused by noop expiration. But using the default memory cache store with multiple dynos will still cause stale pages to be served. The new problem is that each dyno keeps it's own local memory cache, which means when you expire the cache, you're only expiring one dyno's cache rather than expiring all the caches. To get around this, we need to use a centralized cache store like Memcached or DRb. The Rails guide on caching has a good explanation of the cache stores available and their differences.

On Heroku, turning on Memcached is really simple and well documented:

# in terminal at rails root
heroku addons:add memcached

# config/initializers/memcached.rb - initialize connection to memcached on heroku
  require 'memcache'
  servers = ENV['MEMCACHE_SERVERS'].split(',')
  CACHE =, :namespace => namespace)

# config/environments/production.rb - use memcached as cache store
  memcache_config = ENV['MEMCACHE_SERVERS'].split(',')
  memcache_config << {:namespace => ENV['MEMCACHE_NAMESPACE']}
  config.cache_store = :mem_cache_store, memcache_config

I wrote a testing controller with 2 actions, and increased my dynos to 2 to compare the default memory cache store and memcached cache store.

class TestingController < ApplicationController
  caches_action :caching
  def caching
    render :text => "I was rendered at #{}"

  def blocking
    sleep 10
    render :text => "finished blocking at #{}"

Once pushed and deployed, I repeatedly hit /testing/caching, and /testing/blocking from separate tabs. With the default memory cache store, I saw 2 different times on /testing/caching. Once I configured Rails to use memcached as the cache store, I saw only be a single time on /testing/caching. This makes sense because both dynos are pulling from the same centralized cache.

The moral of the story is to not use page caching on Heroku for pages that need to be manually expired. Personally, I'm just going to set http expiration headers myself to make the code's behavior more transparent and consistent between local development and Heroku production.

Useful debugging tips

To see the cache store currently being used and the contents of your cache:

script/console production
app.get '/'
# tells you what cache_store is being used, and what's in your cache

Sweepers have a reference to the controller, so it's useful to set a breakpoint before and after the call to expire_action:

# in review_sweeper.rb
def after_save(obj)
  # inspect 'cache_configured?' or 'self.controller.send(:cache_configured?)'
  expire_action :controller => 'reviews', :action => 'index'

Reference Links

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