Hypertext Transfer Protocol

Hypertext Transfer Protocol
Persistence · Compression · HTTPS
Request methods
Header fields
Cookie · ETag · Location · Referer
DNT · X-Forwarded-For
Status codes
301 Moved permanently
302 Found
303 See Other
403 Forbidden
404 Not Found
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The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is a networking protocol for distributed, collaborative, hypermedia information systems.[1] HTTP is the foundation of data communication for the World Wide Web.

The standards development of HTTP has been coordinated by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), culminating in the publication of a series of Requests for Comments (RFCs), most notably RFC 2616 (June 1999), which defines HTTP/1.1, the version of HTTP in common use.


Technical overview

HTTP functions as a request-response protocol in the client-server computing model. In HTTP, a web browser, for example, acts as a client, while an application running on a computer hosting a web site functions as a server. The client submits an HTTP request message to the server. The server, which stores content, or provides resources, such as HTML files, or performs other functions on behalf of the client, returns a response message to the client. A response contains completion status information about the request and may contain any content requested by the client in its message body.

A web browser (or client) is often referred to as a user agent (UA). Other user agents can include the indexing software used by search providers, known as web crawlers, or variations of the web browser such as voice browsers, which present an interactive voice user interface.

The HTTP protocol is designed to permit intermediate network elements to improve or enable communications between clients and servers. High-traffic websites often benefit from web cache servers that deliver content on behalf of the original, so-called origin server, to improve response time. HTTP proxy servers at network boundaries facilitate communication when clients without a globally routable address are located in private networks by relaying the requests and responses between clients and servers.

HTTP is an Application Layer protocol designed within the framework of the Internet Protocol Suite. The protocol definitions presume a reliable Transport Layer protocol for host-to-host data transfer.[2] The Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) is the dominant protocol in use for this purpose. However, HTTP has found application even with unreliable protocols, such as the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) in methods such as the Simple Service Discovery Protocol (SSDP).

HTTP Resources are identified and located on the network by Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs)—or, more specifically, Uniform Resource Locators (URLs)—using the http or https URI schemes. URIs and the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), form a system of inter-linked resources, called hypertext documents, on the Internet, that led to the establishment of the World Wide Web in 1990 by English computer scientist and innovator Tim Berners-Lee.

The original version of HTTP (HTTP/1.0) was revised in HTTP/1.1. HTTP/1.0 uses a separate connection to the same server for every request-response transaction, while HTTP/1.1 can reuse a connection multiple times, to download, for instance, images for a just delivered page. Hence HTTP/1.1 communications experience less latency as the establishment of TCP connections presents considerable overhead.


The term HyperText was coined by Ted Nelson who in turn was inspired by Vannevar Bush's microfilm-based "memex". Tim Berners-Lee first proposed the "WorldWideWeb" project — now known as the World Wide Web. Berners-Lee and his team are credited with inventing the original HTTP protocol along with the HTML and the associated technology for a web server and a text-based web browser. The first version of the protocol had only one method, namely GET, which would request a page from a server.[3] The response from the server was always an HTML page.[4]

The first documented version of HTTP was HTTP V0.9 (1991). Dave Raggett led the HTTP Working Group (HTTP WG) in 1995 and wanted to expand the protocol extended operations, extended negotiation, richer meta-information, tied with a security protocol and got more efficient by adding additional methods and header fields.[5][6] RFC 1945 officially introduced and recognized HTTP V1.0 in 1996.

The HTTP WG planned to publish new standards in December 1995[7] and the support for pre-standard HTTP/1.1 based on the then developing RFC 2068 (called HTTP-NG) was rapidly adopted by the major browser developers in early 1996. By March 1996, pre-standard HTTP/1.1 was supported in Arena,[8] Netscape 2.0,[8] Netscape Navigator Gold 2.01,[8] Mosaic 2.7,[citation needed] Lynx 2.5[citation needed], and in Internet Explorer 3.0[citation needed]. End user adoption of the new browsers was rapid. In March 1996, one web hosting company reported that over 40% of browsers in use on the Internet were HTTP 1.1 compliant.[citation needed] That same web hosting company reported that by June 1996, 65% of all browsers accessing their servers were HTTP/1.1 compliant.[9] The HTTP/1.1 standard as defined in RFC 2068 was officially released in January 1997. Improvements and updates to the HTTP/1.1 standard were released under RFC 2616 in June 1999.

HTTP session

An HTTP session is a sequence of network request-response transactions. An HTTP client initiates a request by establishing a Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) connection to a particular port on a server (typically port 80; see List of TCP and UDP port numbers). An HTTP server listening on that port waits for a client's request message. Upon receiving the request, the server sends back a status line, such as "HTTP/1.1 200 OK", and a message of its own, the body of which is perhaps the requested resource, an error message, or some other information.[1]

Request message

The request message consists of the following:

  • Request line, such as GET /images/logo.png HTTP/1.1, which requests a resource called /images/logo.png from server
  • Headers, such as Accept-Language: en
  • An empty line.
  • An optional message body.

The request line and headers must all end with <CR><LF> (that is, a carriage return followed by a line feed). The empty line must consist of only <CR><LF> and no other whitespace.[10] Although <CR><LF> is required <LF> alone is also accepted by most servers.[citation needed] In the HTTP/1.1 protocol, all headers except Host are optional.

A request line containing only the path name is accepted by servers to maintain compatibility with HTTP clients before the HTTP/1.0 specification in RFC1945.[11]

Request methods

An HTTP request made using telnet. The request, response headers and response body are highlighted.

HTTP defines nine methods (sometimes referred to as "verbs") indicating the desired action to be performed on the identified resource. What this resource represents, whether pre-existing data or data that is generated dynamically, depends on the implementation of the server. Often, the resource corresponds to a file or the output of an executable residing on the server.

Asks for the response identical to the one that would correspond to a GET request, but without the response body. This is useful for retrieving meta-information written in response headers, without having to transport the entire content.
Requests a representation of the specified resource. Requests using GET (and a few other HTTP methods) "SHOULD NOT have the significance of taking an action other than retrieval".[1] The W3C has published guidance principles on this distinction, saying, "Web application design should be informed by the above principles, but also by the relevant limitations."[12] See safe methods below.
Submits data to be processed (e.g., from an HTML form) to the identified resource. The data is included in the body of the request. This may result in the creation of a new resource or the updates of existing resources or both.
Uploads a representation of the specified resource.
Deletes the specified resource.
Echoes back the received request, so that a client can see what (if any) changes or additions have been made by intermediate servers.
Returns the HTTP methods that the server supports for specified URL. This can be used to check the functionality of a web server by requesting '*' instead of a specific resource.
Converts the request connection to a transparent TCP/IP tunnel, usually to facilitate SSL-encrypted communication (HTTPS) through an unencrypted HTTP proxy.[13]
Is used to apply partial modifications to a resource.[14]

HTTP servers are required to implement at least the GET and HEAD methods[15] and, whenever possible, also the OPTIONS method.[citation needed]

Safe methods

Some methods (for example, HEAD, GET, OPTIONS and TRACE) are defined as safe, which means they are intended only for information retrieval and should not change the state of the server. In other words, they should not have side effects, beyond relatively harmless effects such as logging, caching, the serving of banner advertisements or incrementing a web counter. Making arbitrary GET requests without regard to the context of the application's state should therefore be considered safe.

By contrast, methods such as POST, PUT and DELETE are intended for actions that may cause side effects either on the server, or external side effects such as financial transactions or transmission of email. Such methods are therefore not usually used by conforming web robots or web crawlers; some that do not conform tend to make requests without regard to context or consequences.

Despite the prescribed safety of GET requests, in practice their handling by the server is not technically limited in any way. Therefore, careless or deliberate programming can cause non-trivial changes on the server. This is discouraged, because it can cause problems for Web caching, search engines and other automated agents, which can make unintended changes on the server.

Furthermore, methods such as TRACE, TRACK and DEBUG are considered potentially 'unsafe' by some security professionals, because they can be used by attackers to gather information or bypass security controls during attacks. Security software tools such as Tenable Nessus and Microsoft URLScan report on the presence of these methods as being security issues.

Idempotent methods and web applications

Methods PUT and DELETE are defined to be idempotent, meaning that multiple identical requests should have the same effect as a single request. Methods GET, HEAD, OPTIONS and TRACE, being prescribed as safe, should also be idempotent, as HTTP is a stateless protocol.[1]

In contrast, the POST method is not necessarily idempotent, and therefore sending an identical POST request multiple times may further affect state or cause further side effects (such as financial transactions). In some cases this may be desirable, but in other cases this could be due to an accident, such as when a user does not realize that their action will result in sending another request, or they did not receive adequate feedback that their first request was successful. While web browsers may show alert dialog boxes to warn users in some cases where reloading a page may re-submit a POST request, it is generally up to the web application to handle cases where a POST request should not be submitted more than once.

Note that whether a method is idempotent is not enforced by the protocol or web server. It is perfectly possible to write a web application in which (for example) a database insert or other non-idempotent action is triggered by a GET or other request. Ignoring this recommendation, however, may result in undesirable consequences, if a user agent assumes that repeating the same request is safe when it isn't.

Status codes

In HTTP/1.0 and since, the first line of the HTTP response is called the status line and includes a numeric status code (such as "404") and a textual reason phrase (such as "Not Found"). The way the user agent handles the response primarily depends on the code and secondarily on the response headers. Custom status codes can be used since, if the user agent encounters a code it does not recognize, it can use the first digit of the code to determine the general class of the response.[16]

Also, the standard reason phrases are only recommendations and can be replaced with "local equivalents" at the web developer's discretion. If the status code indicated a problem, the user agent might display the reason phrase to the user to provide further information about the nature of the problem. The standard also allows the user agent to attempt to interpret the reason phrase, though this might be unwise since the standard explicitly specifies that status codes are machine-readable and reason phrases are human-readable.

Persistent connections

In HTTP/0.9 and 1.0, the connection is closed after a single request/response pair. In HTTP/1.1 a keep-alive-mechanism was introduced, where a connection could be reused for more than one request.

Such persistent connections reduce request latency perceptibly, because the client does not need to re-negotiate the TCP connection after the first request has been sent.

Version 1.1 of the protocol made bandwidth optimization improvements to HTTP/1.0. For example, HTTP/1.1 introduced chunked transfer encoding to allow content on persistent connections to be streamed, rather than buffered. HTTP pipelining further reduces lag time, allowing clients to send multiple requests before a previous response has been received to the first one. Another improvement to the protocol was byte serving, which is when a server transmits just the portion of a resource explicitly requested by a client.

HTTP session state

HTTP is a stateless protocol. A stateless protocol does not require the server to retain information or status about each user for the duration of multiple requests. For example, when a web server is required to customize the content of a web page for a user, the web application may have to track the user's progress from page to page. A common solution is the use of HTTP cookies. Other methods include server side sessions, hidden variables (when the current page is a form), and URL-rewriting using URI-encoded parameters, e.g., /index.php?session_id=some_unique_session_code.

Secure HTTP

There are three methods of establishing a secure HTTP connection: HTTP Secure, Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol and the HTTP/1.1 Upgrade header. Browser support for the latter two is, however, nearly non-existent,[citation needed] so HTTP Secure is the dominant method of establishing a secure HTTP connection.

Example session

Below is a sample conversation between an HTTP client and an HTTP server running on www.example.com, port 80.

Client request

 GET /index.html HTTP/1.1␍␊
 Host: www.example.com␍␊

A client request (consisting in this case of the request line and only one header) is followed by a blank line, so that the request ends with a double newline, each in the form of a carriage return followed by a line feed. The "Host" header distinguishes between various DNS names sharing a single IP address, allowing name-based virtual hosting. While optional in HTTP/1.0, it is mandatory in HTTP/1.1.

Server response

 HTTP/1.1 200 OK
 Date: Mon, 23 May 2005 22:38:34 GMT
 Server: Apache/ (Unix) (Red-Hat/Linux)
 Last-Modified: Wed, 08 Jan 2003 23:11:55 GMT
 Etag: "3f80f-1b6-3e1cb03b"
 Accept-Ranges: bytes
 Content-Length: 438
 Connection: close
 Content-Type: text/html; charset=UTF-8

A server response is followed by a blank line and text of the requested page. The ETag (entity tag) header is used to determine if a cached version of the requested resource is identical to the current version of the resource on the server. Content-Type specifies the Internet media type of the data conveyed by the http message, while Content-Length indicates its length in bytes. The HTTP/1.1 webserver publishes its ability to respond to requests for certain byte ranges of the document by setting the header Accept-Ranges: bytes. This is useful, if the client needs to have only certain portions[17] of a resource sent by the server, which is called byte serving. When Connection: close is sent in a header, it means that the web server will close the TCP connection immediately after the transfer of this response.

Most of the header lines are optional. When Content-Length is missing the length is determined in other ways. Chunked transfer encoding uses a chunk size of 0 to mark the end of the content. Identity encoding without Content-Length reads content until the socket is closed.

A Content-Encoding like gzip can be used to compress the transmitted data.

See also

HTTP Replacements or Enhancements

Further Information

Related topics and technologies


  1. ^ a b c d Fielding, Roy T.; Gettys, James; Mogul, Jeffrey C.; Nielsen, Henrik Frystyk; Masinter, Larry; Leach, Paul J.; Berners-Lee (June 1999). "RFC 2616: Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.1". http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2616. 
  2. ^ Fielding, et al. Internet RFC 2616.", section 1.4. Retrieved on January 21, 2009.
  3. ^ Berners-Lee, Tim. "HyperText Transfer Protocol". World Wide Web Consortium. http://www.w3.org/History/19921103-hypertext/hypertext/WWW/Protocols/HTTP.html. Retrieved 31 August 2010. 
  4. ^ Tim Berners-Lee. "The Original HTTP as defined in 1991". World Wide Web Consortium. http://www.w3.org/Protocols/HTTP/AsImplemented.html. Retrieved 24 July 2010. 
  5. ^ Raggett, Dave. "Dave Raggett's Bio". World Wide Web Consortium. http://www.w3.org/People/Raggett/profile.html. Retrieved 11 June 2010. 
  6. ^ Raggett, Dave; Berners-Lee, Tim. "Hypertext Transfer Protocol Working Group". World Wide Web Consortium. http://www.w3.org/Arena/webworld/httpwgcharter.html. Retrieved 29 September 2010. 
  7. ^ Raggett, Dave. "HTTP WG Plans". World Wide Web Consortium. http://www.w3.org/Arena/webworld/httpwgplans.html. Retrieved 29 September 2010. 
  8. ^ a b c Simon Spero. "Progress on HTTP-NG". World Wide Web Consortium. http://www.w3.org/Protocols/HTTP-NG/http-ng-status.html. Retrieved 11 June 2010. 
  9. ^ "HTTP/1.1". Webcom.com Glossary entry. http://www.webcom.com/glossary/http1.1.shtml. Retrieved 2009-05-29. 
  10. ^ Cailliau, Robert (1 July 1992). "Updates To HTTP". World Wide Web Consortium. http://www.w3.org/History/19921103-hypertext/hypertext/WWW/Protocols/HTTP/HTTP2.html. Retrieved 1 September 2010. 
  11. ^ "Apache Week. HTTP/1.1". http://www.apacheweek.com/features/http11.  090502 apacheweek.com
  12. ^ Jacobs, Ian (2004). "URIs, Addressability, and the use of HTTP GET and POST". Technical Architecture Group finding. W3C. http://www.w3.org/2001/tag/doc/whenToUseGet.html#checklist. Retrieved 26 September 2010. 
  13. ^ "Vulnerability Note VU#150227: HTTP proxy default configurations allow arbitrary TCP connections". US-CERT. 2002-05-17. http://www.kb.cert.org/vuls/id/150227. Retrieved 2007-05-10. 
  14. ^ Dusseault, Lisa; Snell, James M.. "RFC 5789: PATCH Method for HTTP". http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc5789. 
  15. ^ "HTTP 1.1 Section 5.1.1". Tools.ietf.org. http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2616#section-5.1.1. Retrieved 2010-08-01. 
  16. ^ "6.1 Status-Line". W3.org. http://www.w3.org/Protocols/rfc2616/rfc2616-sec6.html#sec6.1. Retrieved 2010-08-01. 
  17. ^ Tools.ietf.org, Byte Range Retrieval Extension to HTTP

Further reading

External links

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