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HTTP/2 – What and why?

What is HTTP?

HTTP, HyperText Transfer Protocol, is an application layer network protocol for distributing hypermedia data. It is mainly used for serving websites in HTML format for browser consumption.

HTTP/2 and SPDY

The newest version of HTTP is HTTP/2. The protocol originated at Google under the name SPDY. The specification work and maintenance has later been moved to the IETF.

The purpose of HTTP/2 was to develop a better performing protocol, while still maintaining high-level backward compatibility with previous versions of the HTTP protocol. This means compliance to the same HTTP methods, status codes, etc.

New in HTTP/2

HTTP/2 maintains backward compatibility in the way that applications served over the protocol does not require any changes to work for the new version. But the the protocol contains a range of new performance enhancing features that applications can implement on a case-by-case basis.

Header compression

HTTP/2 supports most of the headers supported by earlier versions of HTTP. As something new, HTTP/2 also support compressing these headers to minimize the amount of data that has to be transferred.

Request pipelining

In earlier versions of HTTP, one TCP connection equaled one HTTP connection. In HTTP/2 several HTTP requests can be sent over the same TCP connection.

This allows HTTP/2 to bypass some of the issues in previous version of the protocol, like the maximum connection limit. It also means that all of the formalities of TCP, like handshakes and path MTU discovery, only has to be done once.

No HOL blocking

Head of Line block occurs when some incoming data must be handled in a specific order, and the first data takes a long time, forcing all of the following data to wait for the first data to be processed.

In HTTP/1 HOL blocking happens because multiple requests over the same TCP connection has to be handled in the order they were received. So if a client makes 2 requests to the same server, the second request won’t be handled before the first request is been completed. If the first request takes a long time to complete, this can will hold up the second request as well.

HTTP/2 allows pipelining requests over a single TCP connection, allowing the second request to be received at the same time, or even before, the first request. This means the server is able to handle the second request even while it’s still receiving the first request.

Server Push

In earlier versions, a typical web page was rendered by in a sequential manner. First the browser would request the page to be rendered. The server would then respond with the main content of the page, typically in HTML format. The browser would then start rendering the HTML from the top and down. Every time the browser encountered an external ressource, like a css file, an external JavaScript file, or an image, a new request would be made to the server to request the additional resource.

HTTP/2 offers a feature called server push. Server push allows the server to respond to a single request with several different resources. This allows the server to push required external CSS and JavaScript files to the user on a normal page request, thus allowing the client to have the resources at hand during the rendering, preventing the render-blocking additional requests that otherwise had to be done during page rendering.

HTTPS-only

The HTTP/2 specification, like earlier versions, allows HTTP to function both over a normal unencrypted connection, but also specifies a method for transferring over a TLS-encrypted connection, namely using HTTPS. The major browser vendors, though, have decided to force higher security standards, by only accepting HTTP/2 over encrypted HTTPS connections.

Published in Internet Software

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