HTTP2: the good, the bad and the ugly

I spent last few weeks investigating on HTTP2, the successor of HTTP1.1 and I’d like to share my findings and thoughts in this post.

Let’s start saying that if the question you have in mind at this point is: “Can I really use it today, not only for experiments but also in production?”
My answer would be: “YES, you can!”

First of all, I’d like to share with you the browsers implementation status for this protocol

screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-23-00-23

As you can see from the screenshot taken from caniuse.com it’s definitely well supported on the latest version of the major browsers with some caveats obviously.

If you are not convinced yet, please check this website with one of the browsers that currently supports HTTP2 and look how fast to load is!
I’d suggest to install the HTTP2 indicator Chrome extension to discover how many web apps or online services are using this protocol:

screen-shot-2016-09-07-at-21-41-09

Not yet convince?! OK let’s move to a deeper analysis then!

HTTP2 is a binary protocol with a multiplexing requests method implemented, that means all the browser requests will be handled asynchronously.

This massive change will increase drastically the performance of your application.
Considering at the moment a browser can download simultaneously a maximum of 5 resources per domain (let’s avoid talking about “resource sharding” for now), with HTTP2 we will be able to request all the resources and render them when the browser will accomplish their download, check this demo made with Go Lang for a proper comparison between the 2 protocols and check also the Network panel in the Chrome Dev Tools or Firefox dev tools in order to understand how the 2 protocols differ.

The Good

HTTP2 has really few rules in order to be implemented:

  • it works ONLY with https protocol (therefore you need a valid SSL certificate)
  • it’s backward compatible, so if a browser or a device where your application is running, don’t support HTTP2 it will fall back to HTTP1.1
  • it comes with great performance improvements out-of-the-box
  • it doesn’t require to do anything on the client side but on the server side for a basic implementation
  • few new interesting features will allow to speed up the load of your web project in a way that is not even imaginable with HTTP1.1 implementation

Despite the short list, HTTP2 is bringing a substantial change to the internet ecosystem.
One of my favourite feature is the server PUSH where a server can pass a link header specifying what the browser should download in advance before starting to parse entirely the HTML document.
In this case, we can educate the browser to download several resources like images, css or even javascript files before the engine recognise them inside the DOM, providing a better user experience to our web apps and/or games.

The Bad

There is still plenty of works to do in order to have a great penetration of this protocol, few specs are still on going (read the next paragraph: the ugly) and probably it will take quite few months before we will see a lot of services moving to this new protocol.

A part from the high level overview of the downsides, let’s look what will change on the technical side.

Considering that HTTP2 is not restrict on the amount of requests a browser is doing in order to download resources few techniques for optimising our websites will need to be reviewed or even removed from our pipeline.
Delivering all the application inside a unique javascript file won’t have any benefit with HTTP2, so we need to move our logic downloading only what we need when we need it.
Knowing that downloading large files won’t be a problem we could use sprites instead of several small images to handle the icons of our website.
Probably the different tools like Grunt, Gulp or Webpack will need to review their strategies or update their plugin in order to provide real value to this new project pipeline.

The Ugly

Google Chrome protocol implementation!
Chrome is my favorite browser and I use it extensively, in particular, when I need to debug a specific script or I need to gather metrics from a specific behavior of a web app.
At the moment it’s the only browser that requires HTTP2 server negotiation via ALPN (Application-Layer Protocol Negotiation) that basically is an extension allowing the application layer to negotiate which protocol will be used within the TLS connection.

Considering that OpenSSL integrates ALPN only from version 1.0.2, we won’t be able to enable HTTP2 protocol support for Chrome (from build 51 and above) if we don’t configure our server correctly.
For instance, on Linux OS, only Ubuntu from version 16.04 has that OpenSSL version installed by default, for all the other major Linux version you will either install the newer version manually or you’ll need to wait for the next major OS release.

I’d suggest reading carefully the article that describes this “issue” on ngnix blog before you start to configure your server for Chrome.

Wrap up

HTTP2 is not perfect and probably is not supported as it should be but, definitely, could improve (drastically in certain cases) your web project performance.
A lot of “big players” are already using HTTP2 protocols in production (Instagram, Twitter or Facebook for instance) and the results are remarkable.

Why not starting catching up with the future today?

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One thought on “HTTP2: the good, the bad and the ugly

  1. Good article! I have also started to look into the new HTTP/2 protocol and it sure looks promising. As a web developer solutions like ShimmerCat can really save time and get your sites faster. Go HTTP/2! 🙂

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