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Hypertext Transfer Protocol takes a great leap forward

by  David Dwyer on  30/03/2015

HTTP might not excite you, but the faster browsing it promises will

“The King is dead, long live the King,” they say, when one king dies and the next takes on the role.  Now we can say “HTTP is dead, long live HTTP”.  HTTP/1.x is being replaced by HTTP/2.  That’s very big news: it’s the biggest change since 1999, a lifetime in internet terms.

It’s taken two years of discussion, 17 drafts and 300 implementations, sorting out over 200 design issues.  The result will “help provide faster user experience for browsing, reduce the amount of bandwidth required, and make the use of secure connections easier,” according to the IETF (the Internet Engineering Task Force), who are responsible for the changes.

HTTP/2 is already available for testing in Firefox, Chrome and a number of open-source implementations.  There will not be a sudden, total change-over to HTTP/2; instead there will be a gradual migration to the new version.  Users won’t have to do anything different to get the benefit of HTTP/2.

The change will speed up internet browsing as HTTP/2 is multiplexed, so it uses fewer connections and allows several requests to be made at once.  HTTP/1.x was only able to cope with one request at a time, and a slow response could block faster ones “behind” it. Each request could also load 10 times the number of available connections, which made HTTP/1.x even slower.  Multiplexing allows multiple request and response messages to be dealt with at once.

HTTP/2 will simplify coding, as it’s binary rather than textual.  Binary protocols are more efficient and more compact.  They are also much less error-prone than textual protocols because they cope better with white space, capitals, line endings, blank links and so on.  That makes them faster to create and faster in use.

Server Push is another improvement in the new version.  In HTTP/1.x, your browser requests a page; the server sends the HTML and then waits for the browser to parse it and issue requests for the embedded assets.  Only then can the server send the necessary information to your browser.  Server Push bypasses all this by “pushing” the response it thinks you want straight to your cache, which will save a lot of time. 

Cookies and other headers will also be compressed, further reducing the amount of data being processed. A new protocol will also reduce hacking attacks on sites (at least until the hackers catch up) and there are other improvements to browsing security.

Mobile users in particular will notice an improvement in the speed of downloading as a result of all these changes.  HTTP/1.x can take several seconds to process the request for a page.  The new version will reduce the wait to milliseconds, improving the browsing experience enormously.

The change may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, but HTTP/2 will make a real difference to business over the next few years, as internet speeds improve and more people use mobile internet to make transactions on the move.

David Dwyer is Managing Director of Inspire Web Development. He has years of experience in a range of web and IT roles plus seven years in sales and marketing in a blue-chip FMCG company. David’s academic and professional qualifications include a BA (Hons) in Business Economics (Personnel & Ergonomics) from the University of Paisley, an MSc in Information Technology (Systems) from Heriot-Watt University and PRINCE2 Practitioner-level certification. He is also an active member of the British Computer Society, Entrepreneurial Exchange and Business for Scotland.


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