ASP.NET Caching Basics

by Peter A. Bromberg, Ph.D.

Peter Bromberg
"If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today's ideas were invented, and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today." -- Bill Gates
What is Caching?

Caching is one of the least used and misunderstood, yet most powerful features of ASP.NET -- both in the 1.1 flavor, and even more so in ASP.NET 2.0. Most developers do not get into the details of harnessing the power of caching until they get to at least the intermediate proficiency level, and some never use it at all. Caching works a number of different ways in the 2.0 model, and offers finer - grained control over features and behavior. The purpose of this article is to provide you with a basic understanding of some of these features and how they work in a single article that should help most beginners to "Get to First Base" easily, with a minimum amount of time invested.

I will not bore you with evangelism about "why caching is so great"; it is assumed you already understand, at least in theory, what caching can buy you as an ASP.NET developer.

At a minimum a developer wants to be able to cache some (or possibly all) of the pages in her ASP.NET Application. The simplest way to achieve this is to add the @ OutputCache directive to the top of the .aspx file of each page:

<%@ OutputCache Duration="5" VaryByParam="none" %>

Now, that was easy, wasn't it? But - exactly what does it do? You are specifying how long the page is to be retained in the Cache with the Duration attribute, in seconds. In the above example, this page will be rendered on the first request for it, and stored in Cache. For five seconds, all subsequent requests for this page will be served from the Cache, which is hugely faster than having to go through the entire Page lifecycle, possibly combined with database access, re-render and finally serve the page HTML to the client. After five seconds, the page will again be rendered (and once again, stored in the Cache).

Do you want to perform a simple test that will convince you to become a "Cache Convert"? Fire up Application Center Test or Homer (Web Stress Tool) and throw 100 simultaneous threads at a sample page that gets a DataSet out of your favorite database and populates a DataGrid with a DataTable from it. Run this test for one minute, and note the total number of successful requests for the duration of the test. Now, modify the page by putting the above OutputCache directive at the top of the .aspx file. Then run the test again, and compare. It is as objective as gravity -- caching creates a huge scalability advantage.

The VaryByParam attribute is used to define parameters that determine which cached copy of a page should be sent to the browser. If your page doesn't change, you can set this to "none".

Caching Pages Based on QueryString items

If the contents of one of your pages can vary based on the value of certain items on the querystring, which is a common technique in ASP.NET, you can populate the VaryByParam attribute with a semicolon-delimited list of the QueryString parameter names that control these changes. For each request, ASP.NET checks the value(s) of these items on the incoming QueryString, and if the parameter values match those of a previously cached copy of the result page, it is served from the Cache. If the parameter(s) don't match, the custom page will be rendered, added to the Cache with the specified expiration time, and served to the client.

So, for example, if you have userid and companyid QueryString parameters, your VaryByParam attribute might look like this:

<%@ OutputCache Duration="5" VaryByParam="userid;companyid" %>

This technique works automatically with both QueryString ("GET") parameters as well as Form Field ("POST") data. You can also set the VaryByParam attribute to "*" to make ASP.NET cache a copy of every possible combination of querystring parameters. However, this can cause caching of a lot more pages that you want and can also cause performance problems. You should also be careful about defining a reasonable expiration time on your cached pages. If you set the Duration attribute to large values and a large number of unique page requests come in during this period, you could rack up a lot of server resources which would actually negatively affect performance or even cause process recycling based on IIS settings.

Caching pages based on Browser Information

If you need to render a page differently for different browsers, or you know that ASP.NET will automatically adjust the rendering of a page automatically based on the browser type and version of a request, you can use the "VaryByCustom" attribute:

<%@ OutputCache Duration="5" VaryByParam="none" VaryByCustom="browser" %>

Cache pages Based on Custom Strings

For situations where you want to cache pages where ASP.NET does not provide built-in support for caching, you can set the VaryByCustom attribute value to the name of a custom string of your own, and then override the GetVaryByCustomString method in global.asax and provide code that creates a unique custom string for the value that you assigned to the VaryByCustom attribute in your OutputCache directive.

Example code (global.asax):

public override string GetVaryByCustomString(System.Web.HttpContext context, string custom)
string value=null;
    value= context.Request.UrlReferrer; // cache based on where the request came from!

Additional Caching Features

Applications that want more control over the HTTP headers related to caching can use the functionality provided by the System.Web.HttpCachePolicy class. The following example shows the code equivalent to the page directives used in the previous samples.


To make this a sliding expiration policy, where the expiration time out resets each time the page is requested, set the SlidingExpiration property as shown in the following code.


When sliding expiration is enabled (SetSlidingExpiration(true)), a request made to the origin server always generates a response. Sliding expiration is useful in scenarios where there are downstream caches that can satisfy client requests, if the content has not expired yet, without requesting the content from the origin server.

Applications being ported from ASP may already be setting cache policy using the ASP properties; for example:

Response.CacheControl = "Public";
Response.Expires = 60;

For preventing pages from being cached downstream (for example with a logout page) in ASP.NET, you can set the "no-cache" header by using the HttpCachePolicy.SetNoStore method.  Put this in your page_load at the latest.  You can also set this in your page's HEAD section by adding the following line of code:


Features such as Output Caching, Fragment Caching, and Cache Configuration in ASP.NET 2.0 are covered nicely in the QuickStarts, which you can find online here.

Caching with Database Dependencies

In ASP.NET 1.1, caching based on database dependencies is not built in. You can still do it, but it requires wiring up some code. For details on how to do this, here are links to a few articles that use several different techniques:

In ASP.NET 2.0 we have the ability to to cache pages with data dependencies based on SQL Server 7.0, 2000, 2005, MSDE, and SQL Express editions. The capabilites vary by application and version. In all cases, whether with ASP.NET 1.1 or ASP.NET 2.0, the key to database cache dependency is being able to know when data in the database changes.

For SQL Server 2005 and Express, these notifications can be enabled by simply adding the <sqlCacheDependency> element to the web.config, which we'll cover shortly.

For SQL Server 7, 2000 and MSDE, notification events aren't supported, but what we can do is use polling by enabling the database with the command:

aspnet_regsql -S [SERVER] -E -d [database] -ed

To enable a specific table for notifications, we use:

aspnet_regsql -S [SERVER] -E -d [database] -et -t [table]

To see all the options for the ASPNET_REGSQL.EXE utility, use the -? argument.

The other way you can enable your database for dependency notifications is to use the methods in the SqlCacheDependencyAdmin class:


If you want to see everything that the above do, simply perform the operation on a new database with one table in it, and view the results in Enterprise Manager.

The public methods of interest in the SqlCacheDependencyAdmin class are:

DisableNotifications Disables SqlCacheDependency change notifications for the specified database.
DisableTableForNotifications Overloaded. Disables SqlCacheDependency change notifications on a SQL Server database table or an array of database tables.
EnableNotifications Enables SqlCacheDependency change notifications on the specified database.
EnableTableForNotifications Overloaded. Connects to a SQL Server database and prepares a database table or tables for SqlCacheDependency change notifications.
GetTablesEnabledForNotifications Retrieves a string array containing the name of every table that is enabled for change notifications in a SQL Server database.


After your database is configured, you need to add the <sqlCacheDependency> element:

<sqlCacheDependency enabled="true" pollTime="30000">
<add name="Pubs" connectionStringName="PubsConn" />

The "pollTime" attribute determines the rate at which the AspNet_SqlCacheTablesForChangeNotification table is queried to see if any table data has changed. Units are in milliseconds. The connectionStringName needs to be set to a connectionString in the <connectionStrings> node of the web.config.

Once the web.config is properly set up, you can cache pages using the SqlCacheDependency feature by adding this into the @ outputCache directive in the page:

<%@ outputCache Duration="86400" VaryByParam="none" SqlDependency = "databasename:tablename" %>

You can specify multiple databases and tables by providing a semicolon-delimited list of database:table pairs.

Caching specific Controls in a Page

You can apply the @ outputCache directive to individual user controls but not to the page itself. At the top of each .ascx user Control page, place an outputCache directive exactly as you would with a Page. Now if you have usercontrols whose data does not change frequently or with each page request, but the data on your page does need to be generated "fresh" on each request, you can have the best of both worlds. You can even specify the VaryByControl attribute to name specific controls on your UserControl that respond to properties such as "headerImage", or "backgroundColor".

Caching Application Data

Besides the advantages of caching pages, controls and using SqlCacheDependency, you can also directly interact with the Cache class by caching frequently used data. A typical pattern that I use looks like this:


public partial class _Default : System.Web.UI.Page


                   protected void Page_Load(object sender, EventArgs e)


                       DataTable dt =GetArticlesDt();

                       this.Repeater1.DataSource = dt;



                   private DataTable GetArticlesDt()


                       DataTable dt = null;

                       if (Cache["articlesDt"] == null)


                           DataSet ds = new DataSet();

                           string connectionString =                            System.Configuration.ConfigurationManager.AppSettings["connectionString"];

                           SqlCommand cmd = new SqlCommand("dbo.GetArticles");

                           cmd.CommandType = CommandType.StoredProcedure;

                           SqlConnection cn = new SqlConnection(connectionString);

                           cmd.Connection = cn;

                           SqlDataAdapter ad = new SqlDataAdapter(cmd);


                           dt = ds.Tables[0];

                           Cache.Insert("articlesDt", dt, null, System.Web.Caching.Cache.NoAbsoluteExpiration,





                           dt = (DataTable)Cache["articlesDt"];


                       return dt;


You see I have a method "GetArticlesDt" that automatically checks the Cache and ensures that we always can get our DataTable out of Cache in order to avoid repetitive Database calls. Then I just set the DataSource on the Repeater and DataBind.

In addition, you can cache application data based on database dependencies, if you have configured your database as above:

sqlDepcy = new SqlCacheDependency("ArticlesDB","tblArticles");


Caching Data Sources

In ASP.NET 2.0, the XmlDataSource, ObjectDataSource and SqlDataSource controls all support caching "out of the box":

whateverDataSource.EnableCaching =true;

I hope this short discussion on Caching has sparked your interest and provided a convenient way to summarize these concepts for further study. I use Caching on almost all my work; at Tech-Ed 2004 Rob Howard gave a presentation on caching that totally blew me away and the lesson was learned very well. Caching data, pages or controls for as little as one second can have a dramatic effect on throughput of as much as 500 percent. This may not seem particularly important if you are just starting out, but I can tell you from personal experience that when you manage a successful web site with millions of hits per month, a thorough understanding of the uses and applications of Caching will serve you very well in your career as a professional .NET developer.


Peter Bromberg is a C# MVP, MCP, and .NET consultant who has worked in the banking and financial industry for 20 years. He has architected and developed web - based corporate distributed application solutions since 1995, and focuses exclusively on the .NET Platform.