Generating Etags for static content using Nginx

Nginx is a brilliant little HTTP server that I’m using on this website to quickly serve static content, and quickly proxy traffic through to the ruby backend when static content just won’t do. It’s been a breeze to set up, and quite stable in my (limited) experience. There’s just one thing bothering me about it at the moment: it doesn’t completely support the content-based cache headers I’d like to see. Specifically, it doesn’t do Etags for content it serves, and it doesn’t look like Igor’s going to implement it.

I see the complete lack of Etag support as an oversight. It’s more granular than Last-Modified, which is only accurate to the second, and only measures change along the axis of time; touching a file doesn’t change it’s content, but would force a cache miss when the cache is based on nothing but timestamp. Etags, on the other hand, are content-based identifiers that provide a mechanism for confirmation that the content of the file you’re reading is accurate, regardless of inconsequential fiddling or deployment on the server.

That said, it isn’t catastrophic to rely entirely on Last-Modified when serving truly static content. If you set Cache-Control and Expires headers correctly, your users’ browsers and upstream proxies should cache the static content correctly. You’ll all be seeing the right thing at more or less the right time. It’s not optimal, however, and I’m using that as an excuse to play around with C again.

Introducing nginx-static-etags

It appears that the only way to add the functionality I’d like to see is to write an Nginx module (in C) and compile it into the server. I’m in the process of doing that now, and I’m making relatively good progress on nginx-static-etags over on GitHub. It’s been much harder than I expected, actually. Evan Miller has put together an epic Nginx module-building tutorial that I’ve had up constantly all week, but it turns out that I remember less C than I thought I did (and that the “C” that I remember is generally C++, which isn’t quite the same).

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone run this in production yet, as, let’s be honest, the code’s likely a joke. But after a week of tinkering and banging my head against GCC, it’s finally actually doing what it promises: generating valid Etag headers for static content. There’s very little configuration available right now, but the goal is to get it up to feature parity with the equivalent Apache configuration option.

It’s been a good learning experience for me, and it’s keeping me sane (as side projects are wont to do). Follow along on GitHub if you’re interested.


Download the module however you like. I’d recommend pulling it down with Git by simply cloning this repository:

mkdir ~/src
cd    ~/src
git clone git:// ./nginx-static-etags

To use the module, you’ll have to compile it into Nginx. So, download the Nginx source, configure it with the module path, and compile:

mkdir ~/src
cd ~/src
curl -O
tar -zxvf ./nginx-0.6.32.tar.gz
cd ./nginx-0.6.32
./configure --add-module=/Users/mikewest/Repositories/nginx-static-etags
sudo make install

And you’re done!


Add FileEtag to the relevant location blocks in your nginx.conf file:

location / {
    FileETag on;


Brad’s kinda right to question the value of implementing Etags at all: if you don’t generate them correctly you’ll do more harm than good. Yahoo!’s Exceptional Performance team explicitly recommends against using the Etag header unless you know what you’re doing (which really boils down to ensuring that Apache doesn’t use the file’s inode to generate the key). I think they’ve painted with a really broad brush, though, as YSlow’s admonitions against Etags really only apply to the default configurations of Apache and IIS. Etag can be a very valuable addition to the caching arsenal if you think about them; Yahoo!’s throwing the baby out with the bathwater.