What SPDY did to my summer vacation

It’s dawning on me that I’m sort of the hipster of hipsters, in the sense that I tend to do things far before other people do, but totally fail to communicate what’s going on out there in the future, and thus by the time the “real hipsters” catch up, I’m already somewhere different and more interesting.

My one lucky break was the bikeshed email where I actually did sit down and compose some of my thoughts, thus firmly sticking a stick in the ground as one of the first to seriously think about how you organize open source collaborations.

I mention this because what I am going to write probably seems very unimportant for most of the Varnish users right now, but down the road, three, five or maybe even ten years ahead, I think it will become important.

Feel free to not read it until then.

The evolution of Varnish

When we started out, seven years ago, our only and entire goal was to build a server-side cache better than squid. That we did.

Since then we have added stuff to Varnish (ESI:includes, gzip support, VMODS) and I’m staring at streaming and conditional backend fetches right now.

Varnish is a bit more than a web-cache now, but it is still, basically, a layer of polish you put in front of your webserver to get it to look and work better.

Google’s experiments with SPDY have forced a HTTP/2.0 effort into motion, but if past performance is any indication, that is not something we have to really worry about for a number of years. The IETF WG has still to manage to “clarify” RFC2616 which defines HTTP/1.1, and to say there is anything even remotely resembling consensus behind SPDY would be a downright lie.

RFC2616 is from June 1999, which, to me, means that we should look at 2035 when we design HTTP/2.0, and predicting things is well known to be hard, in particular with respect to the future.

So what’s a Varnish architect to do?

What I did this summer vacation, was to think a lot about how Varnish can be architected to cope with the kind of changes SPDY and maybe HTTP/2.0 drag in: Pipelining, multiplexing, etc., without committing us to one particular path of science fiction about life in 2035.

Profound insights often sound incredibly simplistic, bordering trivial, until you consider the full ramifications. The implementation of “Do Not Kill” in current law is surprisingly voluminous. (If you don’t think so, you probably forgot to #include the Vienna Treaty and the convention about chemical and biological weapons.)

So my insight about Varnish, that it has to become a socket-wrench-like toolchest for doing things with HTTP traffic, will probably elicit a lot of “duh!” reactions, until people, including me, understand the ramifications more fully.

Things you cannot do with Varnish today

As much as Varnish can be bent, tweaked and coaxed into doing today, there are things you cannot do, or at least things which are very hard and very inefficient to do with Varnish.

For instance we consider “a transaction” something that starts with a request from a client, and involves zero or more backend fetches of finite sized data elements.

That is not how the future looks.

For instance one of the things SPDY has tried out is “server push”, where you fetch index.html and the webserver says “you’ll also want main.css and cat.gif then” and pushes those objects on the client, to save the round-trip times wasted waiting for the client to ask for them.

Today, something like that is impossible in Varnish, since objects are independent and you can only look up one at a time.

I already can hear some of you amazing VCL wizards say “Well, if you inline-C grab a refcount, then restart and …” but let’s be honest, that’s not how it should look.

You should be able to do something like:

if (req.proto == "SPDY" && req.url ~ "index.html") {
        req.obj1 = lookup(backend1, "/main.css")
        if (req.obj1.status == 200) {
                sess.push(req.obj1, bla, bla, bla);
        req.obj2 = lookup(backend1, "/cat.gif")
        if (req.obj1.status == 200) {
                sess.push(req.obj2, bla, bla, bla);

And doing that is not really that hard, I think. We just need to keep track of all the objects we instantiate and make sure they disappear and die when nobody is using them any more.

A lot of the assumptions we made back in 2006 are no longer valid under such an architecture, but those same assumptions are what gives Varnish such astonishing performance, so just replacing them with standard CS-textbook solutions like “garbage collection” would make Varnish lose a lot of its lustre.

As some of you know, there is a lot of modularity hidden inside Varnish but not quite released for public use in VCL. Much of what is going to happen will be polishing up and documenting that modularity and releasing it for you guys to have fun with, so it is not like we are starting from scratch or anything.

But some of that modularity stands on foundations which are no longer firm; for instance, the initiating request exists for the full duration of a backend fetch.

Those will take some work to fix.

But, before you start to think I have a grand plan or even a clear-cut road map, I’d better make it absolutely clear that is not the case: I perceive some weird shapes in the fog of the future and I’ll aim in that direction and either they are the doorways I suspect or they are trapdoors to tar-pits, time will show.

I’m going to be making a lot of changes and things that used to be will no longer be as they used to be, but I think they will be better in the long run, so please bear with me, if your favourite detail of how Varnish works changes.

Varnish is not speedy, Varnish is fast!

As I said I’m not a fan of SPDY and I sincerely hope that no bit of the current proposal survives unchallenged in whatever HTTP/2.0 standard emerges down the road.

But I do want to thank the people behind that mess, not for the mess, but for having provoked me to spend some summertime thinking hard about what it is that I’m trying to do with Varnish and what problem Varnish is here to solve.

This is going to be FUN!

Poul-Henning 2012-09-14

Author of Varnish

PS: See you at VUG6 where I plan to talk more about this.