The Road to WebSockets
During the 1990s, the web rapidly grew into the dominant way to exchange information. Increasing numbers of users became accustomed to the experience of browsing the web, while browser providers constantly released new features and enhancements.
The first realtime web apps started to appear in the 2000s, attempting to deliver responsive, dynamic, and interactive end-user experiences. However, at that time, the realtime web was difficult to achieve and slower than we’re used to nowadays; it was delivered by hacking existing HTTP-based technologies that were not designed and optimized for realtime applications. It quickly became obvious that a better alternative was needed. In this first chapter, we’ll look at how web technologies evolved, culminating with the emergence of WebSockets, a vastly superior improvement on HTTP for building realtime web apps.
The World Wide Web is born
In 1989, while working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) as a software engineer, Tim Berners-Lee became frustrated with how difficult it was to access information stored on different computers (and, on top of that, running different types of software). This prompted Berners-Lee to develop a project called “WorldWideWeb”.
The project proposed a “web” of hypertext documents, which could be viewed by browsers over the internet using a client-server architecture. The web had the potential to connect the world in a way that was not previously possible, and made it much easier for people everywhere to get information, share, and communicate. Initially used at CERN, the web was soon made available to the world, with the first websites for everyday use starting to appear in 1993-1994.
Berners-Lee managed to create the web by combining two existing technologies: hypertext and the internet. In the process, he developed three core building blocks:
- HTML. The markup (formatting) language of the web.
- URI. An “address” (similar to a postal address) that is unique and used to identify each resource on the web.
- HTTP. Protocol used for requesting and receiving resources over the web.
This initial version of HTTP (commonly known as HTTP/0.9) that Berners-Lee developed was incredibly basic. Requests consisted of a single line and started with the only supported method,
GET, followed by the path to the resource:
The hypertext-only response was extremely simple as well:
There were no HTTP headers, status codes, URLs, or versioning, and the connection was terminated immediately after receiving the response.
Since interest in the web was skyrocketing, and with HTTP/0.9 being severely limited, both browsers and servers quickly made the protocol more versatile by adding new capabilities. Some key changes:
- Header fields including rich metadata about the request and response (HTTP version number, status code, content type).
- Two new methods —
- Additional content types (e.g., scripts, stylesheets, or media), so that the response was no longer restricted to hypertext.
These modifications were not done in an orderly or agreed-upon fashion, leading to different flavors of HTTP/0.9 in the wild, in turn causing interoperability problems. To resolve these issues, an HTTP Working Group was set up, and in 1996, published HTTP/1.0 (defined via RFC 1945). It was an informational RFC, merely documenting all the usages at the time. As such, HTTP/1.0 is not considered a formal specification or an internet standard.
In parallel with the efforts made on HTTP/1.0, work to properly standardize HTTP was in progress. The first standardized version of the protocol, HTTP/1.1, was initially defined in RFC 2068 and released in January 1997. Several subsequent HTTP/1.1 RFCs have been released since then, most recently in 2014.
HTTP/1.1 introduces many feature enhancements and performance optimizations, including:
- Persistent and pipelined connections.
- Virtual hosting.
- Content negotiation, chunked transfer, compression, and decompression.
- Cache support.
- More methods, bringing the total to seven —
Hatching the realtime web
Publicly used as a term for the first time in 2005, AJAX encompasses several technologies:
- HTML (or XHTML) and CSS for presentation.
- Document Object Model (DOM) for dynamic display and interaction.
- XML or JSON for data interchange, and XSLT for XML manipulation.
XMLHttpRequest(XHR) object for asynchronous communication.
It’s worth emphasizing the importance of
XMLHttpRequest would benefit from widespread adoption, being implemented by Mozilla Firefox, Safari, Opera, and other browsers.
Let’s now look at how AJAX works, by comparing it to the classic model of building a web app.
In a classic model, most user actions in the UI trigger an HTTP request sent to the server. The server processes the request and returns the entire HTML page to the client. In comparison, AJAX introduces an intermediary (an AJAX engine) between the user and the server. Although it might seem counterintuitive, the intermediary significantly improves responsiveness. Instead of loading the webpage, at the start of the session, the client loads the AJAX engine, which is responsible for:
- Regularly polling the server on the client’s behalf.
- Rendering the interface the user sees, and updating it with data retrieved from the server.
XMLHttpRequest request in particular) can be considered a black swan event for the web. It opened up the potential for web developers to start building truly dynamic, asynchronous, realtime-like web applications that could communicate with the server silently in the background, without interrupting the user’s browsing experience. Google was among the first to adopt the AJAX model in the mid-2000s, initially using it for Google Suggest, and its Gmail and Google Maps products. This sparked widespread interest in AJAX, which quickly became popular and heavily used.
Coined in 2006, Comet is a web application design model that allows a web server to push data to the browser. Similar to AJAX, Comet enables asynchronous communication. Unlike classic AJAX (where the client periodically polls the server for updates), Comet uses long-lived HTTP connections to allow the server to push updates whenever they’re available, without the client explicitly requesting them.
The Comet model was made famous by organizations such as Google and Meebo. The former initially used Comet to add web-based chat to Gmail, while Meebo used it for their web-based chat app that enabled users to connect to AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft chat platforms through the browser. In a short time, Comet became a default standard for building responsive, interactive web apps.
Several different techniques can be used to deliver the Comet model, the most well-known being long polling and HTTP streaming. Let’s now quickly review how these two work.
Essentially a more efficient form of polling, long polling is a technique where the server elects to hold a client’s connection open for as long as possible, delivering a response only after data becomes available or a timeout threshold is reached. Upon receipt of the server response, the client usually issues another request immediately. Long polling is often implemented on the back of XMLHttpRequest, the same object that plays a key role in the AJAX model.
Also known as HTTP server push, HTTP streaming is a data transfer technique that allows a web server to continuously send data to a client over a single HTTP connection that remains open indefinitely. Whenever there’s an update available, the server sends a response, and only closes the connection when explicitly told to do so.
HTTP streaming can be achieved by using the chunked transfer encoding mechanism available in HTTP/1.1. With this approach, the server can send response data in chunks of newline-delimited strings, which are processed on the fly by the client.
Here’s an example of a chunked response:
Here’s a quick example of opening a stream over SSE:
Limitations of HTTP
AJAX and Comet paved the way for creating dynamic, realtime web apps. However — even though they continue to be used nowadays, to a lesser extent — both AJAX and Comet have their shortcomings.
Most of their limitations stem from using HTTP as the underlying transport protocol. The problem is that HTTP was initially designed to serve hypermedia resources in a request- response fashion. It hadn’t been optimized to power realtime apps that usually involve high-frequency or ongoing client-server communication, and the ability to react instantly to changes.
Hacking HTTP-based technologies to emulate the realtime web was bound to lead to all sorts of drawbacks. We will now cover the main ones (without being exhaustive).
HTTP polling, for example, involves sending requests to the server at fixed intervals to see if there’s any new update to retrieve. High polling frequencies result in increased network traffic and server demands; this doesn’t scale well, especially as the number of concurrent users rises. Low polling frequencies will be less taxing on the server, but they may result in delivery of stale information that has lost (part of) its value.
Although an improvement on regular polling, long polling is also intensive on the server, and handling thousands of simultaneous long polling requests requires huge amounts of resources.
Unreliable message ordering and delivery guarantees
Reliable message ordering can be an issue, since it’s possible for multiple HTTP requests from the same client to be in flight simultaneously. Due to various factors, such as unreliable network conditions, there’s no guarantee that the requests issued by the client and the responses returned by the server will reach their destination in the right order.
Another problem is that a server may send a response, but network or browser issues may prevent the message from being successfully received. Unless some sort of message receipt confirmation process is implemented, a subsequent call to the server may result in missed messages.
Depending on the server implementation, confirmation of message receipt by one client instance may also cause another client instance to never receive an expected message at all, as the server could mistakenly believe that the client has already received the data it is expecting.
The time required to establish a new HTTP connection is significant since it involves a handshake with quite a few back and forth exchanges between the client and the server. In addition to the slow start, we must also consider that HTTP requests are issued sequentially. The next request is only sent once the response to the current request has been received. Depending on network conditions, there can be delays before the client gets a response, and the server receives the next request. All of this leads to increased latency for the user — far from ideal in the context of realtime applications.
Although HTTP streaming techniques are better for lower latencies than (long) polling, they are limited themselves (just like any other HTTP-based mechanism) by HTTP headers, which increase message size and cause unnecessary delays. Often, the HTTP headers in the response outweigh the core data being delivered.
No bidirectional streaming
A request/response protocol by design, HTTP doesn’t support bidirectional, always-on, realtime communication between client and server over the same connection. You can create the illusion of bidirectional realtime communication by using two HTTP connections. However, the maintenance of these two connections introduces significant overhead on the server, because it takes double the resources to serve a single client.
With the web continuously evolving, and user expectations of rich, realtime web-based experiences growing, it was becoming increasingly obvious that an alternative to HTTP was needed.
In 2008, the pain and limitations of using Comet when implementing anything resembling realtime were being felt particularly keenly by developers Michael Carter and Ian Hickson. Through collaboration on IRC and W3C mailing lists, they came up with a plan to introduce a new standard for modern, truly realtime communication on the web. Thus, the name “WebSocket’’ was coined.
In a nutshell, WebSocket is a technology that enables bidirectional, full-duplex communication between client and server over a persistent, single-socket connection. The intent is to provide what is essentially an as-close-to-raw-as-possible TCP communication layer to web application developers while adding a few abstractions to eliminate certain friction that would otherwise exist concerning the way the web works. A WebSocket connection starts as an HTTP request/response handshake; beyond this handshake, WebSocket and HTTP are fundamentally different.
The WebSocket technology includes two core building blocks:
- The WebSocket protocol. Enables communication between clients and servers over the web, and supports transmission of binary data and text strings. For more details, see the WebSocket Protocol.
- The WebSocket API. Allows you to perform necessary actions, like managing the WebSocket connection, sending and receiving messages, and listening for events triggered by the server. For more details, see the WebSocket API
Comparing WebSockets and HTTP
While HTTP is request-driven, WebSockets are event-driven. The table below illustrates fundamental differences between the two technologies.
|Message exchange pattern
|Not natively supported
|Moderate overhead to establish the connection, and minimal overhead per message.
|Moderate overhead per request/connection.
HTTP and WebSockets are designed for different use cases. For example, HTTP is a good choice if your app relies heavily on CRUD operations, and there’s no need for the user to react to changes quickly. On the other hand, when it comes to scalable, low-latency realtime applications, WebSockets are the way to go. More about this in the next section.
Use cases and benefits
The WebSocket technology has broad applicability. You can use it for different purposes, such as streaming data between backend services, or connecting a backend with a frontend via long-lasting, full-duplex connections. In a nutshell, WebSockets are an excellent choice for architecting event-driven systems and building realtime apps and services where it’s essential for data to be delivered immediately.
We can broadly group WebSocket use cases into two distinct categories:
- Realtime updates, where the communication is unidirectional, and the server is streaming low-latency (and often frequent) updates to the client. Think of live sports updates, alerts, realtime dashboards, or location tracking, to name just a few use cases.
- Bidirectional communication, where both the client and the server can send and receive messages. Examples include chat, virtual events, and virtual classrooms (the last two usually involve features like polls, quizzes, and Q&As). WebSockets can also be used to underpin multi-user synchronized collaboration functionality, such as multiple people editing the same document simultaneously.
And here are some of the main benefits of using WebSockets:
- Improved performance. Compared to HTTP, WebSockets eliminate the need for a new connection with every request, drastically reducing the size of each message (no HTTP headers). This helps save bandwidth, improves latency, and makes WebSockets more scalable than HTTP (note that scaling WebSockets is far from trivial, but at scale, WebSockets are significantly less taxing on the server-side).
- Extensibility. Flexibility is ingrained into the design of the WebSocket technology, which allows for the implementation of subprotocols (application-level protocols) and extensions for additional functionality. Learn more about Extensions and Subprotocols.
- Fast reaction times . As an event-driven technology, WebSockets allow data to be transferred without the client requesting it. This characteristic is desirable in scenarios where the client needs to react quickly to an event (especially ones it cannot predict, such as a fraud alert).
TCPConnection, the WebSocket interface made its way into the HTML5 specification, which was first released as a draft in January 2008. The WebSocket protocol was standardized in 2011 via RFC 6455; more about this in The WebSocket Protocol.
In December 2009, Google Chrome 4 was the first browser to ship full support for WebSockets. Other browser vendors started to follow suit over the next few years; today, all major browsers have full support for WebSockets. Going beyond web browsers, WebSockets can be used to power realtime communication across various types of user agents — for example, mobile apps.
Nowadays, WebSockets are a key technology for building scalable realtime web apps. The WebSocket API and protocol have a thriving community, which is reflected by a variety of client and server options (both open-source and commercial), developer ecosystems, and myriad real-life implementations.