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Welcome to a Faster Web

The first commercial deployment of SPDY, a protocol designed by Google to make websites faster, launches today.
June 13, 2011

SPDY, a protocol Google revealed in late 2009, dramatically speeds up Web page loading by changing the way that browsers communicate with servers. Until now, Google has only tested the research project internally and deployed it on a few of its own sites. But today, the protocol launches as a commercial product.

Website optimization company Strangeloop has built SPDY into its flagship product Site Optimizer, software that sits in between a website and its users, and adjusts the site’s code to make pages load more quickly. Strangeloop’s customers will have the ability to turn the protocol on easily; in tests, the protocol has sped up websites by 10 to 20 percent.

At first, this will only make a difference for people who visit websites using Google’s Chrome browser (the only one that supports SPDY), but Strangeloop expects that it could end up having a big impact on mobile devices as well, since Google is likely to build SPDY into browsers designed for Android.

The speed with which a website responds to users is an increasingly important technical and economic issue. According to the content-delivery network Akamai, people only give a site three seconds, on average, to load before giving up and navigating away. Better performance often means more page views, and thus more interaction with users. For online shopping sites, this translates to higher sales.

It’s not just individual sites that have an interest in speeding up the Web. Google has been working to make the Web as a whole faster, reasoning that the entire experience needs to be lightning-quick and smooth to keep people happily using its many services. Google also hopes to entice people to use more Web services and less desktop software (see, for example, its Chrome OS), and the company knows this won’t be possible if they struggle with performance.

There are a lot of ways to speed up a website. Changing the protocols that determine how information gets sent over the Internet is potentially the most rewarding but also one of the trickiest. These protocols are fundamental to communication between websites and servers, so they can have far-reaching effects on website performance across all devices. However, to roll SPDY out to the entire world, all browser manufacturers would have to adopt it, and every server would have to support it, says Joshua Bixby, Strangeloop’s president. This is a tall order, and so SPDY has “real implementation challenges,” he says.

Strangeloop’s existing product is, however, well-positioned to help Google make a start. Strangeloop already helps businesses speed up their websites by handling optimization for them without requiring them to change their code or hardware. The Site Optimizer software sits between a company’s Web server and the user’s browser and adjusts the website’s code automatically to make it load faster; this already includes improvements customized for specific browsers. Site Optimizer customers can choose to turn SPDY on, making their servers behave as if the protocol were installed, for customers who visit their sites using Chrome.

Browsers today typically open up lots of connections to a server, in order to start downloading lots of information at once—images, ads, text, and so on. Tom Hughes-Croucher, chief evangelist for Joyent, a company that provides cloud software, explains that, while this does speed things up, the approach also has its problems. Those connections take time to “warm up” and start downloading at their full capacity. Also, they don’t prioritize well, so the user might end up waiting for images at the bottom of a page to load when what he’s really looking at is on top.

SPDY addresses this problem by opening one connection that is capable of loading many different parts of the page at once. It also allows programmers to manage how pages load, so they can deliver more important pieces first.

Strangeloop’s product is designed to handle using SPDY, so customers don’t have to worry about writing different code for users who do and don’t use SPDY. The company worked extensively with Google engineers to get SPDY deployed and running effectively.

Bundling SPDY with existing optimization products is a good starting strategy for Google, says Eric Hansen, founder and CEO of the website optimization company SiteSpect. He expects Google to eventually include SPDY in its own optimization product, called mod_pagespeed, which is similar to Site Optimizer. Google needs to do whatever it can to get websites to adopt SPDY, he says, because that’s the biggest part of its “uphill battle” to gain acceptance for the protocol.

Bixby believes that websites will become more willing to use SPDY when they see its potential benefits. “What’s really exciting to me is its capabilities on the mobile side,” Bixby says. Google hasn’t yet built SPDY into Android’s browser, but when it does, the protocol stands to make an even bigger difference. Since mobile Internet browsing is painfully slow and Android handsets have a large portion of smart phone market share, Bixby thinks SPDY could make a difference in that arena. He says, “I would be very surprised if we don’t see this in Android in the near future.”

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