We announced support for HTTP/3, the successor to HTTP/2 during Cloudflare’s birthday week last year. Our goal is and has always been to help build a better Internet. Collaborating on standards is a big part of that, and we're very fortunate to do that here.

Even though HTTP/3 is still in draft status, we've seen a lot of interest from our users. So far, over 113,000 zones have activated HTTP/3 and, if you are using an experimental browser those zones can be accessed using the new protocol! It's been great seeing so many people enable HTTP/3: having real websites accessible through HTTP/3 means browsers have more diverse properties to test against.

When we launched support for HTTP/3, we did so in partnership with Google, who simultaneously launched experimental support in Google Chrome. Since then, we've seen more browsers add experimental support: Firefox to their nightly builds, other Chromium-based browsers such as Opera and Microsoft Edge through the underlying Chrome browser engine, and Safari via their technology preview. We closely follow these developments and partner wherever we can help; having a large network with many sites that have HTTP/3 enabled gives browser implementers an excellent testbed against which to try out code.

So, what's the status and where are we now?

The IETF standardization process develops protocols as a series of document draft versions with the ultimate aim of producing a final draft version that is ready to be marked as an RFC. The members of the QUIC Working Group collaborate on analyzing, implementing and interoperating the specification in order to find things that don't work quite right. We launched with support for Draft-23 for HTTP/3 and have since kept up with each new draft, with 27 being the latest at time of writing. With each draft the group improves the quality of the QUIC definition and gets closer to "rough consensus" about how it behaves. In order to avoid a perpetual state of analysis paralysis and endless tweaking, the bar for proposing changes to the specification has been increasing with each new draft. This means that changes between versions are smaller, and that a final RFC should closely match the protocol that we've been running in production.

Benefits

One of the main touted advantages of HTTP/3 is increased performance, specifically around fetching multiple objects simultaneously. With HTTP/2, any interruption (packet loss) in the TCP connection blocks all streams (Head of line blocking). Because HTTP/3 is UDP-based, if a packet gets dropped that only interrupts that one stream, not all of them.

In addition, HTTP/3 offers 0-RTT support, which means that subsequent connections can start up much faster by eliminating the TLS acknowledgement from the server when setting up the connection. This means the client can start requesting data much faster than with a full TLS negotiation, meaning the website starts loading earlier.

The following illustrates the packet loss and its impact: HTTP/2 multiplexing two requests . A request comes over HTTP/2 from the client to the server requesting two resources (we’ve colored the requests and their associated responses green and yellow). The responses are broken up into multiple packets and, alas, a packet is lost so both requests are held up.

The above shows HTTP/3 multiplexing 2 requests. A packet is lost that affects the yellow response but the green one proceeds just fine.

Improvements in session startup mean that ‘connections’ to servers start much faster, which means the browser starts to see data more quickly. We were curious to see how much of an improvement, so we ran some tests. To measure the improvement resulting from 0-RTT support, we ran some benchmarks measuring time to first byte (TTFB). On average, with HTTP/3 we see the first byte appearing after 176ms. With HTTP/2 we see 201ms, meaning HTTP/3 is already performing 12.4% better!

Interestingly, not every aspect of the protocol is governed by the drafts or RFC. Implementation choices can affect performance, such as efficient packet transmission and choice of congestion control algorithm. Congestion control is a technique your computer and server use to adapt to overloaded networks: by dropping packets, transmission is subsequently throttled. Because QUIC is a new protocol, getting the congestion control design and implementation right requires experimentation and tuning.

In order to provide a safe and simple starting point, the Loss Detection and Congestion Control specification recommends the Reno algorithm but allows endpoints to choose any algorithm they might like.  We started with New Reno but we know from experience that we can get better performance with something else. We have recently moved to CUBIC and on our network with larger size transfers and packet loss, CUBIC shows improvement over New Reno. Stay tuned for more details in future.

For our existing HTTP/2 stack, we currently support BBR v1 (TCP). This means that in our tests, we’re not performing an exact apples-to-apples comparison as these congestion control algorithms will behave differently for smaller vs larger transfers. That being said, we can already see a speedup in smaller websites using HTTP/3 when compared to HTTP/2. With larger zones, the improved congestion control of our tuned HTTP/2 stack shines in performance.

For a small test page of 15KB, HTTP/3 takes an average of 443ms to load compared to 458ms for HTTP/2. However, once we increase the page size to 1MB that advantage disappears: HTTP/3 is just slightly slower than HTTP/2 on our network today, taking 2.33s to load versus 2.30s.

Synthetic benchmarks are interesting, but we wanted to know how HTTP/3 would perform in the real world.

To measure, we wanted a third party that could load websites on our network, mimicking a browser. WebPageTest is a common framework that is used to measure the page load time, with nice waterfall charts. For analyzing the backend, we used our in-house Browser Insights, to capture timings as our edge sees it. We then tied both pieces together with bits of automation.

As a test case we decided to use this very blog for our performance monitoring. We configured our own instances of WebPageTest spread over the world to load these sites over both HTTP/2 and HTTP/3. We also enabled HTTP/3 and Browser Insights. So, every time our test scripts kickoff a webpage test with an HTTP/3 supported browser loading the page, browser analytics report the data back. Rinse and repeat for HTTP/2 to be able to compare.

The following graph shows the page load time for a real world page -- blog.cloudflare.com, to compare the performance of HTTP/3 and HTTP/2. We have these performance measurements running from different geographical locations.

As you can see, HTTP/3 performance still trails HTTP/2 performance, by about 1-4% on average in North America and similar results are seen in Europe, Asia and South America. We suspect this could be due to the difference in congestion algorithms: HTTP/2 on BBR v1 vs. HTTP/3 on CUBIC. In the future, we’ll work to support the same congestion algorithm on both to get a more accurate apples-to-apples comparison.

Conclusion

Overall, we’re very excited to be allowed to help push this standard forward. Our implementation is holding up well, offering better performance in some cases and at worst similar to HTTP/2. As the standard finalizes, we’re looking forward to seeing browsers add support for HTTP/3 in mainstream versions. As for us, we continue to support the latest drafts while at the same time looking for more ways to leverage HTTP/3 to get even better performance, be it congestion tuning, prioritization or system capacity (CPU and raw network throughput).

In the meantime, if you’d like to try it out, just enable HTTP/3 on our dashboard and download a nightly version of one of the major browsers. Instructions on how to enable HTTP/3 can be found on our developer documentation.