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What Is HTTP/2 and Why Should You Care About It?

HTTP2 will be here soon, but what the heck is it?
February 19, 2015, 5:40pm

Earlier this week, the internet got some good news that has the potential to make the web a whole lot faster.

Mark Nottingham, the chair of the HTTP Working Group at the Internet Engineering Task Force announced o​n his blog that HTTP/2 has been approved and its specifications will soon be published. It's exciting news for the team that has been developing the new application protocol for years.

But the average internet user probably has no idea what any of this is all about. I didn't, really, so I tracked down Nottingham and asked him to help break it down for me so we can all partake in this nerdy internet celebration together.

What follows is a beginner's guide to what HTTP/2 is, what it will do, and why you should care:

Wait, what is HTTP again?

It stands for hypertext transfer protocol and it's a way for your browser to communicate with websites. HTTP tells a server to fetch the information needed to show you a page on a site.

There are different protocols for fetching different types of information. For example, you may have used FTP (file transfer protocol) to download files or POP (post office protocol) to send and receive emails.

Okay, so what is HTTP/2?

The transfer protocol we currently encounter most often on the web is HTTP1.1, which came on the scene in 1999. HTTP/2 is the latest upgraded version. It was developed by a collective of programmers from around the world, and is based on a protocol called SPDY, which was created by Google in 2009.

Cool, but why do we need it?

"The way that we use the web has changed a lot over the past two and a half decades. Websites are much more demanding of the network, the protocol, and browsers," Nottingham told me in an email response. Because of this increased demand, there are some limitations to how well HTTP1.1. communicates information on a website to a browser.

"HTTP/1.1 has served admirably, but people have been starting to hack around the performance limitations it has by changing how their website works. HTTP/2 fixes the underlying problems that drove sites to do that."

How does it fix the problems of the old HTTP?

According to Nottingham, HTTP/2 fixes many of the limitations of HTTP1.1 through something called "multiplexing."

When your browser wants data from a website, it makes a request to a server and the server responds with information—but each piece of information has to wait for the data in front of it to arrive before it can get through to your browser. Multiplexing is "the ability to chop up requests" so that more data can be sent back and forth at the same time, Nottingham told me. "This makes the connection between a browser and web server much more flexible and efficient."

Am I going to notice a difference?

Websites using HTTP/2 will load much faster, Nottingham said, but otherwise you won't notice a huge difference.

Got it, when will it be standard on the internet?

While the HTTP/2 specifications will be published within "a handful of weeks," according to Nottingham, it usually takes a while for people to start adopting new systems on the web. The working group has s​aid they expect HTTP1.1 will still be in use for "quite some time."

Still want to learn more? Check out the HTTP Working Group's FAQ​ page for more detailed information on what you can expect from HTTP/2.