The History and Future of Hyper Text Transfer Protocol

As of March 2009, nearly 1.6 billion billion people around the world were using the Internet for a multitude of different purposes, including online shopping, listening to music, watching videos, sharing photographs, communicating with friends and family, running businesses, getting the latest news, and online learning. With so many people, businesses, and organizations relying on the Internet to accomplish their daily activities, it is extremely important for a set of networking standards to be firmly in place in order to ensure that users have reliable access to the Internet. Even though many of the one billion individuals using the Internet may have no idea what it even is, the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol is a networking standard that plays an essential role in providing them with consistent access to the information available to them via the Internet.

Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, or HTTP, is an application layer network protocol that provides a standard for communication on the Internet. Essentially, HTTP is a language that web browsers use to request information, such as a web page, from the web server on which the document is stored. Because the web browser and web server speak the same language (HTTP), the server is able to send the browser the various files (text, graphics, sounds, etc.) requested by its user. While the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol is just one of the ten scheme names (a name for the manner in which a browser accesses a resource), it is far and away the most frequently used. In fact, HTTP has become so ubiquitous that most web browsers no longer require users to enter it as part of web addresses; the majority of browsers automatically assume its presence is required.

Whether business owners realize it or not, HTTP plays a major role in the success of their companies, because Hyper Text Transfer Protocol is a standard that ensures a customer’s web browser will be able to successfully communicate with their organization’s web server. Communications between web browsers and web servers are very similar to two people attempting to have a conversation, because both of these exchanges require a single language that each party can speak and understand. Without a standard language like the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, a web server would be like a person who is fluent in English but does not understand Spanish, and the web browser would be like an individual who is fluent in Spanish but does not understand English. Regardless of how articulate, intelligent, or interesting either of the individuals is, or how many times they ask a question or make a statement, the two speakers will not be able to exchange information. However, if both speakers are fluent in French, or the server and browser both “speak” HTTP, then they will be able to successfully share ideas and information.

Thanks to HTTP, visitors to a company’s web site are able to retrieve contact information, browse and purchase merchandise, or learn more about the different services a business has to offer. Without Hyper Text Transfer Protocol, or a similar standardized form of communication, a user’s web browser might make requests for files in a language that a company’s server simply doesn’t understand. This lack of standardization results in potential customers being unable to view certain web pages; if a consumer can’t access a website, then they won’t be able to purchase anything from the site.

The public has grown so accustomed to being able to access data on just about any website (with the exception of password protected information), that it is difficult to imagine an Internet where some sites could only be accessed if a user employed a particular browser. Some users would probably find oscillating between different browsers tedious, and they might avoid going to certain sites if they required them to use a browse they simply did not like. Ultimately, no matter how good a company’s products or services are is irrelevant if the public can’t learn about them. Without HTTP, the Internet as the world currently knows it, and all of the conveniences it has to offer, would cease to exist, and all of the various businesses, organizations, and individuals who rely upon it as a means of earning money, disseminating information, purchasing goods and services, or communicating with one another would have no choice but to find alternative ways of doing so.

While HTTP is today’s protocol of choice–and it’s hard to imagine what the Internet would be like without it– the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol was not always the standard protocol used for Internet communications. In order to fully understand the standardization process of HTTP, it is necessary to review the various protocols and computer communication networks that preceded the Hyper Text Transfer Protocol.

Initially, ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), a computer network developed by the United States Department of Defense, and the predecessor to the Internet, used the 1822 protocol to communicate information between hosts. A message sent using this protocol was composed of a message type, host address, and data field. While the 1822 protocol eventually proved to be an inadequate means of managing various connections between different applications on a single host, it is important to remember that it played an integral role in the development of the Internet by laying the groundwork for future protocols to come.

NCP (Network Control Program) replaced the 1822 protocol as ARPANET’s chosen protocol, because NCP was able to do something 1822 could not: offer a standardized and dependable means of two-way, flow-controlled communication between different processes residing on different hosts. While NCP was an improvement upon the 1822 protocol, its reign as ARPANET’s standard protocol ended in 1983 when it was replaced by TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol).

TCP/IP was chosen as the official standard because it was a relatively inexpensive, simple, and easy to use protocol. However, like the protocols which came before it, TCP/IP would soon be replaced by another protocol-HTTP. HTTP was first developed in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee to meet needs unique to the Internet, such as forwarding a user’s request to another server or performing index searches. Prior to the development of HTTP, usage of the Internet was nowhere near as widespread as it is today, perhaps due in part to the lack of one official protocol for communication between networked computers. The first version of HTTP was known as HTTP/0.9, and its main purpose was to transfer raw data from one machine to another. The second incarnation, HTTP/1.0, was released in 1996 as an improvement upon the original because it allowed messages to be in MIME-like formats (contain information about the data transferred such as the time and date of the transfer). While HTTP/1.0 was definitely an improvement upon HTTP/0.9, it still did not allow for certain tasks such as persistent connections or virtual hosting. Consequently, HTTP/1.1 was released in 1997 and continues to be the version of the protocol currently used today.

If history is any indication, HTTP/1.1 will probably not remain the standard protocol for very long. In fact, HTTP/1.2 was published in 2000, but it has yet to replace its predecessor as the version du jour. Only time will tell if HTTP/1.2 will ever become the standard protocol– perhaps a different protocol all together will eventually take HTTP/1.1’s place.

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