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SPDY Review

From: Martin Nilsson <nilsson@opera.com>
Date: Thu, 07 Jun 2012 16:18:18 +0200
To: ietf-http-wg@w3.org
Message-ID: <op.wfjd0s2diw9drz@riaa>

I've taken an internal assessment of SPDY and cleaned it up a bit  
(removing internal or 3rd party NDA information). Apologies in advance to  
any misunderstandings, mistakes or inaccuracies I've managed to produce.

			     SPDY review

1. Introduction

   Opera Software has a long experience of HTTP optimization protocols,
   both through our own products Opera Mini and Opera Turbo, but also
   from integrating with 3rd party optimization, predominantly in the
   mobile space. In this document we compare the features of SPDY with
   our implementation and deployment experiences from equivalent
   features of other protocols.

   We struggled a bit with the format of this document, as there are a
   lot of interdependencies between the protocol format and its
   different features. We've decided to present the review in three
   parts. First we look at the individual conceptual features of SPDY,
   directly followed by a quick evaluation for each. After that comes a
   short discussion of the binary serialization of the protocol.
   Finally we offer our ideas for how to improve the SPDY protocol.

   This document is a compilation of analysis and comments from
   multiple teams within Opera, and I would like to specially thank Per
   Hedbor, Markus Johansson and Jonny Rein Eriksen for their

   A review of the SPDY protocol, based on the ID
   draft-mbelshe-httpbis-spdy-00. Last update 2012-04-19.

2. Feature overview

   SPDY is a transport layer protocol that acts on top of TCP and
   replaces HTTP while allowing all HTTP semantics to be mapped onto
   SPDY. In addition SPDY provides

   - Enforced pipelining
   - Out of order response
   - Multiplexed requests and responses
   - Flow control
   - Header compression
   - Asynchronous headers
   - Push

2.1. Pipelining & response order

   Pipelining is very important to avoid the overhead of setting up new
   TCP connections. Limiting the number of connections is also
   beneficial for congestion control. HTTP pipelining is defined in
   HTTP 1.1 and Opera has spent considerable effort to make it work as
   widely as possible. Unfortunately quite a lot of equipment doesn't
   implement HTTP 1.1 correctly, so lots of heuristics has to be
   applied in real world scenarios.

   Given the non-uniform response times of different requests from the
   same server, due to different amount of backend work required to
   generate a response, pipelining is prone to stalling when a slow
   request blocks a faster request. Out-of-order response is a good
   solution to the problem. It can easily be added to HTTP by adding a
   request ID header in each request and expecting corresponding
   response IDs in the responses.

   By adding priority information to the requests the server can take
   active decision in which resource to send first.

2.1.1. Evaluation

   Pipelining and out-of-order response are two important concepts that
   significantly improves HTTP performance. Client indicated priority
   preference further enhances the protocol. It is worth noting that
   for implementation purposes, e.g. issues in underlaying software
   layers, multiple connections may be preferable to a single one.

2.2. Multiplexing

   The SPDY multiplexing feature allows for multiple resources to load
   in parallel over a single TCP connection. The benefit is that it
   offers a protection against stalling of prioritized
   resources. Stalling in this case doesn't mean that the connection is
   idle, but it could be downloading a large, low prioritized resource,
   when the client issues a request for a higher prioritized resource.

   An alternative to multiplexing would be to open a new connection and
   let the current one, with only low priority requests on it, starve
   until the high priority items have been handled. This is however bad
   from congestion control point of view, and resets any states, like
   compression contexts, associated with the first connection (although
   those could theoretically be copied to new connections). Also, since
   SPDY supports push, it may not be technically possible to initiate a
   new connection from the server to push a high priority resource to
   the client.

   Finally we can note that multiplexing in SPDY always incur a data
   overhead. The lower latency we want for higher priority requests to
   reach the other side, the higher the overhead will be.

2.2.1. Evaluation

   Multiplexing allows for higher priority requests/responses to
   interrupt lower priority uploads/downloads without OOB signaling
   that interferes with TCP.

   The SPDY specification offers no insight in how frame sizes should
   be chosen.

2.3. Flow control

   SPDY provides a per stream flow control mechanism by defining a
   recipient buffer size that the sender needs to keep track of. The
   recipient has to acknowledge received data by responding with the
   currently available buffer space. This feature can be used for
   several things.

   - Throttling of then entire connection due to one endpoint having
     capacity issues.

   - Dynamic reprioritization of streams.

   - Throttling of unwanted pushed content.

   - Throttling of a specific stream due to backend issues for that
     specific stream.

   - Throttling of a specific stream due to rate of consumption.

2.3.1. Evaluation

   While not stated in the SPDY specification what problem the SPDY
   level flow control aims to solve, Mike Belshe writes an example in
   his blog that stalling recipient of data as a situation where SPDY
   flow control is helpful, to avoid buffering potentially unbound
   amount of data. While the concerns is valid, flow control looks like
   overkill to something where a per-channel pause control frame could
   do the same job with less implementation and protocol overhead.

   To throttle the entire connection there is already data rate
   management implemented in TCP. It is possible to throttle specific
   streams, but that should already be taken care of by the priority
   settings. Dynamic reprioritization is possible, but would be better
   made into an explicit stream property. Throttling or avoiding pushed
   content is another reason, but again an explicit mechanism would be
   preferrable. For real time communication each sender already have
   the ability to let one stream starve other streams, though UDP would
   be preferrable over TCP. Also note that TCP provides the URG channel
   for exception messaging.

2.4. Header compression

   For many applications the HTTP headers are a significant
   overhead. This is most visible in the mobile space where the content
   itself often is heavily minimized for the lowest common denominator,
   while at the same time mobile devices can send huge amounts of
   UAProf headers in every request. Even on Desktop the amount of
   cookies sent for every request is significant. Header compression is
   a good solution to this issue.

   SPDY uses a binary representation of headers, encoded as a set of
   Hollerith encoded key-value pairs. The first line of the HTTP
   request is also broken into its components and sent as key-value
   pairs in the stream headers. To mitigate this somewhat less compact
   representation of the headers, SPDY compresses the headers with
   zlib, uses a persistent LZ-window for the connection and uses a
   static dictionary.

2.4.1. Evaluation

   Header compression is a good feature with real world applications,
   and deflate with persistent context is a good approach to achieve
   it. A fixed dictionary is probably not very effective as it
   complicates the implementation while only providing initial value to
   the compression. As an example, this is how the average requests
   sizes compares between HTTP and SPDY in different modes, using the
   set of captured headers used to train the current SPDY 3 dictionary.

     HTTP                             821.1
     HTTP zlib compressed             543.5
     HTTP compressed with dictionary  497.0
     SPDY                             913.7
     SPDY zlib compressed             606.5
     SPDY compressed with dictionary  517.0

   I.e. Just putting the HTTP request in a SPDY stream (after removing
   disallowed headers) only differs by 20 bytes to SPDY binary header
   format with dictionary based zlib compression. The benefit of using
   a dictionary basically goes away entirely on the subsequent request.

   For very constrained devices the major issue with using deflate is
   the 32K LZ window. The actual decompression is very light weight and
   doesn't require much code. When sending data, using the no
   compression mode of deflate effectively disables compression with
   almost no code. Using fixed huffman codes is almost as easy.

2.5. Asynchronous headers

   The HEADERS frame allows either side set additional headers for the
   request or response at any point while the stream is open. This
   differs from normal HTTP semantics where headers are sent strictly
   before any data, and at half duplex, and allows for parallel
   generation of headers and contents. While this is already possible
   to do with chunked encoding trailer, it is not a feature in popular

2.5.1. Evaluation

   The problem with this frame is that it creates a situation where a
   potentially critical header for the interpretation of the content is
   sent last, thus forcing the receiver to put data processing on hold.
   As additional headers can be sent up until the stream is closed
   (though it doesn't specify what is allowed on half-closed
   connections) this potentially makes all streams subject to last
   minute reinterpretations. The specification doesn't define the
   behavior when updating already sent headers. This feature also makes
   SPDY more vulnerable to protocol injection attacks.

2.6. Push

   SPDY allows the server to open a stream towards the client and
   effectively push content to the client. The idea is cache seeding,
   where resources likely or known to be requested soon will be pushed
   to the client. Server push has to happen as a result of an earlier
   client request, which must be explicitly linked.

2.6.1. Evaluation

   As defined the feature is not powerful enough to push non-request
   related content (such as new RSS items), while also lacking
   mechanisms to limit the size of pushed content or fully disable
   pushing. The client has the option to read and discard this
   information, but that may be a costly waste of bandwidth.

3. Binary representation

3.1. Control frame version

   The version field of the control frame is odd for several different

   - The field is huge, 15 bits, which given the rate of incompatible
   changes in released protocols (IPv6, HTTP 1.1 etc) appears
   unwarranted. Also, adding more room for the version field is easy if
   different versions are considered incompatible. The version field is
   meaningless if different versions are compatible.

   - The version is sent in every control frame, which appears overly

   - There is no clear semantics of how the version should be
   handled. While status code 4, UNSUPPORTED_VERSION, gives a clue that
   messages with unknown versions should be rejected, there is only a
   mechanism to do it for streams.

3.2. Field sizes

   The specification is consistently using 24 bit frame sizes but 32
   bit sizes for almost all counters and size fields for frame internal
   data. In design notes 4.4. "Fixed vs Variable Length Fields" the
   authors note that this is done for speed and simplicity. There is no
   reason why an 8, 16 or 24 bit field wouldn't be simple or fast
   enough, especially given the existence of 31-bit and 3-bit fields
   that also exists in the specification.

3.3. Directionality

   While the SPDY draft attempt to implement two independent layers, a
   general purpose framing layer with an HTTP-like layer on top of it,
   this separation creates some unneeded complexities. The two main use
   cases for SPDY is HTTP request-response and HTTP push. Both of these
   are unidirectional once established and both of them have some
   mandatory header fields that are more efficiently encoded in a fixed

3.4. Stream header coding

   Multiple headers with the same name are encoded as a list of null
   separated values. This removes the possibility to store binary
   values in headers, which both prevents unencoded values and more
   natural representations of e.g. size, date, age, hash etc.

4. Proposed changes

   This section details some ideas for improvements of the SPDY draft.

4.1. Handshake

   We believe the versioning semantics needs to be better formalized,
   and that the version information can be moved into a connection
   handshake. In its simplest form a SETTINGS frame is always sent
   first in the connection, establishing the version and connection
   parameters. A connection should be rejected if the version is out of
   range for the server. The server should respond with the highest
   supported protocol version before closing.

4.2. Field sizes

   Define a reasonable range for each field, based on statistics where
   possible, and resize them where appropriate.

4.3. Specialized HTTP frames

   For the common case of using SPDY as an HTTP substitute, create
   special frames to open HTTP request-response and HTTP push
   streams. This removes the need for explicit unidirectional flag and
   mandatory header values.

4.4. Typed key-value pairs

   Create a better structure for the key-value pair lists where it is
   possible to have binary values and typed values. The types can
   include binary string, integer and list. Standardize how all
   standard HTTP headers should be normalized and typed, including
   which ones are disallowed to be in lists of multiple values.

   Introduce a mechanism that allows headers to be properties of the
   stream, to be used internally in SPDY, and move optional parameters
   and parameters that seldom deviate from default value to use
   internal headers (e.g. priority, slot, associate-to-stream-id). This
   also provides a mechanism for easy extension.

4.5. Push

   The client needs to be in control of what pushed data to accept. A
   simple accept flag may be too simplisitc, as it prevents tricks like
   redirect collapsing, but would be an improvement nevertheless.

4.6. Flow control

   Remove the SPDY flow control and instead introduce a control
   mechanism to actively put a stream on hold. If priority is moved to
   stream properties, as suggested in 3.4., dynamic reprioritization is

4.7. Header compression

   Remove the header compression dictionary. It creates little benefit
   for the added complexity it introduces.

4.8. Asynchronous headers

   Specify the asynchronous header feature stricter so that overwriting
   HTTP headers isn't allowed and the receiver knows in advance what
   headers will be generated later.

/Martin Nilsson

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Received on Thursday, 7 June 2012 14:18:50 UTC

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