HTTP/2 gives the web biggest upgrade in 16 years


Although very geeky sounding, last Wednesday (18 February) an important announcement was made that is set to speed up web browsing for everyone!

The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) controls how your bowser connects to a website (you will almost certainly have noticed that every web address begins with http://), and was invented by Sir Tim Berners Lee back in 1989 along with the World Wide Web. The HTTP protocol first saw the light if day in 1991, and was last updated to HTTP 1.1 (which allows multiple connections to load resources in parallel) in 1999 – sixteen whole years ago!

The new specifications were developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which has declared the standard formally approved, subject only to a short comment and editorial process. This is expected to be a mere formality, however, and Firefox has already upgraded its latest stable build to support the new standard, meaning that Firefox users can take advantage of it immediately. Google has also announced support for HTTP/2, which will roll in its Chrome and open source Chromium browsers over the next few weeks.

So what is HTTP/2?

HTTP/2 is based on the SPDY protocol (niftily pronounced “speedy”) developed by Google and first introduced in 2009. Both protocols speed up the loading of web pages using “header field compression” and “multiplexing” to allow browsers to make multiple requests to servers over the same connection. As Google explains,

HTTP/2’s primary changes from HTTP/1.1 focus on improved performance. Some key features such as multiplexing, header compression, prioritisation and protocol negotiation evolved from work done in an earlier open, but non-standard, protocol named SPDY. Chrome has supported SPDY since Chrome 6, but since most of the benefits are present in HTTP/2, it’s time to say goodbye.

Unlike SPDY, HTTP/2 does not force the use of TLS (Transport Layer Security) encryption to enhance privacy and security, which many would view as a step backwards. Both Firefox and Chrome, however, have said that their browsers will only support HTTP/2 over TLS, so for websites to gain the speed benefits of HTTP/2 they will have to implement TLS encryption.

The secure version of HTTP, HTTPS, will otherwise remain unaffected, although HTTP/2 requires a better version of TLS (1.2) than was previously the case (TLS 1.2 was first introduced in 2008, and should be standard on most secure websites by now).

What difference will it make?

Basically, web pages will load faster – much faster (you will notice it), because HTTP/2 allows servers to respond with more content than originally requested (so there is no need to continually send more requests for data), it is much more efficient than HTTP 1.1. HTTP/2 is, however, fully compatible with HTTP 1.1, as IETF chairman Mark Nottingham explained last month,

Making HTTP/2 succeed means that it has to work with the existing web. So, this effort is about getting the HTTP we know on the wire in a better way, not changing what the protocol means.

So what do I have to do?

As a personal internet user, nothing! HTTP/2-capable browsers will automatically switch from HTTP 1.1. to HTTP/2 if available, and it is very much in the interests of website owners, web hosting companies, and developers to upgrade to the faster standard as soon as possible.

As already noted, Firefox is HTTP/2 enabled already, Chrome is soon to follow, and other web browsers should not take long to catch-up, so within weeks you should be feeling the speed benefits as you surf around the web.

How does this affect IronSocket?

The upgrade to HTTP/2 will have no affect on our VPN or SmartDNS services, other than that users will experience the same speed benefits that all internet users will enjoy. We will, of course, also be updating our website to take advantage of the new standard as soon as possible!

If you have any further questions about HTTP/2, and extensive official FAQ is available here.

About Dan Johnson

Dan has been involved with computers in the early 1990s with a 2400 baud dialup modem. Since then, he has been working on various internet projects for over a decade and makes a conscience effort to inform others about staying safe on the internet. Currently he works with IronSocket and some other online side projects, when not hiking through the pine forests around his house.