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Engineers rebuild HTTP as a faster Web foundation

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    PARIS--Engineers have begun taking the first big steps in overhauling Hypertext Transfer Protocol, a seminal standard at the most foundational level of the Web.
    At a meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) here yesterday, the working group overseeing HTTP formally opened a dicussion about how to make the technology faster. That discussion included presentations about four specific proposals for HTTP 2.0, including SPDY, developed at Google and already used in the real world, and HTTP Speed+Mobility, developed at Microsoft and revealed Wednesday.
    There are some differences in the HTTP 2.0 proposals that have emerged so far -- for example, Google's preference for required encryption contrasting with Microsoft's preference for it to be optional -- and there's another two-and-a-half months for people to submit new proposals. But notably, there also are similarities, in particular Microsoft's support for some SPDY features.
    "There's a lot of overlap," said Greenbytes consultant Julian Reschke, who attended the meeting and is involved in Web standards matters. "There's a lot of agreement about what needs to be fixed."
    SPDY has a big head start in the market. It's built into two browsers, Google Chrome and Amazon Silk, with Firefox adopting it in coming weeks. On the other side of the Internet connection, Google, Amazon, and Twitter are among those using SPDY on their servers. And Google has hard data showing the technology's speed benefits.

    Mark Nottingham, chairman of the HTTP Working Group, acknowledged SPDY's position with a presentation slide titled "Elephant, meet Room." (PDF). But he was careful to note that SPDY hasn't carried the day.
    "We'll discuss SPDY because it's here, but other proposals will be discussed too," Nottingham said in his presentation, and added, "If we do choose SPDY as a starting point, that doesn't mean it won't change."
    Why change HTTP?
    Rebuilding standards that touch every device on the Web is complicated, but there's one simple word at the heart of the work: speed.
    Web pages that respond faster are of course nice for anybody using the Web, but there are business reasons that matter, too. Better performance turns out to lead to more time spent on pages, more e-commerce transactions, more searches, more participation.
    HTTP was the product of Tim Berners-Lee and fellow developers of the earliest incarnation of the World Wide Web more than 20 years ago. Its job is simple: a browser uses HTTP to request a Web page, and a Web server answers that request by transmitting the data to the browser. That data consists of the actual Web page, constructed using technologies such as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) for describing the page, CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) for formatting and some visual effects, and the JavaScript programming language.
    Web developers can do a lot to improve performance by carefully optimizing their Web page code. But improving HTTP itself gives a free speed boost to everybody on top of that.
    It's no coincidence, therefore, that the first item on the HTTP working group's new charter is "improved perceived performance."
    SPDY's technologies for faster HTTP include "multiplexing," in which multiple streams of data can be sent over a single network connection; the ability to assign high or low priorities to Web page resources being requested from a server; and compression of "header" information that accompanies communications for resource requests and responses.

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