This is an experiment to bring automatic cache expiry and regeneration to Rails. At Songkick, we have a ton of code that deals with caches and denormalization and messages and offline processing and it’s hard to maintain. I want to get rid of it. All of it.


Inspired by LunaScript and Fun, I figured Ruby could figure out which values a computation uses, and use that to expire caches for you without having to write any expiry code. This turns out to be possible, at least for typical ActiveRecord usage, and Primer includes an engine for that.

Primer currently lets you do the following:

  • Mark up ERB templates with cache keys on Rails and Sinatra

  • Monitor what attributes a cache value depends on

  • Automatically expire a cache when its dependencies change

  • Declare how caches should be recalculated for eager cache population

  • Update pages in real time when their data is updated

It does all this without you having to write a single cache sweeper. You just declare how to render your site, Primer does the rest.

Enough waffle, show me the code!

The following is the minimal, ‘hello world’ use case. Get your ActiveRecord model, put a mixn in it:

class BlogPost < ActiveRecord::Base
  include Primer::Watcher

Set up a cache for your app (you need Redis):

Primer.cache = => "", :port => 6380)

Throw a helper in your views:

# Rails
module ApplicationHelper
  include Primer::Helpers::ERB

# Sinatra
helpers { include Primer::Helpers::ERB }

Wrap cache blocks around your markup for expensive bits:

# views/posts/show.html.erb

<% primer "/posts/#{}/title" do %>
  <%= @post.title.upcase %>
<% end %>

The output of the block gets cached to Redis using the given key. Once the output is cached, the block will not be called again. The cache is invalidated when (and only when) the title of @post changes; Primer figures this out and you don’t need to write any cache sweeping code.

Finally you need to run the cache agent, unless you want to run the cache monitoring work in a background process (see below):!

# If you're using ActiveRecord!

Declaring cache generators

You may have noticed that Primer forces the use of path-style keys for your cache. Instead of wrapping code you want to memoize in a block, you can declare how to calculate it elsewhere and use a router to map cache keys to calculations. For example we could rewrite our post title example like this:

# views/posts/show.html.erb
# note '=' sign here, not used with block form

<%= primer "/posts/#{}/title" %>

Then you can declare how to calculate this in a router attached to your cache object:

Primer.cache.routes do
  get "/posts/:id/title" do
    post = BlogPost.find(params[:id])

The advantage of this is that the cache now has a way to generate cache values outside of your rendering stack, meaning that instead of just invalidating the cache it can actually calculate the new value so the cache is always ready for incoming requests.

It also means you can generate cache content offline; running the following will generate the cache of the first post’s title:


Lazy loading

A common problem when caching view fragments is not knowing whether you need to load database objects in the controller. If the parts of the view that use that object are already cached, there’s no point loading the object since it won’t be needed to render the page.

Rails has some lazy-loading capability built in, for example if you have a model that says BlogPost.has_many :comments, a call to blog_post.comments won’t actually load the comments until you call each on that collection to read the data. Primer introduces the same idea for all database calls.

If you include Primer::Lazyness in a model, then Model.find(id) will not call the database. It just returns an object with the ID you asked for, and won’t actually load the model from the database until you try to access other properties that we cannot infer from the find() call.

For example, this makes it easy to load a model in the controller and use its ID to key cache fragments, safe in the knowledge that no unnecessary database calls will be made.

BlogPost < ActiveRecord::Base
  include Primer::Lazyness

# Does not call the database
post = BlogPost.find(1)

# Does not call the database unless the title is not cached
primer "/posts/#{}/title" do

Primer also lazy-loads on other properties, for example if I call BlogPost.find_by_title("Hello World") then Primer will create an object whose title is "Hello World" without calling the database, but then if I ask for the object’s id or other properties the real model is loaded.


Let’s say you have a cache value that depends on many little bits of model data, a common situation in web front-ends. For example:

Primer.cache.routes do
  get "/posts/:id/summary" do
    post = BlogPost.find(params[:id])
      <div class="post-summary">
        <h2>#{ post.title }</h2>
        <ul class="post-meta">
          <li>Posted #{ post.strftime('%A %e %B %Y') } by #{ }</li>
          <li>Tagged with #{ { |t| link_to(, t) }.join(', ') }</li>

We’ve got a few domain objects in use here: the post itself, its author, the tags attached to the post. We’d want this value regenerating whenever any of this data changes, but what if many values that affect this template change at around the same time? We might not want to regenerate it for every single change, we just want to make sure it looks okay after all the changes have been applied. Primer lets you throttle cache regeneration, for example this makes sure each key is never regenerated twice within a 5-second interval:

Primer.cache.throttle = 5

When a value affecting a key changes, Primer will wait 5 seconds before regenerating it, allowing other data changes to accrue before we update the cache.

Background workers

You’ll probably want to move a lot of the work Primer does out of your front-end process. Primer includes an AMQP message bus to support this, and setting it up is easy - put this somewhere in your app’s setup:

Primer.bus = => 'my_app_events')

To make a background worker, you just need a file like this:

# worker.rb

# load your models, config, Primer routes etc
require 'path/to/app/environment'


Running ruby worker.rb will start a process in the shell that listens for change notifications and updates the cache for you. You can start as many of these as you like to spread the load out.

Real-time page updates

If you want to be properly web-scale, you’ll need to be updating your pages in real time as your data changes. Primer lets you update any fragment generated by a block-less primer call in your view automatically.

All you need to do is place some middleware in your Rack config:


require 'path/to/sinatra/app'

use Primer::RealTime
run Sinatra::Application

Add the client-side script to your templates (this must be in the HEAD):

<script type="text/javascript" src="/primer.js"></script>

Then configure it wherever your data model gets used to tell it you want to use real-time updates and where the messaging server is. You should also set a password - this will stop third parties being able to publish to the message bus and inject arbitrary HTML into your pages.

Primer.real_time = true
Primer::RealTime.bayeux_server = 'http://localhost:9292'
Primer::RealTime.password = 'super_secret_password'


See example/README.rdoc, a little Sinatra blog with a Redis cache, offline cache workers and real-time page updates.

Anything else?

I’ve tested it on Ruby 1.8.7 and 1.9.2 with Rails 3 and Sinatra 1.1. I’ve briefly tried using it in Rails 2.2 and it looked okay-ish.

I’m NOT using this in production, and neither should you. Ideas and feedback welcome, pull requests considered, bug reports likely to gather dust.


Copyright © 2010-2011, James Coglan. Named by the inimitable grillpanda. Released under the MIT license.