Nginx Caching for Passenger Applications

Suppose you’re running an application on a Passenger + Nginx powered server and you want to add caching.

Perhaps your application has a dynamic, public endpoint but the contents don’t change super-frequently or it isn’t critically-important that the user always gets up-to-the-second accuracy, and you’d like to improve performance with microcaching. How would you do that?

Where you’re at

Diagram showing the Internet connecting to an Nginx+Passenger webserver, connecting to an application written for Ruby, Python, or NodeJS.
Not pictured: the rest of the Internet.

Your configuration might look something like this:

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server {
  # listen, server_name, ssl, logging etc. directives go here
  # ...

  root               /your/application;
  passenger_enabled  on;
}

What you’re looking for is proxy_cache and its sister directives, but you can’t just insert them here because while Passenger does act act like an upstream proxy (with parallels like e.g. passenger_pass_header which mirrors the behaviour of proxy_pass_header), it doesn’t provide any of the functions you need to implement proxy caching of non-static files.

Where you need to be

Instead, what you need to to is define a second server, mount Passenger in that, and then proxy to that second server. E.g.:

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# Set up a cache
proxy_cache_path /tmp/cache/my-app-cache keys_zone=MyAppCache:10m levels=1:2 inactive=600s max_size=100m;

# Define the actual webserver that listens for Internet traffic:
server {
  # listen, server_name, ssl, logging etc. directives go here
  # ...

  # You can configure different rules by location etc., but here's a simple microcache:
  location / {
    proxy_pass http://127.0.0.1:4863; # Proxy all traffic to the application server defined below
    proxy_cache           MyAppCache; # Use the cache defined above
    proxy_cache_valid     200 3s;     # Treat HTTP 200 responses as valid; cache them for 3 seconds
    proxy_cache_use_stale updating;   # (Optional) send outdated response while background-updating cache
    proxy_cache_lock      on;         # (Optional) only allow one process to update cache at once
  }
}

# (Local-only) application server on an arbitrary port number to act as the upstream proxy:
server {
  listen 127.0.0.1:4863;

  root               /your/application;
  passenger_enabled  on;
}

The two key changes are:

  • Passenger moves to a second server block, localhost-only, on an arbitrary port number (doesn’t need HTTPS, of course, but if your application detects/”expects” HTTPS you might need to tweak your headers).
  • Your main server block proxies to the second as its upstream, and you can add whatever caching directives you like.

Obviously you’ll need to be smarter if you host a mixture of public and private content (e.g. send Vary: headers from your application) and if you want different cache durations on different addresses or types of content, but there are already great guides to help with that. I only wrote this post because I spent some time searching for (nonexistent!) passenger_cache_ etc. rules and wanted to save the next person from the same trouble!

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