The Vary header is sent by the web server to indicate what makes a HTTP object Vary. This makes a lot of sense with headers like Accept-Encoding. When a server issues a "Vary: Accept-Encoding" it tells Varnish that its needs to cache a separate version for every different Accept-Encoding that is coming from the clients. So, if a clients only accepts gzip encoding Varnish won't serve the version of the page encoded with the deflate encoding.

The problem is that the Accept-Encoding field contains a lot of different encodings. If one browser sends:

Accept-Encoding: gzip,deflate

And another one sends:

Accept-Encoding: deflate,gzip

Varnish will keep two variants of the page requested due to the different Accept-Encoding headers. Normalizing the accept-encoding header will sure that you have as few variants as possible. The following VCL code will normalize the Accept-Encoding headers:

if (req.http.Accept-Encoding) {
    if (req.url ~ "\.(jpg|png|gif|gz|tgz|bz2|tbz|mp3|ogg)$") {
        # No point in compressing these
        remove req.http.Accept-Encoding;
    } elsif (req.http.Accept-Encoding ~ "gzip") {
        set req.http.Accept-Encoding = "gzip";
    } elsif (req.http.Accept-Encoding ~ "deflate") {
        set req.http.Accept-Encoding = "deflate";
    } else {
        # unknown algorithm
        remove req.http.Accept-Encoding;

The code sets the Accept-Encoding header from the client to either gzip, deflate with a preference for gzip.

Vary parse errors

Varnish will return a 503 internal server error page when it fails to parse the Vary server header, or if any of the client headers listed in the Vary header exceeds the limit of 65k characters. An SLT_Error log entry is added in these cases.

Pitfall - Vary: User-Agent

Some applications or application servers send Vary: User-Agent along with their content. This instructs Varnish to cache a separate copy for every variation of User-Agent there is. There are plenty. Even a single patchlevel of the same browser will generate at least 10 different User-Agent headers based just on what operating system they are running.

So if you really need to Vary based on User-Agent be sure to normalize the header or your hit rate will suffer badly. Use the above code as a template.

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