In the penultimate article in this What is HTTP? series we covered iRules and local traffic policies and the power they can unleash on your HTTP traffic. To date in this series, the content primarily focuses on HTTP/1.1, as that is still the predominant industry standard. But make no mistake, HTTP/2 is here and here to stay, garnering 30% of all website traffic and climbing steadily. In this article, we’ll discuss the problems in HTTP/1.1 addressed in HTTP/2 and how BIG-IP supports the major update.

What’s So Wrong with HTTP/1.1?

It’s obviously a pretty good standard since it’s lasted as long as it has, right? So what’s the problem? Well, let’s set security aside for this article, since the HTTP/2 committee pretty much punted on it anyway, and let’s instead talk about performance. Keep in mind that the foundational constructs of the HTTP protocol come from the internet equivalent of the Jurassic age, where the primary function was to get and post text objects. As the functionality stretched from static sites to dynamic interactive and real-time applications, the underlying protocols didn’t change much to support this departure. That said, the two big issues with HTTP/1.1 as far as performance goes are repetitive meta data and head of line blocking. HTTP was designed to be stateless. As such, all applicable meta data is sent on every request and response, which adds from minimal to a grotesque amount of overhead.

Head of Line Blocking

For HTTP/1.1, this phenomenon occurs due to each request needs a completed response before a client can make another request. Browser hacks to get around this problem involved increasing the number of TCP connections allowed to each host from one to two and currently at six as you can see in the image below.

HTTP/1.1 Waterfall

More connections more objects, right? Well yeah, but you still deal with the overhead of all those connections, and as the number of objects per page continues to grow the scale doesn’t make sense. Other hacks on the server side include things like domain sharding, where you create the illusion of many hosts so the browser creates more connections. This still presents a scale problem eventually. Pipelining was a thing as well, allowing for parallel connections and the utopia of improved performance. But as it turns out, it was not a good thing at all, proving quite difficult to implement properly and brittle at that, resulting in a grand total of ZERO major browsers actually supporting it.

Radical Departures - The Big Changes in HTTP/2

HTTP/2 still has the same semantics as HTTP/1. It still has request/response, headers in key/value format, a body, etc. And the great thing for clients is the browser handles the wire protocols, so there are no compatibility issues on that front. There are many improvements and feature enhancements in the HTTP/2 spec, but we’ll focus here on a few of the major changes. John recorded a Lightboard Lesson a while back on HTTP/2 with an overview of more of the features not covered here.

From Text to Binary

With HTTP/2 comes a new binary framing layer, doing away with the text-based roots of HTTP. As I said, the semantics of HTTP are unchanged, but the way they are encapsulated and transferred between client and server changes significantly. Instead of a text message with headers and body in tow, there are clear delineations for headers and data, transferred in isolated binary-encoded frames (photo courtesy of Google).

HTTP/2 Framing

Client and server need to understand this new wire format in order to exchange messages, but the applications need not change to utilize the core HTTP/2 changes. For backwards compatibility, all client connections begin as HTTP/1 requests with an upgrade header indicating to the server that HTTP/2 is possible. If the server can handle it, a 101 response to switch protocols is issued by the server, and if it can’t the header is simply ignored and the interaction will remain on HTTP/1. You’ll note in the picture above that TLS is optional, and while that’s true to the letter of the RFC law (see my punting on security comment earlier) the major browsers have not implemented that as optional, so if you want to use HTTP/2, you’ll most likely need to do it with encryption.

Multiplexed Streams

HTTP/2 solves the HTTP/1.1 head of line problem by multiplexing requests over a single TCP connection. This allows clients to make multiple requests of the server without requiring a response to earlier requests. Responses can arrive in any order as the streams all have identifiers (photo courtesy of Google).

HTTP/2 Multiplexing

Compare the image below of an HTTP/2 request to the one from the HTTP/1.1 section above. Notice two things: 1) the reduction of TCP connections from six to one and 2) the concurrency of all the objects being requested.

 HTTP/2 Waterfall

In the brief video below, I toggle back and forth between HTTP/1.1 and HTTP/2 requests at increasing latencies, thanks to a demo tool on golang.org, and show the associated reductions in page load experience as a result.

Even at very low latency there is an incredible efficiency in making the switch to HTTP/2. This one change obviates the need for many of the hacks in place for HTTP/1.1 deployments. One thing to note on the head of line blocking: TCP actually becomes a stumbling block for HTTP/2 due to its congestion control algorithms. If there is any packet loss in the TCP connection, the retransmit has to be processed before any of the other streams are managed, effectively halting all traffic on that connection. Protocols like QUIC are being developed to ride the UDP wave and overcome some of the limitations in TCP holding back even better performance in HTTP/2.

Header Compression

Given that headers and data are now isolated by frame types, the headers can now be compressed independently, and there is a new compression utility specifically for this called HPACK. This occurs at the connection level. The improvements are two-fold. First, the header fields are encoded using Huffman coding thus reducing their transfer size. Second, the client and server maintain a table of previous headers that is indexed. This table has static entries that are pre-defined on common HTTP headers, and dynamic entries added as headers are seen. Once dynamic entries are present in the table, the index for that dynamic entry will be passed instead of the head values themselves (photo courtesy of amphinicy.com).

HTTP/2 Compression

BIG-IP Support

 F5 introduced the HTTP/2 profile in 11.6 as an early access, but it hit general availability in 12.0. The BIG-IP implementation supports HTTP/2 as a gateway, meaning that all your clients can interact with the BIG-IP over HTTP/2, but server-side traffic remains HTTP/1.1.

H2gw

Applying the profile also requires the HTTP and clientssl profiles. If using the GUI to configure the virtual server, the HTTP/2 Profile field will be grayed out until use select an HTTP profile. It will let you try to save it at that point even without a clientssl profile, but will complain when saving:

01070734:3: Configuration error: In Virtual Server (/Common/h2testvip) http2 specified activation mode requires a client ssl profile

 As far as the profile itself is concerned, the fields available for configuration are shown in the image below.

HTTP/2 Profile

Most of the fields are pretty self explanatory, but I’ll discuss a few of them briefly.

  • Insert Header - this field allows you to configure a header to inform the HTTP/1.1 server on the back end that the front-end connection is HTTP/2.
  • Activation Modes - The options here are to restrict modes to ALPN only, which would then allow HTTP/1.1 or negatiate to HTTP/2 or Always, which tells BIG-IP that all connections will be HTTP/2.
  • Receive Window - We didn’t cover the flow control functionality in HTTP/2, but this setting sets the level (HTTP/2 v3+) where individual streams can be stalled. 
  • Write Size - This is the size of the data frames in bytes that HTTP/2 will send in a single write operation. Larger size will improve network utilization at the expense of an increased buffer of the data.
  • Header Table Size - This is the size of the indexed static/dynamic table that HPACK uses for header compression. Larger table size will improve compression, but at the expense of memory.

In this article, we covered the basics of the major benefits of HTTP/2. There are more optimizations and features to explore, such as server push, which is not yet supported by BIG-IP. You can read about many of those features here on this very excellent article on Google’s developers portal where some of the images in this article came from.