Javascript – How to force the browser to reload cached CSS and JavaScript files

auto-versioningcachingcssjavascript

I have noticed that some browsers (in particular, Firefox and Opera) are very zealous in using cached copies of .css and .js files, even between browser sessions. This leads to a problem when you update one of these files, but the user's browser keeps on using the cached copy.

What is the most elegant way of forcing the user's browser to reload the file when it has changed?

Ideally, the solution would not force the browser to reload the file on every visit to the page.


I have found John Millikin's and da5id's suggestion to be useful. It turns out there is a term for this: auto-versioning.

I have posted a new answer below which is a combination of my original solution and John's suggestion.

Another idea that was suggested by SCdF would be to append a bogus query string to the file. (Some Python code, to automatically use the timestamp as a bogus query string, was submitted by pi..)

However, there is some discussion as to whether or not the browser would cache a file with a query string. (Remember, we want the browser to cache the file and use it on future visits. We only want it to fetch the file again when it has changed.)

Best Solution

This solution is written in PHP, but it should be easily adapted to other languages.

The original .htaccess regex can cause problems with files like json-1.3.js. The solution is to only rewrite if there are exactly 10 digits at the end. (Because 10 digits covers all timestamps from 9/9/2001 to 11/20/2286.)

First, we use the following rewrite rule in .htaccess:

RewriteEngine on
RewriteRule ^(.*)\.[\d]{10}\.(css|js)$ $1.$2 [L]

Now, we write the following PHP function:

/**
 *  Given a file, i.e. /css/base.css, replaces it with a string containing the
 *  file's mtime, i.e. /css/base.1221534296.css.
 *
 *  @param $file  The file to be loaded.  Must be an absolute path (i.e.
 *                starting with slash).
 */
function auto_version($file)
{
  if(strpos($file, '/') !== 0 || !file_exists($_SERVER['DOCUMENT_ROOT'] . $file))
    return $file;

  $mtime = filemtime($_SERVER['DOCUMENT_ROOT'] . $file);
  return preg_replace('{\\.([^./]+)$}', ".$mtime.\$1", $file);
}

Now, wherever you include your CSS, change it from this:

<link rel="stylesheet" href="/css/base.css" type="text/css" />

To this:

<link rel="stylesheet" href="<?php echo auto_version('/css/base.css'); ?>" type="text/css" />

This way, you never have to modify the link tag again, and the user will always see the latest CSS. The browser will be able to cache the CSS file, but when you make any changes to your CSS the browser will see this as a new URL, so it won't use the cached copy.

This can also work with images, favicons, and JavaScript. Basically anything that is not dynamically generated.