Speed Up Your Web Site with Varnish

Varnish is a program that can greatly speed up a Web site while reducing the load on the Web server. According to Varnish's official site, Varnish is a "Web application accelerator also known as a caching HTTP reverse proxy".

When you think about what a Web server does at a high level, it receives HTTP requests and returns HTTP responses. In a perfect world, the server would return a response immediately without having to do any real work. In the real world, however, the server may have to do quite a bit of work before returning a response to the client. Let's first look at how a typical Web server handles this, and then see what Varnish does to improve the situation.

Although every server is different, a typical Web server will go through a potentially long sequence of steps to service each request it receives. It may start by spawning a new process to handle the request. Then, it may have to load script files from disk, launch an interpreter process to interpret and compile those files into bytecode and then execute that bytecode. Executing the code may result in additional work, such as performing expensive database queries and retrieving more files from disk. Multiply this by hundreds or thousands of requests, and you can see how the server quickly can become overloaded, draining system resources trying to fulfill requests. To make matters worse, many of the requests are repeats of recent requests, but the server may not have a way to remember the responses, so it's sentenced to repeating the same painful process from the beginning for each request it encounters.

Things are a little different with Varnish in place. For starters, the request is received by Varnish instead of the Web server. Varnish then will look at what's being requested and forward the request to the Web server (known as a back end to Varnish). The back-end server does its regular work and returns a response to Varnish, which in turn gives the response to the client that sent the original request.

If that's all Varnish did, it wouldn't be much help. What gives us the performance gains is that Varnish can store responses from the back end in its cache for future use. Varnish quickly can serve the next response directly from its cache without placing any needless load on the back-end server. The result is that the load on the back end is reduced significantly, response times improve, and more requests can be served per second. One of the things that makes Varnish so fast is that it keeps its cache completely in memory instead of on disk. This and other optimizations allow Varnish to process requests at blinding speeds. However, because memory typically is more limited than disk, you have to size your Varnish cache properly and take measures not to cache duplicate objects that would waste valuable space.

Let's install Varnish. I'm going to explain how to install it from source, but you can install it using your distribution's package manager. The latest version of Varnish is 3.0.3, and that's the version I work with here. Be aware that the 2.x versions of Varnish have some subtle differences in the configuration syntax that could trip you up. Take a look at the Varnish upgrade page on the Web site for a full list of the changes between versions 2.x and 3.x.

Missing dependencies is one of the most common installation problems. Check the Varnish installation page for the full list of build dependencies.

Run the following commands as root to download and install the latest version of Varnish:

cd /var/tmp
wget http://repo.varnish-cache.org/source/varnish-3.0.3.tar.gz
tar xzf varnish-3.0.3.tar.gz
cd varnish-3.0.3
sh autogen.sh
sh configure
make test
make install

Varnish is now installed under the /usr/local directory. The full path to the main binary is /usr/local/sbin/varnishd, and the default configuration file is /usr/local/etc/varnish/default.vcl.

You can start Varnish by running the varnishd binary. Before you can do that though, you have to tell Varnish which back-end server it's caching for. Let's specify the back end in the default.vcl file. Edit the default.vcl file as shown below, substituting the values for those of your Web server:

backend default {
    .host = "";
    .port = "80";

Now you can start Varnish with this command:

/usr/local/sbin/varnishd -f /usr/local/etc/varnish/default.vcl 
 ↪-a :6081 -P /var/run/varnish.pid -s malloc,256m

This will run varnishd as a dæmon and return you to the command prompt. One thing worth pointing out is that varnishd will launch two processes. The first is the manager process, and the second is the child worker process. If the child process dies for whatever reason, the manager process will spawn a new process.

Varnishd Startup Options

The -f option tells Varnish where your configuration file lives.

The -a option is the address:port that Varnish will listen on for incoming HTTP requests from clients.

The -P option is the path to the PID file, which will make it easier to stop Varnish in a few moments.

The -s option configures where the cache is kept. In this case, we're using a 256MB memory-resident cache.

If you installed Varnish from your package manager, it may be running already. In that case, you can stop it first, then use the command above to start it manually. Otherwise, the options it was started with may differ from those in this example. A quick way to see if Varnish is running and what options it was given is with the pgrep command:

/usr/bin/pgrep -lf varnish

Varnish now will relay any requests it receives to the back end you specified, possibly cache the response, and deliver the response back to the client. Let's submit some simple GET requests and see what Varnish does. First, run these two commands on separate terminals:


The following GET command is part of the Perl www library (libwww-perl). I use it so you can see the response headers you get back from Varnish. If you don't have libwww-perl, you could use Firefox with the Live HTTP Headers extension or another tool of your choice:

GET -Used http://localhost:6081/

Figure 1. Varnish Response Headers



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What about sites that customize contents for each user?

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the article.

> It will consider only caching GET and HEAD requests. It won't cache a request with either a Cookie or Authorization header. It won't cache a response with either a Set-Cookie or Vary header

... which means that tools like Varnish are only useful to speed up sites that don't customize contents on a user-basis. I wonder how those other sites eg. Facebook handle the issue, since each page is different for each user.

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The Varnish Book

Rubén Romero's picture

If you are getting started with Varnish, make sure to read the Varnish Book:

This book is the material we use for our Varnish training classes and it gives a good introduction on the project history, what it is, how VCL works and how Varnish it is related to HTTP and Cache Invalidation.

Read the Varnish Book

Rubén Romero's picture

If you are getting started with Varnish, make sure to read the Varnish Book:

This book is the material we use for our Varnish training classes and it gives a good introduction on the project history, what it is, how VCL works and how Varnish it is related to HTTP and Cache Invalidation.


beba's picture

Is it something like maxcdn ?

Varnish works!

redgooli's picture

Trust me! it has made a huge difference for us

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