Why Google's SPDY is none too swift

Good old HTTP has been around a while. It’s been like a quiet warrior, a protocol that enabled the Internet to function the way it does today, yet without too many people really thinking much about it. In brief, the Hypertext Transfer Protocol makes sure that all those bits and bytes get from servers to your computer in one piece and in the right order, not that anyone notices.

Nobody even puts http:// at the front of URLs anymore. Browsers insert this automatically for anyone who types in a Web address. But it, and its more secure HTTP Secure cousin, are there on almost every Web address in the world.

I think I first encountered HTTP in 1991, close to when it was released. It was still called Version .9 back then. It didn’t get an upgrade to Version 1.0 until 1996 and was tweaked again in 1999 to Version 1.1. Not a lot has been done with it since then. It works and seems to do well, and people are not really into fixing things that aren’t broken.

Except Google of course. Google doesn’t think HTTP is such a hot property. It is working on a new protocol called SPDY (short for speedy) that the company says should replace the venerable HTTP.

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Google says the advantages of SPDY over HTTP are that it uses compression, multiplexing and prioritization technologies to speed packets along. For example, each SPDY-enabled client keeps track of which headers it’s sent in previous requests and doesn’t resend them. If it does have to resend a header, it does so compressed to the SPDY-enabled server. Google has graphs and charts to prove all this, of course, and some companies such as Twitter have implemented the ability to use SPDY if it’s available on both ends of a transaction.

Google is trying to make this a standard protocol, and the group working on HTTP 2.0 is said to be considering implementing SPDY into its build. Because SPDY works on the back end, users probably won’t notice much of a difference, other than increased speeds.

On the one hand, I think speeding up the Internet by trimming some of the fat in transactions is a good thing. On the other, I don’t like how Google owns the SPDY protocol. And the company has not stated that it wants to make it freely available to everyone.

I also know that Microsoft is also working on its own version of a faster HTTP protocol. These titans never work too well together, and I wonder if this might lead to a new format war. I still remember how Internet pages looked different when viewed in Netscape and Explorer, and even today, they are not completely universal on every browser, as was intended when the Web was created.

I wouldn’t be so worried about SPDY or other experimental protocols if companies had historically worked together to make the Internet a better place. But that has almost never been the case, as my colleague Greg Crowe pointed out earlier this week when he wrote about the latest wireless format wars.

I’m all for improving HTTP, but it’s too important to mess with willy-nilly, or to open up a bunch of competing standards so that the Web ceases to be universal. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen, but I won’t hold my breath.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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Reader Comments

Wed, May 9, 2012 Pseu_An www

I hear it already, Google's reply "We did not intend to collect ALL your personal information".

Mon, May 7, 2012 Roberto

A correction: Code for client and server has been available under open-source licenses from day 1 of its release. The intent has always been to be open and have open participation. Today, Firefox implements it, for instance, and code has been released for Apache among other servers.

Mon, May 7, 2012

SPDY replaces some parts of HTTP, but mostly augments it. At the highest level of the application layer, the request-response protocol remains the same. SPDY still uses HTTP methods, headers, and other semantics. But SPDY overrides other parts of the protocol, such as connection management and data transfer formats to reduce latency. This is what has been built so far: A high-speed, in-memory server which can serve both HTTP and SPDY responses efficiently, over TCP and SSL. The code will be released as open source in the near future. A modified Google Chrome client which can use HTTP or SPDY, over TCP and SSL. The source code is at http://src.chromium.org/viewvc/chrome/trunk/src/net/spdy/. For those interested in reading the details, see http://dev.chromium.org/spdy/spdy-whitepaper

Mon, May 7, 2012 Paul Virginia

Microsoft has kept the internet a mess by trying to force everyone into using thier browser. I have noticed lately if your using internet explorer and go to some google sites, that you get an error that your browser is incompatible. Kinda funny. Not the way to do it, but I dont blame them. I think that if everyone would sit around the table that google would be happy to work with everyone. But we all know Microsoft would sit at the table work with everyone and then take the code and spin it thier way and lock everyone out....so goes the wars. I agree that google needs to put it out for everyone, but it is sounding like they are turning a corner that we all hoped they would not turn.

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