HTTP/2 and the Internet of Things

I have never been a fan of using custom or obscure protocols to talk to embedded devices, particularly if the goal is to bring them into the mainstream of communications (e.g., the Internet of Things). I’m looking at you CoAP, MQTT, etc.!

It’s not that CoAP, MQTT, and all of the others aren’t well designed, useful, or perhaps even better. It’s that they are not what the rest of the Internet are using to communicate.

So, what is? Well, I think we all know the answer to that: HTTP. Even email, which has always had its own protocols, is largely using HTTP at this point.

The HTTP we all know and love, HTTP/1.1, is poorly suited to embedded devices. Its use of loose, plain ASCII makes for complex parsing (codespace!) and eats up a lot of RAM and buffer space. Then, when you try and shuffle all of those ASCII characters across the network, you eat up bandwidth — something embedded devices often do not have in abundance. Further, transmitting bits takes energy – a particular problem if you are battery-powered.

Well, I’m hoping that the next version of HTTP, HTTP/2, helps to lessen those problems. Of course it will not be as efficient and great for embedded devices as a protocol designed for the embedded space, but consideration was given to the embedded space during the design of HTTP/2. And the goals of the large Web servers often align with those of the embedded space — less memory and bandwidth also matter if you are serving millions of clients!

How does HTTP/2 help? Well, for starters, it employs a very efficient, yet low memory (unlike gzip) compression technique, HPACK. HPACK works by assigning header names and values to entries in tables. Then, only the entry number needs to be used. This allows for efficient use of bandwidth while not sacrificing the original syntax of HTTP. The sizes of the tables can be limited via negotiation, limiting RAM usage.

What about the complex parsing, you ask? Well, it’s not entirely gone, but HTTP/2 did a lot to try and tighten the syntax and thus the parsing. As with all new protocols, a lot of the legacy could be dropped or tightened. Finally, for those header names and values that may not warrant entry into the tables built up between server and client, Huffman codes can be used. Canonical Huffman codes, in fact.

HTTP/2 also encourages each client/server pair to use a single TCP connection. Individual requests and their responses are sent in streams over this connection. Once again, the number of simultaneous streams can also be limited via negotiation. This connection reuse means less network overhead – no more three-way handshake for each request/response, no more slow start over and over again, no more TLS renegotiation over and over again. You get the point. And considering IoT devices tend to focus on short messages, the benefits really add up.

Other features of HTTP/2 that are particularly beneficial to the embedded world include: binary message framing, header list size negotiation, server push, ping, and windowing. Each of these could definitely use a lot more description, but I’m hoping to avoid “tl;dr”.

In conclusion, I believe that HTTP/2, while not perfect, will allow embedded/IoT devices to fully join the rest of the Internet and no longer be second-class citizens. Truly enabling the Web of Things!

If you are interested in using HTTP/2 for an IoT application, check out Deuterium, my own embedded implementation of HTTP/2.