WebSockets has been one of the most requested features and protocol to add to curl and libcurl in the annual user survey. Repeatedly, over the last few years.
Ignoring that technicality, WebSockets is often used more or less for a one-directional data stream. Commonly together with the use of other protocols that curl already supports. If libcurl would support it, there will be plenty of applications out there that could simplify their code.
Today, users use a mix of libcurl, custom code on top or “over” libcurl and other WebSockets libraries. There’s no single de-facto way or practice to do WebSockets with libcurl.
WebSockets for libcurl?
I took the topic of drafting a WebSockets API for libcurl to the libcurl mailing list a while ago and after a lot of back and forths and feedback from multiple people, we have a decent beginning of a WebSockets API that might work jotted down.
This is just a potential API described in a document. How it could be made to work. Nobody has actually implemented any of it.
We know users ask for WebSockets, repeatedly and several people helped contributing to the tentative API design.
It’s just that this time I decided to pause and see if I couldn’t get some help in implementing this. To create a team of implementers willing to work before I dive in, alternatively to find someone who’d sponsor this work to allow me to spend more and dedicated time on it. I decided to do this, because I already have a lot of other things on my plate and I have to focus on my paying (curl) customers. I estimate that implementing WebSockets support is quite a lot of work.
If nobody is willing to put in the work or money to make it happen, then maybe that’s rather clear message that this is not a feature that is meant to be provided by curl. At least not now.
WebSockets was created in the HTTP/1.1 era, and is probably still mostly done using that protocol as bootstrap. There are indications hinting that the future might hold less WebSockets.
It took a long time but eventually a way to do WebSockets over HTTP/2 was provided via RFC 8441, “Bootstrapping WebSockets with HTTP/2”, published in 2018. This allows a WebSockets connection to be done over a single HTTP/2 stream.
The next evolutionary step seems to rather be WebTransport. It is a new take and protocol and is meant to be used over HTTP/3 and QUIC. It is described to “send data to and receive data from servers. It can be used like WebSockets but with support for multiple streams, unidirectional streams, out-of-order delivery, and reliable as well as unreliable transport.”
Yesterday we plowed through a large and varied selection of HTTP topics in the Workshop. Today we continued. At 9:30 we were all in that room again. Day two.
With the audience warmed up like this, Anne van Kasteren took us back to reality with an old favorite topic in the HTTP Workshop: websockets. Not a lot of love for websockets in the room… but this was the first of several discussions during the day where a desire or quest for bidirectional HTTP streams was made obvious.
Woo Xie did a presentation with help from Alan Frindell about Extending h2 for Bidirectional Messaging and how they propose a HTTP/2 extension that adds a new frame to create a bidirectional stream that lets them do messaging over HTTP/2 fine. The following discussion was slightly positive but also contained alternative suggestions and references to some of the many similar drafts for bidirectional and p2p connections over http2 that have been done in the past.
Lucas Pardue and Nick Jones did a presentation about HTTP/2 Priorities, based a lot of research previously done and reported by Pat Meenan. Lucas took us through the history of how the priorities ended up like this, their current state and numbers and also the chaos and something about a possible future, the h3 way of doing prio and mr Meenan’s proposed HTTP/3 prio.
Nick’s second half of the presentation then took us through Cloudflare’s Edge Driven HTTP/2 Prioritisation work/experiments and he showed how they could really improve how prioritization works in nginx by making sure the data is written to the socket as late as possible. This was backed up by audience references to the TAPS guidelines on the topic and a general recollection that reducing the number connections is still a good idea and should be a goal! Server buffering is hard.
Asbjørn Ulsberg presented his case for a new request header: prefer-push. When used, the server can respond to the request with a series of pushed resources and thus save several round-rips. This triggered sympathy in the room but also suggestions of alternative approaches.
Alan Frindell presented Partial POST Replay. It’s a rather elaborate scheme that makes their loadbalancers detect when a POST to one of their servers can’t be fulfilled and they instead replay that POST to another backend server. While Alan promised to deliver a draft for this, the general discussion was brought up again about POST and its “replayability”.
Willy Tarreau followed up with a very similar topic: Retrying failed POSTs. In this this context RFC 2310 – The Safe Response Header Field was mentioned and that perhaps something like this could be considered for requests? The discussion certainly had similarities and overlaps with the SEARCH/POST discussion of yesterday.
Mike West talked about Fetch Metadata Request Headers which is a set of request headers explaining for servers where and what for what purpose requests are made by browsers. He also took us through a brief explained of Origin Policy, meant to become a central “resource” for a manifest that describes properties of the origin.
Mark Nottingham presented Structured Headers (draft). This is a new way of specifying and parsing HTTP headers that will make the lives of most HTTP implementers easier in the future. (Parts of the presentation was also spent debugging/triaging the most weird symptoms seen when his Keynote installation was acting up!) It also triggered a smaller side discussion on what kind of approaches that could be taken for HPACK and QPACK to improve the compression ratio for headers.
Willy Tarreau talked about a race problem he ran into with closing HTTP/2 streams and he explained how he worked around it with a trailing ping frame and suggested that maybe more users might suffer from this problem.
The oxygen level in the room was certainly not on an optimal level at this point but that didn’t stop us. We knew we had a few more topics to get through and we all wanted to get to the boat ride of the evening on time. So…
Hooman Beheshti polled the room to get a feel for what people think about Early hints. Are people still on board? Turns out it is mostly appreciated but not supported by any browser and a discussion and explainer session followed as to why this is and what general problems there are in supporting 1xx headers in browsers. It is striking that most of us HTTP people in the room don’t know how browsers work! Here I could mention that Cory said something about the craziness of this, but I forget his exact words and I blame the fact that they were expressed to me on a boat. Or perhaps that the time is already approaching 1am the night after this fully packed day.
Previously, on the HTTP Workshop. Yesterday ended with a much appreciated group dinner and now we’re back energized and eager to continue blabbing about HTTP frames, headers and similar things.
Martin from Mozilla talked on “connection management is hard“. Parts of the discussion was around the HTTP/2 connection coalescing that I’ve blogged about before. The ORIGIN frame is a draft for a suggested way for servers to more clearly announce which origins it can answer for on that connection which should reduce the frequency of 421 needs. The ORIGIN frame overrides DNS and will allow coalescing even for origins that don’t otherwise resolve to the same IP addresses. The Alt-Svc header, a suggested CERTIFICATE frame and how does a HTTP/2 server know for which origins it can do PUSH for?
A lot of positive words were expressed about the ORIGIN frame. Wildcard support?
Lucas from BBC talked about usage data for iplayer and how much data and number of requests they serve and how their largest share of users are “non-browsers”. Lucas mentioned their work on writing a libcurl adaption to make gstreamer use it instead of libsoup. Lucas talk triggered a lengthy discussion on what needs there are and how (if at all) you can divide clients into browsers and non-browser.
Wenbo from Google spoke about Websockets and showed usage data from Chrome. The median websockets connection time is 20 seconds and 10% something are shorter than 0.5 seconds. At the 97% percentile they live over an hour. The connection success rates for Websockets are depressingly low when done in the clear while the situation is better when done over HTTPS. For some reason the success rate on Mac seems to be extra low, and Firefox telemetry seems to agree. Websockets over HTTP/2 (or not) is an old hot topic that brought us back to reiterate issues we’ve debated a lot before. This time we also got a lovely and long side track into web push and how that works.
Roy talked about Waka, a HTTP replacement protocol idea and concept that Roy’s been carrying around for a long time (he started this in 2001) and to which he is now coming back to do actual work on. A big part of the discussion was focused around the wakli compression ideas, what the idea is and how it could be done and evaluated. Also, Roy is not a fan of content negotiation and wants it done differently so he’s addressing that in Waka.
Vlad talked about his suggestion for how to do cross-stream compression in HTTP/2 to significantly enhance compression ratio when, for example, switching to many small resources over h2 compared to a single huge resource over h1. The security aspect of this feature is what catches most of people’s attention and the following discussion. How can we make sure this doesn’t leak sensitive information? What protocol mechanisms exist or can we invent to help out making this work in a way that is safer (by default)?
Trailers. This is again a favorite topic that we’ve discussed before that is resurfaced. There are people around the table who’d like to see support trailers and we discussed the same topic in the HTTP Workshop in 2016 as well. The corresponding issue on trailers filed in the fetch github repo shows a lot of the concerns.
Julian brought up the subject of “7230bis” – when and how do we start the work. What do we want from such a revision? Fixing the bugs seems like the primary focus. “10 years is too long until update”.
Kazuho talked about “HTTP/2 attack mitigation” and how to handle clients doing many parallel slow POST requests to a CDN and them having an origin server behind that runs a new separate process for each upload.
And with this, the day and the workshop 2017 was over. Thanks to Facebook for hosting us. Thanks to the members of the program committee for driving this event nicely! I had a great time. The topics, the discussions and the people – awesome!
By this, I mean that there’s no way to negotiate or upgrade a connection to websockets over HTTP/2 like there is for HTTP/1.1 as expressed by RFC 6455. That spec details how a client can use Upgrade: in a HTTP/1.1 request to switch that connection into a websockets connection.
Note that websockets is not part of the HTTP/1 spec, it just uses a HTTP/1 protocol detail to switch an HTTP connection into a websockets connection. Websockets over HTTP/2 would similarly not be a part of the HTTP/2 specification but would be separate.
(As a side-note, that Upgrade: mechanism is the same mechanism a HTTP/1.1 connection can get upgraded to HTTP/2 if the server supports it – when not using HTTPS.)
There’s was once a draft submitted that describes how websockets over HTTP/2 could’ve been done. It didn’t get any particular interest in the IETF HTTP working group back then and as far as I’ve seen, there has been very little general interest in any group to pick up this dropped ball and continue running. It just didn’t go any further.
This is important: the lack of websockets over HTTP/2 is because nobody has produced a spec (and implementations) to do websockets over HTTP/2. Those things don’t happen by themselves, they actually require a bunch of people and implementers to believe in the cause and work for it.
Websockets over HTTP/2 could of course have the benefit that it would only be one stream over the connection that could serve regular non-websockets traffic at the same time in many other streams, while websockets upgraded on a HTTP/1 connection uses the entire connection exclusively.
So what do users do instead of using websockets over HTTP/2? Well, there are several options. You probably either stick to HTTP/2, upgrade from HTTP/1, use Web push or go the WebRTC route!
If you really need to stick to websockets, then you simply have to upgrade to that from a HTTP/1 connection – just like before. Most people I’ve talked to that are stuck really hard on using websockets are app developers that basically only use a single connection anyway so doing that HTTP/1 or HTTP/2 makes no meaningful difference.
Sticking to HTTP/2 pretty much allows you to go back and use the long-polling tricks of the past before websockets was created. They were once rather bad since they would waste a connection and be error-prone since you’d have a connection that would sit idle most of the time. Doing this over HTTP/2 is much less of a problem since it’ll just be a single stream that won’t be used that much so it isn’t that much of a waste. Plus, the connection may very well be used by other streams so it will be less of a problem with idle connections getting killed by NATs or firewalls.
The Web Push API was brought by W3C during 2015 and is in many ways a more “webby” way of doing push than the much more manual and “raw” method that websockets is. If you use websockets mostly for push notifications, then this might be a more convenient choice.
Also introduced after websockets, is WebRTC. This is a technique introduced for communication between browsers, but it certainly provides an alternative to some of the things websockets were once used for.
Websockets over HTTP/2 could still be done. The fact that it isn’t done just shows that there isn’t enough interest.
Recall how browsers only speak HTTP/2 over TLS, while websockets can also be done over plain TCP. In fact, the only way to upgrade a HTTP connection to websockets is using the HTTP/1 Upgrade: header trick, and not the ALPN method for TLS that HTTP/2 uses to reduce the number of round-trips required.
If anyone would introduce websockets over HTTP/2, they would then probably only be possible to be made over TLS from within browsers.
The talk I did at FSCONS 2010 titled “Future Transports” has now been made available online and you can see the whole thing. It is split up in three separate video snippets. Click on the picture below to get started:
I originally put the videos embedded here on my blog, but it turned out to be a really certain way to kill Firefox so it turned out to be annoying. Now you’ll instead get handed over to the video on vimeo’s site.
Together with friends in OWASP I’m happy to mention that we will do an event on January 31st on the topic “HTTP security, websockets and more” where I’ll talk. Starting at 17:30, the exact location is not decided yet and it’ll depend a bit on popularity, but it will be in Stockholm, Sweden.
The two other speakers to appear at the event are, apart from myself, John Wilander and Martin Holst-Swende. My part of the session will be about the WebSockets protocol, about the upcoming cookie RFC and some bits about the ongoing HTTPbis work.
We’ve been reading an endless debate through the last couple of months on how the handshake should be made and how to avoid that stupidÂ intermediariesÂ might get tricked by HTTP-looking websocket traffic. In the midst of that storm, a team of people posted the paper Transparent Proxies: Threat or Menace? which argued that HTTP+Upgrade would be insecure and that CONNECT should be used (Abarth’s early draft of the CONNECT handshake).
The idea to use a separate and dedicated port is of course brought up every now and then but is mostly not considered. Most people seem to want this protocol to go over the “web” ports 80 and 443 and thus to be able to share the proxy environment used for HTTP.
Currently it seems as if we’re back to a HTTP+Upgrade handshake.
Masking the traffic
A lot of people also questioned the very binary outcome of the Transparet Proxies report mentioned above, and later on it seems the consensus that by “masking” WebSocket traffic it should be possible to avoid the risk that stupid intermediaries misinterpret the traffic as HTTP. The masking is currently being discussed to be XOR with a frame-specific key, so that a typical stream will change key multiple times but is still easy for a WebSocket-aware tool (say Wireshark and similar) to “demask” on purpose.
The last few weeks have been spent on discussing how the masking is done, if it is to become optional and if the masking should include the framing or not.
This is an open process
I’m not sure I’ve stressed this properly before: IETF is an open organization. Anyone can join in and share their views and opinions, but of course you need to argue technical merits.
On Sunday morning during FSCONS 2010, in the room “Torg 4 South” I did a 30 minute talk about a few future, potentially coming network protocols for transport. A quick look at the current state, some problems of today and 4 different technologies that have been and are being developed to solve the problem.
I got a fair amount of questions and several persons approached me afterwards to make sure they got a copy of my slides.
The video recording is hopefully going to be made available later on, but until then you can read the slides below and imagine my SwedishÂ accent talking about these matters!