Changes in Varnish 4.1

Varnish 4.1 is the continuation of the new streaming architecture seen in Varnish 4.0.

Proactive security features

New in 4.1 is support for different kinds of privilege separation methods, collectively described as jails.

On most systems, the Varnish parent process will now drop effective privileges to normal user mode when not doing operations needing special access.

The Varnish worker child should now be run as a separate vcache user.

varnishlog, varnishncsa and other Varnish shared log utilities now must be run in a context with varnish group membership.

Warm and cold VCL configurations

Traditionally Varnish have had the concept of active and inactive loaded VCLs. Any loaded VCL lead to state being kept, and a separate set of health checks (if configured) were being run against the backends.

To avoid the extra state and backend polling, a loaded VCL is now either warm or cold. Runtime state (incl. backend counters) and health checks are not present for cold VCLs.

A warm VCL will automatically be set to cold after vcl_cooldown seconds.

Output from vcl.list:

varnish> vcl.list
available  auto/warm       0 boot
available  auto/warm       0 62f5275f-a937-4df9-9fbb-c12336bdfdb8

A single VCL’s state can be changed with the vcl.state call in varnishadm:

vcl.state <configname> <state>
    Force the state of the specified configuration.
    State is any of auto, warm or cold values.


varnish> vcl.state 62f5275f-a937-4df9-9fbb-c12336bdfdb8 cold

varnish> vcl.list
available  auto/warm       0 boot
available  auto/cold       0 62f5275f-a937-4df9-9fbb-c12336bdfdb8

VMOD writers should read up on the new vcl_event system to release unnecessary state when a VCL is transitioned to cold (see Event functions).

PROXY protocol support

Socket support for PROXY protocol connections has been added. PROXY defines a short preamble on the TCP connection where (usually) a SSL/TLS terminating proxy can signal the real client address.

The -a startup argument syntax has been expanded to allow for this:

$ varnishd -f /etc/varnish/default.vcl -a :6081 -a,PROXY

Both PROXY1 and PROXY2 protocols are supported on the resulting listening socket.

For connections coming in over a PROXY socket, client.ip and server.ip will contain the addresses given to Varnish in the PROXY header/preamble (the “real” IPs).

The new VCL variables remote.ip and local.ip contains the local TCP connection endpoints. On non-PROXY connections these will be identical to client.ip and server.ip.

An expected pattern following this is if (std.port(local.ip) == 80) { } in vcl_recv to see if traffic came in over the HTTP listening socket (so a client redirect to HTTPS can be served).

VMOD backends

Before Varnish 4.1, backends could only be declared in native VCL. Varnish 4.0 moved directors from VCL to VMODs, and VMODs can now also create backends. It is possible to both create the same backends than VCL but dynamically, or create backends that don’t necessarily speak HTTP/1 over TCP to fetch resources. More details in the Writing a Director documentation.

Backend connection timeout

Backend connections will now be closed by Varnish after backend_idle_timeout seconds of inactivity.

Previously they were kept around forever and the backend servers would close the connection without Varnish noticing it. On the next traffic spike needing these extra backend connections, the request would fail, perhaps multiple times, before a working backend connection was found/created.

Protocol support

Support for HTTP/0.9 on the client side has been retired.

More modules available

Varnish has an ecosystem for third-party modules (vmods). New since the last release, these are worth knowing about:

libvmod-saintmode: Saint mode (“inferred health probes from traffic”) was taken out of Varnish core in 4.0, and is now back as a separate vmod. This is useful for detecting failing backends before the health probes pick it up.

libvmod-xkey: Secondary hash keys for cache objects, based on the hashtwo vmod written by Varnish Software. Allows for arbitrary grouping of objects to be purged in one go, avoiding use of ban invalidation. Also known as Cache Keys or Surrogate Key support.

libvmod-rtstatus: Real time statistics dashboard.

Passing data between ESI requests

A new req_top identifier is available in VCL, which is a reference to req in the top-level ESI request.

This is useful to pass data back and forth between the main ESI request and any ESI sub-requests it leads to.

Other noteworthy small changes

  • Varnish will now use the stale-while-revalidate defined in RFC5861 to set object grace time.

  • -smalloc storage is now recommended over -sfile on Linux systems.

  • New VCL variable beresp.was_304 has been introduced in vcl_backend_response. Will be set to true if the response from the backend was a positive result of a conditional fetch (304 Not Modified).