Knuckles, The Next Level of API Caching

10 May 2016 by Parker Selbert

For months I’d been watching Skylight performance metrics for a couple of critical API endpoints. The response times weren’t great, moreover they were highly unpredictable. The endpoint had some intensive caching, but it fell flat whenever the cache wasn’t warm. When the cache was warm it was still plagued by massive object allocations and frequent GC pauses. These are essential API endpoints, serving hundreds of thousands of requests a day. It had to get better.

Figuring Out How To Get Better

I’ve been down this road before with a library called Perforated. The idea behind Perforated is simple, only cache the parts of a collection that need to be recomputed and stitch the serialized values back together. To that end, Perforated worked very well. What Perforated lacked were some crucial optimizations to reduce initial object allocation and provide flexibility. The architecture of Perforated wasn’t composable enough for optimizations to be added on. It was simply too hard to isolate and instrument each part of the serialization process. It begged for a rewrite.

The successor to Perforated is called Knuckles. If that name is confusing, just know that “Sonic” was already taken. It extends the functionality of Perforated by adding crucial features like cache customization, full instrumentation, and an integrated view module. Thanks to rigorous profiling and benchmarking it also crushes on performance.

Critical Project Goals

Setting a few goals from the outset helped make design decisions and kept the project focused. The library is meant to be as fast and lightweight as possible, which pushed back on feature creep. Here are some of the highest impact decisions along with the results they yielded.

Emphasis on Caching as a Composable Operation

Personalization is a caching roadblock. In a typical system you can’t cache a payload when the content is customized for the current requester. That results in an untenable one-cache-entry-per-user situation, which isn’t useful.

Knuckles breaks the cache process down into discrete stages of a functional pipeline. Each stage aids in reducing down to a final serialized payload. Stages can be removed from the pipeline, or new ones can be added. For example, to handle the personalization conundrum you simply insert an enhancer stage that augments the payload with the current user’s information. If a resource is being served to users with differing privileges then the customizer step can prune sensitive information before it is served up.

As an example, imagine rendering content for staff and regular users. The only difference is that staff can see more fields. In this situation, you would cache everything and then prune the final payload when the request isn’t from staff:

module Knuckles
  module Enhancers
    module StaffEnhancer
      STAFF_ONLY = %w[bookmarks notes tags].freeze

      def self.call(rendered, options)
        scope = options[:scope]

        unless scope.staff?
          rendered.delete_if { |key, _| STAFF_ONLY.include?(key.to_s) }
        end

        rendered
      end
    end
  end
end

Now the endpoint can be fully cached and serve multiple roles efficiently. Using this technique, or the opposite wherein personal content is appended to the payload, there are no limitations on how personalized cached content can be.

Reduced Object Instantiation

Rampant object allocations are a massive performance killer for any application. Unrestricted object creation puts a strain on the garbage collector, hurting random unrelated requests. A key to the design of Knuckles was promoting patterns where fewer objects were allocated. Just how many fewer objects? Take a look at the chart below. These numbers are for the same sizable endpoint running in production, fully cached.

The retained value for Knuckles is 136 objects, so low that it isn’t even on the chart. These drastic reductions in object allocation stem from three places:

Custom Serializer with Compatibility

Having spent the past half a year writing Elixir I’ve come to strongly favor explicit code over DSLs. That’s why the serializer that comes with Knuckles, called a view only uses three methods to construct serialized data.

PostView = Module.new do
  extend Knuckles::View

  def self.root
    :posts
  end

  def self.data(post, _)
    {id: post.id, title: post.title, tag_ids: post.tags.map(&:id)}
  end

  def self.relations(post, _)
    {tags: has_many(post.tags, TagView)}
  end
end

All of the data structures, keys, and values must be stated explicitly. There isn’t any surprising pluralization, or obscure incantations to sideload an association rather than embed it. Views are very simple and designed to stay out of your way.

There is a built in stage for ActiveModelSerializers compatibility, if you’re coming to Knuckles from an existing system. In fact, that’s how it was rolled out to production initially.

How Are Those Endpoints Now?

It’s been several months since Knuckles hit production. I can proudly say that the 95th percentile response times jumped 4-5x, with warm requests coming back in ~31ms or less. Undoubtedly there were stumbling points while folding Knuckles in, but the final transition was seamless.

If you’re running an app with lagging API endpoints, or endpoints you wish you could cache, give Knuckles a try.