How we got to the HTTP/2 and HPACK RFCs

Download HTTP/2.

Download HTTP/2.

SPDY was an experimental protocol, developed at Google and announced in mid-2009, whose primary goal was to try to reduce the load latency of web pages by addressing some of the well-known performance limitations of HTTP/1.1. Specifically, the outlined project goals were set as follows:

  • Target a 50% reduction in page load time (PLT).
  • Avoid the need for any changes to content by website authors.
  • Minimize deployment complexity, avoid changes in network infrastructure.
  • Develop this new protocol in partnership with the open-source community.
  • Gather real performance data to (in)validate the experimental protocol.

To achieve the 50% PLT improvement, SPDY aimed to make more efficient use of the underlying TCP connection by introducing a new binary framing layer to enable request and response multiplexing, prioritization, and header compression.

Not long after the initial announcement, Mike Belshe and Roberto Peon, both software engineers at Google, shared their first results, documentation, and source code for the experimental implementation of the new SPDY protocol:

So far we have only tested SPDY in lab conditions. The initial results are very encouraging: when we download the top 25 websites over simulated home network connections, we see a significant improvement in performance—pages loaded up to 55% faster.

— A 2x Faster Web Chromium Blog

Fast-forward to 2012 and the new experimental protocol was supported in Chrome, Firefox, and Opera, and a rapidly growing number of sites, both large (e.g. Google, Twitter, Facebook) and small, were deploying SPDY within their infrastructure. In effect, SPDY was on track to become a de facto standard through growing industry adoption.

Observing the above trend, the HTTP Working Group (HTTP-WG) kicked off a new effort to take the lessons learned from SPDY, build and improve on them, and deliver an official “HTTP/2” standard: a new charter was drafted, an open call for HTTP/2 proposals was made, and after a lot of discussion within the working group, the SPDY specification was adopted as a starting point for the new HTTP/2 protocol.

Over the next few years SPDY and HTTP/2 would continue to coevolve in parallel, with SPDY acting as an experimental branch that was used to test new features and proposals for the HTTP/2 standard: what looks good on paper may not work in practice, and vice versa, and SPDY offered a route to test and evaluate each proposal before its inclusion in the HTTP/2 standard. In the end, this process spanned three years and resulted in a over a dozen intermediate drafts:

  • Mar, 2012: Call for proposals for HTTP/2
  • Nov, 2012: First draft of HTTP/2 (based on SPDY)
  • Aug, 2014: HTTP/2 draft-17 and HPACK draft-12 are published
  • Aug, 2014: Working Group last call for HTTP/2
  • Feb, 2015: IESG approved HTTP/2

In early 2015 the IESG reviewed and approved the new HTTP/2 standard for publication. Shortly after that, the Google Chrome team announced their schedule to deprecate SPDY and NPN extension for TLS:

HTTP/2’s primary changes from HTTP/1.1 focus on improved performance. Some key features such as multiplexing, header compression, prioritization 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. We plan to remove support for SPDY in early 2016, and to also remove support for the TLS extension named NPN in favor of ALPN in Chrome at the same time. Server developers are strongly encouraged to move to HTTP/2 and ALPN.

We’re happy to have contributed to the open standards process that led to HTTP/2, and hope to see wide adoption given the broad industry engagement on standardization and implementation.

— ‘Hello HTTP/2 Goodbye SPDY’

The coevolution of SPDY and HTTP/2 enabled server, browser, and site developers to gain real-world experience with the new protocol as it was being developed. As a result, the HTTP/2 standard is one of the best and most extensively tested standards right out of the gate. By the time HTTP/2 was approved by the IESG, there were dozens of thoroughly tested and production-ready client and server implementations. In fact, just weeks after the final protocol was approved, many users were already enjoying its benefits as several popular browsers, and many sites, deployed full HTTP/2 support.


Arwind Yadav

Arwind Yadav

Arwind Yadav, is a IT professional with over twelve years of experience in conceptualizing, designing and developing software applications. He loves building web apps and has also well versed with all the aspects of e-commerce solutions, mobile applications and automation.

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