When your browser gets a little sluggish, you know it’s time to clear your cache and cookies. If you’re not using a privacy focussed bowser like the Brave browser, you’ll be accumulating a cookie crumb trail from all of your activity online. While your browser’s storage of web content enables fast retrieval, it can also clog up your browser with unnecessary web files.
Caches and cookies are permanent fixtures on the internet, but when it comes to cache vs cookies: is there an actual difference? In this article, we explain the basics of caches and cookies, their differences, and how they can help keep the world wide web functional.
Cache vs. Cookies: Side-by-Side Comparison
|What it is
|A software or hardware element that functions as a short-term store of data for rapid retrieval.
|Small portions of HTML text are sent to and stored on a browser from a website.
|Speeding up data retrieval so that computing systems work faster.
Save user information,
|Browser and server
|Browser and server
|Amount of space used
|A large amount of space
|A small amount of space
Eindhoven University of Technology,
Gertjan van Oosten
University of Colorado,
University of Southern California
Google AMP Cache,
McAfee Web Gateway,
Forward web caching,
Reverse web caching,
Back/forward cache (bfcache)
|Types of data stored
Cache vs. Cookies: Is There an Actual Difference?
Web caches and cookies are completely different technologies that serve different purposes on the world wide web.
The web cache is local browser-based storage that allows images, media, and web content to be stored for fast retrieval. Thus, mitigating the need for the server to provide the same data repeatedly.
Web caches come in a variety of formats. A great example is Google’s AMP Cache, which consists of a wide range of validated AMP web files that can be accessed quickly via Google’s search engine for a fast user experience on mobile devices. Depending on the amount of data they hold, caches can get pretty large. In addition, they don’t automatically delete data, so the user deliberately has to clear them.
In contrast, cookies are much smaller snippets of data that a website places in your browser with your consent. Cookies are used to track user activity and store important data that can enhance the user experience. There are many types of cookies, spanning tracking, user authentication, and data storage functions. Web cookies usually have a set expiry time, after which they are automatically deleted.
What Is a Web Cache?
A web cache is a software component in web browsers and servers that stores data for fast retrieval. Further, by implementing client- and server-side caches to store web content, websites can load more quickly, for a better browsing experience. Thus, because relevant or frequently requested web data is stored locally, servers and browsers can fulfill future requests without delay, as the files are at hand.
The concept of HTTP caches (as they are also known) is derived from the CPU caches originally invented in the 1960s by computing pioneer Maurice Wilkes and developed for personal computing by the efforts of Intel and IBM.
Web caches were introduced in the 1990s to reduce the long load times on web servers because of the high demand from dial-up modems. In fact, it’s easily forgotten just how slow the internet used to be with the fastest dial-up connections offering speeds of just 56kbps versus the megabit speeds that we can enjoy with a home fiber connection.
Large files and large amounts of data took such a long time to download that in the early nineties; Internet caching on the local computer was developed to cut down on the amount of data that would have to be repeatedly downloaded. Thus, by storing data locally on the browser in a client-side cache, our user experience improved massively.
In addition to client-side internet caches, there are server-side internet caches that support the web server in handling multiple requests more efficiently. However, the maximum server load they can handle and the bandwidth available for transferring data limit servers. Therefore, server administrators benefit from any technique that can reduce the number of files that have to be repeatedly sent to the server user. The implementation of a server-side cache not only reduces the number of repeat user requests that the server has to respond to but also saves bandwidth, time, energy, and money.
How Do Caches Work?
The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) header is sent from a server to a local computer. It contains key information about the site that is being visited, including when it was last updated. This information is stored locally and allows the server to tell if the local computer has part of the page data stored in its cache, saving it the hassle of sending the data all over again. Then, part of the page loads from the local cache with the remaining data supplied by the server.
What Are Web Cookies?
Cookies are tokens of data that are generated by web servers and placed on the browsers of web users when they access a website. Cookies may also be called:
- HTTP cookies
- Web cookies
- Browser cookies
- Internet cookies
What Is the Purpose of Cookies?
Cookies have a variety of important roles that provide a smoother browsing experience. Their functions include:
- Saving user data in form fields such as logins, payment details, and passwords
- Recording pages that you have previously visited
- Tracking user browsing activity
- Authenticating users
However, cookies have well-known security and privacy issues. Depending on the security of authentication cookies or the sensitivity of the data they store, cookies could be obtained and used by malicious agents to gain access to user credentials or secure web accounts. Further, tracking cookies are capable of monitoring users’ browsing history. Therefore, this has led to EU and US legislation that requires users to consent to the storage of any non-essential cookies on their device.
Cookies are based on the magic cookies used for token exchanges in computing. In fact, in 1994 the browser programmer Lou Montulli, an employee of Netscape, came up with the idea of using similar tokens for web browsers. Alongside John Giannandrea, Montulli developed a basic cookie specification at Netscape that simply informed Netscape if visitors to its site had visited before. They patented the cookie technology in 1995 and subsequently integrated it into Internet Explorer.
Cache vs. Cookies: Must-Know Facts
- The web cache and cookies were both developed to improve the speed and performance of websites.
- Both technologies store data on user computers.
- Multiple web caching is a form of web caching that connects distributed or hierarchical caches into an architecture that can provide an even more efficient, low-latency service.
- Cookies are limited to a maximum 400-day lifespan.
- In Chrome, cookies must specify an expiration date using Max-Age or Expires or they will expire when the browsing session ends.
Cache vs. Cookies: Final Thoughts
In short, the development of web caches and cookies provided a massive leap forward in browser performance. They may seem like a nuisance but they perform an essential role in making the world wide web more efficient. However, users are always in control of the storage of data on their devices so you can always delete the cache and cookies whenever you need to.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©13_Phunkod/Shutterstock.com.