PHP and Memcached: The state of things

Memcached is the de facto standard for caching in dynamic web sites. PHP is the one of the most widely used languages on the web. So, naturally there is lots of interest in using the two together. There are two choices for using memcached with PHP: PECL/memcache and PECL/memcached. Great names huh? But as of this writing there are issues with the two most popular Memcached libraries for PHP. This is a summary of those issues that I hope will help people being hurt by them and may bring about some change.


This is the older of the two and was the first C based extension for using memcached with PHP. Before this all the options were native PHP code. While they worked, they were slower of course. C > PHP. That is just fact. However, there has not been much active development on this code in some time. Yes, they have fixed bugs, but support for new features in the memcached server have not been added to this extension. Newer version of the server suppot a more efficient binary protocol and many new features. In addition, there are some parts of the extension that simply don't work anymore.

The most glaring one is the delete() function. It takes a second parameter that is documented as: "the item will expire after timeout seconds". In fact that was never a feature of memcached. It was completely misunderstood by the original extension authors. When that parameter was supported, it locked the key for timeout seconds and would not allow a new add operation on that key. Second, this feature was completely removed in memcached 1.4.0. So, if you send a timeout to the delete function, you simply get a failure. This is creating a huge support issue in the memcached community (not the PHP/PECL community) with people not being able to delete keys because of bad documentation and unsupported behavior. I sent a documentation patch for the this function to the PHP Docs list. I then modified it based on feedback. But since I have heard nothing about it getting merged. I have a PHP svn account, but even if I do have karma on the docs repository, I don't want to hijack them without the support of the people that work on the docs all the time. If you are reading this and can change the docs, please make the documentation for that function say "DON'T USE THIS PARAMETER, IT HAS BEEN DEPRECATED IN THE MEMCACHED SERVER!" or something.

Not too long ago the extension was officially abandoned by its original maintainers. Some people stepped up and claimed they wanted to see it continue. But, since that time, there have been no releases. There are bugs being closed though so maybe there is good things coming.

A very problematic issue with this extension is with the 3.0 beta release. It needs to just die. It has huge bugs that, IMO, were introduced by the previous maintainers in an effort to bring it up to speed, but never saw them through to make sure the new code worked. In their defense, it is marked as beta on PECL. But, thanks to Google, people don't see the word beta anymore. There are lots of people using this version and when they get bad results they blame the whole memcached world. Really, the new maintainers would do the world a favor if they just removed the 3.x releases from the PECL site.


This extension was started by Andrei Zmievski while working at as an open source developer. It uses libmemcached, a C++ memcached library that does all the memcached work. This made it quite easy to support the new features in the memcached daemon as it as it was being developed at the same time as the new server. However, it has not had a stable release on PECL in nearly a year except for release to make it compatible with new versions of libmemcached. No bug fixes and no new features. There are currently 28 open bugs on PECL for this extension. Not all of which are bugs. Some are feature requests. The ironic thing is that the GitHub repository for this extension has seen a lot of development. But, none of these bug fixes have made it into the official PECL channel. And some of these bugs are major and others are just huge WTF for a developer.

The most major bug is one that I found. If you use persistent connections with this extension, it basically leaks those connections, not reusing an existing connection but also not closing the ones already made. This uses up the memory in your processes until they crash and it creates an exponential number of connections to your memcached server until it has no more connections available. Andrei does report in the bug that it is fixed in hist GitHub. But, for now, you can't use persistent connections.

The big WTF for a developer is that some functions don't take a numeric key and use it properly.

$mc = new Memcached();

$mc->addServer("localhost", 11211);

$mc->set(123, "yes!");


The above code should generate:
array(1) {
  string(4) "yes!"
But, in reality, it generates:
The set succeeds, but the getMulti fails. Again, this is being fixed in GitHub, but is not available for release on PECL.


One big issue with these two extensions is that they are not drop in replacements for each other. If you want to move from one to the other, you have to take into consideration some time to convert your code. For instance, the older extension's set() function takes flags as the third parameter. The newer extension does not take a flags parameter at all. The older uses get() with an array to do a multi-get and the newer extension has a separate method for that called getMulti(). There are others as well.


So, what should you do as a PHP developer? If you are deploying memcached today, I would use the 2.2.x branch of PECL/memcache. It is the most stable. Just avoid the delete bug. It is not as fast and does not have the features. But, it is very reliable for set, get, add.... the basics of memcached. For the long term, it is a bit unclear. PECL/memcached looks to fix a lot of things in 2.0. But, I have not used it yet. In addition the long term growth of the project is a bit in question. Will there be a 2.1, 2.2, etc? I hope so. The other unknown is if the those people fixing the PECL/memcache bugs will keep it up and release a good stable product that supports new features of the server. Again, I hope so. The best scenario would be to have a choice between two fully compatible and feature rich extensions. Keep your fingers crossed.

MySQL Conference Review

I am back home from a good week at the 2010 O'Reilly MySQL Conference & Expo. I had a great time and got to see some old friends I had not seen in a while.

Oracle gave the opening keynote and it went pretty much like I thought it would. Oracle said they will keep MySQL alive. They talked about the new 5.5 release. It was pretty much the same keynote Sun gave last year. Time will tell what Oracle does with MySQL.

The expo hall was sparse. Really sparse. There were a fraction of the booths compared to the past. I don't know why the vendors did not come. Maybe because they don't want to compete with Oracle/Sun? In the past you would see HP or Intel have a booth at the conference. But, with Oracle/Sun owning MySQL, why even try. Or maybe they are not allowed? I don't know. It was just sad.

I did stop by the Maatkit booth and was embarrassed to tell Baron (its creator) I was not already using it. I had heard people talk about it in the past, but never stopped to see what it does. It would have only saved me hours and hours of work over the last few years. Needless to say it is now being installed on our servers. If you use MySQL, just go install Maatkit now and start using it. Don't be like me. Don't wait for years, writing the same code over and over to do simple maintenance tasks.

Gearman had a good deal of coverage at the conference. There were three talks and a BoF. All were well attended. Some people seemed to have an AHA! moment where they saw how Gearman could help their architecture. I also got to sit down with the PECL/gearman maintainers and discuss the recent bug I found that is keeping me from using it.

I spoke about Memcached as did others. Again, there was a BoF. It was well attended and people had good questions about it. There seemed to be some FUD going around that memcached is somehow inefficient or not keeping up with technology. However, I have yet to see numbers or anything that proves any of this. They are just wild claims by people that have something to sell. Everyone wants to be the caching company since there is no "Memcached, Inc.". There is no company in charge. That is a good thing, IMO.

That brings me to my favorite topic for the conference, Drizzle. I wrote about Drizzle here on this blog when it was first announced. At the time MySQL looked like it was moving forward at a good pace. So, I had said that it would only replace MySQL in one part of our stack. However, after what, in my opinion, has been a lack of real change in MySQL, I think I may have changed my mind. Brian Aker echoed this sentiment in his keynote address about Drizzle. He talked about how MySQL AB and later Sun had stopped focusing on the things that made MySQL popular and started trying to be a cheap version of Oracle. That is my interpretation of what he said, not his words.

Why is Drizzle different? Like Memcached and Gearman, there is no "Drizzle, Inc.". It is an Open Source project that is supported by the community. It is being supported by companies like Rackspace who hired five developers to work on it. The code is kept on Launchpad and is completely open. Anyone can create a branch and work on the code. If your patches are good, they will be merged into the main branch. But, you can keep your own branch going if you want to. Unlike the other forks, Drizzle has started over in both the code and the community. I personally see it as the only way forward. It is not ready today, but my money is on Drizzle five or ten years from now.

Using ini files for PHP application settings

At dealnews we have three tiers of servers. First is our development servers, then staging and finally production. The complexity of the environment increases at each level. On a development server, everything runs on the localhost: mysql, memcached, etc. At the staging level, there is a dedicated MySQL server. In production, it gets quite wild with redundant services and two data centers.

One of the challenges of this is where and how to store the connection information for all these services. We have done several things in the past. The most common thing is to store this information in a PHP file. It may be per server or there could be one big file like:


    $server = "localhost";
} else {
    $server = "";


This gets messy quickly. Option two is to deploy a single file that has the settings in a PHP array. And that is a good option. But, we have taken that one step further using some PHP ini trickeration. We use ini files that are loaded at PHP's startup and therefore the information is kept in PHP's memory at all times.

When compiling PHP, you can specify the --with-config-file-scan-dir to tell PHP to look in that directory for additional ini files. Any it finds will be parsed when PHP starts up. Some distros (Gentoo I know) use this for enabling/disabling PHP extensions via configuration. For our uses we put our custom configuration files in this directory. FWIW, you could just put the above settings into php.ini, but that is quite messy, IMO.

To get to this information, you can't use ini_get() as you might think.  No, you have to use get_cfg_var() instead. get_cfg_var returns you the setting, in php.ini or any other .ini file when PHP was started. ini_get will only return values that are registered by an extension or the PHP core. Likewise, you can't use ini_set on these variables. Also, get_cfg_var will always reflect the initial value from the ini file and not anything changed with ini_set.

So, lets look at an example.

; db.ini
myconfig.db.mydb.db     = mydb
myconfig.db.mydb.user   = user
myconfig.db.mydb.pass   = pass
myconfig.db.mydb.server = host

This is our ini file. the group in the braces is just for looks. It has no impact on our usage. Because this is parsed along with the rest of our php.ini, it needs a unique namespace within the ini scope. That is what myconfig is for. We could have used a DSN style here, but it would have required more parsing in our PHP code.


 * Creates a MySQLi instance using the settings from ini files
 * @author     Brian Moon <>
 * @copyright  1997-Present, Inc.

class MyDB {

     * Namespace for my settings in the ini file
    const INI_NAMESPACE = "dealnews";

     * Creates a MySQLi instance using the settings from ini files
     * @param   string  $group  The group of settings to load.
     * @return  object
    public static function init($group) {

        static $dbs = array();

        if(!is_string($group)) {
            throw new Exception("Invalid group requested");


            $prefix = MyDB::INI_NAMESPACE.".db.$group";

            $db   = get_cfg_var("$prefix.db");
            $host = get_cfg_var("$prefix.server");
            $user = get_cfg_var("$prefix.user");
            $pass = get_cfg_var("$prefix.pass");

            $port = get_cfg_var("$prefix.port");
                $port = null;

            $sock = get_cfg_var("$prefix.socket");
                $sock = null;

            $dbs[$group] = new MySQLi($host, $user, $pass, $db, $port, $sock);

            if(!$dbs[$group] || $dbs[$group]->connect_errno){
                throw new Exception("Invalid MySQL parameters for $group");

        return $dbs[$group];




We can now call DB::init("myconfig") and get a mysqli object that is connected to the database we want. No file IO was needed to load these settings except when the PHP process started initially.  They are truly constant and will not change while this process is running.

Once this was working, we created separate ini files for our different datacenters. That is now simply configuration information just like routing or networking configuration. No more worrying in code about where we are.

We extended this to all our services like memcached, gearman or whatever. We keep all our configuration in one file rather than having lots of them. It just makes administration easier. For us it is not an issue as each location has a unique setting, but every server in that location will have the same configuration.

Here is a more real example of how we set up our files.

myconfig.db.db1.db         = db1
myconfig.db.db1.server     = db1hostname
myconfig.db.db1.user       = db1username
myconfig.db.db1.pass       = db1password

myconfig.db.db2.db         = db2
myconfig.db.db2.server     = db2hostname
myconfig.db.db2.user       = db2username
myconfig.db.db2.pass       = db2password

[myconfig.memcache]    =,,
myconfig.memcache.proxy.servers  =,,

myconfig.gearman.workload1.servers =
myconfig.gearman.workload2.servers =

Memcached: What is it and what does it do?

I spoke at CodeWorks in Atlanta, GA this week.  I totally dropped the ball promoting it on my blog.  It was a neat venue.  Rather than a large conference they are doing a traveling show.  Seven cities in 14 days.  Many of the presenters are working in every city.  Crazy.  I was just in Atlanta.  It is close to home and easy for me to get to.

I spoke about memcached.  I tried to dig a bit deeper into how memcached works.  On the mailing list we get a lot of new people that make assumptions about memcached.  Most talks I have seen focus on why caching is good, how to use memcached, the performance gain.  I kind of assumed everyone knew that stuff already.  I guess you could say I gave a talk that was the real FAQs of the project.

Here are the slides.  Derick Rethans took video of the talk.  When he gets that online I will add it to this post.

Deploying Scalable Websites with Memcached

I spoke at the MySQL Conference and Expo this year about the architecture we have here at  After my talk, Jimmy Guerrero of Sun/MySQL invited me to give a webinar on how dealnews uses memcached.  That is taking place next week, Thursday, October 09, 2008.  It is a free webinar.  We have used memcached in a variety of ways as we have grown. So, I will be talking about how dealnews used memcached in the past and present.

For more information, visit the MySQL web site.

Where Drizzle fits in for me

So, most of you have heard about Drizzle by now.  For those that have not, you can check out many, many blog posts or the Launchpad page.

The thread on Slashdot about Drizzle was quite negative.  Most misunderstand what Drizzle is about.  SQLite is not a good solution when you have 100 web servers.  Let me describe how it I would use it and maybe that will help some understand it.

When it comes to MySQL use, dealnews has two very different use cases.  The first is an enterprise storage system that involves content creation, reporting and data warehousing.  For that layer of our business, we are using more and more advanced features as they become available.  We use triggers and stored procedures.  We use complex data types for specific use cases.  All those features are a big gain.

The other way that we use MySQL is for serving content to our readers.  I have written about this before.  For this purpose, we avoid joins, don't use any advanced features.  We do use replication, indexes and intelligent queries.  We don't (as one slashdot reader claimed) do all of our processing in the code.  That would be stupid.  If you do that you are ignorant.  I will stop talking about that before this becomes a rant.  I do believe in letting MySQL do my work for me.

This is where Drizzle fits in.  To serve content, I don't need stored procedures, triggers, views or any of that other stuff.  The whole database that the front end web servers use is basically a view.  It is a denormalized, prepared version of the real data.  I store objects. But, I have to be able to sort and filter the data in a way that SQL allows me to do.  CouchDB sounds interesting.  Maybe one day it will be there.  It is sill in the optimization phase.

Now, some say that this is just MySQL 3.x all over again.  Well, you clearly have not been listening to the really smart people that are working on Drizzle.  They are doing more than just removing the 4.1 and 5.x features from MySQL.  They are removing things that don't make sense for this use case.  They are adding things that do make sense.  They are replacing parts of the code base where there is a better library or way of doing it.  At this point, they have no feature requirements to meet.  They have no deadlines.  They are making what they think the high volume web world and/or cloud computing needs.  They are making it plugable:  think Apache modules or PHP extensions.  So, if you need feature XYZ that was yanked out, you can add it back in (hopefully) via the internal API.  There is a lot more going on here than just removing "features".

So, I am cheering on the folks working on Drizzle.  I have joined their community and will provide what feedback I can from userland.  I am no C++ coder.  I can read it.  I can debug it.  But, writing it or doing heavy lifting is not in my skill set.  Hopefully I can contribute

Caching and TTL behavior

So, I am working on MemProxy some.  Mainly, I am trying to implement more of the Cache-Control header's many options.  The one that has me a bit perplexed s-maxage.  Particularly when combined with max-age.

s-maxage is the maximum time in seconds an item should remain in a shared cache.  So, if s-maxage is set by the application server, my proxy should keep it for that amount of time at the most.  Up until now, I have just been looking at max-age.  But, s-maxage is the proper one for a proxy to use if it is present.  I do not send the s-maxage through because this is a reverse proxy and, IMO, that is proper behavior for an application accelerating proxy.  However, I do send forward the max-age value that is set by the application servers.  If no max-age is set, I send a default as defined in the script.  Also, if no-cache or no-store is set, I send those and a max-age of 0.

My problem arises when max-age is less than s-maxage.  Up until now, I have sent a max-age back to the client that represents the time left for the cached item in my proxy's cache.  So, if the app server sent back max-age=300 and a request comes in and the cache is found and the cache was created 100 seconds ago, I send max-age-200 back to the client.  But, I was only using max-age before.  Now, in cases where s-maxage is longer than max-age, I would come up with negative numbers.  That is not cool.  The easiest solution would be to always send the original max-age back to the client.  But, that seems kind of lame.

So, my question is, if you are using an application (HTTP or otherwise) accelerator, what would you expect?  If you application set a max-age of 300 would you always expect the end client to receive a max-age of 300?  Or should it count down over time?  The only experience I have is a CDN.  If you watch CDN traffic, the max-age gets smaller and smaller over time until it hits 0.  I have not tried sending an s-maxage to my CDN.  I don't know what they would do with that.  Maybe that is a good test.

UPDATE: Writing this gave me an idea.  If the item will be in the proxy cache longer than the max-age ttl, send the full max-age ttl.  Otherwise, send the time left in the proxy cache.  Thoughts on that?

(thanks for being my teddy bear blogosphere)

Velocity Conference Roundup

As I said before, I was invited to be on a panel at Velocity Conference.  I was delighted to go.  I had never been to San Francisco.  I have been to Portland and Santa Clara several times.  The panel was great.  It was the Brian and photo sharing sites show.  Seriously, it was me (, John Allspaw of Flickr, Don MacAskill of SmugMug and Farhan Mashraqi of Fotolog.  Oh, there was also Shayan Zadeh of Zoosk, a social dating network and Michael Halligan, a consultant from BitPusher.  We all had similar ideas.  I told my Yahoo story.  I told everyone that they should denormalize (or optimize as Farhan prefered) their data to improve performance.  Others agreed.  I have written about my methods for denormalizing normalized data before.  (See pushed cache)  Fun was had by all.

I mentioned John Allspaw above.  He gave a talk on his own as well.  It was good.  The slides are on SlideShare.  He and I see eye to eye on a lot of things.  One thing he says in there that may shock a lot of people is to test using produciton.  I agree fully.  We could have never been sure our infastructure was ready last year without testing the production servers.

I also learned about Varnish at the conference. It is a super fast reverse proxy.  It uses the virtual memory systems of recent kernels to store its cache.  The OS worries about moving things from memory to disk based on usage.  The claim is that the OSes are better at this than any programmer could do (without copying them of course).  It is fast.  The developers are proud.  And by proud I mean cocky.  I have been playing with it.  As you know, I have my own little caching proxy solution.  Varnish is much faster, as I expected.  However, storing cache in memcached is very attractive to me.  Varnish can't do that.  It would likely slow it down a great deal.  MemProxy does do that.  Also, because MemProxy is written in PHP and my application layer is PHP, I can do things at the proxy layer to inspect the request and take action.  Works well for my use.  But, if you are using squid or mod_cache or something, you may want to give Varnish a look.

There was a good bit of information about the client side of performance.  There were folks from Microsoft there talking about IE8.  It looks like IE8 will catch up with the other browsers in a lot of ways.  Yahoo talked about image optimization.  Good stuff in there.  I use Fireworks and it does a pretty good job of making small images.  I am looking more into combining images and making image maps that use CSS.  We use a CDN, but fewer connections is better for users.

There was also a lot of great debate.  SANs rock!  SANs suck!  Rails Scales!  Rails Sucks!  The Cloud is awesome!  The Cloud is a lie!  (lots of cloud)

I had dinner both nights with guys from Six Apart.  Good conversations were had.  I don't know if I am a big vegan fan though.  I mean, the food was good, but it all kinda tasted the same.  Perhaps I ordered poorly.  At dinner on Tuesday I met a guy going to work for Twitter soon.  He is an engineer that hopefully will be another step toward getting them back to 100% again.  Lets keep our fingers crossed.

They did announce that the conference would be held again next year.  I am definitely going back.  Probably two of us from dealnews will go.  OSCON is fun.  MySQL conference is too.  But, more and more, capacity planning and scaling is what I do.  And this conference is all about those topics.

Did you know I am going to be at Velocity?

Well, neither did I until today. HA!

Velocity is a new O'Reilly conference dedicated to "Optimizing Web Performance and Scalability".  It starts next Monday.  Yesterday I was contacted by Adam Jacobs of HJK Solutions about taking part in a panel discussion about what happens when success comes suddenly to a web site.  I think he thought I was in the bay area.  Little did he know I am in Alabama.  But, amazingly, I was able to work it all out so I can be there.  I wish I had known about this conference ahead of time.  It sounds really awesome.  Performance has always been something I focus on.  I hope to share some and learn at the same time.

So, if you are going to be there, come see our panel.

P.S. Thanks to John Allspaw of Flickr for recommending me to Adam.