Category Archives: Technology

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Fewer mallocs in curl

Today I landed yet another small change to libcurl internals that further reduces the number of small mallocs we do. This time the generic linked list functions got converted to become malloc-less (the way linked list functions should behave, really).

Instrument mallocs

I started out my quest a few weeks ago by instrumenting our memory allocations. This is easy since we have our own memory debug and logging system in curl since many years. Using a debug build of curl I run this script in my build dir:

export CURL_MEMDEBUG=$HOME/tmp/curlmem.log
./src/curl http://localhost
./tests/ -v $HOME/tmp/curlmem.log

For curl 7.53.1, this counted about 115 memory allocations. Is that many or a few?

The memory log is very basic. To give you an idea what it looks like, here’s an example snippet:

MEM getinfo.c:70 free((nil))
MEM getinfo.c:73 free((nil))
MEM url.c:294 free((nil))
MEM url.c:297 strdup(0x559e7150d616) (24) = 0x559e73760f98
MEM url.c:294 free((nil))
MEM url.c:297 strdup(0x559e7150d62e) (22) = 0x559e73760fc8
MEM multi.c:302 calloc(1,480) = 0x559e73760ff8
MEM hash.c:75 malloc(224) = 0x559e737611f8
MEM hash.c:75 malloc(29152) = 0x559e737a2bc8
MEM hash.c:75 malloc(3104) = 0x559e737a9dc8

Check the log

I then studied the log closer and I realized that there were many small memory allocations done from the same code lines. We clearly had some rather silly code patterns where we would allocate a struct and then add that struct to a linked list or a hash and that code would then subsequently add yet another small struct and similar – and then often do that in a loop.  (I say we here to avoid blaming anyone, but of course I myself am to blame for most of this…)

Those two allocations would always happen in pairs and they would be freed at the same time. I decided to address those. Doing very small (less than say 32 bytes) allocations is also wasteful just due to the very large amount of data in proportion that will be used just to keep track of that tiny little memory area (within the malloc system). Not to mention fragmentation of the heap.

So, fixing the hash code and the linked list code to not use mallocs were immediate and easy ways to remove over 20% of the mallocs for a plain and simple ‘curl http://localhost’ transfer.

At this point I sorted all allocations based on size and checked all the smallest ones. One that stood out was one we made in curl_multi_wait(), a function that is called over and over in a typical curl transfer main loop. I converted it over to use the stack for most typical use cases. Avoiding mallocs in very repeatedly called functions is a good thing.


Today, the script from above shows that the same “curl localhost” command is down to 80 allocations from the 115 curl 7.53.1 used. Without sacrificing anything really. An easy 26% improvement. Not bad at all!

But okay, since I modified curl_multi_wait() I wanted to also see how it actually improves things for a slightly more advanced transfer. I took the multi-double.c example code, added the call to initiate the memory logging, made it uses curl_multi_wait() and had it download these two URLs in parallel:

The second one being just 512 megabytes of zeroes and the first being a 600 bytes something public html page. Here’s the count-malloc.c code.

First, I brought out 7.53.1 and built the example against that and had the memanalyze script check it:

Mallocs: 33901
Reallocs: 5
Callocs: 24
Strdups: 31
Wcsdups: 0
Frees: 33956
Allocations: 33961
Maximum allocated: 160385

Okay, so it used 160KB of memory totally and it did over 33,900 allocations. But ok, it downloaded over 512 megabytes of data so it makes one malloc per 15KB of data. Good or bad?

Back to git master, the version we call 7.54.1-DEV right now – since we’re not quite sure which version number it’ll become when we release the next release. It can become 7.54.1 or 7.55.0, it has not been determined yet. But I digress, I ran the same modified multi-double.c example again, ran memanalyze on the memory log again and it now reported…

Mallocs: 69
Reallocs: 5
Callocs: 24
Strdups: 31
Wcsdups: 0
Frees: 124
Allocations: 129
Maximum allocated: 153247

I had to look twice. Did I do something wrong? I better run it again just to double-check. The results are the same no matter how many times I run it…

33,961 vs 129

curl_multi_wait() is called a lot of times in a typical transfer, and it had at least one of the memory allocations we normally did during a transfer so removing that single tiny allocation had a pretty dramatic impact on the counter. A normal transfer also moves things in and out of linked lists and hashes a bit, but they too are mostly malloc-less now. Simply put: the remaining allocations are not done in the transfer loop so they’re way less important.

The old curl did 263 times the number of allocations the current does for this example. Or the other way around: the new one does 0.37% the number of allocations the old one did…

As an added bonus, the new one also allocates less memory in total as it decreased that amount by 7KB (4.3%).

Are mallocs important?

In the day and age with many gigabytes of RAM and all, does a few mallocs in a transfer really make a notable difference for mere mortals? What is the impact of 33,832 extra mallocs done for 512MB of data?

To measure what impact these changes have, I decided to compare HTTP transfers from localhost and see if we can see any speed difference. localhost is fine for this test since there’s no network speed limit, but the faster curl is the faster the download will be. The server side will be equally fast/slow since I’ll use the same set for both tests.

I built curl 7.53.1 and curl 7.54.1-DEV identically and ran this command line:

curl http://localhost/80GB -o /dev/null

80 gigabytes downloaded as fast as possible written into the void.

The exact numbers I got for this may not be totally interesting, as it will depend on CPU in the machine, which HTTP server that serves the file and optimization level when I build curl etc. But the relative numbers should still be highly relevant. The old code vs the new.

7.54.1-DEV repeatedly performed 30% faster! The 2200MB/sec in my build of the earlier release increased to over 2900 MB/sec with the current version.

The point here is of course not that it easily can transfer HTTP over 20 Gigabit/sec using a single core on my machine – since there are very few users who actually do that speedy transfers with curl. The point is rather that curl now uses less CPU per byte transferred, which leaves more CPU over to the rest of the system to perform whatever it needs to do. Or to save battery if the device is a portable one.

On the cost of malloc: The 512MB test I did resulted in 33832 more allocations using the old code. The old code transferred HTTP at a rate of about 2200MB/sec. That equals 145,827 mallocs/second – that are now removed! A 600 MB/sec improvement means that curl managed to transfer 4300 bytes extra for each malloc it didn’t do, each second.

Was removing these mallocs hard?

Not at all, it was all straight forward. It is however interesting that there’s still room for changes like this in a project this old. I’ve had this idea for some years and I’m glad I finally took the time to make it happen. Thanks to our test suite I could do this level of “drastic” internal change with a fairly high degree of confidence that I don’t introduce too terrible regressions. Thanks to our APIs being good at hiding internals, this change could be done completely without changing anything for old or new applications.

(Yeah I haven’t shipped the entire change in a release yet so there’s of course a risk that I’ll have to regret my “this was easy” statement…)

Caveats on the numbers

There have been 213 commits in the curl git repo from 7.53.1 till today. There’s a chance one or more other commits than just the pure alloc changes have made a performance impact, even if I can’t think of any.


Are there more “low hanging fruits” to pick here in the similar vein?

Perhaps. We don’t do a lot of performance measurements or comparisons so who knows, we might do more silly things that we could stop doing and do even better. One thing I’ve always wanted to do, but never got around to, was to add daily “monitoring” of memory/mallocs used and how fast curl performs in order to better track when we unknowingly regress in these areas.

Addendum, April 23rd

(Follow-up on some comments on this article that I’ve read on hacker news, Reddit and elsewhere.)

Someone asked and I ran the 80GB download again with ‘time’. Three times each with the old and the new code, and the “middle” run of them showed these timings:

Old code:

real    0m36.705s
user    0m20.176s
sys     0m16.072s

New code:

real    0m29.032s
user    0m12.196s
sys     0m12.820s

The server that hosts this 80GB file is a standard Apache 2.4.25, and the 80GB file is stored on an SSD. The CPU in my machine is a core-i7 3770K 3.50GHz.

Someone also mentioned alloca() as a solution for one of the patches, but alloca() is not portable enough to work as the sole solution, meaning we would have to do ugly #ifdef if we would want to use alloca() there.

curl bug bounty

The curl project is a project driven by volunteers with no financing at all except for a few sponsors who pay for the server hosting and for contributors to work on features and bug fixes on work hours. curl and libcurl are used widely by companies and commercial software so a fair amount of work is done by people during paid work hours.

This said, we don’t have any money in the project. Nada. Zilch. We can’t pay bug bounties or hire people to do specific things for us. We can only ask people or companies to volunteer things or services for us.

This is not a complaint – far from it. It works really well and we have a good stream of contributions, bugs reports and more. We are fortunate enough to make widely used software which gives our project a certain impact in the world.

Bug bounty!

Hacker One coordinates a bug bounty program for flaws that affects “the Internet”, and based on previously paid out bounties, serious flaws in libcurl match that description and can be deemed worthy of bounties. For example, 3000 USD was paid for libcurl: URL request injection (the curl advisory for that flaw) and 1000 USD was paid for libcurl duphandle read out of bounds (the corresponding curl advisory).

I think more flaws in libcurl could’ve met the criteria, but I suspect more people than me haven’t been aware of this possibility for bounties.

I was glad to find out that this bounty program pays out money for libcurl issues and I hope it will motivate people to take an extra look into the inner workings of libcurl and help us improve.

What qualifies?

The bounty program is run and administered completely out of control or insight from the curl project itself and I must underscore that while libcurl issues can qualify, their emphasis is on fixing vulnerabilities in Internet software that have a potentially big impact.

To qualify for this bounty, vulnerabilities must meet the following criteria:

  • Be implementation agnostic: the vulnerability is present in implementations from multiple vendors or a vendor with dominant market share. Do not send vulnerabilities that only impact a single website, product, or project.
  • Be open source: finding manifests itself in at least one popular open source project.

In addition, vulnerabilities should meet most of the following criteria:

  • Be widespread: vulnerability manifests itself across a wide range of products, or impacts a large number of end users.
  • Have critical impact: vulnerability has extreme negative consequences for the general public.
  • Be novel: vulnerability is new or unusual in an interesting way.

If your libcurl security flaw matches this, go ahead and submit your request for a bounty. If you’re at a company using libcurl at scale, consider joining that program as a bounty sponsor!

Talk: web transport, today and tomorrow

At the Netnod spring meeting 2017 in Stockholm on the 5th of April I did a talk with the title of this post.

Why was HTTP/2 introduced, how well has HTTP/2 been deployed and used, did it deliver on its promises, where doesn’t HTTP/2 perform as well. Then a quick (haha) overview on what QUIC is and how it intends to fix some of the shortcomings of HTTP/2 and TCP. In 28 minutes.

Yes C is unsafe, but…

I posted curl is C a few days ago and it raced on hacker news, reddit and elsewhere and got well over a thousand comments in those forums alone. The blog post has been read more than 130,000 times so far.

Addendum a few days later

Many commenters of my curl is C post struck down on my claim that most of our security flaws aren’t due to curl being written in C. It turned out into some sort of CVE counting game in some of the threads.

I think that’s missing the point I was trying to make. Even if 75% of them happened due to us using C, that fact alone would still not be a strong enough reason for me to reconsider our language of choice (at this point in time). We use C for a whole range of reasons as I tried to lay out there in spite of the security challenges the language brings. We know C has tricky corners and we know we are likely to do more mistakes going forward.

curl is currently one of the most distributed and most widely used software components in the universe, be it open or proprietary and there are easily way over three billion instances of it running in appliances, servers, computers and devices across the globe. Right now. In your phone. In your car. In your TV. In your computer. Etc.

If we then have had 40, 50 or even 60 security problems because of us using C, through-out our 19 years of history, it really isn’t a whole lot given the scale and time we’re talking about here.

Using another language would’ve caused at least some problems due to that language, plus I feel a need to underscore the fact that none of the memory safe languages anyone would suggest we should switch to have been around for 19 years. A portion of our security bugs were even created in our project before those alternatives you would suggest were available! Let alone as stable and functional alternatives.

This is of course no guarantee that there isn’t still more ugly things to discover or that we won’t mess up royally in the future, but who will throw the first stone when it comes to that? We will continue to work hard on minimizing risks, detecting problems early by ourselves and work closely together with everyone who reports suspected problems to us.

Number of problems as a measurement

The fact that we have 62 CVEs to date (and more will follow surely) is rather a proof that we work hard on fixing bugs, that we have an open process that deals with the problems in the most transparent way we can think of and that people are on their toes looking for these problems. You should not rate a project in any way purely based on the number of CVEs – you really need to investigate what lies behind the numbers if you want to understand and judge the situation.


Let me clarify this too: I can very well imagine a future where we transition to another language or attempt various others things to enhance the project further – security wise and more. I’m not really ruling anything out as I usually only have very vague ideas of what the future might look like. I just don’t expect it to be happening within the next few years.

These “you should switch language” remarks are strangely enough from the backseat drivers of the Internet. Those who can tell us with confidence how to run our project but who don’t actually show us any code.


What perhaps made me most sad in the aftermath of said previous post, is everyone who failed to hold more than one thought at a time in their heads. In my post I wrote 800 words on some of the reasoning behind us sticking to the language C in the curl project. I specifically did not say that I dislike certain other languages or that any of those alternative languages are bad or should be avoided. Please friends, I wrote about why curl uses C. There are many fine languages out there and you should all use them as much as you possibly can, and I will too – but not in the curl project (at the moment). So no, I don’t hate language XXXX. I didn’t say so, and I didn’t imply it either. Don’t put that label on me, thanks.

New screen and new fuses

I got myself a new 27″ 4K screen to my work setup, a Dell P2715Q, and replaced one of my old trusty twenty-four inch friends with it.

I now work with the “Thinkpad 13″ on the left as my video conference machine (it does nothing else and it runs Windows!), the two mid screens are a 24″ and the new 27” and they are connected to my primary dev machine while the rightmost thing is my laptop for when I need to move.

Did everything run smoothly? Heck no.

When I first inserted the 4K screen without modifying anything else in the setup, it was immediately obvious that I really needed to upgrade my graphics card since it didn’t have muscles enough to drive the screen at 4K so the screen would then instead upscale a 1920×1200 image in a slightly blurry fashion. I couldn’t have that!

New graphics card

So when I was out and about later that day I more or less accidentally passed a Webhallen store, and I got myself a new card. I wanted to play it easy so I stayed with an AMD processor and went with ASUS Dual-Rx460-O2G. The key feature I wanted was to be able to drive one 4K screen and one at 1920×1200, and then I unfortunately had to give up on the ones with only passive cooling and I instead had to pick what sounds like a gaming card. (I hate shopping graphics cards.)As I was about to do surgery on the machine anyway. I checked and noticed that I could add more memory to the motherboard so I bought 16 more GB to a total of 32GB.

Blow some fuses

Later that night, when the house was quiet and dark I shut down my machine, inserted the new card, the new memory DIMMs and powered it back up again.

At least that was the plan. When I fired it back on, it said clock and my lamps around me all got dark and the machine didn’t light up at all. The fuse was blown! Man, wasn’t that totally unexpected?

I did some further research on what exactly caused the fuse to blow and blew a few more in the process, as I finally restored the former card and removed the memory DIMMs again and it still blew the fuse. Puzzled and slightly disappointed I went to bed when I had no more spare fuses.

I hate leaving the machine dead in parts on the floor with an uncertain future, but what could I do?

A new PSU

Tuesday morning I went to get myself a PSU replacement (Plexgear PS-600 Bronze), and once I had that installed no more fuses blew and I could start the machine again!

I put the new memory back in and I could get into the BIOS config with both screens working with the new card (and it detected 32GB ram just fine). But as soon as I tried to boot Linux, the boot process halted after just 3-4 seconds and seemingly just froze. Hm, I tested a few different kernels and safety mode etc but they all acted like that. Weird!

BIOS update

A little googling on the messages that appeared just before it froze gave me the idea that maybe I should see if there’s an update for my bios available. After all, I’ve never upgraded it and it was a while since I got my motherboard (more than 4 years).

I found a much updated bios image on ASUS support site, put it on a FAT-formatted USB-drive and I upgraded.

Now it booted. Of course the error messages I had googled for are still present, and I suppose they were there before too, I just hadn’t put any attention to them when everything was working dandy!

Displayport vs HDMI

I had the wrong idea that I should use the display port to get 4K working, but it just wouldn’t work. DP + DVI just showed up on one screen and I even went as far as trying to download some Ubuntu Linux driver package for Radeon RX460 that I found, but of course it failed miserably due to my Debian Unstable having a totally different kernel running and what not.

In a slightly desperate move (I had now wasted quite a few hours on this and my machine still wasn’t working), I put back the old graphics card – (with DVI + hdmi) only to note that it no longer works like it did (the DVI one didn’t find the correct resolution anymore). Presumably the BIOS upgrade or something shook the balance?

Back on the new card I booted with DVI + HDMI, leaving DP entirely, and now suddenly both screens worked!


Once I had logged in, I could configure the 4K screen to show at its full 3840×2160 resolution glory. I was back.

Now I only had to start fiddling with getting the two screens to somehow co-exist next to each other, which is a challenge in its own. The large difference in DPI makes it hard to have one config that works across both screens. Like I usually have terminals on both screens – which font size should I use? And I put browser windows on both screens…

So far I’ve settled with increasing the font DPI in KDE and I use two different terminal profiles depending on which screen I put the terminal on. Seems to work okayish. Some texts on the 4K screen are still terribly small, so I guess it is good that I still have good eye sight!

24 + 27

So is it comfortable to combine a 24″ with a 27″ ? Sure, the size difference really isn’t that notable. The 27 one is really just a few centimeters taller and the differences in width isn’t an inconvenience. The photo below shows how similar they look, size-wise:

Post FOSDEM 2017

I attended FOSDEM again in 2017 and it was as intense, chaotic and wonderful as ever. I met old friends, got new friends and I got to test a whole range of Belgian beers. Oh, and there was also a set of great open source related talks to enjoy!

On Saturday at 2pm I delivered my talk on curl in the main track in the almost frighteningly large room Janson. I estimate that it was almost half full, which would mean upwards 700 people in the audience. The talk itself went well. I got audible responses from the audience several times and I kept well within my given time with time over for questions. The trickiest problem was the audio from the people who asked questions because it wasn’t at all very easy to hear, while the audio is great for the audience and in the video recording. Slightly annoying because as everyone else heard, it made me appear half deaf. Oh well. I got great questions both then and from people approaching me after the talk. The questions and the feedback I get from a talk is really one of the things that makes me appreciate talking the most.

The video of the talk is available, and the slides can also be viewed.

So after I had spent some time discussing curl things and handing out many stickers after my talk, I managed to land in the cafeteria for a while until it was time for me to once again go and perform.

We’re usually a team of friends that hang out during FOSDEM and we all went over to the Mozilla room to be there perhaps 20 minutes before my talk was scheduled and wow, there was a huge crowd outside of that room already waiting by the time we arrived. When the doors then finally opened (about 10 minutes before my talk started), I had to zigzag my way through to get in, and there was a large amount of people who didn’t get in. None of my friends from the cafeteria made it in!

The Mozilla devroom had 363 seats, not a single one was unoccupied and there was people standing along the sides and the back wall. So, an estimated nearly 400 persons in that room saw me speak about HTTP/2 deployments numbers right now, how HTTP/2 doesn’t really work well under 2% packet loss situations and then a bit about how QUIC can solve some of that and what QUIC is and when we might see the first experiments coming with IETF-QUIC – which really isn’t the same as Google-QUIC was.

To be honest, it is hard to deliver a talk in twenty minutes and I  was only 30 seconds over my time. I got questions and after the talk I spent a long time talking with people about HTTP, HTTP/2, QUIC, curl and the future of Internet protocols and transports. Very interesting.

The video of my talk can be seen, and the slides are online too.

I’m not sure if I was just unusually unlucky in my choices, or if there really was more people this year, but I experienced that “FULL” sign more than usual this year.

I fully intend to return again next year. Who knows, maybe I’ll figure out something to talk about then too. See you there?

One URL standard please

Following up on the problem with our current lack of a universal URL standard that I blogged about in May 2016: My URL isn’t your URL. I want a single, unified URL standard that we would all stand behind, support and adhere to.

What triggers me this time, is yet another issue. A friendly curl user sent me this URL:

… and pasting this URL into different tools and browsers show that there’s not a wide agreement on how this should work. Is the URL legal in the first place and if so, which host should a client contact?

  • curl treats the ‘@’-character as a separator between userinfo and host name so ‘’ becomes the host name, the port number is 80 followed by rubbish that curl ignores. (wget2, the next-gen wget that’s in development works identically)
  • wget extracts the host name but rejects the port number due to the rubbish after the zero.
  • Edge and Safari say the URL is invalid and don’t go anywhere
  • Firefox and Chrome allow ‘@’ as part of the userinfo, take the ’80’ as a password and the host name then becomes ‘’

The only somewhat modern “spec” for URLs is the WHATWG URL specification. The other major, but now somewhat aged, URL spec is RFC 3986, made by the IETF and published in 2005.

In 2015, URL problem statement and directions was published as an Internet-draft by Masinter and Ruby and it brings up most of the current URL spec problems. Some of them are also discussed in Ruby’s WHATWG URL vs IETF URI post from 2014.

What I would like to see happen…

Which group? A group!

Friends I know in the WHATWG suggest that I should dig in there and help them improve their spec. That would be a good idea if fixing the WHATWG spec would be the ultimate goal. I don’t think it is enough.

The WHATWG is highly browser focused and my interactions with members of that group that I have had in the past, have shown that there is little sympathy there for non-browsers who want to deal with URLs and there is even less sympathy or interest for URL schemes that the popular browsers don’t even support or care about. URLs cover much more than HTTP(S).

I have the feeling that WHATWG people would not like this work to be done within the IETF and vice versa. Since I’d like buy-in from both camps, and any other camps that might have an interest in URLs, this would need to be handled somehow.

It would also be great to get other major URL “consumers” on board, like authors of popular URL parsing libraries, tools and components.

Such a URL group would of course have to agree on the goal and how to get there, but I’ll still provide some additional things I want to see.

Update: I want to emphasize that I do not consider the WHATWG’s job bad, wrong or lost. I think they’ve done a great job at unifying browsers’ treatment of URLs. I don’t mean to belittle that. I just know that this group is only a small subset of the people who probably should be involved in a unified URL standard.

A single fixed spec

I can’t see any compelling reasons why a URL specification couldn’t reach a stable state and get published as *the* URL standard. The “living standard” approach may be fine for certain things (and in particular browsers that update every six weeks), but URLs are supposed to be long-lived and inter-operate far into the future so they really really should not change. Therefore, I think the IETF documentation model could work well for this.

The WHATWG spec documents what browsers do, and browsers do what is documented. At least that’s the theory I’ve been told, and it causes a spinning and never-ending loop that goes against my wish.

Document the format

The WHATWG specification is written in a pseudo code style, describing how a parser would “walk” over the string with a state machine and all. I know some people like that, I find it utterly annoying and really hard to figure out what’s allowed or not. I much more prefer the regular RFC style of describing protocol syntax.


Can we please just say that host names in URLs should be handled according to IDNA2008 (RFC 5895)? WHATWG URL doesn’t state any IDNA spec number at all.

Move out irrelevant sections

“Irrelevant” when it comes to documenting the URL format that is. The WHATWG details several things that are related to URL for browsers but are mostly irrelevant to other URL consumers or producers. Like section “5. application/x-www-form-urlencoded” and “6. API”.

They would be better placed in a “URL considerations for browsers” companion document.

Working doesn’t imply sensible

So browsers accept URLs written with thousands of forward slashes instead of two. That is not a good reason for the spec to say that a URL may legitimately contain a thousand slashes. I’m totally convinced there’s no critical content anywhere using such formatted URLs and no soul will be sad if we’d restricted the number to a single-digit. So we should. And yeah, then browsers should reject URLs using more.

The slashes are only an example. The browsers have used a “liberal in what you accept” policy for a lot of things since forever, but we must resist to use that as a basis when nailing down a standard.

The odds of this happening soon?

I know there are individuals interested in seeing the URL situation getting worked on. We’ve seen articles and internet-drafts posted on the issue several times the last few years. Any year now I think we will see some movement for real trying to fix this. I hope I will manage to participate and contribute a little from my end.

QUIC is h2 over UDP

The third day of the QUIC interim passed and now that meeting has ended. It continued to work very well to attend from remote and the group manged to plow through an extensive set of issues. A lot of consensus was achieved and I personally now have a much better feel for the protocol and many of its details thanks to the many discussions.

The drafts are still a bit too early for us to start discussing inter-op for real. But there were mentions and hopes expressed that maybe maybe we might start to see some of that by mid 2017. When we did HTTP/2, we had about 10 different implementations by the time draft-04 was out. I suspect we will see a smaller set for QUIC simply because of it being much more complex.

The next interim is planned to occur in the beginning of June in Europe.

There is an official QUIC logo being designed, but it is not done yet so you still need to imagine one placed here.

QUIC needs HTTP/2 needs HTTP/1

QUIC is primarily designed to send and receive HTTP/2 frames and entire streams over UDP (not only, but this is where the bulk of the work has been put in so far). Sure, TLS encrypted and everything, but my point here is that it is being designed to transfer HTTP/2 frames. You remember how HTTP/2 is “just a new framing” layer that changes how HTTP is sent over the wire, but when “decoded” again in the receiving end it is in most important aspects still HTTP/1 there. You have to implement most of a HTTP/1 stack in order to support HTTP/2. Now QUIC adds another layer to that. QUIC is a new way to send HTTP/2 frames over the network.

A QUIC stack needs to handle most aspects of HTTP/2!

Of course, there are notable differences and changes to some underlying principles that makes QUIC a bit different. It isn’t exactly HTTP/2 over secure UDP. Let me give you a few examples…

Streams are more independent

Packets sent over the wire with UDP are independent from each other to a very large degree. In order to avoid Head-of-Line blocking (HoL), packets that are lost and re-transmitted will only block the particular streams to which the lost packets belong. The other streams can keep flowing, unaware and uncaring.

Thanks to the nature of the Internet and how packets are handled, it is not unusual for network packets to arrive in a slightly different order than they were sent, even when they aren’t exactly “lost”.

So, streams in HTTP/2 were entirely synced and the order the sender of frames use, will be the exact same order in which the frames arrive in the other end. Packet loss or not.

In QUIC, individual frames and entire streams may arrive in the receiver in a different order than what was used in the sender.

Stream ID gaps means open

When receiving a QUIC packet, there’s basically no way to know if there are packets missing that were intended to arrive but got lost and haven’t yet been re-transmitted.

If a frame is received that uses the new stream ID N (a stream not previously seen), the receiver is then forced to assume that all the other streams ID from our previously highest ID to N are all just missing and will arrive soon. They are then presumed to exist!

In HTTP/2, we could handle gaps in stream IDs much differently because of TCP. Then a gap is known to be deliberate.

Some h2 frames are done by QUIC

Since QUIC is designed with streams, flow control and more and is used to send HTTP/2 frames over them, some of the h2 frames aren’t needed but are instead handled by the transport layer within QUIC and won’t show up in the HTTP/2 layer.


HPACK is the header compression system used in HTTP/2. Among other things it features a dictionary that you manipulate with instructions and then subsequent header frames can refer to those dictionary indexes instead of sending the full header. Header frame one says “insert my user-agent string” and then header frame two can refer back to the index in the dictionary for where that identical user-agent string is stored.

Due to the out of order streams in QUIC, this dictionary treatment is harder. The second header frame could arrive before the first, so if it would refer to an index set in the first header frame, it would have to block the entire stream until that first header arrives.

HPACK also has a concept of just adding things to the dictionary without specifying the index, and since both sides are in perfect sync it works just fine. In QUIC, if we want to maintain the independence of streams and avoid blocking to the highest degree, we need to instead specify exact indexes to use and not assume perfect sync.

This (and more) are reasons why QPACK is being suggested as a replacement for HPACK when HTTP/2 header frames are sent over QUIC.

First QUIC interim – in Tokyo

The IETF working group QUIC has its first interim meeting in Tokyo Japan for three days. Day one is today, January 24th 2017.

As I’m not there physically, I attend the meeting from remote using the webex that’s been setup for this purpose, and I’ll drop in a little screenshot below from one of the discussions (click it for hires) to give you a feel for it. It shows the issue being discussed and the camera view of the room in Tokyo. I run the jabber client on a different computer which allows me to also chat with the other participants. It works really well, both audio and video are quite crisp and understandable.

Japan is eight hours ahead of me time zone wise, so this meeting  runs from 01:30 until 09:30 Central European Time. That’s less comfortable and it may cause me some troubles to attend the entire thing.


We started off at once with a lot of discussions on basic issues. Versioning and what a specific version actually means and entails. Error codes and how error codes should be used within QUIC and its different components. Should the transport level know about priorities or shouldn’t it? How is the security protocol decided?

Everyone who is following the QUIC issues on github knows that there are plenty of people with a lot of ideas and thoughts on these matters and this meeting shows this impression is real.

For a casual bystander, you might’ve been fooled into thinking that because Google already made and deployed QUIC, these issues should be if not already done and decided, at least fairly speedily gone over. But nope. I think there are plenty of indications already that the protocol outputs that will come in the end of this process, the IETF QUIC will differ from the Google QUIC in a fair number of places.

The plan is that the different QUIC drafts (there are at least 4 different planned RFCs as they’re divided right now) should all be “done” during 2018.

(At 4am, the room took lunch and I wrote this up.)

Lesser HTTPS for non-browsers

An HTTPS client needs to do a whole lot of checks to make sure that the remote host is fine to communicate with to maintain the proper high security levels.

In this blog post, I will explain why and how the entire HTTPS ecosystem relies on the browsers to be good and strict and thanks to that, the rest of the HTTPS clients can get away with being much more lenient. And in fact that is good, because the browsers don’t help the rest of the ecosystem very much to do good verification at that same level.

Let me me illustrate with some examples.

CA certs

The server’s certificate must have been signed by a trusted CA (Certificate Authority). A client then needs the certificates from all the CAs that are trusted. Who’s a trusted CA and how would a client get their certs to use for verification?

You can say that you trust the same set of CAs that your operating system vendor trusts (which I’ve always thought is a bit of a stretch but hey, I can very well understand the convenience in this). If you want to do this as an HTTPS client you need to use native APIs in Windows or macOS, or you need to figure out where the cert bundle is stored if you’re using Linux.

If you’re not using the native libraries on windows and macOS or if you can’t find the bundle in your Linux distribution, or you’re in one of a large amount of other setups where you can’t use someone else’s bundle, then you need to gather this list by yourself.

How on earth would you gather a list of hundreds of CA certs that are used for the popular web sites on the net of today? Stand on someone else’s shoulders and use what they’ve done? Yeps, and conveniently enough Mozilla has such a bundle that is licensed to allow others to use it…

Mozilla doesn’t offer the set of CA certs in a format that anyone else can use really, which is the primary reason why we offer Mozilla’s cert bundle converted to PEM format on the curl web site. The other parties that collect CA certs at scale (Microsoft for Windows, Apple for macOS, etc) do even less.

Before you ask, Google doesn’t maintain their own list for Chrome. They piggyback the CA store provided on the operating system it runs on. (Update: Google maintains its own list for Android/Chrome OS.)

Further constraints

But the browsers, including Firefox, Chrome, Edge and Safari all add additional constraints beyond that CA cert store, on what server certificates they consider to be fine and okay. They blacklist specific fingerprints, they set a last allowed date for certain CA providers to offer certificates for servers and more.

These additional constraints, or additional rules if you want, are never exported nor exposed to the world in ways that are easy for anyone to mimic (in other ways than that everyone of course can implement the same code logic in their ends). They’re done in code and they’re really hard for anyone not a browser to implement and keep up with.

This makes every non-browser HTTPS client susceptible to okaying certificates that have already been deemed not OK by security experts at the browser vendors. And in comparison, not many HTTPS clients can compare or stack up the amount of client-side TLS and security expertise that the browser developers can.

HSTS preload

HTTP Strict Transfer Security is a way for sites to tell clients that they are to be accessed over HTTPS only for a specified time into the future, and plain HTTP should then not be used for the duration of this rule. This setup removes the Man-In-The-Middle (MITM) risk on subsequent accesses for sites that may still get linked to via HTTP:// URLs or by users entering the web site names directly into the address bars and so on.

The browsers have a “HSTS preload list” which is a list of sites that people have submitted and they are HSTS sites that basically never time out and always will be accessed over HTTPS only. Forever. No risk for MITM even in the first access to these sites.

There are no such HSTS preload lists being provided for non-browser HTTPS clients so there’s no easy way for non-browsers to avoid the first access MITM even for these class of forever-on-HTTPS sites.

Update: The Chromium HSTS preload list is available in a JSON format.


I’m sure you’ve heard about the deprecation of SHA-1 as a certificate hashing algorithm and how the browsers won’t accept server certificates using this starting at some cut off date.

I’m not aware of any non-browser HTTPS client that makes this check. For services, API providers and others don’t serve “normal browsers” they can all continue to play SHA-1 certificates well into 2017 without tears or pain. Another ecosystem detail we rely on the browsers to fix for us since most of these providers want to work with browsers as well…

This isn’t really something that is magic or would be terribly hard for non-browsers to do, its just that it will make some users suddenly get errors for their otherwise working setups and that takes a firm attitude from the software provider that is hard to maintain. And you’d have to introduce your own cut-off date that you’d have to fight with your users about! 😉

TLS is hard to get right

TLS and HTTPS are full of tricky areas and dusty corners that are hard to get right. The more we can share tricks and rules the better it is for everyone.

I think the browser vendors could do much better to help the rest of the ecosystem. By making their meta data available to us in sensible formats mostly. For the good of the Internet.


Yes I work for Mozilla which makes Firefox. A vendor and a browser that I write about above. I’ve been communicating internally about some of these issues already, but I’m otherwise not involved in those parts of Firefox.