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Introducing Warp: Fixing Mobile Internet Performance and Security

by Matthew Prince.

April 1st is a miserable day for most of the Internet. While most days the Internet is full of promise and innovation, on “April Fools” a handful of elite tech companies decide to waste the time of literally billions of people with juvenile jokes that only they find funny.

Cloudflare has never been one for the traditional April Fools antics. Usually we just ignored the day and went on with our mission to help build a better Internet. Last year we decided to go the opposite direction launching a service that we hoped would benefit every Internet user: 1.1.1.1.

The service's goal was simple — be the fastest, most secure, most privacy-respecting DNS resolver on the Internet. It was our first attempt at a consumer service. While we try not to be sophomoric, we're still geeks at heart, so we couldn't resist launching 1.1.1.1 on 4/1 — even though it was April Fools, Easter, Passover, and a Sunday when every media conversation began with some variation of: "You know, if you're kidding me, you're dead to me."

No Joke

We weren't kidding. In the year that's followed, we've been overwhelmed by the response. 1.1.1.1 has grown usage by 700% month-over-month and appears likely to soon become the second-largest public DNS service in the world — behind only Google (which has twice the latency, so we trust we’ll catch them too someday). We've helped champion new standards such as DNS over TLS and DNS over HTTPS, which ensure the privacy and security of the most foundational of Internet requests. And we've worked with great organizations like Mozilla to make it so these new standards could be easy to use and accessible to anyone anywhere.

On 11/11 — yes, again, geeky — we launched Cloudflare's first mobile app. The 1.1.1.1 App allowed anyone to easily take advantage of the speed, security, and privacy of the 1.1.1.1 DNS service on their phone. Internally, we had hoped that at least 10,000 people would use the app. We ended up getting a lot more than that. In the months that followed, millions of Android and iOS users have installed the app and now experience a faster, more secure, and more private Internet on their phones.

Super Secret Plan

Truth be told, the 1.1.1.1 App was really just a lead up to today. We had a plan on how we could radically improve the performance, security, and privacy of the mobile Internet well beyond just DNS. To pull it off, we needed to understand the failure conditions when a VPN app switched between cellular and WiFi, when it suffered signal degradation, tried to register with a captive portal, or otherwise ran into the different conditions that mobile phones experience in the field.

More on that in a second. First, let’s all acknowledge that the mobile Internet could be so much better than it is today. TCP, the foundational protocol of the Internet, was never designed for a mobile environment. It literally does the exact opposite thing it should when you're trying to surf the Internet on your phone and someone nearby turns on the microwave or something else happens that causes packet loss. The mobile Internet could be so much better if we just upgraded its underlying protocols. There’s a lot of hope for 5G, but, unfortunately, it does nothing to solve the fact that the mobile Internet still runs on transport protocols designed for a wired network.

Beyond that, our mobile phones carry some of our most personal communications. And yet, how confident are you that they are as secure and private as possible? While there are mobile VPNs that can ensure traffic sent from your phone through the Internet is encrypted, let’s be frank — VPNs suck, especially on mobile. They add latency, drain your battery, and, in many cases, are run by companies with motivations that are opposite to actually keeping your data private and secure.

Announcing 1.1.1.1 with Warp

Today we're excited to announce what we began to plan more than two years ago: the 1.1.1.1 App with Warp performance and security technology. We built Warp from the ground up to thrive in the harsh conditions of the modern mobile Internet. It began with our acquisition of Neumob in November 2017. At the time, our CTO, John Graham-Cumming, wrote about how Neumob was part of our "Super Secret Master Plan." At the time he wrote:

"Ultimately, the Neumob software is easily extended to operate as a ‘VPN’ for mobile devices that can secure and accelerate all HTTP traffic from a mobile device (including normal web browsing and app API calls). Most VPN software, frankly, is awful. Using a VPN feels like a step backwards to the dial up era of obscure error messages, slow downs, and clunky software. It really doesn’t have to be that way."

That's the vision we've been working toward ever since: extending Cloudflare's global network — now within a few milliseconds of the vast majority of the world's population — to help fix the performance and security of the mobile Internet.

A VPN for People Who Don’t Know What V.P.N. Stands For

Technically, Warp is a VPN. However, we think the market for VPNs as it’s been imagined to date is severely limited. Imagine trying to convince a non-technical friend that they should install an app that will slow down their Internet and drain their battery so they can be a bit more secure. Good luck.

We built Warp because we’ve had those conversations with our loved ones too and they’ve not gone well. So we knew that we had to start with turning the weaknesses of other VPN solutions into strengths. Under the covers, Warp acts as a VPN. But now in the 1.1.1.1 App, if users decide to enable Warp, instead of just DNS queries being secured and optimized, all Internet traffic is secured and optimized. In other words, Warp is the VPN for people who don't know what V.P.N. stands for.

Secure All the Traffic…

This doesn't just apply to your web browser but to all apps running on your phone. Any unencrypted connections are encrypted automatically and by default. Warp respects end-to-end encryption and doesn’t require you to install a root certificate or give Cloudflare any way to see any encrypted Internet traffic we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Unfortunately, a lot of the Internet is still unencrypted. For that, Warp automatically adds encryption from your device to the edge of Cloudflare’s network — which isn’t perfect, but is all other VPNs do and it does address the largest threats typical Internet users face. One silver lining is that if you browse the unencrypted Internet through Warp, when it’s safe to do so, Cloudflare’s network can cache and compress content to improve performance and potentially decrease your data usage and mobile carrier bill.

…While Making It Faster and More Reliable

Security is table stakes. What really distinguishes Warp is performance and reliability. While other VPNs slow down the Internet, Warp incorporates all the work that the team from Neumob has done to improve mobile Internet performance. We’ve built Warp around a UDP-based protocol that is optimized for the mobile Internet. We also leveraged Cloudflare’s massive global network, allowing Warp to connect with servers within milliseconds of most the world’s Internet users. With our network’s direct peering connections and uncongested paths we can deliver a great experience around the world. Our tests have shown that Warp will often significantly increase Internet performance. Generally, the worse your network connection the better Warp should make your performance.

And reliability is improved as well. While Warp can’t eliminate mobile dead spots, the protocol is designed to recover from loss faster. That makes that spot where your phone loses signal on the train when you’re commuting in from work a bit less annoying.

We also knew it was critical that we ensure Warp doesn’t meaningfully increase your battery usage. We built Warp around WireGuard, a modern, efficient VPN protocol that is much more efficient than legacy VPN protocols. We’ve also worked to minimize any excess use of your phone’s radio through retransmits which, if you’ve ever been somewhere with spotty mobile coverage, you know can heat up your phone and quickly burn through your phone’s battery. Warp is designed to minimize that.

How Much Does It Cost?

Finally, we knew that if we really wanted Warp to be something that all our less-technical friends would use, then price couldn’t be a barrier to adoption. The basic version of Warp is included as an option with the 1.1.1.1 App for free.

We’re also working on a premium version of Warp — which we call Warp+ — that will be even faster by utilizing Cloudflare’s virtual private backbone and Argo technology. We will charge a low monthly fee for those people, like many of you reading this blog, who want even more speed. The cost of Warp+ will likely vary by region, priced in a way that ensures the fastest possible mobile experience is affordable to as many people as possible.

When John hinted more than two years ago that we wanted to build a VPN that didn't suck, that's exactly what we've been up to. But it's more than just the technology, it's also the policy of how we're going to run the network and who we're going to make the service accessible to.

What’s the Catch?

Let’s acknowledge that many corners of the consumer VPN industry are really awful so it’s a reasonable question whether we have some ulterior motive. That many VPN companies pretend to keep your data private and then sell it to help target you with advertising is, in a word, disgusting. That is not Cloudflare’s business model and it never will be. The 1.1.1.1 App with Warp will continue to have all the privacy protections that 1.1.1.1 launched with, including:

1. We don't write user-identifiable log data to disk;

2. We will never sell your browsing data or use it in any way to target you with advertising data;

3. Don’t need to provide any personal information — not your name, phone number, or email address — in order to use the 1.1.1.1 App with Warp; and

4. We will regularly hire outside auditors to ensure we're living up to these promises.

This Sounds Too Good To Be True

That’s exactly what I thought when I read about the launch of Gmail exactly 15 years ago today. At the time it was hard to believe an email service could exist with effectively no storage cap or fees. What I didn’t understand at the time was that Google had done such a good job figuring out how to store data cheaply and efficiently that what seemed impossible to the rest of the world seemed like a no-brainer to them. Of course, advertising is Google’s business model, it’s not Cloudflare’s, so it’s not a perfect analogy.

There are few companies that have the breadth, reach, scale, and flexibility of Cloudflare's network. We don’t believe there are any such companies that aren't primarily motivated by selling user data or advertising. We realized a few years back that providing a VPN service wouldn’t meaningfully change the costs of the network we're already running successfully. That meant if we could pull off the technology then we could afford to offer this service.

Hokey as it sounds, the primary reason we built Warp is that our mission is to help build a better Internet — and the mobile Internet wasn’t as fast or secure as it could be and VPNs all suck. Time and time again we've watched people sit around and talk about how the Internet could be better if someone would just act. We're in a position to act, and we've acted. We made encryption free for all our customers and doubled the size of the encrypted web in the process, we've pushed the adoption of IPv6, we've made DNSSEC easy, and we were the first to turn HTTP/2 up at scale.

This is our nature: find the biggest problems on the Internet and do the right thing to solve them. And, if you look at the biggest problem on the Internet today, it's that the mobile web is too insecure and too slow, and current VPN solutions come with massive performance penalties and, worse, often don’t respect users’ privacy.

Once we realized that building Warp was technically and financially possible, it really became a no-brainer for us. At Cloudflare we strive to build technologies for the entire Internet, not just the handful of fellow techies in Silicon Valley who find April Fools shenanigans amusing. Helping build a better Internet is what motivates the sort of great, empathetic, principled, and curious engineers we hire at Cloudflare.

Ok, Sure, But You’re Still a Profit-Seeking Company

Fair enough, and we think that the 1.1.1.1 App with Warp will be a good business for us. There are three primary ways this makes financial sense. The first, and most direct, is the aforementioned Warp+ premium service that you can upgrade to for even faster performance. Cloudflare launched our B2B service with a freemium model and it’s worked extremely well for us. We understand freemium and we are excited to extend our experience with it into the consumer space.

Second, we think there’s an exciting opportunity in the enterprise VPN space. While companies require their employees to install and use VPNs, even the next generation of cloud VPNs are pretty terrible. Their client software slows everything down and drains your battery. We think the best way to build the best enterprise VPN is to first build the best consumer VPN and let millions of users kick the tires. Imagine if you actually looked forward to logging in to your corporate VPN. If you're a company interested in working closely to realize that dream, don’t hesitate to reach out and we’ll let you in on our roadmap.

Finally, Cloudflare’s core business is about making our customers content and applications on the Internet fast and secure. While we strive for Warp to make the entire Internet fast, Cloudflare-powered sites and apps will be even faster still. By having software running on both sides of an Internet connection we can make significant optimizations that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Going forward, we plan to add local device differential compression (think Railgun on your phone), more advanced header compression, intelligently adaptive congestion control, and multipath routing. All those things are easier to provide when someone is accessing a Cloudflare customer through their phone running Warp. So the more people who install Warp, the more valuable Cloudflare’s core services become.

How Do I Sign Up?

We wanted to roll out Warp to the entire Internet on April 1, 2019 with no strings attached. Our Site Reliability Engineering team vetoed that idea. They reminded us that even Google, when they launched Gmail (also on April 1), curated the list of who could get on when. And, listening to them, that clearly makes sense. We want to make sure people have a great experience and our network scales well as we onboard everyone.

Truth be told, we’re also not quite ready. While our team has been working for months to get the new 1.1.1.1 App with Warp ready to launch, including working through the final hours before the launch, we just made the call that there are still too many edge cases that we’re not proud of to start rolling it out to users. Nothing we can’t solve, but it’s going to take a bit longer than we’d hoped. The great thing about a hard deadline like April 1 is that it motivates a team — and our whole team has been doing great work to get this ready — the challenging thing is that you can’t move it.

So, beginning today, what you can do is claim your place in line to be among the first to get Warp. If you already have the 1.1.1.1 App on your phone, you can update it through the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store. If you don’t yet have the 1.1.1.1 App you can download it for free from Apple or Google. Once you’ve done that you’ll see an option to claim your place in line for Warp. As we start onboarding people, your position in line will move up. When it’s your turn we’ll send you a notification and you’ll be able to enable Warp to experience a faster, more secure, more private Internet for yourself.

And, don't worry, if you'd like to keep using the 1.1.1.1 App for DNS performance and security only, that will remain the default for free for anyone who's already installed it. And, for future installs, you'll always be able to downgrade to that option for free if, for whatever reason, you don't want the benefits of Warp.

We expect that we’ll begin inviting people on the waitlist to try Warp over the coming weeks. And, assuming demand stays within our forecasts, hope to have it available to everyone on the waitlist by the end of July.

Helping Build a Better Internet

At Cloudflare our mission is to help build a better Internet. We take that mission very seriously, even on days when the rest of the tech industry is joking around. We’ve lived up to that mission for a significant portion of the world’s content creators. Our whole team is proud that today, for the first time, we’ve extended the scope of that mission meaningfully to the billions of other people who use the Internet every day.

Click to get your place in line for the 1.1.1.1 App with Warp for Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android.

Click here to learn about engineering jobs at Cloudflare.

And, yes, desktop versions are coming soon

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