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Brief History of HTTP

If you do a search on HTTP, you’ll quickly find many well written articles overflowing with very detailed technical jargon. These articles will explain in great detail everything you need to know (and don’t need to know) about HTTP. Here’s a brief summary of the main points with an attempt to keep the technical lingo to a minimum.

HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) was first released in 1991, and is the underlying protocol used by the web. It manages the connection between your web browser and a website’s web server. It is used by virtually every internet-connected device and software application today. HTTP received a major revision in 1999 to HTTP/1.1 and has served the web well over the years, but the web has changed dramatically since then, and the protocol is starting to show it’s age. HTTP/1.1 has trouble keeping up with the demands of modern websites. Web pages are more resource intensive than ever, and loading necessary assets efficiently is difficult for the aging protocol. For example, a basic web page will require HTML, a stylesheet, and images. A complex page with additional functionality can also require multiple stylesheets, multiple javascript files, web fonts, and an assortment of third party files. On average, a modern website can require over a hundred individual resources to complete a web page. The trend continues to rise with little or no indication that it will change soon.

What is HTTP/2?

HTTP/2 is the latest major revision of the HTTP protocol with an emphasis on performance. HTTP/2 is designed to address many of the failings of its predecessors. In many ways, HTTP/2 thrives where the previous versions struggled, or totally circumvents problems that existed with preceding protocols. HTTP/2 also brings new features that were once impossible. HTTP/2 is also backwards compatible, so older sites will continue to operate the same as before.

A couple of new features worth noting are multiplexing and server push. Multiplexing is the heart of the new protocol. Multiplexing allows multiple HTTP requests to be received asynchronously over a single connection. In other words, all the parts of a website, such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript etc., won’t block each other. There are no “traffic jams.”  This is a big improvement from the previous version, where each transfer has to wait for other transfers to complete before it can move to the next. Server Push, allows the server to proactively send resources to the browser. With HTTP/1.1, the web server will not take action until the browser makes a request. Server Push creates a connection between the web browser and web server that acts more like an engaging 2-way conversation – cutting down on response time. HTTP/2 is slowly becoming more common as more and more platforms are making the switch to take advantage of the updated protocol along with the benefits it has to offer.

Transitioning to HTTP/2

Upgrading to HTTP/2 is not as simple as just installing a module and turning it on. It is a good idea to plan out your strategy to make the transition a success. Modern web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Windows Explorer and Safari) have decided to only support HTTP/2 over secure HTTPS connections. This means you need to have your site running on HTTPS before you can even consider upgrading. It is a good idea to have a secure site anyway. There are a few benefits to be earned by securing your site:

  • Security –  HTTPS guarantees:
    • Confidentiality. The visitor’s connection is encrypted, obscuring URLs, cookies, and other sensitive metadata.
    • Authenticity. The visitor is talking to the “real” website, and not to an impersonator or through a “man-in-the-middle.”
    • Integrity. The data sent between the visitor and the website has not been tampered with or modified.
  • Google Rankings – Google wants to keep everyone safe on the web and encourages all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS. Google gives secure sites a minor ranking boost.

To plan out your HTTP/2 strategy further, you’ll need to consider whether your visitors tend to use browsers that support HTTP/2. Websites that attract a lot of people using up-to-date browsers will be able to make the switch sooner than sites whose logs show a majority of users on older browsers. It’s also important to test your current site speed. If your website already performs well, there’s no problem with sticking with your current HTTP protocol for now. You’ll also need to know what version of server and software your web server is using. Depending on how the site is being hosted, this update may be easy or nearly impossible. As time goes on, HTTP/2 will become commonplace and will be the norm for new website builds.

If you’re interested in developing a strategy to upgrade your site or have more questions, contact us! We can make an assessment and let you know what options you have.


Author: Jason Martinez, UX Developer