The Distributed Cache Pattern


Kyle Brown

Senior Technical Staff Member

IBM Software Services for WebSphere




In early 2001, while working with Martin Fowler in reviewing the patterns in what would become his book Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture, the two of us began searching for patterns describing asynchronous messaging. At the time, we thought that this might become a section within PoEAA, but we quickly realized that the subject was far too broad to fit within the context of that book.  Martin and I then began hosting a series of pattern-mining meetings, including Booby Woolf and Gregor Hohpe, which eventually led to their book, Patterns of Enterprise Integration: Designing, Building and Deploying Messaging Solutions.  That book describes a rich and robust pattern language for working with asynchronous messaging, web services, and enterprise application integration tools. 


However, as the group started work in earnest on that project, we found that there were a few patterns that simply did not fit into the rest of the pattern language.  By far the most well-known of these and the one for which we had the most examples, was the Distributed Cache Pattern.  Even thought it didn’t fit into the Patterns of Enterprise Integration catalog, it’s still an interesting and useful pattern that should be part of the advanced J2EE designer’s toolbox. 


What are patterns


For those of you who are completely unfamiliar with Patterns literature, you may want to first take a look at either of two books referenced above, or Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, in order to see what to expect from patterns and pattern languages.   In brief, a pattern is a reusable software asset in its most abstract form – a pattern is a description of a solution for a common problem that has been applied in a standard way a number of times.  The particular style of pattern that we will use (which is the same one used in Patterns of Enterprise Integration) was originally developed by Kent Beck in his book Smalltalk Best Practices Patterns.  It expresses the problem that the pattern solves in highlighted text, and then, after a discussion of what makes the problem challenging, provides the solution in highlighted, italic text, followed by more details on the solution.  


So now that you’ve seen how the pattern came about, and how it will be presented, it’s time to move on to discussing the pattern.


Distributed Cache


Your application is distributed over several physical machines for scalability.  It uses a database for object persistence, but many of the queries to the database take a long time to execute due to the complexity of the queries.  My database queries cannot be further optimized, so it is impossible to gain more speed through database tuning approaches.  You would like to cache my data on each machine; however, you cannot cache all of your data locally since the data does change, and the values in each cache will begin to differ from the database and each other over time. 


How can you connect a set of distributed caches such that updates are propagated across the caches and the same values can be returned from queries on any of the caches?


Many systems are designed with a set of data caches to improve performance.  For instance, in a system built using Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs) you may use Entity Bean Option A caching [EJB], or we keep value objects in memory in a singleton [Brown].  However, each of these options have the same drawback; for instance, in Option A Caching, once a CMP EJB is read from the database, the values held in memory do not change, even though the corresponding values in the underlying database may change.


Most distributed HttpSession schemes also are a type of distributed data cache. The similarity of each of these approaches has led to the recommendation of a specific API for caching, the JCache API, as JSR-107 [JCache].   Unfortunately, the cache is not the “system of record’ for most of this information. In almost all cases, the ultimate place where data is stored is in a database, thus creating a situation where the information in the database and the information in an in-memory cache can drift out of synchronization.  When the database is updated by one machine, if a query is run against the (older) data in the cache on another machine it will return the wrong value.


Some systems have been built such that the database itself is responsible for updating the set of distributed caches.  These systems use database triggers to force the update of each cache.  The problem with this approach is that it is not standards-based and thus is not portable.  Thus a system built using Oracle database triggers will not work if the database is changed to DB2 or SQL Server.  Also, not every database (for instance some of the open-source databases like MySQL) supports advanced database features like triggers.


Thus, we need a way to force an update of each cache whenever an object is changed in any cache.  Therefore:


Propagate cache updates using Publish-Subscribe messaging such that whenever a change is made to an object in one cache, that server will to notify all other caches that the object has been changed.


If a cache receives a notification it can choose to refresh its values from the database (shared) version at notification time, or it may simply mark it as "dirty" and read it back from the database whenever anyone asks for it. The structure of these solutions is shown below (Figure 1: Distributed Cache Update).   Another option would be to update the cache from the message. However, this is not as desirable as reading from the DB since it would require object hydration from a message instead of from the database; this both complicates the messaging code, and also increases the amount of message traffic in the system as a whole since the entire object, rather than a notification, must be sent in the queue. 


Figure 1: Distributed Cache Update


It is important to keep the granularity of the cache high such that the total number of messages flying across the messaging system is kept to a minimum.  In many cases, this can be achieved by sending out only notifications about the "root" object of an object graph whenever any part of the graph changes. Within a transaction you hold off notification until all updates complete so that we can remove redundant messages.  Likewise, it is desirable to have the “put” onto the queue be part of the same transaction as the update to the database (e.g., make the cache a Transactional Client) so that the state of the database does not diverge from the known state of the caches (Figure 1 shows the database update and the message being part of the same transactional context, labeled “Transaction Context 1”).




You can reduce the amount of unnecessary processing that each cache must perform in handling update messages for objects it does not contain by introducing multiple topics (one for each "root" type).  The cache could use Message Selectors to filter out notifications about objects they are not interested in, but that does not reduce the total number of messages that are placed on the topic – it only reduces the amount of processing each client will perform.


It is also crucial that this solution only be used in cases where it is not crucial that all caches remain perfectly synchronized at all times.  This is because the solution necessitates the use of at least two transactions; one on the “notifying” cache side, and another for each of the “notified” caches. This is shown in Figure 1 where the receiving end (Server N) is shown to be executing in a separate transactional context from the original transactional context.  Thus, there can be a period of time while updating is occurring in which queries to one of the outlying caches can return stale data.  There is also the possibility of undeliverable messages, incorrect update processing, and other situations that can render this solution less than 100% reliable. However, in most applications, so long as all final decisions depend solely upon the state of the database of record the unreliability of this solution can be tolerated.


This approach has been used successfully in commercial Java application server implementations.  For instance, IBM WebSphere Application Server 5.0 uses this approach in synchronizing its HttpSession, Dynamic page, and Command caches through a common set of internal WebSphere frameworks.  Likewise, this is a feature of WebLogic Application Server 6.1.


SpiritSoft sells a product called SpiritCache [SpiritSoft] that implements a JSR 107-compatible cache using this pattern that will work with many application servers.  Likewise, Tangosol sells a product set named Coherence that also implements this pattern.  Finally, a specific implementation of this pattern restricted to EJB Entity Bean caching has been previously documented in [Rakatine] as the Seppuku pattern.



[Brown] Kyle Brown, Choosing the Right EJB Type, IBM WebSphere Developer’s Domain,


[EJB], EJB 1.1 Specification, Sun Microsystems,


[Hohpe] Gregor Hohpe, “Enterprise Integration Patterns”,


 [JCache], JSR 107; JCache – Java Temporary Caching API,


[Rakatine] Dimitri Rakatine, “The Seppuku Pattern”, The Newsletter #26,


[SpiritSoft] SpiritCache overview,


[Woolf] Bobby Woolf and Kyle Brown, “Patterns of System Integration with Enterprise Messaging”, submitted to the PLoP 2002 conference,