The Internet may put nearly every imaginable piece of information at our fingertips. But when you’re waiting for a Web page or mobile app to load, it can feel more annoying than convenient. Help is now at hand. An upgrade to the protocol that underpins the Web could help wrest back many of those precious wasted seconds.
Last February, Internet wonks signed off on the first upgrade in more than 15 years to the HTTP standard on which Web pages and mobile apps are built. Today one of its most powerful features has been made available at large scale for the first time by CloudFlare, a company that serves up Web content on behalf of over two million websites, including roughly 7 percent of the most popular million sites. Its customers include Reddit and OkCupid.
“This is one of those quantum leaps in Web performance that come along very rarely,” says Matthew Prince, cofounder and CEO of CloudFlare. “It will deliver seconds of improvement in performance in the way that pages are able to be delivered and rendered.”
Starting today, companies using CloudFlare to serve up their sites can make use of a feature called server push, which Google engineer Ilya Grigorik describes as possibly the most interesting component of the new HTTP/2 standard.
“It’s a big and important improvement,” says Grigorik, who is also cochair of the Web performance working group at the Web standards body W3C. “The savings can be impressive.” Grigorik says CloudFlare's move to implement server push could help encourage other companies to do the same. Many features of HTTP/2 were based on ideas tested by Google in a standard of its own invention, called SPDY (see “The Slow-Motion Internet”).
Server push makes pages load faster by removing the need for your browser to download and process the HTML document describing a page before it can request—one at a time—every image, video, or other piece of content embedded into a site. Instead, the Web server can send all the files needed in one go when a browser first requests the page’s HTML.
Google’s Chrome and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers already fully support HTTP/2, including server push, and Apple is testing support for that feature. Microsoft has said its Edge browser, which recently replaced Internet Explorer, will support all HTTP/2 features in the future.
CloudFlare’s customers need to manually set up the new feature (some are doing so already), but the company is working to make it automatic.
Prince guesses that a year from now the change could cut a second, on average, from each of the more than one trillion monthly requests across his company’s network. “Every month we would have effectively saved about 31,000 years that people would otherwise have been waiting for the Internet to load,” he says. Whether the time saved will be well spent is anyone’s guess.