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HTTP: The Protocol Every Web Developer Must Know—Part 2

Read Time: 16 mins

In my previous article, we covered some of HTTP's basics, such as the URL scheme, status codes, and request/response headers. With that as our foundation, we will look at the finer aspects of HTTP, like connection handling, authentication, and HTTP caching. These are advanced and exhaustive topics. Thus, we would like to cover each of them, bit by bit.

Table of Contents      
HTTP Connections Persistent Connections Parallel Connections  
HTTP Authentication Basic Authentication Digest Authentication  
HTTP Caching Types of Cache Caching Process Controlling the Cache
Secure HTTP HTTPS Certificates  

HTTP Connections

A connection must be established between the client and server before they can communicate with each other, and HTTP uses the reliable TCP transport protocol to make this connection. By default, web traffic uses TCP port 80. A TCP stream is broken into IP packets, and it ensures that those packets always arrive in the correct order without fail. HTTP is an application layer protocol over TCP, which is over IP.

HTTPS is a secure version of HTTP, inserting an additional layer between HTTP and TCP called TLS or SSL (Transport Layer Security or Secure Sockets Layer, respectively). HTTPS communicates over port 443 by default, and we will look at HTTPS later in this article.

HTTP and HTTPS layersHTTP and HTTPS layersHTTP and HTTPS layers

An HTTP connection is identified by <source-IP, source-port> and <destination-IP, destination-port>. On a client, an HTTP application is identified by a <IP, port> tuple. Establishing a connection between two endpoints is a multi-step process and involves the following:

Connection DelaysConnection DelaysConnection Delays
  • resolve IP address from host name via DNS
  • establish a connection with the server
  • send a request
  • wait for a response
  • close connection

The server is responsible for always responding with the correct headers and responses.

In HTTP/1.0, all connections were closed after a single transaction. So, if a client wanted to request three separate images from the same server, it made three separate connections to the remote host. As you can see from the above diagram, this can introduce lots of network delays, resulting in a sub-optimal user experience.

Persistent Connections

In a traditional setting, web clients tend to open connections for a specific website. And this site is likely to initiate multiple HTTP requests. For example, one request can be to fetch an inline image, and another request could be to get CSS styles. The likelihood of raising requests in the near future is called site locality

To reduce connection-establishment delays, HTTP/1.1 introduced persistent connections, long-lived connections that stay open until the client closes them. Persistent connections are the default in HTTP/1.1, and making a single transaction connection requires the client to set the Connection: close request header. This tells the server to close the connection after sending the response.

To achieve this, HTTP/1.1 keeps TCP connections open, even after a transaction is complete. The existing connection will be reused for future references. This is known as a persistent connection

The persistent connection will remain open until the server or client decides to close the connection. 

The benefits of using persistent connections are:

  • avoid delays due to slow setup
  • avoid slow start congestion during the adaptation phase
  • ensure faster data transfer

The rules and restrictions of a persistent connection are:

  • Once the close header is sent, the connection cannot be reused. 
  • If the client does not intend to send another request, the close request header should be sent.
  • All messages should be self-defined and correct to maintain a persistent connection. 
  • If the client connects using the HTTP/1.0 protocol, the persistent connection cannot be used. 

Parallel Connections

In addition to persistent connections, browsers/clients also employ a technique, called parallel connections, to minimize network delays. The age-old concept of parallel connections involves creating a pool of connections (generally capped at six connections). If there are six assets that the client needs to download from a website, the client makes six parallel connections to download those assets, resulting in a faster turnaround. This is a huge improvement over serial connections where the client only downloads an asset after completing the download for a previous asset.

Parallel connections, in combination with persistent connections, are today's answer to minimizing network delays and creating a smooth experience on the client. For an in-depth treatment of HTTP connections, refer to the Connections section of the HTTP spec.

HTTP Authentication

It is often mandatory to know who connects to a server for tracking an app's or site's usage and the general interaction patterns of users. The premise of identification is to tailor the response to provide a personalized experience; naturally, the server must know who a user is in order to provide that functionality.

There are a few different ways a server can collect this information, and most websites use a hybrid of these approaches:

  • Request headers: From, Referer, and User-Agent—we saw these headers in Part 1 of this tutorial.
  • Client-IP: the IP address of the client.
  • Fat URLs: storing the state of the current user by modifying the URL and redirecting to a different URL on each click; each click essentially accumulates state.
  • Cookies: the most popular and non-intrusive approach.

Cookies allow the server to attach arbitrary information for outgoing responses via the Set-Cookie response header. A cookie is set with one or more name=value pairs separated by a semicolon (;), as in Set-Cookie: session-id=12345ABC; username=nettuts.

A server can also restrict the cookies to a specific domain and path, and it can make them persistent with an expires value. Cookies are automatically sent by the browser for each request made to a server, and the browser ensures that only the domain- and path-specific cookies are sent in the request. The request header Cookie: name=value [; name2=value2] is used to send these cookies to the server.

The best way to identify a user is to require them to sign up and log in, but implementing this feature requires some effort by the developer, as well as the user.

Techniques like OAuth simplify this type of feature, but it still requires user consent in order to work properly. Authentication plays a large role here, and it is probably the only way to identify and verify the user.

HTTP does support a rudimentary form of authentication called Basic Authentication, as well as the more secure Digest Authentication.

Basic Authentication

In Basic Authentication, the server initially denies the client's request with a WWW-Authenticate response header and a 401 Unauthorized status code. On seeing this header, the browser displays a login dialog, prompting for a username and password. This information is sent in a base-64 encoded format in the Authentication request header. The server can now validate the request and allow access if the credentials are valid. Some servers might also send an Authentication-Info header containing additional authentication details.

Authentication Challenge/ResponseAuthentication Challenge/ResponseAuthentication Challenge/Response
  • If the client is not authorised, the server responds with a 401 Unauthorized response status.
  • If the client wishes to authorise a request, the request should have the Authorization header.
  • If the client sends valid credentials, without adequate privileges, a 403 Forbidden response is sent. Now, the client does not make a new attempt.
  • Sometimes, the server fetches information from cookies to authenticate users. This is a common and non-intrusive strategy.

Tackling the 401 Unauthorised Response

The 401 error occurs when a client request was not successfully completed. The request failed because important authentication credentials were not present in the request. 

Here is a simple example for the 401 Unauthorised Response.

Authorisation Header

Another commonly used method for sending client identity information to the server is through the Authorisation header.

A simple Authorisation header would be the following:

Authentication Using Cookies

Cookies allow the server to attach arbitrary information for outgoing responses via the Set-Cookie response header. A cookie is set with one or more name=value pairs separated by a semicolon (;), as in Set-Cookie: session-id=12345ABC; username=nettuts.

A server can also restrict the cookies to a specific domain and path, and it can make them persistent with an expires value. Cookies are automatically sent by the browser for each request made to a server, and the browser ensures that only the domain- and path-specific cookies are sent in the request. The request header Cookie: name=value [; name2=value2] is used to send these cookies to the server.

Digest Authentication

The strategy behind digest authentication is very similar to basic authentication. Similar handshake techniques around WWW-Authenticate and Authorization Headers are used. 

From Client: Digest Authentication does not transfer a password to the server. Instead, the client takes the password and the username. Then, it applies an MD5 Hashing Algorithm to build a hash using the username and password. This hash is sent to the server.

At Server: The algorithm used to build the hash is used by the server to decode the password and username. The server searches for this combination in the database. If a valid record is found, access is granted. Else, a 401 or 403 error response is returned. 

Benefit: One of the most benefits of the Digest Authentication algorithm is the ability to avoid replay attacks. How? The server links every request to a one-time number. 

HTTP Caching

HTTP caching is crucial since it cuts down on the bandwidth and cost of performing operations. Consequently, it improves a person's online experience. While using the cache functionality, however, it is important to acknowledge that resources don't remain the same forever.

A resource should be cached only until it is valid.

Caches are used at several places in the network infrastructure, from the browser to the origin server. Depending on where it is located, a cache can be categorized as public or private:

Types of Caching

There are two types of caches:

  1. Public Cache: stores the server response for multiple users. This calls for customised infrastructure to allow a user to access the popular resource several times.
  2. Private Cache: limited to a single user. The resource would be stored in the user's browser. As the user navigates, the resource will be loaded without multiple trips to the server. Caching makes content available, even when the user is offline. Commonly cached data includes usernames, passwords, URLs, browsing history, and web content.

Public caches are deployed as caching proxies between the server and client. These are much larger because they serve multiple users. A common practice is to keep multiple caching proxies between the client and the origin-server. This helps to serve frequently accessed content, while still allowing a trip to the server for infrequently needed content.

Cache Topology

Server Responses and Caching

Most of the time, caching is restricted to GET requests. The cache key contains the target URI and the Request Method. During a request, the server has to return the right response header to ensure that the cache is carefully and accurately tuned. It also helps in making sure that the cache does not have stale data.

  • If a resource has not been modified, the server should return a 304 Not Modified
  • If the resource is modified or expired, it should generate a new response with 200 OK.
  • If a resource is deleted, the server should return 404 Not Found. Henceforth, the resource will be removed from the cache.

Cache Processing

Regardless of where a cache is located, the process of maintaining a cache is quite similar:

  • Receive request message.
  • Parse the URL and headers.
  • Look up a local copy; otherwise, fetch and store locally
  • Do a freshness check to determine the age of the content in the cache; make a request to refresh the content only if necessary.
  • Create the response from the cached body and updated headers.
  • Send the response back to the client.
  • Optionally, log the transaction.
Types of CachingTypes of CachingTypes of Caching

Cache Control Headers

Now that we have a sense of how a cache works, it's time to look at the request and response headers that enable the caching infrastructure. Keeping the content fresh and up-to-date is one of the primary responsibilities of the cache. To keep the cached copy consistent with the server, HTTP provides some simple mechanisms, namely Document Expiration and Server Revalidation.

Document Expiration

HTTP allows an origin-server to attach an expiration date to each document using the Cache-Control and Expires response headers. This helps the client and other cache servers know how long a document is valid and fresh. The cache can serve the copy as long as the age of the document is within the expiration date. Once a document expires, the cache must check with the server for a newer copy and update its local copy accordingly.

Expires is an older HTTP/1.0 response header that specifies the value as an absolute date. This is only useful if the server clocks are in sync with the client, which is a terrible assumption to make. This header is less useful compared to the newer Cache-Control: max-age=<s> header introduced in HTTP/1.1. Here, max-age is a relative age, specified in seconds, from the time the response was created. Thus if a document should expire after one day, the expiration header should be Cache-Control: max-age=86400.

Server Revalidation

Once a cached document expires, the cache must revalidate with the server to check if the document has changed. This is called server revalidation and serves as a querying mechanism for the staleness of a document. Just because a cached copy has expired doesn't mean that the server actually has newer content. Revalidation is just a means of ensuring that the cache stays fresh. Because of the expiration time (as specified in a previous server response), the cache doesn't have to check with the server for every single request, thus saving bandwidth and time and reducing the network traffic.

The combination of document expiration and server revalidation is a very effective mechanism, and it allows distributed systems to maintain copies with an expiration date.

If the content is known to frequently change, the expiration time can be reduced—allowing the systems to re-sync more frequently.

The revalidation step can be accomplished with two kinds of request-headers: If-Modified-Since and If-None-Match. The former is for date-based validation, while the latter uses Entity-Tags (ETags), a hash of the content. These headers use date or ETag values obtained from a previous server response. In the case of If-Modified-Since, the Last-Modified response header is used; for If-None-Match, it is the ETag response header.

Controlling the Cachability

The validity period for a document should be defined by the server generating the document. If it's a newspaper website, the homepage should expire after a day (or sometimes even every hour!). HTTP provides the Cache-Control and Expires response headers to set the expiration on documents. As mentioned earlier, Expires is based on absolute dates and is not a reliable solution for controlling a cache.

The Cache-Control header is far more useful and has a few different values to constrain how clients should be caching the response:

  • Cache-Control: no-cache: the client is allowed to store the document; however, it must revalidate with the server on every request. There is an HTTP/1.0 compatibility header called Pragma: no-cache, which works the same way.
  • Cache-Control: no-store: this is a stronger directive to the client to not store the document at all.
  • Cache-Control: must-revalidate: this tells the client to bypass its freshness calculation and always revalidate with the server. It is not allowed to serve the cached response in case the server is unavailable.
  • Cache-Control: max-age: this sets a relative expiration time (in seconds) from the time the response is generated.

As an aside, if the server does not send any Cache-Control headers, the client is free to use its own heuristic expiration algorithm to determine freshness.

Constraining Freshness From the Client

Cachability is not just limited to the server. It can also be specified from the client. This allows the client to impose constraints on what it is willing to accept. This is possible via the same Cache-Control header, albeit with a few different values:

  • Cache-Control: min-fresh=<s>: the document must be fresh for at least <s> seconds.
  • Cache-Control: max-stale or Cache-Control: max-stale=<s>: the document cannot be served from the cache if it has been stale for longer than <s> seconds.
  • Cache-Control: max-age=<s>: the cache cannot return a document that has been cached longer than <s> seconds.
  • Cache-Control: no-cache or Pragma: no-cache: the client will not accept a cached resource unless it has been revalidated.

HTTP caching is actually a very interesting topic, and there are some very sophisticated algorithms to manage cached content. For a deeper look into this topic, refer to the Caching section of the HTTP spec.


Secure HTTP

Our last area of focus is HTTP security with HTTPS. It is extremely important to make sure the web application is secure. Even if the code contains small issues, plenty of private data can get leaked. This is why securing HTTP is more than a luxury. 

HTTPS

The HTTPS protocol provides a secure connection on the web. The easiest way to know if you are using HTTPS is to check the browser's address bar. HTTPS's secure component involves inserting a layer of encryption/decryption between HTTP and TCP. This is the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or the improved Transport Layer Security (TLS).

SSL uses a powerful form of encryption using RSA and public-key cryptography. Because secure transactions are so important on the web, a ubiquitous standards-based Public-Key Infrastructure (PKI) effort has been underway for quite some time.

Existing clients/servers do not have to change the way they handle messages because most of the hard work happens in the SSL layer. Thus, you can develop your web application using Basic Authentication and automatically reap the benefits of SSL by switching to the https:// protocol. However, to make the web application work over HTTPS, you need to have a working digital certificate deployed on the server.

HTTPS uses the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS) to encrypt the entire communication between the client and the server. This makes sure that the client is connected only to the right server. Also, it verifies that the data is transferred only to the intended server. 

Nowadays, web applications which use both basic and digest authentication can reap the perks of HTTPS. The switch from http to https happens automatically. 

Certificates

Just as you need ID cards to show your identity, a web server needs a digital certificate to identify itself. Certificates (or "certs") are issued by a Certificate Authority (CA) and vouch for your identity on the web. The CAs are the guardians of the PKI. The most common form of certificate is the X.509 v3 standard, which contains information such as:

  • the certificate issuer
  • the algorithm used for the certificate
  • the subject name or organisation for whom this cert is created
  • the public key information for the subject
  • the Certification Authority Signature, using the specified signing algorithm

When a client makes a request over HTTPS, it first tries to locate a certificate on the server. If the cert is found, it attempts to verify it against its known list of CAs. If it's not one of the listed CAs, it might show a dialog to the user warning about the website's certificate.

Once the certificate is verified, the SSL handshake is complete, and secure transmission is in effect.

Conclusion

We have come to the end of our journey around HTTP. We began with request and response headers. Now, we have ventured into deeper concepts like caching, authentication, security, and more. I hope this post was useful and helped you gain adequate information about the protocol we use on a day-to-day basis.

This post has been updated with contributions from Divya Dev. Divya is a front-end developer more than half a decade of experience. She is a grad and gold medalist from Anna University.

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