HTTP2 Protocol: Can we browse Faster?

Aug 14, 2023

I'm sure I will be using this motto again but in a nutshell, to some of us, "The Internet" is Skype, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube or, in other words, all of those websites, applications and services we use on a daily basis to retrieve the information we require. To some others, mainly the technical bunch, the Internet is a series of inter-connected devices which, since the early days of the inception of the Internet (as early as 1983), it has taken a roller coaster of a ride for the better. We witnessed the shift of internet usage from pc to mobile and from time to time faced certain bottlenecks along the way which thanks to some of the smart technological minds out there we managed to find a work around, a solution and moved on.

The Internet, as we know it, has changed a lot over the years; we faced a shortage of IP addresses at some point and went on to create a new IP addressing structure which would allow us to have a huge address space. IP addresses are just like postal addresses, except that they are used for devices to connect over the internet. Steve Leibson takes a shot at putting it in real world terms. Here’s his conclusion:

“So we could assign an IPV6 address to EVERY ATOM ON THE SURFACE OF THE EARTH, and still have enough addresses left to do another 100+ earths. It isn’t remotely likely that we’ll run out of IPV6 addresses at any time in the future.”

Introduction to HTTP/2 Protocol

HTTP/2, the next evolutionary step in the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) lineage, aims to address some of the inherent inefficiencies of its predecessor, HTTP/1.1. Released in 2015, HTTP/2 brought a set of modern enhancements that significantly improve web performance and user experience. But what does this mean for you, the user? Let's dive into why HTTP/2 is pivotal in today's internet landscape. 

First off, HTTP/2 reduces latency, which means faster page load times. It achieves this through techniques like multiplexing, where multiple requests and responses can be transferred simultaneously over a single connection. Remember those days when loading a webpage felt like watching paint dry? HTTP/2 minimizes that frustrating wait. 

Moreover, it introduces server push, enabling servers to send resources to your browser before it even asks for them. For example, if you're visiting a webpage, HTTP/2 can push necessary CSS or image files to your browser proactively, enhancing the overall browsing speed. 

These improvements are underpinned by a binary protocol that reduces the complexity of parsing, thus further speeding up data exchange. This binary format is more efficient than the text-based format used in HTTP/1.1. 

So, in essence, HTTP/2 has been designed to make your online experience smoother and more efficient, addressing the bottlenecks that have long frustrated internet users. Stay with us as we delve deeper into how this protocol works and its various features in the upcoming sections.

Differences Between HTTP/1.1 and HTTP/2

If you've ever wondered why your favorite websites sometimes take ages to load, the answer often lies in the underlying protocols managing the data exchange. HTTP/1.1, for instance, uses a text-based format, which, while straightforward, isn't optimal for speed. HTTP/2 revolutionizes this by introducing a binary protocol. 

Why does this matter? Simply put, binary protocols are faster and more efficient. They reduce errors and can process complex data more swiftly, leading to snappier web experiences. But that's just the beginning of what HTTP/2 brings to the table. 

One of the standout features of HTTP/2 is multiplexing. Gone are the days when each request required a separate connection. With HTTP/1.1, this often leads to bottlenecks, as browsers would open multiple connections simultaneously, congesting the network. HTTP/2, however, allows multiple requests and responses to be sent concurrently over a single connection. This means less waiting around for resources to load. 

Another key improvement is header compression via HPACK. HTTP/1.1 headers are bulky and repetitive, but HTTP/2 compresses these headers, significantly reducing the amount of data transmitted and speeding up communication between your device and the server. 

Ever noticed how some sites seem to load content you haven't requested yet? That's server push in action. HTTP/2 can proactively send resources to your browser before you even ask for them, preloading essential assets and making your browsing experience feel seamless. 

Stream prioritization is another highlight. HTTP/2 allows you to prioritize certain streams of data, ensuring critical resources like HTML and CSS load before less crucial ones, such as images or ads. This ensures that what you need most appears first, improving user experience. 

Lastly, security sees a boost as well. While HTTP/1.1 can operate over both encrypted and unencrypted connections, HTTP/2 is typically paired with TLS (Transport Layer Security), ensuring that your data is safeguarded while it travels over the internet. 

In summary, HTTP/2 isn't just a step forward; it's a leap towards faster, more efficient, and secure web browsing. By addressing the limitations of HTTP/1.1, it paves the way for a smoother and more responsive web experience, quite literally changing the way we surf the internet.

Internet and the bottlenecks

We’ve reached a situation where internet bandwidth has become the main bottle neck for everything. The spinning circles on your YouTube video, the amount of time it takes for your emails to be received from the server or even that odd video call you make which goes sluggish at times is all down to the speed of the connection you have available on your device. Whether it is a 3G, 4G or a fibre connection we have bottlenecks. Upgrading to speedy internet connections is costly and for some environments the cost is justified and for some others it maybe a matter of cost, feasibility or even infrastructure limitations.

In a world where IP addresses are your postal addresses, the internet bandwidth is the post office van and the speed at which it can go from A to B but we discussed that and it would be costly to upgrade the van or the route it takes but what if we were to go ahead and re-organise the mail into the van so that we can fit in more content?

This is where the HTTP protocol comes in to play; the HTTP protocol hasn’t been touched over the years, at least since 1997! This protocol is the underlying protocol that is used by the Internet ( or the World Wide Web as we know it) to define how messages are formatted and transmitted. It’s about time for it to receive a facelift!

The HTTP & HTTP/2 protocol

Hypertext Transfer Protocol or the "http://" you see at the start of a URL was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the godfather of the internet. This protocol is about to receive a facelift and allow it to manage the transmission of the content around the internet at a faster pace.

During the constant development for Google Chrome, Google decided to introduce a more speedy protocol which would have allowed its browser to outrun its rivals and to present internet content at a faster pace. This protocol was later called Speedy or SPDY as we know it. Following that the protocol was noticeably helping content to be delivered to your computers, mobiles and handsets at a faster pace and even other organisations such as Mozilla found the protocol to be very efficient.

Following that Google upgraded its SPDY protocol to SPDY/2 which effectively created the foundation for the HTTP2 protocol. In November 2014 HTTP/2 was submitted as a proposal to IESG, the Internet Engineering Steering Group.

Here’s a quick overview of various browsers and their integration with HTTP/2:

  • Chrome supports HTTP/2, but it is not enabled by default. To turn on HTTP/2 support, a command line flag “–enable-spdy4” needs to be specified when launching Chrome.[45] Currently only HTTP/2 over TLS is implemented. As of February 2015, Google plans to fully implement HTTP/2 in future versions of its Chrome browser, effectively dumping support for SPDY.
  • Firefox supports HTTP/2 which has been enabled by default since version 36.[48] Experimental support for HTTP/2 was originally added in version 34. Currently only HTTP/2 over TLS is implemented.
  • Internet Explorer supports HTTP/2 in version 11, but only for Windows 10 beta, and is enabled by default. Currently only HTTP/2 over TLS is implemented.

Future of Web Protocols: Beyond HTTP/2

As we move beyond HTTP/2, the future of web protocols holds many exciting possibilities. While HTTP/2 has significantly enhanced the way we experience the web, there's always room for innovation and improvement. One promising candidate on the horizon is HTTP/3, which builds upon the foundation laid by its predecessor but introduces new features to further enhance performance and security. 

HTTP/3 is based on QUIC (Quick UDP Internet Connections), a transport layer network protocol developed by Google. Unlike previous HTTP versions reliant on TCP (Transmission Control Protocol), HTTP/3 leverages the speed and reliability of UDP (User Datagram Protocol). This shift aims to reduce latency and improve connection speed, making the web even faster and more responsive. 

Additionally, HTTP/3 brings several key benefits. For instance, it supports 0-RTT (Zero Round-Trip Time) resumption, allowing for almost instantaneous connection setups. This is particularly advantageous for environments requiring rapid load times and seamless user experiences. Moreover, the integration of enhanced security features ensures that user data remains protected, addressing some of the vulnerabilities present in earlier protocols. 

While the transition to HTTP/3 is still in its early stages, the potential it holds is undeniable. It promises to further streamline web interactions, providing a smoother, more efficient browsing experience. As developers and web platforms start adopting HTTP/3, we can expect a gradual but impactful transformation in how we navigate and consume content online. 

Looking even further ahead, the landscape of web protocols continues to evolve. Researchers and engineers are constantly exploring new technologies and methodologies to push the boundaries of what's possible. From advanced encryption techniques to innovative data transmission methods, the future of web protocols is poised to bring unprecedented advancements. 

In conclusion, while HTTP/2 has brought about significant improvements in web performance and efficiency, the journey doesn't end here. The advent of HTTP/3 and other emerging technologies signals a bright future for the internet, where faster, safer, and more reliable browsing experiences become the norm. Stay tuned, as the web continues to evolve at a rapid pace, driven by relentless innovation and a commitment to excellence. 

How an IT Company Can Help Businesses With HTTP/2

Implementing HTTP/2 can be a game-changer for your business's digital presence, and IT companies play a crucial role in this transformation. By optimizing infrastructure, these experts ensure a seamless shift from HTTP/1.1 to HTTP/2, making the most of new features like multiplexing, header compression, and server push. 

Firstly, an IT company can perform a comprehensive audit of your current web infrastructure. They will identify potential bottlenecks and areas that can be improved when transitioning to HTTP/2. This audit helps to develop a tailored plan that addresses the unique needs of your business. 

Next, they assist in configuring your web servers and CDNs (Content Delivery Networks) to support HTTP/2. Most modern web servers and CDNs like Akamai, Microsoft Azure, Cloudflare, AWS CloudFront, and Fastly are HTTP/2 compatible, ensuring smooth integration. 

IT experts also manage the migration process to minimize downtime and ensure that all elements on your website are optimized for HTTP/2. This includes refining the use of features such as HPACK header compression, which reduces the overhead and accelerates the data transmission. 

Additionally, they can provide ongoing support and monitoring to ensure that your website continues to perform optimally. This includes implementing security measures inherent in HTTP/2, which enhance the overall security of your web applications. 

By leveraging the expertise of an IT company, your business can reap the benefits of HTTP/2 more effectively, leading to improved web performance, optimized resource use, reduced browsing latency, and enhanced security. The result is a faster, more reliable user experience that can significantly boost your site's SEO performance and user satisfaction.

Next steps

With the rollout of HTTP2 later this year, your web servers should be prepared to accept the new protocol and whilst there will be a period where HTTP and HTTP2 will both be supported it’s best to consult with your IT specialists to ensure your web servers are swiftly prepared to accept the new protocol.