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Caching in HTTP

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A detailed description of the caching options available through the HTTP protocol

Caching is a technique that can help network connections be faster, because the less things need to be transferred, the better.

Many resources can be very large, and be very expensive in terms of time and also actual cost (on mobile, for example) to retrieve.

There are different caching strategies that are made available by HTTP and used by browsers.

No caching

First, the Cache-Control header can tell the browser to never use a cached version of a resource without first checking the ETag value (more on this later), by using the no-cache value:

Cache-Control: no-cache

A more restrictive no-store option tells the browser (and all the intermediary network devices) the not even store the resource in its cache:

Cache-Control: no-store

If Cache-Control has the max-age value, that’s used to determine the number of seconds this resource is valid as a cache:

Cache-Control: max-age=3600

The Expires header

When an HTTP request is sent, the browser checks if it has a copy of that page in the cache, based on the URL you required.

If there is, it checks the page for freshness.

A page is fresh if the HTTP response Expires header value is less than the current datetime.

The Expires header takes this form:

Expires: Sat, 01 Dec 2018 16:00:00 GMT

Conditional GET

There are different ways to perform a conditional get. All are based on using the If-* request headers:

Using If-Modified-Since and Last-Modified

The browser can send a request to the server and instead of just asking for the page, it adds an If-Modified-Since header, based on the Last-Modified header value it got from the currently cached page.

This tells the server to only return a response body (the page content) if the resource has been updated since that date.

Otherwise the server returns a 304 Not Modified response.

Using If-None-Match and ETag

The Web Server (depending on the setup, how page are served, etc) can send an ETag header.

That is the identifier of a resource. Every time the resource changes, for example it’s updated, the ETag should change as well.

It’s like a checksum.

The browser sends an If-None-Match header that contains one (or more) ETag value.

If none match, the server returns the fresh version of the resource, otherwise a 304 Not Modified response.

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