HTTP compression filter on servlets : good idea, wrong layer

The Servlet 2.3 specifications introduced the notion of servlet filters, powerful tools but unfortunately used in quite unimaginative ways. Let’s take for instance this ONJava article (“Two Servlet Filters Every Web Application Should Have”) written by one of the coauthors to Servlets and JavaServer Pages; the J2EE Web Tier (a well-known servlets and JSP book from O’Reilly), Jayson Falkner*. This article has loads of trackbacks, it became so popular that the filters eventually got published on JavaPerformanceTuning along with an (otherwise very sensible and pragmatic) interview of the author. However, there is a more efficient way of performing these tasks, as undiscriminated page compression and simple time-based caching do not necessarily belong in the servlet container**. As one of the comments (on ONJava) put it : ‘good idea, wrong layer !’. Let’s see why…

There is a simple way to compress pages from any kind of site (be it Java, PHP, or Ruby on Rails), natively, in Apache web server. The trick consists in chaining two Apache modules : mod_proxy and mod_gzip.Via mod_proxy, it becomes possible to configure a certain path on one of your virtual hosts to proxy all requests to the servlet container, then you may selectively compress pages using mod_gzip.

Supposing that the two modules are compiled and loaded in the configuration, and your servlet is located at http://local_address:8080/b2b. You want to make it visible at http://external_address/b2b. To activate the proxy, add the following two lines :

ProxyPass /b2b/ http://local_address:8080/b2b/ProxyPassReverse /b2b/ http://local_address:8080/b2b/

You can add as many directives as you like, proxy-ing all the servlets for the server (for instance, one of the configuration I’ve looked at has a special servlet for dynamic image generation and one for dynamic PDF documents generation – the output will not be compressed, but they all had to be proxy-ed). Time-based caching is also possible with mod_proxy, but this subject deserves a little article by itself. For the moment, we’ll stick to simple transparent proxying and compression.

Congratulations, just restart Apache and you have a running proxy. Mod_gzip is a little bit trickier. I’ve adapted a little bit the configuration from the article Getting mod_gzip to compress Zope pages proxied by Apache (haven’t been able to find anything better concerning integration with Java servlet containers) and here’s the result :

#module settingsmod_gzip_on Yesmod_gzip_can_negotiate Yesmod_gzip_send_vary Yesmod_gzip_dechunk Yesmod_gzip_add_header_count Yesmod_gzip_minimum_file_size 512mod_gzip_maximum_file_size 5000000mod_gzip_maximum_inmem_size 100000mod_gzip_temp_dir /tmpmod_gzip_keep_workfiles Nomod_gzip_update_static Nomod_gzip_static_suffix .gz#includesmod_gzip_item_include mime ^text/$mod_gzip_item_include mime httpd/unix-directorymod_gzip_item_include handler proxy-servermod_gzip_item_include handler cgi-script#excludesmod_gzip_item_exclude reqheader "User-agent: Mozilla/4.0[678]"mod_gzip_item_exclude mime ^image/$#log settingsLogFormat "%h %l %u %t "%r" %>s %b "%{Referer}i" "%{User-Agent}i" mod_gzip: %{mod_gzip_result}n In:%{mod_gzip_input_size}n Out:%{mod_gzip_output_size}n:%{mod_gzip_compression_ratio}npct." mod_gzip_infoCustomLog /var/log/apache/mod_gzip.log mod_gzip_info

Short explanation. The module is activated and allowed to negotiate (see if a static or cached file was already compressed and reuse it). The Vary header is useful for client-side caches to work, dechunking eliminates the ‘Transfer-encoding: chunked’ HTTP header and joins the page into one big packet before compressing. Header length is added for traffic measuring purposes (we’ll see the ‘right’ figures in the log). Minimum size of a file to be compressed is 512 bytes, setting maximum is also a good idea because a) compressing a huge file will stump your server and b) the limitation guards against infinite loops. Maximum file size to compress in memory is 100KB in my setting, but you should tune this value for optimum performance. Temporary directory is /tmp and workfiles should be kept only if you need to debug mod_gzip. Which you don’t.

We’ll include in the files to be gzipped everything that’s text type, directory listing and … the magic line is the one that specifies that everything coming from the proxy-server is susceptible to be compressed: this will assure the compression of your generated pages. And while you’re at it, why not add the cgi scripts…

The includes specified here are quite generous, let’s now filter some of it: we’ll exclude all the images because they SHOULD be already compressed and optimized for web. And last but not least, we’ll decide the format of the line to be added and the location of the compression log – it will allow us to see whether the filter is effectively running and compute how much bandwidth we have saved.

A compelling reason to use mod_gzip is its maturity. Albeit complex, this Apache module is stable and relatively bug free, which can hardly be said about the various compression filters found on the web. The original code from the O’Reilly article was behaving incorrectly under certain circumstances (corrected later on the book’s site, I’ve tested the code and it works fine). I also had some issues with Amy Roh’s filter (from Sun). Amy’s compression filter can be found in a lot of places on the web (JavaWorld, Sun), but unfortunately does not set the correct ‘Content-Length’ header, thus disturbing httpunit, which in turn has ‘turned 100% red’ my web tests suite – as soon as the compression filter was on. Argh.

For the final word, let’s compare the performance of the two solutions (servlet filter agains mod_proxy+mod_gzip). I’ve used a single machine to install both Apache and the servlet container (Jetty), and Amy Roh’s compression filter. A mildly complex navigation scenario was recorded in TestMaker (a cool free testing tool written in Java), then played a certain number of times (100, to be more specific). The results are expressed in TPS (transactions per second): the bigger, the better. The following median values were obtained : 3.10TPS direct connection to the servlet container, 2.64TPS via the compression filter and 2.81TPS via Apache mod_proxy+mod_gzip. That means a 5% performance hit between the Apache and the filter solution. Of course the figure is highly dependent on my test setup, the specific webapp and a lot of other parameters, however I am confident that Apache is superior in any configuration. You also have to consider that using a proxy has some nice bonuses. For instance, Apache HTTPS virtual sites may encrypt your content in a transparent manner. Apache has very good and fast logging, so it’d be cool to completely disable HTTP requests logging in your servlet container. Moreover, the Apache log format is understood by a myriad of traffic analyzer tools. Load balancing is possible using mod_proxy and another remarkably useful Apache module, mod_rewrite. As Apache runs in a completely different process, you might expect slightly better scalability on multiple processor boxes.

Nota bene: in all the articles I’ve read on the subject of compression, there is this strange statement that compression cannot be detected client-side. Of course you can do it… Supposing you use Firefox (which you should, if you’re serious about web browsing !) with the Web Developer plugin (which you should, if you’re serious about web development !). As depicted in the figure, the plugin helps you to “View Response Headers” (in “Information” menu): the presence or absence of Content-Encoding: gzip is what you’re looking for. Voila ! Just for kicks, look at the response headers on a few well-known sites, and prepare to be surprized (try Microsoft, for instance or Slashdot for some funny random quotes).

* Jayson Falkner has also authored this article (“Another Java Servlet Filter Most Web Applications Should Have”) which explains how to control the client-side cache via HTTP response headers. While the example is very simple, one can easily extend it to do more complex stuff such as caching according to rules (for instance, caching dynamically generated documents or images according to the context). This _is_ a pragmatic example of servlet filter.

** Unless of course – as one of the commenters explains here – you
have some specific constraints against being able to use Apache, such as
embedded environment, forced to use another web server than Apache (alternative solutions might exist for those servers but I am not aware of them), mod_gzip unavailable on the target platform, etc.