Varnish keeps throwing 503 Service Unavailable when trying to load a page that takes longer to generate on the web server.

In varnishlog I can see an FetchError c http read error: 0 error, though I'm not quite sure what it means.

I also tried increasing the backend timeouts:

backend default {
    .host = "x.x.x.x";
    .port = "80";
    .connect_timeout = 600s;
    .first_byte_timeout = 600s;
    .between_bytes_timeout = 600s;

The backend is an Apache server.

All other pages work fine.

Any ideas?

1 Answer 1


The error message means (line number references refer to varnish 2.1.3):

While fetching a header [bin/varnishd/cache_fetch.c:399], either:

a) an overflow occurred [bin/varnishd/cache_httpconn.c:170]


b) a error occurred when calling read() [bin/varnishd/cache_httpconn.c:175]

The number at the end is the value of errno, so since it's 0 (no error) I would assume that option a) occurred since read() shouldn't return a negative number without setting errno.

The overflow is detected with the following code [bin/varnishd/cache_httpconn.c:167] returning a negative result:

i = (htc->ws->r - htc->rxbuf.e) - 1;    /* space for NUL */

htc->ws is a struct ws [bin/varnishd/cache.h:126] which is a "workspace structure" The r member is the reserved length of that workspace. htc->rxbuf refers to a struct txt [bin/varnishd/cache.h:109] but there's no comment describing what the members (b & e) refer to. Beginning and end perhaps?

I don't know how workspaces are resized (or even if they are) but - and I'm really in guessing territory here - I would assume that some possible causes of the problem are:

  • A very large number of headers
  • Very long headers
  • A bug in how Varnish resizes workspaces (if it does)

It might be useful to try and find the point at which the error can be forced to occur by searching through the space of:

  • Header lengths
  • Numbers of headers

and see if you can reliably reproduce the problem.

You may be able to work around the problem by increasing the http_headers runtime option. (If you're running < 2.1, I think it's a compile-time or configure-time option)

  • Now that's an answer! adding -p http_headers=128 at runtime fixed the issue. I can't thank you enough! Oct 14, 2010 at 8:40
  • You're very welcome. I've had similar but different problems so I had done a good chunk of the digging already. :) Oct 14, 2010 at 8:52
  • 1
    For version 3.0 the header is now 'http_max_hdr'
    – kervin
    Jul 27, 2012 at 23:31
  • 1
    I use a Zend Framework application and configured a Wildfire logger to Firebug to track DB queries. On certain occasions it generated a huge amount of queries, and thus headers. This answer helped me find the cause!
    – Yeroon
    Mar 26, 2013 at 19:21

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