5. http2 concepts

So what does http2 accomplish? Where are the boundaries for what the HTTPbis group set out to do?

The boundaries were actually quite strict and put many restraints on the team's ability to innovate:

  • http2 has to maintain HTTP paradigms. It is still a protocol where the client sends requests to the server over TCP.

  • http:// and https:// URLs cannot be changed. There can be no new scheme for this. The amount of content using such URLs is too big to expect them to change.

  • HTTP1 servers and clients will be around for decades, we need to be able to proxy them to http2 servers.

  • Subsequently, proxies must be able to map http2 features to HTTP 1.1 clients one-to-one.

  • Remove or reduce optional parts from the protocol. This wasn't really a requirement but more a mantra coming from SPDY and the Google team. By making sure everything is mandatory there's no way you can not implement anything now and fall into a trap later on.

  • No more minor version. It was decided that clients and servers are either compatible with http2 or they are not. If a need arises to extend the protocol or modify things, then http3 will be born. There are no more minor versions in http2.

5.1. http2 for existing URI schemes

As mentioned already, the existing URI schemes cannot be modified, so http2 must use the existing ones. Since they are used for HTTP 1.x today, we obviously need a way to upgrade the protocol to http2, or otherwise ask the server to use http2 instead of older protocols.

HTTP 1.1 has a defined way to do this, namely the Upgrade: header, which allows the server to send back a response using the new protocol when getting such a request over the old protocol, at the cost of an additional round-trip.

That round-trip penalty was not something the SPDY team would accept, and since they only implemented SPDY over TLS, they developed a new TLS extension which shortcuts the negotiation significantly. Using this extension, called NPN for Next Protocol Negotiation, the server tells the client which protocols it knows and the client can then use the protocol it prefers.

5.2. http2 for https://

A lot of focus of http2 has been to make it behave properly over TLS. SPDY requires TLS and there's been a strong push for making TLS mandatory for http2, but it didn't get consensus so http2 shipped with TLS as optional. However, two prominent implementers have stated clearly that they will only implement http2 over TLS: the Mozilla Firefox lead and the Google Chrome lead, two of today's leading web browsers.

Reasons for choosing TLS-only include respect for user's privacy and early measurements showing that the new protocols have a higher success rate when done with TLS. This is because of the widespread assumption that anything that goes over port 80 is HTTP 1.1, which makes some middle-boxes interfere with or destroy traffic when any other protocols are used on that port.

The subject of mandatory TLS has caused much hand-wringing and agitated voices in mailing lists and meetings – is it good or is it evil? It is a highly controversial topic – be aware of this when you throw this question in the face of an HTTPbis participant!

Similarly, there's been a fierce and long-running debate about whether http2 should dictate a list of ciphers that should be mandatory when using TLS, or if it should perhaps blacklist a set, or if it shouldn't require anything at all from the TLS “layer” but leave that to the TLS working group. The spec ended up specifying that TLS should be at least version 1.2 and there are cipher suite restrictions.

5.3. http2 negotiation over TLS

Next Protocol Negotiation (NPN) is the protocol used to negotiate SPDY with TLS servers. As it wasn't a proper standard, it was taken through the IETF and the result was ALPN: Application Layer Protocol Negotiation. ALPN is being promoted for use by http2, while SPDY clients and servers still use NPN.

The fact that NPN existed first and ALPN has taken a while to go through standardization has led to many early http2 clients and http2 servers implementing and using both these extensions when negotiating http2. Also, NPN is what's used for SPDY and many servers offer both SPDY and http2, so supporting both NPN and ALPN on those servers makes perfect sense.

ALPN differs from NPN primarily in who decides what protocol to speak. With ALPN, the client gives the server a list of protocols in its order of preference and the server picks the one it wants, while with NPN the client makes the final choice.

5.4. http2 for http://

As previously mentioned, for plain-text HTTP 1.1 the way to negotiate http2 is by presenting the server with an Upgrade: header. If the server speaks http2 it responds with a “101 Switching” status and from then on it speaks http2 on that connection. Of course this upgrade procedure costs a full network round-trip, but the upside is that it's generally possible to keep an http2 connection alive much longer and re-use it more than a typical HTTP1 connection.

While some browsers' spokespersons stated they will not implement this means of speaking http2, the Internet Explorer team once expressed that they would - although they have never delivered on that. curl and a few other non-browser clients support clear-text http2.

Today, no major browser supports http2 without TLS.

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