CloudFlare, one of the startups that secretly runs the internet by handling as much of 10% of all web traffic, is making a little change to its core service that is opening the way to a vastly faster World Wide Web.
CloudFlare on Thursday becomes the first company to widely activate HTTP/2 Server Push, a technology that lets webpages and apps load as much as 15% faster, potentially shaving precious seconds without your having to do a thing.
That kind of speed will translate into a huge shift in the web and how apps are built.
For people with fast internet connections, it opens the door for all kinds of interactive content and apps that simply would have been too unwieldy in a pre-Server Push era. For those in the developing world, it means making the most out of a slower internet connection. Either way, it’s a big deal that will create some shockwaves.
“I don’t think the internet knows how this will be used,” CloudFlare CEO Matthew Prince says.
To be clear, this massive web speed boost won’t happen all at once, Prince says. It will take at least a year for it to come to full fruition. But HTTP/2 Server Push is a massive step in the right direction, as it encourages the entire tech industry to take notice of this technology.
To understand why the wait for a wider web, you need to know a little history.
A little history
When you visit a website, your browser talks to a server in language we call HTTP, or hypertext transfer protocol. That’s why there’s an “http://” in front of every site you visit – it’s to let your browser know that it’s a webpage you want and not some other kind of web service.
Even if you’re not on a browser, many apps use HTTP to talk to servers on the backend and get their data for display. If you’re online at all, ever, HTTP is unavoidable.
In 1997, HTTP 1.1 became the new – and still dominant – standard for serving webpages. It works fine (clearly, given that you’re reading this in a browser or an app). But it has struggled to keep pace with the modern internet, with photos, videos, and other interactive content presenting a bottleneck as it loads page elements one at a time. That’s why you sometimes have to wait for a video to finish loading before photos appear on a page, or vice versa.
Developers started to rely on their own gumption to get around HTTP’s limitations.
“Everybody had worked around its weaknesses with all kinds of tricks,” CloudFlare programmer (and Silicon Valley legend) John Graham-Cumming says.
The most important example: Google built its own advanced version of HTTP, called SPDY (pronounced “speedy”), that could do clever tricks like load multiple pieces of a page simultaneously. The technology world liked SPDY so much that it adopted a modified version of it as a new HTTP 2.0 standard in February last year.
SPDY and HTTP/2 on their own are fine enhancements over HTTP 1.1, Prince says. But the really exciting part is that HTTP/2 also enables support for a feature called Server Push, which actually lets a web server “talk” to the browser and “explain” the next thing it should load.
In short, it means the browser doesn’t have to guess what is the most important thing it should display next – the server will tell it. That means a massively more efficient and organized loading process and shrinking wait times, right in our existing browsers and apps.
Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox fully support Server Push, and Apple’s Safari browser has beta support. Microsoft has promised it’s coming to its Edge browser. More support will probably come with time.
“This is a sea change in the way the web works,” Graham-Cumming says. “This upends the web.”
The problem is that the onus is on developers to actually go through with it and activate HTTP/2 and the Server Push feature. It’s not hard, necessarily, but it requires a little bit of work, and it has been slow to get widespread adoption.
This is where CloudFlare comes back in.
CloudFlare exerts a disproportionate level of influence on the internet for a venture-backed startup, even one with investors like Google and Microsoft.
CloudFlare is what you’d call a content delivery network, or CDN. Basically, when you visit a website using CloudFlare, it detects where you’re at and routes you to the closest server.
Not only does it mean a better user experience – it can make the difference between life and death when it comes to trading on Nasdaq, or even a high-stakes game of “League of Legends.” Prince boasts that it handles somewhere between 8% and 10% of all web traffic, including 7% of the million most popular websites.
In other words, CloudFlare already handles much of the hard work when a browser is talking to a website. That means that with CloudFlare doing the legwork to get Server Push up and running, it makes it much easier for its many thousands of users to adopt.
So that should lead to a rush of websites tripping over themselves to activate it and capitalize on a better, faster user experience. And with that rush comes a critical mass, Prince says, as everyone everywhere looks to adopt Server Push. In fact, Prince says, CloudFlare has done it before, in 2014, pushing the adoption of the SSL security technology.
It will take at least a year to play out, Prince says, but the end result is an improved web for everybody and the potential for a new class of web applications. And you might slowly notice your favorite sites loading a little faster.
“This is going to light a fire under everyone’s a–, and it’s going to be awesome,” Prince says.