Shaun Xu

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Shaun, the author of this blog is a semi-geek, clumsy developer, passionate speaker and incapable architect with about 10 years’ experience in .NET and JavaScript. He hopes to prove that software development is art rather than manufacturing. He's into cloud computing platform and technologies (Windows Azure, Amazon and Aliyun) and right now, Shaun is being attracted by JavaScript (Angular.js and Node.js) and he likes it.

Shaun is working at Worktile Inc. as the chief architect for overall design and develop worktile, a web-based collaboration and task management tool, and lesschat, a real-time communication aggregation tool.

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Caching is a popular topic when we are building a high performance and high scalable system not only on top of the cloud platform but the on-premise environment as well. On March 2011 the Windows Azure AppFabric Caching had been production launched. It provides an in-memory, distributed caching service over the cloud. And now, in this June 2012 update, the cache team announce a grand new caching solution on Windows Azure, which is called Windows Azure Caching (Preview). And the original Windows Azure AppFabric Caching was renamed to Windows Azure Shared Caching.

 

What’s Caching (Preview)

If you had been using the Shared Caching you should know that it is constructed by a bunch of cache servers. And when you want to use you should firstly create a cache account from the developer portal and specify the size you want to use, which means how much memory you can use to store your data that wanted to be cached. Then you can add, get and remove them through your code through the cache URL.

The Shared Caching is a multi-tenancy system which host all cached items across all users. So you don’t know which server your data was located.

image

This caching mode works well and can take most of the cases. But it has some problems. The first one is the performance. Since the Shared Caching is a multi-tenancy system, which means all cache operations should go through the Shared Caching gateway and then routed to the server which have the data your are looking for. Even though there are some caches in the Shared Caching system it also takes time from your cloud services to the cache service.

Secondary, the Shared Caching service works as a block box to the developer. The only thing we know is my cache endpoint, and that’s all. Someone may satisfied since they don’t want to care about anything underlying. But if you need to know more and want more control that’s impossible in the Shared Caching.

The last problem would be the price and cost-efficiency. You pay the bill based on how much cache you requested per month. But when we host a web role or worker role, it seldom consumes all of the memory and CPU in the virtual machine (service instance). If using Shared Caching we have to pay for the cache service while waste of some of our memory and CPU locally.

Since the issues above Microsoft offered a new caching mode over to us, which is the Caching (Preview). Instead of having a separated cache service, the Caching (Preview) leverage the memory and CPU in our cloud services (web role and worker role) as the cache clusters. Hence the Caching (Preview) runs on the virtual machines which hosted or near our cloud applications. Without any gateway and routing, since it located in the same data center and same racks, it provides really high performance than the Shared Caching.

The Caching (Preview) works side-by-side to our application, initialized and worked as a Windows Service running in the virtual machines invoked by the startup tasks from our roles, we could get more information and control to them.

And since the Caching (Preview) utilizes the memory and CPU from our existing cloud services, so it’s free. What we need to pay is the original computing price. And the resource on each machines could be used more efficiently.

image

 

Enable Caching (Preview)

It’s very simple to enable the Caching (Preview) in a cloud service. Let’s create a new windows azure cloud project from Visual Studio and added an ASP.NET Web Role. Then open the role setting and select the Caching page. This is where we enable and configure the Caching (Preview) on a role.

To enable the Caching (Preview) just open the “Enable Caching (Preview Release)” check box. And then we need to specify which mode of the caching clusters we want to use.

image

There are two kinds of caching mode, co-located and dedicate. The co-located mode means we use the memory in the instances we run our cloud services (web role or worker role). By using this mode we must specify how many percentage of the memory will be used as the cache. The default value is 30%. So make sure it will not affect the role business execution.

The dedicate mode will use all memory in the virtual machine as the cache. In fact it will reserve some for operation system, azure hosting etc.. But it will try to use as much as the available memory to be the cache.

As you can see, the Caching (Preview) was defined based on roles, which means all instances of this role will apply the same setting and play as a whole cache pool, and you can consume it by specifying the name of the role, which I will demonstrate later. And in a windows azure project we can have more than one role have the Caching (Preview) enabled. Then we will have more caches. For example, let’s say I have a web role and worker role. The web role I specified 30% co-located caching and the worker role I specified dedicated caching. If I have 3 instances of my web role and 2 instances of my worker role, then I will have two caches.

image

As the figure above, cache 1 was contributed by three web role instances while cache 2 was contributed by 2 worker role instances. Then we can add items into cache 1 and retrieve it from web role code and worker role code. But the items stored in cache 1 cannot be retrieved from cache 2 since they are isolated.

Back to our Visual Studio we specify 30% of co-located cache and use the local storage emulator to store the cache cluster runtime status. Then at the bottom we can specify the named caches. Now we just use the default one.

Now we had enabled the Caching (Preview) in our web role settings. Next, let’s have a look on how to consume our cache.

 

Consume Caching (Preview)

The Caching (Preview) can only be consumed by the roles in the same cloud services. As I mentioned earlier, a cache contributed by web role can be connected from a worker role if they are in the same cloud service. But you cannot consume a Caching (Preview) from other cloud services. This is different from the Shared Caching. The Shared Caching is opened to all services if it has the connection URL and authentication token.

To consume the Caching (Preview) we need to add some references into our project as well as some configuration in the Web.config. NuGet makes our life easy. Right click on our web role project and select “Manage NuGet packages”, and then search the package named “WindowsAzure.Caching”. In the package list install the “Windows Azure Caching Preview”.

image

It will download all necessary references from the NuGet repository and update our Web.config as well. Open the Web.config of our web role and find the “dataCacheClients” node. Under this node we can specify the cache clients we are going to use. For each cache client it will use the role name to identity and find the cache. Since we only have this web role with the Caching (Preview) enabled so I pasted the current role name in the configuration.

image

Then, in the default page I will add some code to show how to use the cache. I will have a textbox on the page where user can input his or her name, then press a button to generate the email address for him/her. And in backend code I will check if this name had been added in cache. If yes I will return the email back immediately. Otherwise, I will sleep the tread for 2 seconds to simulate the latency, then add it into cache and return back to the page.

   1: protected void btnGenerate_Click(object sender, EventArgs e)
   2: {
   3:     // check if name is specified
   4:     var name = txtName.Text;
   5:     if (string.IsNullOrWhiteSpace(name))
   6:     {
   7:         lblResult.Text = "Error. Please specify name.";
   8:         return;
   9:     }
  10:  
  11:     bool cached;
  12:     var sw = new Stopwatch();
  13:     sw.Start();
  14:  
  15:     // create the cache factory and cache
  16:     var factory = new DataCacheFactory();
  17:     var cache = factory.GetDefaultCache();
  18:  
  19:     // check if the name specified is in cache
  20:     var email = cache.Get(name) as string;
  21:     if (email != null)
  22:     {
  23:         cached = true;
  24:         sw.Stop();
  25:     }
  26:     else
  27:     {
  28:         cached = false;
  29:         // simulate the letancy
  30:         Thread.Sleep(2000);
  31:         email = string.Format("{0}@igt.com", name);
  32:         // add to cache
  33:         cache.Add(name, email);
  34:     }
  35:  
  36:     sw.Stop();
  37:     lblResult.Text = string.Format(
  38:         "Cached = {0}. Duration: {1}s. {2} => {3}", 
  39:         cached, sw.Elapsed.TotalSeconds.ToString("0.00"), name, email);
  40: }

The Caching (Preview) can be used on the local emulator so we just F5. The first time I entered my name it will take about 2 seconds to get the email back to me since it was not in the cache.

image

But if we re-enter my name it will be back at once from the cache.

image

Since the Caching (Preview) is distributed across all instances of the role, so we can scaling-out it by scaling-out our web role. Just use 2 instances and tweak some code to show the current instance ID in the page, and have another try. Then we can see the cache can be retrieved even though it was added by another instance.

image

 

Consume Caching (Preview) Across Roles

As I mentioned, the Caching (Preview) can be consumed by all other roles within the same cloud service. For example, let’s add another web role in our cloud solution and add the same code in its default page. In the Web.config we add the cache client to one enabled in the last role, by specifying its role name here.

Then we start the solution locally and go to web role 1, specify the name and let it generate the email to us. Since there’s no cache for this name so it will take about 2 seconds but will save the email into cache.

image

And then we go to web role 2 and specify the same name. Then you can see it retrieve the email saved by the web role 1 and returned back very quickly.

image

Finally then we can upload our application to Windows Azure and test again. Make sure you had changed the cache cluster status storage account to the real azure account.

image

 

More Awesome Features

As a in-memory distributed caching solution, the Caching (Preview) has some fancy features I would like to highlight here. The first one is the high availability support. This is the first time I have heard that a distributed cache support high availability. In the distributed cache world if a cache cluster was failed, the data it stored will be lost. This behavior was introduced by Memcached and is followed by almost all distributed cache productions. But Caching (Preview) provides high availability, which means you can specify if the named cache will be backup automatically. If yes then the data belongs to this named cache will be replicated on another role instance of this role. Then if one of the instance was failed the data can be retrieved from its backup instance.

image

To enable the backup just open the Caching page in Visual Studio. In the named cache you want to enable backup, change the Backup Copies value from 0 to 1.

image

The value of Backup Copies only for 0 and 1. “0” means no backup and no high availability while “1” means enabled high availability with backup the data into another instance.

But by using the high availability feature there are something we need to make sure. Firstly the high availability does NOT means the data in cache will never be lost for any kind of failure. For example, if we have a role with cache enabled that has 10 instances, and 9 of them was failed, then most of the cached data will be lost since the primary and backup instance may failed together. But normally is will not be happened since MS guarantees that it will use the instance in the different fault domain for backup cache.

Another one is that, enabling the backup means you store two copies of your data. For example if you think 100MB memory is OK for cache, but you need at least 200MB if you enabled backup.

Besides the high availability, the Caching (Preview) support more features introduced in Windows Server AppFabric Caching than the Windows Azure Shared Caching. It supports local cache with notification. It also support absolute and slide window expiration types as well.

And the Caching (Preview) also support the Memcached protocol as well. This means if you have an application based on Memcached, you can use Caching (Preview) without any code changes. What you need to do is to change the configuration of how you connect to the cache.

Similar as the Windows Azure Shared Caching, MS also offers the out-of-box ASP.NET session provider and output cache provide on top of the Caching (Preview).

 

Summary

Caching is very important component when we building a cloud-based application. In the June 2012 update MS provides a new cache solution named Caching (Preview). Different from the existing Windows Azure Shared Caching, Caching (Preview) runs the cache cluster within the role instances we have deployed to the cloud. It gives more control, more performance and more cost-effect.

So now we have two caching solutions in Windows Azure, the Shared Caching and Caching (Preview). If you need a central cache service which can be used by many cloud services and web sites, then you have to use the Shared Caching. But if you only need a fast, near distributed cache, then you’d better use Caching (Preview).

 

Hope this helps,

Shaun

All documents and related graphics, codes are provided "AS IS" without warranty of any kind.
Copyright © Shaun Ziyan Xu. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons License.

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