13.2 Expiration Model

13.2.1 Server-Specified Expiration

HTTP caching works best when caches can entirely avoid making requests to the origin server. The primary mechanism for avoiding requests is for an origin server to provide an explicit expiration time in the future, indicating that a response MAY be used to satisfy subsequent requests. In other words, a cache can return a fresh response without first contacting the server.

Our expectation is that servers will assign future explicit expiration times to responses in the belief that the entity is not likely to change, in a semantically significant way, before the expiration time is reached. This normally preserves semantic transparency, as long as the server's expiration times are carefully chosen.

The expiration mechanism applies only to responses taken from a cache and not to first-hand responses forwarded immediately to the requesting client.

If an origin server wishes to force a semantically transparent cache to validate every request, it MAY assign an explicit expiration time in the past. This means that the response is always stale, and so the cache SHOULD validate it before using it for subsequent requests. See Section 14.9.4 for a more restrictive way to force revalidation.

If an origin server wishes to force any HTTP/1.1 cache, no matter how it is configured, to validate every request, it SHOULD use the "must- revalidate" cache-control directive (see Section 14.9).

Servers specify explicit expiration times using either the Expires header, or the max-age directive of the Cache-Control header.

An expiration time cannot be used to force a user agent to refresh its display or reload a resource; its semantics apply only to caching mechanisms, and such mechanisms need only check a resource's expiration status when a new request for that resource is initiated. See Section 13.13 for an explanation of the difference between caches and history mechanisms.

13.2.2 Heuristic Expiration

Since origin servers do not always provide explicit expiration times, HTTP caches typically assign heuristic expiration times, employing algorithms that use other header values (such as the Last-Modified time) to estimate a plausible expiration time. The HTTP/1.1 specification does not provide specific algorithms, but does impose worst-case constraints on their results. Since heuristic expiration times might compromise semantic transparency, they ought to used cautiously, and we encourage origin servers to provide explicit expiration times as much as possible.

13.2.3 Age Calculations

In order to know if a cached entry is fresh, a cache needs to know if its age exceeds its freshness lifetime. We discuss how to calculate the latter in Section 13.2.4; this section describes how to calculate the age of a response or cache entry.

In this discussion, we use the term "now" to mean "the current value of the clock at the host performing the calculation." Hosts that use HTTP, but especially hosts running origin servers and caches, SHOULD use NTP [28] or some similar protocol to synchronize their clocks to a globally accurate time standard.

HTTP/1.1 requires origin servers to send a Date header, if possible, with every response, giving the time at which the response was generated (see Section 14.18). We use the term "date_value" to denote the value of the Date header, in a form appropriate for arithmetic operations.

HTTP/1.1 uses the Age response-header to convey the estimated age of the response message when obtained from a cache. The Age field value is the cache's estimate of the amount of time since the response was generated or revalidated by the origin server.

In essence, the Age value is the sum of the time that the response has been resident in each of the caches along the path from the origin server, plus the amount of time it has been in transit along network paths.

We use the term "age_value" to denote the value of the Age header, in a form appropriate for arithmetic operations.

A response's age can be calculated in two entirely independent ways:

  1. now minus date_value, if the local clock is reasonably well synchronized to the origin server's clock. If the result is negative, the result is replaced by zero.

  2. age_value, if all of the caches along the response path implement HTTP/1.1.

Given that we have two independent ways to compute the age of a response when it is received, we can combine these as

corrected_received_age = max(now - date_value, age_value)

and as long as we have either nearly synchronized clocks or all- HTTP/1.1 paths, one gets a reliable (conservative) result.

Because of network-imposed delays, some significant interval might pass between the time that a server generates a response and the time it is received at the next outbound cache or client. If uncorrected, this delay could result in improperly low ages.

Because the request that resulted in the returned Age value must have been initiated prior to that Age value's generation, we can correct for delays imposed by the network by recording the time at which the request was initiated. Then, when an Age value is received, it MUST be interpreted relative to the time the request was initiated, not the time that the response was received. This algorithm results in conservative behavior no matter how much delay is experienced. So, we compute:

corrected_initial_age = corrected_received_age + (now - request_time)

where "request_time" is the time (according to the local clock) when the request that elicited this response was sent.

Summary of age calculation algorithm, when a cache receives a response:

/* * age_value * is the value of Age: header received by the cache with * this response. * date_value * is the value of the origin server's Date: header * request_time * is the (local) time when the cache made the request * that resulted in this cached response * response_time * is the (local) time when the cache received the * response * now * is the current (local) time */

apparent_age = max(0, response_time - date_value); corrected_received_age = max(apparent_age, age_value); response_delay = response_time - request_time; corrected_initial_age = corrected_received_age + response_delay; resident_time = now - response_time; current_age = corrected_initial_age + resident_time;

The current_age of a cache entry is calculated by adding the amount of time (in seconds) since the cache entry was last validated by the origin server to the corrected_initial_age. When a response is generated from a cache entry, the cache MUST include a single Age header field in the response with a value equal to the cache entry's current_age.

The presence of an Age header field in a response implies that a response is not first-hand. However, the converse is not true, since the lack of an Age header field in a response does not imply that the response is first-hand unless all caches along the request path are compliant with HTTP/1.1 (i.e., older HTTP caches did not implement the Age header field).

13.2.4 Expiration Calculations

In order to decide whether a response is fresh or stale, we need to compare its freshness lifetime to its age. The age is calculated as described in Section 13.2.3; this section describes how to calculate the freshness lifetime, and to determine if a response has expired. In the discussion below, the values can be represented in any form appropriate for arithmetic operations.

We use the term "expires_value" to denote the value of the Expires header. We use the term "max_age_value" to denote an appropriate value of the number of seconds carried by the "max-age" directive of the Cache-Control header in a response (see Section 14.9.3).

The max-age directive takes priority over Expires, so if max-age is present in a response, the calculation is simply:

freshness_lifetime = max_age_value

Otherwise, if Expires is present in the response, the calculation is:

freshness_lifetime = expires_value - date_value

Note that neither of these calculations is vulnerable to clock skew, since all of the information comes from the origin server.

If none of Expires, Cache-Control: max-age, or Cache-Control: s- maxage (see Section 14.9.3) appears in the response, and the response does not include other restrictions on caching, the cache MAY compute a freshness lifetime using a heuristic. The cache MUST attach Warning 113 to any response whose age is more than 24 hours if such warning has not already been added.

Also, if the response does have a Last-Modified time, the heuristic expiration value SHOULD be no more than some fraction of the interval since that time. A typical setting of this fraction might be 10%.

The calculation to determine if a response has expired is quite simple:

response_is_fresh = (freshness_lifetime > current_age)

13.2.5 Disambiguating Expiration Values

Because expiration values are assigned optimistically, it is possible for two caches to contain fresh values for the same resource that are different.

If a client performing a retrieval receives a non-first-hand response for a request that was already fresh in its own cache, and the Date header in its existing cache entry is newer than the Date on the new response, then the client MAY ignore the response. If so, it MAY retry the request with a "Cache-Control: max-age=0" directive (see Section 14.9), to force a check with the origin server.

If a cache has two fresh responses for the same representation with different validators, it MUST use the one with the more recent Date header. This situation might arise because the cache is pooling responses from other caches, or because a client has asked for a reload or a revalidation of an apparently fresh cache entry.

13.2.6 Disambiguating Multiple Responses

Because a client might be receiving responses via multiple paths, so that some responses flow through one set of caches and other responses flow through a different set of caches, a client might receive responses in an order different from that in which the origin server sent them. We would like the client to use the most recently generated response, even if older responses are still apparently fresh.

Neither the entity tag nor the expiration value can impose an ordering on responses, since it is possible that a later response intentionally carries an earlier expiration time. The Date values are ordered to a granularity of one second.

When a client tries to revalidate a cache entry, and the response it receives contains a Date header that appears to be older than the one for the existing entry, then the client SHOULD repeat the request unconditionally, and include

Cache-Control: max-age=0

to force any intermediate caches to validate their copies directly with the origin server, or

Cache-Control: no-cache

to force any intermediate caches to obtain a new copy from the origin server.

If the Date values are equal, then the client MAY use either response (or MAY, if it is being extremely prudent, request a new response). Servers MUST NOT depend on clients being able to choose deterministically between responses generated during the same second, if their expiration times overlap.