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Mind the Gap when upgrading to HTTP/2

Posted by Giorgio Polvara on

The web has been in great ferment in the last few years. HTML 5, ECMAScript 2015 and all the new landing features are making our beloved platform a great place to be.

One of the most significant improvements is HTTP/2.

The Hypertext Transfer Protocol evolved a lot since its beginnings in 1989. When Tim Berners-Lee and his team created the protocol, they needed only a few features.

This first version was simple: it allowed only to perform GET requests and receive HTML data. Over the years, the HTTP WG documented and updated the protocol bringing it to version 1.1.

Although most of the web runs on HTTP/1.1, this version has many issues. Updating a protocol, especially if highly adopted, is not an easy task. For this reason, developers had to create workarounds to many problems.

If you are a web developer you know most of them and chances are you’re using them in your projects.

All those best practices are helpful but become counterproductive when used alongside with HTTP/2. Let’s analyze them and see why is this the case.

Domain Sharding

When we start an HTTP/1.x request, a new TCP connection is created. Once the request ends, we can reutilize the connection so we don’t have to create a new one.

This mechanism was serving us well during the early web but, with the time, we outgrew it. A web page is no longer one single HTML file; we require CSS, JavaScript and images.

For this reason, browsers started handling a connection pool of TCP streams. Modern browsers usually support six streams per host. This means that, if your page requires six images, the browser can download them in parallel. As you can imagine, it is a great performance boost.

Even so, with the average web page asking for 90+ resources, this is still not enough. Many requests will wait in queue before getting served.

Developers created a workaround to this problem: domain sharding. If a browsers’ limit is six TCP connections per host, we can put our assets on different hosts. That is, if our domain is example.com, images can be hosted at images.example.com and CSS files at css.example.com. In this way the browser will open six parallel connections for your images and six for your CSS files. Note that usually these subdomains are just CNAME DNS records that point to the same IP address.

The browser will have to resolve each DNS name but you get a good performance boost.

If you decide to upgrade to HTTP/2 you should disable domain sharding.

HTTP/2 creates only one TCP connection and uses it to the fullest extent. The stream can provide full multiplex support, both while sending and receiving. For this reason, clients no longer need to initiate more TCP connections at the same time. However, if we host our assets on different domains, the browser will have to create a new TCP connection. This not only means more DNS requests. With HTTP/2 headers are sent only when we first set them and when we want to change them, saving precious bytes. Connecting to more than one host means sending the headers more than once. Last, the client can prioritize the requests to receive the most important data first. If we use domain sharding this option is less effective.

Concatenation and Spriting

When you make a HTTP request you wait, at a minimum, for a full roundtrip of latency before you get the first data back. For the average webpage this means a lot of extra loading time. One obvious piece of advice here is “Don’t make a request unless you need it”. Another way to speed-up the loading process is to join together the resources you need.

When you join text files, usually JavaScript and CSS, we say we concatenate them.

On the other hand, for images, we generate an image sprite. That is, an image that contains more images. Using CSS we can then display only the part of the image we need.

Both techniques allow us to generate less requests. Instead of 20 separate CSS files we load just one that contains all others.

There are also downsides. Your page may not need all the data you concatenate resulting in a waste of bandwidth. Also, if one of your assets changes, you force the user to invalidate the cache and download it again. Last, your JavaScript and CSS files will not get executed until the browser has finished to downloading them.

All in all, for many applications running over HTTP/1.x, concatenation and spriting is a good solution.

However, this is not true for HTTP/2, since many small resources can be downloaded in parallel. In this case, the downsides of concatenating exceed its benefits.

Another feature in HTTP/2 is the ability for the server to push data to the client. When this happens, the browser will simply store the data in its cache. Later, when that resource is needed, it can be fetched from the cache. This makes concatenating even less necessary. We can instruct the server to push all these little assets, giving them priority.

Conclusions

HTTP/2 is currently supported by most web browsers. Although a decade will pass before the majority of the web upgrades to it. Even so, you should plan your upgrade path now. The benefits you’ll get from it are definitely worth it. Just remeber to question all the best practices you learned through the years.


Giorgio Polvara

Giorgio is a Fullstack developer at Fundbase. He's passionate about all things programming with an accent on UI/UX and JavaScript.