For the past few months I've been on a personal quest to implement a safe and effective HTTP pipelining strategy for Mozilla Firefox. The pipeline concept is part of HTTP/1.1 but for various reasons has not been widely deployed on the web.
I'm going to make a series of three posts. This one will be basic background information - what pipelines are in the abstract and why they are more relevant to today's web than they have been in years. The second post will be about the details of my Firefox implementation and its mechanisms for dealing with the realities of the occasional pipeline-hostile piece of infrastructure. The last post will share some performance metrics of those patches in common use cases.
HTTP Pipelines - 101
A client forms a pipeline simply by sending a second HTTP request down an HTTP connection before it has received the first response. A pipeline may be more than two transactions deep. HTTP responses are still required to be returned in the order their requests arrived.
This is a simple concept, but the benefits are profound.
Chiefly, the pipelined transactions benefit by eliminating the latency involved in sending their request. The greater the latency, the greater the benefit.
This crude diagram shows 2 normal HTTP transactions without pipelining. In it each request is shown with a rightward arrow and the response is shown with a leftward arrow. The empty space represents the network latency. When the first response is received, the second is sent.
When pipelining is used, the picture becomes different. Even though the request and response sizes are the same, and the round trip time between the hosts is the same, the overall transaction completes sooner. It is obvious that the round trip latency between the client and the server has been mitigated as a problem.
The greater the latency and the deeper the pipeline the more benefit is captured.
While bandwidth continues to improve, latency is not keeping up. The trend is toward mobile networks and those have latencies 5x to 20x worse than broadband WAN connections. This increased latency is an opportunity for pipelining.
HTTP Pipelines - 201
Conceptually, parallel HTTP connections can garner similar benefits. Afterall, independent HTTP connections do not need to wait for each other to finish before beginning their work.
Up to a point, that is completely true. Parallelism has been the mainstay for many years and served us well. But it has its limits.
This brings us to the reason there is a limit on the number of connections. Making a new TCP connection sucks. Before it can be used at all it requires a high latency three way handshake and if it is over TLS an expensive RSA operation on the server (and yet another round trip). Making the new connection requires access to shared data structures on the server in a way that using an existing connection does not and harms scalability. Servers that can pump multiple gigabits a second of TCP data in their sleep through a few connections, can still only initiate on the order of tens of thousands of connections a second.
Maintaining all those connections is expensive for the server too. Each one takes state (i.e. RAM in the kernel, perhaps a thread stack in the application), and the server now has to deal with sorting through more control blocks and application states everytime a packet comes in in order to match it with the right one. Because of the increased diversity of TCP control blocks in use, the L2/L3 cache is severely polluted which is the number one factor in high performance TCP.
Even if pipelines only mean browser performance equal to parallel connections but accomplished using fewer connections then that is a win for Web scalability.
HTTP Pipelines - 301
The details of TCP start to weigh in heavily in favor of pipelining when parallelism and pipelining are compared.
Most significantly, TCP slow-start performs poorly in the parallelized environment. To recap what you already know: Slow start requires the sender to send a conservative amount of data at first (typically 3 or 4 packets) and then wait a full round trip time to receive positive feedback in the form of an ACK from the recipient. At that time it can grow the window a little bit and send another burst and then wait again. After enough iterations of this the sender is generating enough traffic in each burst to "fill the window" and it no longer has to wait.
Pipelining, of course, does not eliminate slow start. But it does use fewer connections to move the same amount of data and the slow-start penalty scales with the number of connections not the amount of data. Fewer connections mean less data is transferred under the artificially slow conditions of slow start.
There is another wrinkle that applies to even parallel connections that have paid their start-up dues and progressed past slow start. TCP connections that have not sent data within an RTO (think of an RTO as a round trip time plus a grace period) are supposed to go back to slow-start! From a TCP point of view this makes some sense - the inactivity means the TCP stack has lost the ack-clock that it needs to use the connection aggressively. But for even a persistent use of a parallel HTTP connection this is a disaster. Effectively each transaction response must go through slow start because it takes more than a round trip for the last packet of the previous response to travel to the client, the client to form the next request, the request to travel to the server and the server to form the response. Pipelined connections do not have that problem - one response follows immediately on the heels of the previous response which ensures optimal TCP use of the available bandwidth. Huzzah.
Lastly, it is worth talking about Google's push for larger initial windows during slow start. They support a value of 10 instead of the current 3 or 4. Basically I think this is a good thing - the Internet can support larger bursts than we are currently sending. Unfortunately, this has a terrible potential interaction with parallel connections. 6 connections would essentially mean 60 congestion control packet credits available to be sent in a burst at any time. Just as 3 is too few for a single connection environment, 60 is too many for a multiple connection environment. Whereas pipelines reduce the reliance on parallel connections, they bring down the total number of packet credits outstanding at any time while still allowing for more effective slow start capacity probing. That's a win win in my book.