HTTP/2 Is About To Supercharge The Web

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

HTTP/2 Is About To Supercharge The Web

Offering superior performance while using less bandwidth, HTTP/2 will make the internet, considerably more efficient.

For many, HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) is simply that weird acronym in front of the “important bit” of a website's address.  You know, the part that doesn’t always get copied when pasting into your browser?  (Ahem).   Actually, many steps have been taken over the years to minimize the visual effects of HTTP by just assuming it is the implied prefix of any website you might be linking to. A good example of this is when you paste a link like the above one into Gmail client and it highlights blue and adds a line under it without a thought given to that odd 'HTTP' bit.  HTTP is ubiquitous, it's been around for 20 years and is still going strong.  So why would there ever be a need to update it?

Formally adopted in 1997, the current HTTP 1.1 specification limited the internet to processing only one outstanding request per connection.  This forced web browsers to use multiple connections to process multiple requests simultaneously, and in turn render what the user was attempting to load.  Multiple connections means network congestion and in turn worsening performance for everyone on the web.     

Unbeknown to most, web developers have spent the last decade innovating ways to circumvent these limitations.  Clever techniques like using sprites in place of images in order to limit how many round trips / server calls a website needs in order to load became the norm.  These tactics were born out of necessity and intended to increase delivery efficiency, and therefore page speed. The underlying goal of these techniques was to ease the burden on servers and deliver content quickly by leveraging the browser’s ability cache or save content rather than making numerous round trips to the server with each page load.

The reality of today’s internet requires significant modifications to the HTTP protocol in order to improve the internet experience.

For years, working within the constraints of HTTP 1.1 has just been the status quo.  However, the internet has changed a great deal since Bill Clinton was president, and the needs of its users and the demands of technology are different.  Resource-intensive multimedia content as well as the explosion mobile device usage has necessitated far greater web performance and has strained old school protocols. The reality of today’s internet requires significant modifications to the HTTP protocol in order to improve the internet experience.  

Enter HTTP/2

HTTP/2 is a game changer, allowing the delivery of packets of files in a single request.  In technical terms this is known as ‘multiplexed streams’ - the ability to transmit multiple pieces of data at once.  In layman's terms, imagine turning on your light bulb and having to wait for the light to come on as a multitude of pieces that made up the bulb where transmitted one at a time until the light bulb itself was complete. This is why many websites currently load in pieces and chunks, and sometimes not all of the pieces and chunks make it.  We’re all used to it, but it’s not an optimal experience.

HTTP/2 Is About To Supercharge The Web

HTTP 1.1 vs. HTTP/2

HTTP/2 is the equivalent of getting the full, working lightbulb all at once, so your light comes on almost instantly (as illustrated in this HTTP/2 demo, or this one if you prefer Chuck Norris).  The ability to deliver packages, rather than individual requests is a game changer for how we serve up websites.  In addition to this, the latest version of HyperText Transfer Protocol can actually allow you to say what is most important to deliver, or what order you want items to be received.  ‘Stream prioritization’ in HTTP/2 works much like an air traffic controller, making sure that the right planes land at the right time and give preferential treatment to the ones that have the most precious cargo. 

Other HTTP/2 Benefits

As you might expect on a technology that hasn't been updated in 20 years, there are a multitude of additional benefits the new HTTP/2 spec will bring us:

  • Server Push - affording the ability for the server to anticipate future requests and push files related to those requests in advance.
  • Header Compression - the size of HTTP headers, which carry information about the server and browser among other things, is dramatically reduced.
  • Security - while the actual HTTP/2 specification does not require a secure connection (TLS / HTTPS), most of the major browsers will require one.  Essentially, this will make using HTTP/2 a secure experience by default.
HTTP/2 Is About To Supercharge The Web

The latest versions of major browsers are mostly ready for HTTP/2 (over HTTPS)

As exciting as all of this is, adoption of new web standards has been a troublesome issue in the past.  Luckily, it appears that most of the major browsers other players are all on board to help the new spec become the de facto standard sooner rather than later.  Google's recent announcement that it would be abandoning their competing spec 'SPDY' in favor of the HTTP/2 protocol was a major coup to the already notable momentum being generated.

Your Business & HTTP/2

We are in midst of an era where websites have become ever larger and more complex, and that will likely continue to be the case in the near future.  HTTP/2's rule is inevitable, so smart business owners will be looking ahead and making certain their website plays nice with the new protocol.  First movers who take the initiative to utilize the new spec will reap some advantages in terms of site performance, customer satisfaction and even SEO.

There is no 'start date' for the new spec to take over, it will be a gradual process played out by a mix of the latest browsers and server software becoming commonplace.  We're recommending to all of our clients to first and foremost start encrypting all of their website assets as a first step - both to be ready for browsers that require it for the use of HTTP/2 and for SEO benefits associated with deploying a secure connection.

Because the latest versions of the major browsers are already HTTP/2 compliant, noticeable improvements in load time and load accuracy are more widely possible.  These days, those letters, colons and slashes before the 'www' are pretty important.  As HTTP/2 becomes even more widely adopted, your website and thereby your end-users will become the beneficiaries of a snappier, safer internet experience.  That is most definitely good for business.