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Matt Wilcox

Web Development

Notes Mar 03rd 2015

HTTP2 for front-end web developers

HTTP2 will mean a change in how we should build websites. The best practices of HTTP1 are harmful in a HTTP2 world.

HTTP1 is slow and inefficient for the majority of today's use cases on the web.

HTTP1.x is the version of HTTP we are all familiar with. It's an old protocol that was designed before we knew what the world wide web would become. While it does the job, it's just not very efficient at it anymore because what we demand of it is quite a lot more complex than what it was designed for.

To get websites to load in an acceptable time using HTTP1 we have developed a series of techniques; hacks really; to eke performance out of this old protocol. They are:

  • Spriting: taking multiple images, combining them into one image, and using CSS to only show part of that image in a particular place.
  • Concatenating: Taking multiple CSS or JS files and sticking them into one large file.
  • Serving assets from a cookie-less domain.
  • Sharding: creating different domains or sub-domains to host assets like images.

The first two techniques are aimed at avoiding multiple HTTP requests. In HTTP1 a request is a very costly thing and takes a lot of time, each request may be loaded down with cookies that must be sent as part of the request, and none of it is compressed. It's faster to lump a bunch of things together and get it all done in one go than to keep asking for different resources.

The third technique is used to minimise the time required to get assets; cookies, if set, must be sent to the requested domain along with every request - that adds up to a lot of 'wasted' space on the line. If your assets are on a different domain that doesn't use cookies, then requests for those files won't need to send cookies with them, and it's all a bit faster.

The last technique, sharding, is because browsers used to only allow two simultaneous HTTP requests per domain. If you create a new domain for some of your assets, then you double the amount of simultaneous connections the browser will allow in order to get your files. Thus, you can pull the website content down faster. In reality, sharding hasn't been too useful in the last couple of years because browser vendors decided the 'two connections' restriction was daft, and they ignored it.

HTTP2

Do not use those HTTP1 based best practices with a website being served over HTTP2.

HTTP2 is almost here, it's based on SPDY, and it makes everything much more efficient. It also means that all of those HTTP1 performance techniques are harmful. They will make a HTTP2 website slower, not faster - don't use them.

HTTP2 makes the cost of multiple requests far less because of a number of techniques it does itself.

  • It can leave the connection open for re-use for very extended periods of time, so there's no need for that costly handshake that HTTP1 requires for every request.
  • HTTP2 also uses compression, unlike HTTP1, and so the size of the request is significantly smaller - and thus faster.
  • HTTP2 multiplexes; it can send and receive multiple things at the same time over one connection.

All that means not only are the old HTTP1 techniques not needed, they'll actually make things slower. You may be loading assets that are not required for the page being viewed (concatenation and spriting are likely to do this), and sharding invokes DNS lookups which slow things down, despite HTTP2 meaning you don't need to shard in the first place.

The long and short of it is; when you build a front-end to a website, and you know it's going to be served over HTTP2 - you need to ensure you're not using legacy HTTP1 performance techniques that are going to harm the site under HTTP2.

Learning more

There's an excellent write-up by Daniel Stenberg going into much more detail available as a PDF.

Translations

This brief article has been translated into the following languages, with my thanks :)