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Take Advantage of ASP.NET 2.0's Data Caching Techniques, Part 1

This two-part article shows you how to take advantage of the many ways that you can boost the performance of ASP.NET applications by caching the data they use. Although some of the techniques apply to both ASP.NET 1.0 and 2.0, the new capabilities in ASP.NET 2.0 make caching even more attractive for busy Web sites.


ne unfortunate by-product of the rapid move away from standalone and client/server applications to the Web-based environment is the disconnected nature of the HTTP protocol. Web servers and clients briefly exchange data, and then (by default) each forgets about the other entirely until the client makes another request. This meet-exchange-forget cycle particularly affects the way that the individual pages of an application handle data—especially when there is a requirement to store data that is either expensive to create (in terms of resource and processing usage), or which is used regularly throughout the life of the application.

Since version 1.0, ASP has provided techniques to help you maintain state information and cache data for an application, as the Application and Session objects that it exposes. ASP.NET 1.0 added another headline feature, the application-level Cache object (complete with its support for output caching of ASP.NET-generated HTML), which is especially useful because it supports features to expire and invalidate items and pages stored in the cache. Now, ASP.NET version 2.0 adds new features that make using the Cache object and output caching an even more compelling solution.

This article contains an overview of the primary techniques available in ASP.NET for caching values and data between user requests, and then goes on to concentrate on the Cache object and output caching—with particular emphasis on the new features in version 2.0. You'll see information about:

  • Choosing the right approach for caching data.
  • Application, Session and ViewState data caching.
  • Global caching of data using disk files.
  • The ASP.NET output caching features.
  • Using the ASP.NET Cache object directly.
Author's Note: The ASP.NET version 2.0 code described in this article is based on the Beta 1 release of the .NET Framework v2.0. All other code is based on the final V1.1 release of the .NET Framework. You can download all the examples. If you install them on your own server, you may have to edit the connection strings in the web.config file, depending on the location of your database. There is a menu page named default.htm in each of the two folders in the samples (one for ASP.NET v1.1 and one for v2.0 Beta1).

Choosing a Caching Technology
The most important feature when choosing one of the available caching technologies is cache visibility. In other words, where do you need to be able to access the cached data? If it is just for the life of a page or over repeated postbacks from a particular page, you can take advantage of the ViewState of that page, which is basically a dictionary object that stores string values encoded into a hidden control on the page. Or you can use output caching to cache a portion or the entire HTML generated for a page so that the server does not have to re-execute the page for every request. In ASP.NET version 2.0, most of the new data source controls can cache their data, so you can also take advantage of that capability.

However, to store data required to be accessible across more than one page, you need an alternative technique. If you only need to make the values available for a specific user, you can use the Session object to store values and data. As long as the user's browser supports cookies, or you turn on cookieless session support, data in the user's Session store will be available from any page they open while the session is active.

If you want to make your data visible to all the users of an application, you must use either the ASP.NET Application object or the Cache object. The advantage of the Cache object is that you can program expiration rules and manage the lifetime of the data more closely. Of course, you can use the Application and Cache objects for user-specific data as long as you manage the identification of each instance of the data, probably through unique or user-specific cache key names.

Finally, suppose you want to make cached data available to all users and all applications on a server, or even on a networked group of servers? The only real answer here is to use some sort of disk or memory persistence implemented and managed outside of ASP.NET. In fact this is reasonably easy to do, using the classes implemented in the .NET Framework class library for reading and writing streams (including memory streams) and disk files. In general, disk-based storage is the better option for longer persistence periods, because it can survive server restarts, application failures, and most other events that would cause other forms of cached data to be lost.

Table 1 shows the features of each technique briefly mentioned here, including a note about the volume of data that each is designed to cope with. For example, ASP.NET transmits the ViewState of a page over the network twice with each page request, and so you should keep it to a minimum. If you have a great many concurrent users, even small volumes of data stored in each user's Session can swallow up valuable memory on the server unless you configure alternative Session support features such as the ASP.NET State Store or storage in a central SQL Server database.

Table 1. Cache Visibility: The table lists data visibility and optimum size for various caching techniques.
Technique Visibility Optimum data size
Page ViewState Page Small
Data source controls Page Large
Page output caching Page Large
ASP Session User Small/Medium
ASP Application Application Medium
ASP.NET Cache Application Large
Disk file Global Large

It's important to note that you don't have to choose the most restrictive visibility for your cached data. For example, disk-based storage—perhaps as an XML file—would be an ideal solution for data that is expensive to retrieve from its source and yet changes infrequently (particularly if accessed only occasionally by users). But what if each user requires a different set of data? You could still cache it using some user-specific value in the filename, perhaps the Session ID or user login name. The only downside is that you have to manage refreshing and removing stale data yourself.

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