There are two different uses of conditional GETs

October 13, 2009

There are two different (although overlapping) uses of conditional GETs, especially the HTTP ETag header; reducing bandwidth, and reducing your computation. A successful conditional GET always reduces bandwidth usage, and it may let you skip doing expensive operations to compute the request page.

Reducing bandwidth is useful in general because it improves the user experience (although these days there is evidence that the big time hit comes from the number of requests, not their size), but it probably doesn't help your servers very much; most websites are not constrained by their outgoing bandwidth (although cloud services may change this). Reducing computation helps your servers for the obvious reason.

This implies that you need to think about what your goal is before you start implementing conditional GET in your application. The most straightforward and general ways of computing ETag values are all post-facto approaches (you get the ETag value for a page as part of generating the page itself), but obviously these only reduce your bandwidth, not your computation.

If your goal is reducing your computation, you need to be able to check (and possibly generate) ETag values with as little work as possible; this implies things about your internal application architecture and how you work out ETag values. For example, the traditional black box, highly dynamic page templating system is not very suitable for such an environment, because it's hard (or sometimes impossible) to check if it's going to give you the same output without running it.

(The other obvious approach to fast ETag checking is a cache with explicit invalidation, but then you have to track which pages are changed by some low-level change, and this too has implications for your architecture.)

Written on 13 October 2009.
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Last modified: Tue Oct 13 00:02:56 2009
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