In the version 0.20 of cache2k we shipped an enhanced exception support. So it is time for some mumblings on caching and how to handle exceptions.

#Cache aside or read-through caching

Let’s start with some basics. There are two typical usage patterns to integrate a cache into an application.

In the cache aside pattern the application queries the cache and in the case of a miss, it requests or generated the data. Here is the typical look of it:

Data data = cache.get(key);
if (data == null) {
data = generateData(key);
cache.put(key, data);

The other approach is the read-through configuration. The cache is configured with a data source and calls it in case of a cache miss.

// cache building:
Cache cache = CacheBuilder.newCache(Data.class, String.class)
.source(new CacheSource() {
public Data get(String key) {
// cache usage:
Data data = cache.get(key);

I prefer the read-through configuration for many reasons. The code is cleaner, and it does not need “to know” how to generate or fetch the data. It is simply a more object oriented approach. Another reason to use the read-through pattern is the blocking feature of cache2k. Blocking means that there will be no more than one request of the same key to the cache source.

What happens in the case generateData throws an exception? In the cache aside pattern this is obvious, since generateData is called by the application, it has to handle it. If the read-through pattern is used, it is possible for the cache to do “its thing” with the exception.

#The JSR107 cache loader versus the cache2k cache source

For the read-through pattern the java caching standard (JSR107) defines the CacheLoader interface to fetch the data:

public interface CacheLoader<K, V> {
V load(K key) throws CacheLoaderException;
Map<K, V> loadAll(Iterable<? extends K> keys) throws CacheLoaderException;

JSR107 applications need to wrap any exception to a CacheLoaderException. The cache2k CacheSource interface is more simple:

public interface CacheSource<K, V> {
public V get(K key) throws Exception;

Applications implementing the CacheSource interface are allowed to throw any exception. I opted against the JSR107 design for two reasons: First, it leads to boiler plate wrapping code; Second, the cache needs to have some countermeasures against exceptions anyway, so the wrapping can be done within the cache without additional overhead.

#Ouch, an exception, what to do with it?

So what are the options of the cache, when the cache source throws an exception? Let’s do a quick brainstorming:

  • Wrap the exception and throw it. Don’t do any caching, so next time the application calls get() try to fetch the data again from the source
  • Store the exception in the cache. Each time the key is requested with get() throw a new wrapped exception of the original exception.
  • If there is a valid value in the cache from a previous call of the cache source, return that value instead of throwing an exception.
  • Store the exception in the cache, but do a quick expiry, so the fetch from the source is retried after a short period of time.
  • Combinations of the above….

Did I miss anything? What is useful in your application scenario?

#cache2k exception support

cache2k does support all the possible behaviour outlined above. For tweaking the semantics when exceptions turn up, there are the following builder options:

  • suppressExceptions(boolean): Switch on or off the suppression of exceptions, if the cache already contains a value for a requested key.
  • exceptionExpiryDuration(long v, TimeUnit u): After the expiry time the cache tries another fetch from the source.
  • exceptionExpiryCalculator(ExceptionExpiryCalculator c): Provides a calculator that returns a custom expiry for an exception. This way temporary exceptions may be treated different.

The method get() or peek() throws a wrapped exception, called PropagatedCacheException, if the cache source had thrown an exception and it was not possible to suppress the exception.

The iteration of the cache entries, never throws an exception. Thus, the CacheEntry interface has the method getException() to check whether there was an exception for that specific entry. If an exception is suppressed, it is not stored in the cache. In this case there is no way to determine from the CacheEntry properties, whether the last fetch operation was successful or caused an exception.

There are statistics counters that get incremented for each exception thrown by the cache source. It is possible to access it via JMX:

* Number of exceptions thrown by the {@link org.cache2k.CacheSource}.

long getFetchExceptionCnt();
* Number of exceptions thrown by the CacheSource that were ignored and
* the previous data value got returned.

long getSuppressedExceptionCnt();

#Bulk operations and exceptions

It is possible to retrieve multiple cache entries in one method call via Cache.getAll(). There is also a BulkCacheSource interface, which is used by the cache to fetch multiple entries at once. What should happen if an exception occurs during a bulk operation?

Let’s consider an example: The cache client wants to retrieve keys 1, 2 and 3. For key 3 there is a mapped entry in the cache, so it calls the bulk source to fetch the value for key 1 and 2. This operation is not successful and leads to an exception. What should be the outcome of the operation? Should getAll() throw an exception or return only the value for key 3?

The current implementation goes by the rule “be as specific as possible and return as much valid values as possible”. This leads to: The Cache.getAll() operation always returns a map with the requested keys and never produces an exception. Only when the map is accessed an exception is thrown, if that key had caused an exception.

#The default behaviour

The default behaviour tries to be useful in most situations. If nothing is configured explicitly, the caching of exceptions is switched on. If there is an entry expiry, the expiry time of an exception will be one tenth of the configured value expiry time.

#Is this really useful?

Since exceptions are an intrinsic Java feature you have to deal with them in any way. Advanced exception handling adds some complexity to a cache implementation. So is it really worth while or better just ignore it and throw an exception right when it happens?

Inexperienced programmers might overuse exceptions instead of defining proper return values. But if exceptions are not cached, and exceptions are used to communicate some conditions to the callee (e.g. a FileNotFoundException), the performance characteristics of the application may suffer dramatically. The cache is just bypassed.

There are many conditions in applications that may lead to exceptions. E.g.: A temporary network outage, a resource shortage (connection pool limit, thread pool limit), a seldom requested corner case. In many situations the cache can do something useful. One useful thing is to suppress an exception, if there is still a value in the cache. This makes the whole application more robust against temporary problems, without the need to write any additional code.

#The cons of exception caching

There are some pitfalls with cached exceptions. The most subtle one is the fact that, when the cache rethrows an exception and you analyze it, you may think it just happened. However, that exception might happened in the past and you have no idea when exactly it happened. Second, you also don’t know whether one exceptions is the identical one and just thrown multiple times, or happened multiple times in reality. So besides that caching exceptions might be useful, this all may be vary confusing.

For this pitfall it is probably a good idea to add a timestamp to an exception. If an exception gets logged, you can compare the log timestamp and the exception timestamp and see that it was a cached exception. That is something that will be added in the next releases.