No ESI processing, first char not ‘<'

After installing Varnish 2.0.5 on a machine, ESI Includes didn’t work. When using varnishlog, the first error that occurred when debugging was:

No ESI processing, first char not ‘< '

   12 SessionClose – timeout
   12 StatSess     – 50662 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
   12 SessionOpen  c 60087
   12 ReqStart     c 60087 409391565
   12 RxRequest    c GET
   12 RxURL        c /esi.html
   12 RxProtocol   c HTTP/1.1
   12 RxHeader     c Host:
   12 RxHeader     c User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; U; Intel Mac OS X 10.6; en-US; rv:1.9.2b4) Gecko/20091124 Firefox/3.6b4
   12 RxHeader     c Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.8
   12 RxHeader     c Accept-Language: en-us,en;q=0.5
   12 RxHeader     c Accept-Encoding: gzip,deflate
   12 RxHeader     c Accept-Charset: ISO-8859-1,utf-8;q=0.7,*;q=0.7
   12 RxHeader     c Keep-Alive: 115
   12 RxHeader     c Connection: keep-alive
   12 RxHeader     c X-lori-time-1: 1259718658980
   12 RxHeader     c Cache-Control: max-age=0
   12 VCL_call     c recv
   12 VCL_return   c lookup
   12 VCL_call     c hash
   12 VCL_return   c hash
   12 VCL_call     c miss
   12 VCL_return   c fetch
   12 Backend      c 14 cd34_com cd34_com
   12 ObjProtocol  c HTTP/1.1
   12 ObjStatus    c 200
   12 ObjResponse  c OK
   12 ObjHeader    c Date: Wed, 02 Dec 2009 01:50:59 GMT
   12 ObjHeader    c Server: Apache
   12 ObjHeader    c Vary: Accept-Encoding
   12 ObjHeader    c Content-Encoding: gzip
   12 ObjHeader    c Content-Type: text/html
   12 TTL          c 409391565 RFC 120 1259718659 0 0 0 0
   12 VCL_call     c fetch
   12 TTL          c 409391565 VCL 43200 1259718659
   12 ESI_xmlerror c No ESI processing, first char not ‘< '
   12 TTL          c 409391565 VCL 0 1259718659
   12 VCL_info     c XID 409391565: obj.prefetch (-30) less than ttl (-1), ignored.
   12 VCL_return   c deliver
   12 Length       c 68
   12 VCL_call     c deliver
   12 VCL_return   c deliver
   12 TxProtocol   c HTTP/1.1
   12 TxStatus     c 200
   12 TxResponse   c OK
   12 TxHeader     c Server: Apache
   12 TxHeader     c Vary: Accept-Encoding
   12 TxHeader     c Content-Encoding: gzip
   12 TxHeader     c Content-Type: text/html
   12 TxHeader     c Content-Length: 68
   12 TxHeader     c Date: Wed, 02 Dec 2009 01:50:59 GMT
   12 TxHeader     c X-Varnish: 409391565
   12 TxHeader     c Age: 0
   12 TxHeader     c Via: 1.1 varnish
   12 TxHeader     c Connection: keep-alive
   12 TxHeader     c X-Cache: MISS
   12 ReqEnd       c 409391565 1259718659.088263512 1259718659.127703667 0.000059366 0.039401770 0.000038385
   12 Debug        c "herding"

ESI received significant performance enhancements in 2.0.4 and 2.0.5 so, it seemed something was incompatible. Downgrading to 2.0.3 and using the VCL from another machine still resulted in ESI not working.

In this case, mod_deflate was running on the backend which was causing the issue. However, in reading the source code, it appears that message could also occur if your ESI include wasn’t handing back properly formed XML/HTML content. If your include doesn’t contain valid content and is only returning a small snippet, you might consider passing:

-p esi_syntax=0x1

on the command line that starts Varnish.

The changes in Varnish address the issue of ESI being enabled on binary content. Since the first character isn’t an < in almost all binary files (jpg, mpg, gif) and isn't the start of most .css/.js files, varnish doesn't need to spend extra time checking those files for includes. While you can and should selectively enable esi processing, this is just an added safeguard and a performance boost to compensate for vcl that might have an esi directive on static/binary content. Since Varnish 2.0.3 now worked properly with the new machine, we upgraded to Varnish 2.0.5 which introduced a very odd issue:

[Tue Dec 01 20:58:11 2009] [error] [client] File does not exist: /gfs/www/cd/
[Tue Dec 01 20:58:13 2009] [error] [client] File does not exist: /gfs/www/cd/
[Tue Dec 01 20:58:24 2009] [error] [client] File does not exist: /gfs/www/cd/\xfa
[Tue Dec 01 20:59:01 2009] [error] [client] File does not exist: /gfs/www/cd/\xb5
[Tue Dec 01 20:59:06 2009] [error] [client] File does not exist: /gfs/www/cd/\xe7
[Tue Dec 01 20:59:07 2009] [error] [client] File does not exist: /gfs/www/cd/\xd4
[Tue Dec 01 20:59:08 2009] [error] [client] File does not exist: /gfs/www/cd/\x1c

This generated 404s on the piece of the page that contained the ESI include. Downgrading to 2.0.4 fixed the issue and the issue appears to already be fixed in Trunk. Varnish Ticket #585

Varnish 2.0.4 and mod_deflate disabled addressed the two issues that prevented ESI from working correctly on this new installation.

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One Response to “No ESI processing, first char not ‘<'”

  1. cd34 Says:

    Rather than disable mod_deflate on the backend, for ESI parsed pages you can use VCL to strip out the Accept-Encoding and Vary headers. In vcl_recv, within a condition that matches the urls/hostname you can place:

       unset req.http.Accept-Encoding;
       unset req.http.Vary;

    and within vcl_fetch, create a condition that matches the uri’s that you want to parse for ESI and place:


    This will allow the backend to serve content with mod_deflate/mod_gzip while allowing ESI to be procesed.

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