In looking for ways to further optimize my poorly-written Lua WAF (don’t worry, we’ll get there eventually), I’ve recently found that Openresty’s timing API is a bit lacking. Specifically, the time calls used within each transaction seems to only have millisecond granularity. This is fine for more complex applications which run over tens or hundreds of milliseconds, but in analyzing small sections of framework code, I wanted to have a more clear picture of how long each phase handler was taking (and the patronizingly PR-esque phrase “sub-millisecond processing time” was getting really annoying to hear in my head). A quick bounce to the Openresty mailing list got me on the right track:
The Nginx Lua module provides two structures for maintaining Lua-land data: per-request context tables, and shared memory zones. Each has its pros and cons; ngx.ctx can store arbitrarily complex Lua structures, and only live within a single transaction’s lifecycle. Conversely, shared dictionaries are capable of storing key/value pairs as Lua primitives (complex Lua structures must be serialized to be stored in a shared dictionary); the lifetime of a shared dictionary’s contents is the lifetime of the master nginx process (dictionary contents survive HUP signals). Additionally, the Lua module documentation notes that ngx.ctx performance is slow:
ngx.ctx lookup requires relatively expensive metamethod calls and it is much slower than explicitly passing per-request data along by your own function arguments. So do not abuse this API for saving your own function arguments because it usually has quite some performance impact.
A similar note appears in the documentation under the ngx.var API call; no such note lives in the shared dictionary documentation. Given that shared dictionaries can be leveraged to store per-request data in a manner similar to the context table (for primitive values), I wanted to see if there is a noticeable difference between the two methods: