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Caching, You Ain't No Friend of Mine

I’m a big fan of leveraging caching to improve performance. If you look over my blog, you’ll find quite a few articles that cover things like implementing BLOB caching within SharePoint, working with the Object Cache, extending your own code with caching options, and more. And most of those posts were written in a time when the on-premises SharePoint farm was king.

The “caching picture” began shifting when we started moving to the cloud. SharePoint Online and hosted SharePoint services aren’t the same as SharePoint on-premises, and the things we rely upon for performance improvements on-premises don’t necessarily have our backs when we move out to the cloud.

Yeah, I’m talking about caching here. And as much as it breaks my heart to say it, caching – you ain’t no friend of mine out in SharePoint Online.

Why the heartbreak?

To understand why a couple of SharePoint’s traditional caching mechanisms aren’t doing you any favors in a multi-tenant service like SharePoint Online (with or without Office 365), it helps to first understand how memory-based caching features – like SharePoint’s Object Cache – work in an on-premises environment.

ON-PREMISES

The typical on-premises environment has a small number of web front-ends (WFEs) serving content to users, and the number of site collections being served-up is relatively limited. For purposes of illustration, consider the following series of user requests to an environment possessing two WFEs behind a load balancer:

Assuming the WFEs have just been rebooted (or the application pools backing the web applications for target site collection have just been recycled) – a worst-case scenario – the user in Request #1 is going to hit a server (either #1 or #2) that does not have cached content in its Object Cache. For this example, we’ll say that the user is directed to WFE #1. Responses from WFE #1 will be slower as SharePoint works to generate the content for the user and populate its Object Cache. The WFE will then return the user’s response, but as a result of the request, its Object Cache will contain site collection-specific content such as navigational sitemaps, Content Query Web Part (CQWP) query results, common site property values, any publishing page layouts referenced by the request, and more.

The next time the farm receives a request for the same site collection (Request #2), there’s a 50/50 shot that the user will be directed to a WFE that has cached content (WFE #1, shown in green) or doesn’t yet have any cached content (WFE #2). If the user is directed to WFE #1, bingo – a better experience should result. Let’s say the user gets unlucky, though, and hits WFE #2. The same process as described earlier (for WFE #1) ensues, resulting in a slower response to the user but a populated Object Cache on WFE #2.

By the time we get to Request #3, both WFEs have at least some cached content for the site collection being visited and should thus return responses more quickly. Assuming memory pressure remains low, these WFEs will continue to serve cached content for subsequent requests – until content expires out of the cache (forcing a re-fetch and fill) or gets forced out for some reason (again, memory pressure or perhaps an application pool recycle).

Another thing worth noting with on-premises WFEs is that many SharePoint administrators use warm-up scripts and services in their environments to make the initial requests that are described (in this example) by Request #1 and Request #2. So, it’s possible in these environments that end-users never have to start with a completely “cold” WFE and make the requests that come back more slowly (but ultimately populate the Object Caches on each server).

SHAREPOINT ONLINE

Let’s look at the same initial series of interactions again. Instead of considering the typical on-premises environment, though, let’s look at SharePoint Online.

The first thing you may have noticed in the diagrams above is that we’re no longer dealing with just two WFEs. In a SharePoint Online tenant, the actual number of WFEs is a variable number that depends on factors such as load. In this example, I set the number of WFEs to 50; in reality, it could be lower or (in all likelihood) higher.

Request #1 proceeds pretty much the same way as it did in the on-premises example. None of the WFEs have any cached content for the target site collection, so the WFE needs to do extra work to fetch everything needed for a response, return that information, and then place the results in its Object Cache.

In Request #2, one server has cached content – the one that’s highlighted in green. The remaining 49 servers don’t have cached content. So, in all likelihood (49 out of 50, or 98%), the next request for the same site collection is going to go to a different WFE.

By the time we get to Request #3, we see that another WFE has gone through the fetch-and-fill operation (again, highlighted in green). But, there’s something else worth noting that we didn’t see in the on-premises environment; specifically, the previous server which had been visited (in Request #1) is now red, not green. What does this mean? Well, in a multi-tenant environment like SharePoint Online, WFEs are serving-up hundreds and perhaps thousands of different site collections for each of the residents in the SharePoint environment. Object Caches do not have infinite memory, and so memory pressure is likely to be a much greater factor than it is on-premises – meaning that Object Caches are probably going to be ejecting content pretty frequently.

If the Object Cache on a WFE is forced to eject content relevant to the site collection a user is trying to access, then that WFE is going to have to do a re-fetch and re-fill just as if it had never cached content for the target site collection. The net effect, as you might expect, is longer response times and potentially sub-par performance.

The Take-Away

If there’s one point I’m trying to make in all of this, it’s this: you can’t assume that the way a SharePoint farm operates on-premises is going to translate to the way a SharePoint Online farm (or any other multi-tenant farm) is going to operate “out in the cloud.”

Is there anything you can do? Sure – there’s plenty. As I’ve tried to illustrate thus far, the first thing you can do is challenge any assumptions you might have about performance that are based on how on-premises environments operate. The example I’ve chosen here is the Object Cache and how it factors into the performance equation – again, in the typical on-premises environment. If you assume that the Object Cache might instead be working against you in a multi-tenant environment, then there are two particular areas where you should immediately turn your focus.

NAVIGATION

By default, SharePoint site collections use structural navigation mechanisms. Structural navigation works like this: when SharePoint needs to render a navigational menu or link structure of some sort, it walks through the site collection noting the various sites and sub-sites that the site collection contains. That information gets built into a sitemap, and that sitemap is cached in the Object Cache for faster retrieval on subsequent requests that require it.

Without the Object Cache helping out, structural navigation becomes an increasingly less desirable choice as site hierarchies get larger and larger. Better options include alternatives like managed navigation or search-driven navigation; each option has its pros and cons, so be sure to read-up a bit before selecting an option.

CONTENT QUERY WEB PARTS

When data needs to be rolled-up in SharePoint, particularly across lists or sites, savvy end-users turn to the CQWP. Since cross-list and cross-site queries are expensive operations, SharePoint will cache the results of such a query using – you guessed it – the Object Cache. Query results are then re-used from the Object Cache for a period of time to improve performance for subsequent requests. Eventually, the results expire and the query needs to be run again.

So, what are users to do when they can’t rely on the Object Cache? A common theme in SharePoint Online and other multi-tenant environments is to leverage Search whenever possible. This was called out in the previous section on Navigation, and it applies in this instance, as well.

An alternative to the CQWP is the Content Search Web Part (CSWP). The CSWP operates somewhat differently than the CQWP, so it’s not a one-to-one direct replacement … but it is very powerful and suitable in most cases. Since the CSWP pulls its query results directly from SharePoint’s search index, it’s exceptionally fast – making it just what the doctor ordered in a multi-tenant environment.

Quick note: Thanks to Cory Williams for reminding me that the CSWP is currently only available to SharePoint Online Plan 2 and other “Plan 3” (e.g., E3, G3) users. Many enterprise customers fall into this bucket, but if you’re not one of them, then you won’t find the CSWP for use in your tenant :-(

There are plenty of good resources online for the CSWP, and I regularly speak on it myself; feel free to peruse resources I have compiled on the topic (and on other topics).

Wrapping-Up

In this article, I’ve tried to explain how on-premises and multi-tenant operations are different for just one area in particular; i.e., the Object Cache. In the future, I plan to cover some performance watch-outs and work-arounds for other areas … so stay tuned!

Additional Reading and References

  1. MSDN: Navigation options for SharePoint Online
  2. MSDN: Using Content Search Web Part instead of Content Query Web Part to improve performance in SharePoint Online
  3. SharePoint Interface: Presentations and Materials

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About The Author

National Office 365 Solution Manager

Sean is the National Office 365 Solution Manager for Cardinal Solutions where he is responsible for the planning, guidance, and implementation of solutions that commonly involve Exchange Online migration, SharePoint Online deployment, and each of Office 365’s other workloads. Additionally, Sean was recently named a Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional) for his contributions to the Office Development and Office Servers and Services technical communities. Sean is also a gearhead, problem solver, and regular community contributor in various Microsoft product and technical communities.