Mar 25

Upgrade the Web: Time for UDP in the browser?

Tech, Web Browsing with tags: 10 Comments »

The Pipes

We tunnel everything through HTTP these days. Poor old port 80 is the backdoor through the firewall, but the hole is small and only truly suited to certain protocols. One of the crazy wrappers is taking streaming video and putting it in the HTTP envelope. This is nuts as HTTP is of course running on TCP/IP which gives you reliable ordered packets. The overhead of making sure this is the case is large, and is not needed for fire and forget type applications. Video, VoIP, gaming, they all favour UDP as you just want to shove bytes down as fast as you can and if you miss a packet or two it doesn’t matter, you are onto the next.

Wikipedia tells the tale:

Difference between TCP and UDP

TCP (”Transmission Control Protocol”) is a connection-oriented protocol, which means that upon communication it requires handshaking to set up end-to-end connection. A connection can be made from client to server, and from then on any data can be sent along that connection.

  • Reliable – TCP manages message acknowledgment, retransmission and timeout. Many attempts to reliably deliver the message are made. If it gets lost along the way, the server will re-request the lost part. In TCP, there’s either no missing data, or, in case of multiple timeouts, the connection is dropped.
  • Ordered – if two messages are sent along a connection, one after the other, the first message will reach the receiving application first. When data packets arrive in the wrong order, the TCP layer holds the later data until the earlier data can be rearranged and delivered to the application.
  • Heavyweight – TCP requires three packets just to set up a socket, before any actual data can be sent. It handles connections, reliability and congestion control. It is a large transport protocol designed on top of IP.
  • Streaming – Data is read as a “stream,” with nothing distinguishing where one packet ends and another begins. Packets may be split or merged into bigger or smaller data streams arbitrarily.

UDP is a simpler message-based connectionless protocol. In connectionless protocols, there is no effort made to setup a dedicated end-to-end connection. Communication is achieved by transmitting information in one direction, from source to destination without checking to see if the destination is still there, or if it is prepared to receive the information. With UDP messages (packets) cross the network in independent units.

  • Unreliable – When a message is sent, it cannot be known if it will reach its destination; it could get lost along the way. There is no concept of acknowledgment, retransmission and timeout.
  • Not ordered – If two messages are sent to the same recipient, the order in which they arrive cannot be predicted.
  • Lightweight – There is no ordering of messages, no tracking connections, etc. It is a small transport layer designed on top of IP.
  • Datagrams – Packets are sent individually and are guaranteed to be whole if they arrive. Packets have definite bounds and no split or merge into data streams may exist.

What if we had nice UDP support in the browser itself, something that could fall back to HTTP if necessary. You would need that to make sure that the firewall gods wouldn’t stop things working, but think of the YouTube traffic and how much better streaming video would be! And games! And, Skype!

Can we do it, or is there too much inertia around “HTTP won. It’s good enough”