Unicorn and streaming in Rails 3.1

Eric Wong normalperson at yhbt.net
Sat Jun 25 16:16:36 EDT 2011

Xavier Noria <fxn at hashref.com> wrote:
> Streaming works with Unicorn + Apache. Both with and without deflating.
> My understanding is that Unicorn + Apache is not a good combination
> though because Apache does not buffer, and thus Unicorn has no fast
> client in front. (I don't know which is the ultimate technical reason
> Unicorn puts such an emphasis on fast clients, but will do some
> research about it.)

Basically the per-connection overhead of Unicorn is huge, an entire Ruby
process (tens to several hundreds of megabytes).  The per-connection
overhead of nginx is tiny: maybe a few KB in userspace (including
buffers), and a few KB in in the kernel.  You don't want to maintain
connections to Unicorn for a long time because of that cost.

OK, if you have any specific questions that aren't answered in the
website, please ask.

> I have seen in
>     http://unicorn.bogomips.org/examples/nginx.conf
> the comment
>     "You normally want nginx to buffer responses to slow
>     clients, even with Rails 3.1 streaming because otherwise a slow
>     client can become a bottleneck of Unicorn."
> If I understand how this works correctly, nginx buffers the entire
> response from Unicorn. First filling what's configured in
> proxy_buffer_size and proxy_buffers, and then going to disk if needed
> as a last resort. Thus, even if the application streams, I believe the
> client will receive the chunked response, but only after it has been
> generated by the application and fully buffered by nginx. Which
> defeats the purpose of streaming


> in the use case we have in mind in
> Rails 3.1, which is to serve HEAD as soon as possible.

Small nit: s/HEAD/the response header/   "HEAD" is a /request/ that only
expects to receive the response header.

nginx only sends HTTP/1.0 requests to unicorn, so Rack::Chunked won't
actually send a chunked/streamed response.  Rails 3.1 /could/ enable
streaming without chunking for HTTP/1.0, but only if the client
didn't set a non-standard HTTP/1.0 header to enable keepalive.  This
is because HTTP/1.0 (w/o keepalive) relies on the server to close
the connection to signal the end of a response.

> Is that comment in the example configuration file actually saying that
> Unicorn with nginx buffering is not broken? I mean, that if your
> application has some actions with stream enabled and you put it behind
> this setup, the content will be delivered albeit not streamed?


> If that is correct. Is it reasonable to send to nginx the header
> X-Accel-Buffering to disable buffering only for streamed responses? Or
> is it a very bad idea? If it is a real bad idea, is the recommendation
> to Unicorn users that they should just ignore this new feature?

You can use "X-Accel-Buffering: no" if you know your responses are small
enough to fit into the kernel socket buffers.  There's two kernel
buffers (Unicorn + nginx), you can get a little more space there.  nginx
shouldn't make another request to Unicorn if it's blocked writing a
response to the client already, so an evil pipelining client should not
hurt unicorn in this case:

   require "socket"
   host = "example.com"
   s = TCPSocket.new(host, 80)
   req = "GET /something/big HTTP/1.1\r\nHost: #{host}\r\n\r\n"

   # pipeline a large number of requests, nginx won't send another
   # request to an upstream if it's still writing one
   30.times { s.write(req) }

   # don't read the response, or read it slowly, just keep the socket
   # open here...

Eric Wong

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