What Is HTTP/2 and Why Is It Better than HTTP/1?
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What Is HTTP/2 and Why Is It Better than HTTP/1?

For the uninitiated, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is the foundational application protocol. It facilitates the communication of data on the World Wide Web. Initially, it was devised by Tim Berners-Lee with the advent of the Internet. The first version of HTTP was launched in 1991 and employed a primary client and server model. The client represents the machine (and its user) requesting information. The server is the machine storing and sending that information.

Over the years, HTTP has undergone incremental revisions to improve its performance. The 1997 version of HTTP/1.1 enjoyed widespread use and experienced few improvements for over 15 years. However, the rapid development of the internet in recent times has seen a plethora of media-rich websites spring up all over the globe. At the same time, end users demand a consistently high-performance experience.

These factors have made HTTP/1.1 increasingly unfit for purpose. This has prompted Google to develop its SPDY model as a more efficient alternative.

This SPDY protocol has become the basis for HTTP/2. The core designers of the former were involved in developing the latter from the outset. Now that HTTP/2 is being gradually adopted widely, support for SPDY is being withdrawn.

Although HTTP/2 is intended as an extension rather than a replacement for HTTP/1.1, it will inevitably represent the future of data communication online in the coming years. But how does it differ? And what are the advantages of HTTP/2 over its predecessor? Read on to find out.

The main differences between HTTP/2 and HTTP/1.1

The main goal of upgrading HTTP is to ensure an optimal user experience. Its success depends mainly on a simple model, a fast and efficient service, and a robust and reliable protocol impervious to security hacks and downtime. HTTP/1.1, although a sturdy option for many years, is ill-equipped to deal with the colossal amounts of traffic, data requests, and end users in the modern internet environment.

For this reason, the creators of HTTP/2 have seen fit to incorporate several feature upgrades. All are designed to streamline operations and optimize the protocol’s performance in the future. These feature upgrades include:

Multiplexed streaming

The messages sent between client and server (requesting and delivering information) are data streams. Previous incarnations of HTTP were only capable of sending one stream at a time, often with an inefficient lag between the transmission of each stream.

HTTP/2 has circumnavigated this problem by chopping up the payload of streams into smaller, more manageable chunks and adopting a binary transmission frame to allow the streams to be sent from one entity to the other piecemeal before reconfiguring on the other.

This means that individual streams do not block one another or jostle for position, which optimizes network resources, reduces downtime, increases web speeds, and facilitates improved search engine results.

HTTP/2 server push

Initially developed by Google’s SPDY protocol, this feature endows the server with the capability to anticipate future data requests (based upon current or previous ones) and send along extraneous information that was not yet requested (but which is likely to be asked in the future) with the initial stream.

This “pushed” information can then be stored in the client’s cache until required. It can be far more efficiently extracted when that time arrives, saving another round trip to and from the server. This saves both time and network resources, resulting in improved user experience.

Moreover, the system could recognize which pushed resources are never requested. Thus, through machine learning, we can better understand when and where such pushes will be appropriate. On the other hand, the server push must be authorized by the end user. It can be disabled at any time if its services are not desired.

Binary protocols

Earlier iterations of HTTP utilized text commands to request and deliver information between client and server. While text might be easier for a human to read and comprehend, binary protocols (using 0s and 1s in place of words) are far more efficient from a computing perspective.

HTTP/2 implements a binary protocol, translating all text commands into binary code before sending them to the server. This reduces the amount of data parsing in the streams, alleviating stress on the network, optimizing resource consumption, and making the system less susceptible to downtime.

Meanwhile, it’s also beneficial in terms of security. Response-splitting attacks could sometimes exploit vulnerable textual streams. Still, a binary protocol eliminates that threat, and it doesvetails with other amendments to create a smoother and more positive user experience.

Header compression

A header can be conveniently thought of as the envelope containing the payload (the desired information) that the client requests from the server. Given that HTTPs are stateless entities, each data stream must include as much information as possible for the server to accurately meet its demands.

When it comes to media-rich websites, servers are inundated with almost identical header frames from multiple clients at the same time or the same client at different times. This inefficient use of resources slows down the network and adversely impacts the user experience.

HTTP/2 uses stateful header compression, meaning the client and server retain a list of headers used in previous stream requests. This allows the headers on individual streams to be significantly compressed, then indexed against the stored list at either end and reassembled. In this way, smaller amounts of data are transmitted, improving efficiency and increasing performance speed.

Stream prioritisation

HTTP/2 allows end users to prioritize specific streams above others. This is achieved by assigning a weight of between 1 and 256 to give precedence to one stream above another and deliver a more positive and individualized user experience.

However, this feature is still in development, and servers are rarely at liberty to accommodate stream prioritization requests as fully as is desirable. Research and development into prioritization are ongoing, and it is expected that this will comprise a significant advantage of HTTP/2 over HTTP//1.1 in the future.

What do these changes mean for WordPress users?

HTTP/2 represents a significant advance for WordPress users, both in terms of those hosting WordPress sites and those visiting them. Previously, WordPress site owners were encouraged to incorporate fewer images into their sites and group images together when possible to reduce the strain on the servers meeting the demands of the network. This was all done to deliver as fast, efficient, and user-friendly experience as possible, enhancing the popularity of a site among those visiting it.

However, such hacks, fixes, and workarounds have become redundant – which is just as accurate in today’s online climate. Web users want to have their cake and eat it. They demand many high-resolution images but are not prepared to wait around and withstand lengthy delays to access them. Fortunately, HTTP/2 means that WordPress users can use the abovementioned improvements to optimize resource consumption, make network traffic more efficient, and ultimately deliver a faster, more responsive website for their customers.

Best of all, since HTTP/2 was designed as an extension rather than a replacement for HTTP/1 if a visitor to your site uses a browser that does not support the updated technology, it will simply revert to its predecessor, with the user being none the wiser. However, such a scenario is unlikely since HTTP/2 is now almost ubiquitous and supported by most browsers.

How do I implement HTTP/2 on my WordPress site?

Website owners who don’t wish to fall behind the competition must roll with the times and update their WordPress site to HTTP/2. Luckily, doing so is a reasonably straightforward task. However, it depends largely on the hosting company or server that acts as the host for your site. To determine whether HTTP/2 is supported on your site, it’s best to contact them directly and enquire. Alternatively, this online tool can tell you whether HTTP/2 is running on your site.

Another prerequisite for supporting HTTP/2 is encryption. HTTP/2 demands that all websites run over a secure connection supported by TSL or SSL. An easy way to verify whether your website has a safe connection is whether it begins with HTTPS in the address bar. If it does, you’re good to go. If it only reads HTTP, you must purchase a security certificate via your hosting company to enable HTTP/2.

WordPress support from the experts

Is the finer points of HTTP/2 still unclear? The boffins at WP Tech Support are fully versed in all aspects of WordPress websites. This includes HTTP/2 incorporation or other considerations you haven’t yet fully fathomed, like reducing HTTP requests. Learn more about our WordPress support services and take your business to the next level with HTTP/2 today.

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