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Re: 1xx Clarification

From: Jeffrey Mogul <mogul@pa.dec.com>
Date: Fri, 18 Apr 97 16:32:24 MDT
Message-Id: <9704182332.AA24636@acetes.pa.dec.com>
To: http-wg@cuckoo.hpl.hp.com
X-Mailing-List: <http-wg@cuckoo.hpl.hp.com> archive/latest/3101
Regardless of the possible need for a "notification mechanism",
as Jim Gettys discusses, there is confusion over the use of
100 (Continue) messages as specified in RFC2068 section 8.2
(Message Transmission Requirements).

This section is indeed confusing.  Even though I wrote a lot
of the words here, when I read it last week, I couldn't
understand exactly what was intended.  Another week passed,
and then I recalled why this was written the way that it is.
(I tried arguing, last year, that the RFC needed to include some
rationale statements, but the "it's too long already" camp won the

Here's the historical background, as close as I can remember:

Roy was concerned that some servers might not want to accept
certain requests with very large bodies (e.g., a POST or PUT).

The "100 Continue" response code was introduced for this purpose.  The
idea was that when a client sends, e.g., a POST with a large body, it
would first send the headers, then it would wait for the server's 100
response before sending the body.  This would allow the server to
reject the request (e.g., with a 4xx response status) before reading
the whole thing.

I believe we called this a "two-phase" method (although the term
doesn't appear in RFC2068).

Other people objected to this simple design, since it effectively adds
an entire round-trip to each POST.

The "compromise" that I proposed is this:

    The client first tries to send its request without pausing
    between the headers and the body.  This results in optimal
    performance if the server is willing to receive the
    request, except that the spec requires the server to stick
    a "100 Continue" line just before the real response (so
    we waste a few header bytes).
    If the server is happy, fine.  That's it.  No extra delay.
    If, however, the server is unhappy, it can immediately close
    the connection.  I.e., the server can punt on reading any
    of the request body, and let the client's TCP stack notify
    the client application that something when wrong.  Since,
    in the persistent-connection model, the server is *always*
    free to close a connection with a request in progress, the
    client is *always* allowed to retry the request (after opening
    a new connection).
  However (and this is the tricky part):
    If the client sees the connection close prematurely (i.e.,
    before it sees a response status code), AND if the request it sent
    has a body, AND if it knows (based on a previous response) that
    the server is an HTTP/1.1 server, THEN it must wait for the "100
    Continue" response after sending the request header.

    This means that, after one failed attempt, the client switches
    from using the one-phase approach to using the two-phase

As far as I can tell, this is a hop-by-hop mechanism, NOT an end-to-end
mechanism.  The two-phase interaction is between the proxy and the
server, not the server and the proxy's own client.  The reason for this
is that use of the two-phase approach is triggered by the "client"
(which in this case is the proxy) seeing the TCP connection close
before it receives a response status.  But just because the server
closes the server-to-proxy TCP connection does NOT mean that the proxy
needs to close the proxy-to-client connection.  From the client's point
of view, there is a long delay, but nothing else is unusual.

Of course, if the *proxy* wants its own client to use a two-phase
approach, then it can trigger this by prematurely closing the
proxy-to-client TCP connection.  But this is hop-by-hop, this
is independent of the proxy-to-server behavior.

And, because it is hop-by-hop, the "server" in question need
not be an origin server; it might be an intermediate proxy.

And, if this isn't obvious: any HTTP/1.1 proxy, when communicating
with an HTTP/1.1 client, is a "server" from the point of view
of this section, and so needs to send a "100 Continue" before
it sends a response to a request with a body.  Since it might
have received the response from an HTTP/1.0 server, the proxy
might have to add the "100 Continue" on its own initiative;
similarly, if it is forwarding a response from an HTTP/1.1
server to an HTTP/1.0 client, it needs to remove the "100
Continue" response.  I.e., the "100 Continue" message is
really hop-by-hop, not end-to-end.

Section 8.2 says:
   Upon receiving a method subject to these requirements from an
   HTTP/1.1 (or later) client, an HTTP/1.1 (or later) server MUST either
   respond with 100 (Continue) status and continue to read from the
   input stream, or respond with an error status. 
which implies that it MUST NOT simply send a "200 OK" response without
sending a "100 Continue" response.  The reason for this is that,
in the persistent-connection model, a server might close the TCP
connection without realizing that the client has already sent
a new request (because of network delays), and so the client might
have to retry a request for reasons other than the server wishing
to switch to a two-phase approach.  But since section 8.2 requires
the client to wait, possibly forever, for a "100 Continue" before
it sends the request body, and the server cannot send an actual
response to the request before it receives the body, without the
mandatory "100 Continue" we would have a deadlock.

On the other hand (to finally get to the question that started
this whole thread), I couldn't think of any harm that would
come from sending spurious "100 Continue" responses, as long
as proxy implementors realize that these have to be treated
as hop-by-hop messages.  Since the HTTP response stream over
a connection is fully synchronized with the request stream
(i.e., the order is exactly the same in both directions), an
"extra" 100 response can always be ignored by the recipient.

The key issue is that if the server sends just one "100 Continue"
response for a request, and if it might sends it before the request
actually arrives, then a client which reads ahead on a persistent
connection must "remember" that the most recent response was a
"100 Continue", so that if its next request has a body, then it
won't wait forever for the next "100".  This seems like reasonably
sound defensive coding, although it's only required if we allow
servers to send the mandatory "100" before receiving the corresponding

Probably we should either rewrite section 8.2 entirely, or we
should include some sort of note explaining the purpose of this


P.S.: Or we should eliminate "100 Continue" and the two-phase
mechanism entirely.  We added it because Roy (and maybe a few
other server implementors?) wanted to be able to reject long
requests without reading the whole message.  But it clearly
has led to a lot of complexity for all implementors (clients,
servers, and proxies) and introduces some unavoidable overheads.
My own feeling is that it is probably not such a big deal for
a server to have to bit-bucket a large request body once in
a while.  Especially compared to the added complexity that
the two-phase model implies.
Received on Friday, 18 April 1997 16:42:29 UTC

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