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How Caching Works

A Simple Example: After Cache

­ Let's give th­e librarian a backpack into which he will be able to store 10 books (in computer terms, the librarian now has a 10-book cache). In this backpack, he will put ­the books the clients return to him, up to a maximum of 10. Let's use the prior example, but now with our new-and-improved caching librarian.

The day starts. The backpack of the librarian is empty. Our first client arrives and asks for Moby Dick. No magic here -- the librarian has to go to the storeroom to get the book. He gives it to the client. Later, the client returns and gives the book back to the librarian. Instead of returning to the storeroom to return the book, the librarian puts the book in his backpack and stands there (he checks first to see if the bag is full -- more on that later). Another client arrives and asks for Moby Dick. Before going to the storeroom, the librarian checks to see if this title is in his backpack. He finds it! All he has to do is take the book from the backpack and give it to the client. There's no journey into the storeroom, so the client is served more efficiently.

What if the client asked for a title not in the cache (the backpack)? In this case, the librarian is less efficient with a cache than without one, because the librarian takes the time to look for the book in his backpack first. One of the challenges of cache design is to minimize the impact of cache searches, and modern hardware has reduced this time delay to practically zero. Even in our simple librarian example, the latency time (the waiting time) of searching the cache is so small compared to the time to walk back to the storeroom that it is irrelevant. The cache is small (10 books), and the time it takes to notice a miss is only a tiny fraction of the time that a journey to the storeroom takes.

From this example you can see several important facts about caching:

  • Cache technology is the use of a faster but smaller memory type to accelerate a slower but larger memory type.
  • When using a cache, you must check the cache to see if an item is in there. If it is there, it's called a cache hit. If not, it is called a cache miss and the computer must wait for a round trip from the larger, slower memory area.
  • A cache has some maximum size that is much smaller than the larger storage area.
  • It is possible to have multiple layers of cache. With our librarian example, the smaller but faster memory type is the backpack, and the storeroom represents the larger and slower memory type. This is a one-level cache. There might be another layer of cache consisting of a shelf that can hold 100 books behind the counter. The librarian can check the backpack, then the shelf and then the storeroom. This would be a two-level cache.

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