Reverse Proxy Services with Varnish (Part One)

reverse proxy

Backend server settings page for Varnish under pfSense 2.1.3.

I recently ran a series of articles on Squid, a proxy server which began life as a client-side cache and can be used under pfSense as such. In contrast, Varnish is a reverse proxy HTTP accelerator designed for content-heavy dynamic web sites. It is focused exclusively on HTTP, unlike other reverse proxy servers that support other network protocols.

The Varnish Reverse Proxy: Architecture and Performance

Varnish works by storing data in virtual memory and leaving the task of deciding what is stored in memory and what gets paged out to disk to the operating system. This helps avoid the situation where the operating system starts caching data while it is moved to disk by the application. In addition, Varnish is heavily threaded, with each client connection being handled by a separate worker thread, and an overflow queue to handle incoming connections once the configured limit on the number of active worker threads is reached. When the overflow queue limit is reached, incoming connections will be rejected.

Varnish uses the Varnish Configuration Language (VCL), which is used to write hooks that are called at critical points in the handling of each request. When a VCL script is loaded, it is translated to C, compiled into a shared object by the system compiler, and loaded directly into the accelerator.


The creators of Varnish claim that it speeds up delivery by a factor of 300-1000 times, depending on your architecture. When the Varnish cache is enabled, performance is bound by the speed of the network, thus turning web server performance into a non-issue. It is free software licensed under a two-clause BSD license, also known as the FreeBSD license.

The Varnish Reverse Proxy: Installation and Configuration

reverse proxy

The Settings tab in Varnish.

Installation of Varnish under pfSense is similar to installation of other packages. From the pfSense web GUI, navigate to System -> Packages and scroll down. You will see both “Varnish” and “Varnish 3” on the packages list. Click on the “plus” sign to the right of the listing for Varnish 3 to install the Varnish reverse proxy. On the next screen, press the “Confirm” button to confirm that you want the package installed. It should take about 3-4 minutes for installation to complete.

Once Varnish is installed, you will have a new item on the “Services” menu called “Varnish“. If you navigate there, you will see seven tabs covering different settings for the Varnish reverse proxy server: “Backends“, “Settings“, “Custom VCL“, “LB Directors“, ‘XMLRPC Sync“, “View Configuration“, and “VarnishSTAT“. Before you can enable Varnish, you need to configure at least one backend server, so click on the “Backends” tab.

Varnish has a concept of “backend” or “origin” servers. A backend server is the server providing the content Varnish will accelerate. To add a backend server, click on the “plus” button on the “Backends” tab. There are four sections on this page. “Backend settings” covers the most basic settings. “Backend name” is the name of the backend web server, and “IP address” is the IP address (on your local network) of the backend web server. At “Port“, you enter the port of the web server (usually 80), and for “Description“, you can enter a description.

The next section is “Performance metrics“. “First byte timeout” represents the time to wait for the first byte for the backend and the time to wait between each received byte. “Connect timeout” is simply the time to wait for a backend connection.

Next is “Probe settings“. If this is configured properly, the Varnish reverse proxy will check the health of each backend with a probe. “Probe URL” is the URL that Varnish will use to ensure that the backend is healthy. “Probe interval” specifies how often we should poll. “Timeout” simply specifies the timeout of the probe; this is the amount of time (in seconds) that Varnish will wait for a backend probe. “Probe Window” specifies how many probes Varnish will retain when considering backend health. “Threshold” specifies how many of the probes specified by “Window” must have succeeded for us to consider the backend healthy. Finally, checking the “Disable Probe” check box disables probing for this backend. In the last section, “Backend Mappings“, you can map either a hostname or a URL to this server. It can either match a string or a regular expression.

The second tab is the “Settings” tab. Under “Daemon options” you can enable Varnish by checking the “Enable Varnish” check box. At “Listening port” you can set the port Varnish will listen on. The “Management interface” specifies the IP address and port for the management interface, and “Advanced startup options” specifies any startup options to include in the rc.d configuration file.

If you specify settings for these options and check the “Enable Varnish” check box, you should have Varnish up and running and working with any web servers you specified as a backend. There are several other settings that you might find useful, and we will cover those in the next article.


External Links:

The official Varnish web site

Varnish at Wikipedia

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