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What the HTTP makeover means for the Internet

There are many things you may remember about the technology of the 90s – whether it’s playing on your Nintendo 64 and paging your friends, or listening to your Walkman CD player whilst out for a jog. Some of you might look back at the technology with disdain, like the music skipping on your Walkman if you knocked it accidentally, or how you used to have to page someone before mobile phones were commonplace. But others can still bring back fond memories – even today, the Nintendo 64 still holds a place in some households and pubs, giving off that 'retro' vibe.

One thing most of us won’t reminisce about, however, is slow Internet speeds and webpage loading. Did you know that the last major version of the protocol used by the World Wide Web, HTTP, was introduced in 1997? It wasn’t until 2015 – 18 years later – that a new protocol was introduced, and HTTP/1.1 was replaced with HTTP/2. Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is the technical protocol to transport requests (clicking on a link) and responses (loading the page) on the web. Why does this matter? Think about how much the web has changed over the last couple of decades. The way it’s used today isn’t what it was actually made for; HTTP was mainly used to present webpages and exchange information by organisations such as universities. But now we are transporting heavier objects and the expectations around our internet experience have sky-rocketed. Think about how targeting customers online has also changed incrementally in the last 19 years. Let’s compare the Internet-sphere in 1997 to how it looks today.

The Internet, but not as we know it

When you think about the Internet today, visions of browsing Twitter on your phone, shopping online, or checking your bank statements might all spring to mind. And you’re not alone. There are now over 3 billion people using the Internet – that’s nearly half of the global population. But it hasn’t always been this way, far from it in fact. In 1997, there were a mere 120 million users on the Internet. For those of us who had a computer – and back then it wasn’t many – HTTP/1.1 was loading content on a webpage sequentially, and these pages consisted mostly of scripting and text.

We all know how fast technology moves, we’ve seen it in the Internet of Things, connected cars, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality gaming. In the years since the last HTTP update in 1997, which was also the year that was registered as a domain, we’ve seen the launch of Wikipedia in 2001, YouTube in 2005, and Apple released its first iPhone in 2007.

To take a specific example of how much has changed, let’s take a look at the BBC’s home page. In 1997, the website would make just 16 HTTP requests to load the page, whereas today this is 110 requests – that’s seven times greater than it used to be. Additionally, the data required to load the page was 36.5KB in 1997 compared with 1.7MB today, which is 45 times more data.

The benefits of HTTP/2

As is clear, HTTP/2 has been a much needed update for the Internet browsing experience. Multiple devices are now being used to access the Internet – mobiles, tablets, smart watches, fridges, cars – and over one million apps have been downloaded over 100 billion times onto our mobile devices.

Webpages today contain several components (remember how in 1997 it was mostly scripting and text?) and today will load flash animation, images, graphic design, videos and interactive media as well. HTTP/2 has the ability to load all content in parallel, rather than sequentially, meaning the user experience is hugely improved. We all know how fast customers want access to information. HTTP/2 makes this possible.

It’s not just about a faster protocol and apps, though. The update helps to remove the constraints on dev and ops, freeing them from some of the technical debt that exists on legacy platforms and company systems. The improvements dramatically improve the way browsers and servers communicate, which allows faster transfer of information – of which there is a hefty amount today as we’ve outlined earlier.

By default, HTTP/2 also implements an encrypted connection. You may have seen some webpage addresses beginning with HTTPS – the added ‘s’ represents a protocol for secure communication within a connection encrypted by Transport Layer Security (TLS) or Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). This means that the protection and privacy of the exchanged data in the website is protected, which can help to defend against man-in-the-middle attacks.

So what are you waiting for? Your customers certainly won’t be waiting for your webpages to load anymore.

Gary Newe, Technical Director, F5 Networks

Image source: Shutterstock/Pavel Ignatov