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Easy Understanding of Web Protocols - HTTP and HTTPS

Last updated on Apr 25, 2024

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Easy Understanding of Web Protocols - HTTP and HTTPS

Do you know that 68% of internet users believe that current laws for protecting their rights are not good enough?

Every time Google introduces a new preference, the internet takes/ is forced to note. Something similar happened when Google announced that websites with SSL Certificate / HTTPS protocol will be preferred in search engine results. I will try to cover the fundamentals of HTTP and HTTPS protocols

Before we dive deeper into understanding about HTTP and HTTPS protocol, let’s try to understand the meaning of the word protocol. https and http protocol

What is a protocol?

A Protocol is a set of rules that we use for specific purposes. In the current scenario, when we are talking about protocols, it is about communication- the way we talk to each other. For instance, a newsreader speaks in English and because you understand English, you are able to understand. English is the protocol.

The moment the newsreader starts speaking in a language that you don't understand, the protocol beats its purpose. Thus, we need both the parties to agree to a set of rules for the communication to take place. The protocol, in this case, is for communication.

Now, talking about the web, in particular, multiple protocols are used to communicate. Primarily for end users, the most important and visible protocols are HTTP and HTTPS. Though there are many other protocols as well, HTTP and HTTPS protocols cater to most of the population.

What is HTTP?

HTTP is Hypertext transfer protocol. Simply put - Rules to sending and receiving text-based messages. As we all know, computers work in a language of 1's and 0's i.e. Binary language. Therefore, potentially every set of 1's and 0's construct something, it could be a word.

Let's say I want to write 'a'. Now, if 0 stands for 'a', 1 stands for 'b', and 01 stands for 'c', I can infer that a combination of 0's and 1's can construct a word as well. In this case, the text is already constructed and is being sent on the wire. The computer works on many languages - pure binary, text and some other formats like byte codes. Here, what is being transferred is text. I am emphasizing on 'text' because this text is interpreted by the browser and the moment browser interprets it, it becomes hypertext, and the protocol that transfers the text is referred to as hypertext transfer protocol - HTTP.

Using HTTP, you can definitely transfer images and text and even sound, but not videos.

What is HTTPS?

Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) is the secure version of HTTP, the protocol over which data is sent between your browser and the website that you are connected to. The 'S' at the end of HTTPS stands for 'Secure'. It means all communications between your browser and the website are encrypted. HTTPS is often used to protect highly confidential online transactions like online banking and online shopping order forms.

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What is the importance of HTTPS?

We agreed upon the fact that what is being transferred from one point to another is text. To understand why HTTPS protocol, we first should know how wi-fi routers function.Let's say you are at an airport and you are connecting to the wi-fi which is the property of a third party. Now, when you are communicating over HTTP, the text is being transferred by their router. And if I go to a low version of the router, I can comfortably check and read the text that is being transferred. There could be a password that I can use to login to your bank site and do a fraudulent transaction!. Point being - this is fundamentally insecure. This is called the man in the middle attack. 

And this why do we need https when HTTP seems to suffice.

Now, to save our data from such attacks, we need to encrypt that data.


Understanding web protocols

In fact, in order to implement an advanced secure connection for users, in 2014 the search engine giant announced HTTPS as a ranking signal. And this how various industries have responded back to it.

https and http protocol

Encryption and Encryption Levels

Encryption is simple terms is a hiding information. There are various ways to do so. You must have heard these terms - 128 bit encrypt HTTPS and 64 bit encrypt HTTPS. 128-bit Encrypt is a high encryption technique and it's very difficult to decrypt (decode). In the case of HTTPS when the data is being transferred on the wires, the man in the middle may still know what is being transferred, but can not make sense out of it as the data is encrypted. Only the browser will decrypt it and show it, and the server will decrypt it and use it for transactions.

For the curious one’s - There also happens to be a movie on encryption, Imitation Games. The entire plot of the movie was based on decrypting the German codes, which were to reform the entire course of the war. Those codes were very difficult to decrypt, but how Alan Turing finally does it.

How does this happens when you request to open a site in a browser?

To understand this, let us imagine that there is one Server that resides somewhere serving all the request for one domain. Now, when I type xyz.com, it's a server that I am connecting to, taking data from and rendering it in the browser.

To simplify further, imagine a domain name google.com being broadcasted from one server. There resides one machine somewhere connected to the internet and the moment you say google.com in your browser, you connect to that machine, pick data from that machine and show it in the browser. If you have saved your picture, it gets uploaded to that machine. Now, if you want to see that picture, you go to google.com/show-me-my-picture, which transfers the picture from the machine to the browser to be shown to you.

This process cannot be completed if I am not able to reach that particular machine. For this to happen, every machine has an address (the way we have a mobile number), it is called the IP address and every domain has an IP map. The moment you enter this user-friendly URL - google.com, it converts this username into IP and connects to the router to reach out to that particular service line associated with this URL. Once it reaches to the server, it raises a request of what is needed. It is represented as 'google.com/s=', helping the user understand the request made by him. As a result, the server gives him the results according to your request, which gets rendered to the browser.

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What happens when a request for a website URL is made which is on HTTP protocol?

As the first step, it is the job of HTTP to find out the server and once the communication route is established, the server sends a text to the browser. This text could either be in its pure form or encrypted form, which is then rendered by the browser or used for whatever purpose it has to it has to be used.

There also happens to be a movie on encryption- Imitation Games. The entire plot of the movie was based on decrypting the German codes by the protagonists, which were to reform the entire course of the war. Those codes were very difficult to decrypt, but Alan Turing finally does it.

As there should be a measurement of this difficulty quotient, we interpret that, higher the number of bits, more difficult it is to decrypt. However, it only increases the level of complexity making it very difficult to decrypt, but not impossible.

Deciding between HTTP and HTTPS

understanding the importance of HTTPS protocol

Source: http://en.flossmanuals.net/basic-internet-security/_all/

Anything and everything is personal. If you are searching for “How to install SSL Certificate”, that search would be private to you, isn't it? Whether you are browsing or looking for a product, reading an article, you generally do not want others to know about it. As an end user, I would want to keep it as private. There are things I might not want to keep private and for those, I can use HTTP. However, for personal information, banks and transnational information, HTTPS has become a standard.

HTTPS sounds great. What else should you know about it?

There is no denying to the fact that privacy has a cost to it. There are a couple of cons-

  1. HTTPS requests take more time to process.
  2. Because it needs more time to process, it needs more hardware - the server that you are utilizing. This also means additional cost

Whereas, for HTTP you use lesser energy as compared to HTTPS as the communication happens faster (without encryption and decryption). However, I will not refer to it as a limitation for HTTPS. It is highly subjective and personal, I consider it a very low cost that we pay to ensure our privacy.

The idea of building a secure web has been around for a while. Building a Secure web as an agenda is being driven by likes of Google, Facebook, Akamai and so forth as I had mentioned this is primarily because of the following two reasons -

  1. User Data and User Privacy: Using HTTPS ensures that you as a developer care value user data, user’s privacy, and its security.
  2. Protecting Your Data: As a developer, we would never want to give away our critical data to malicious participants

What is at stake if you don’t move to HTTPS?

https and http protocol

Here are some of the features which are now only available on HTTPS.

  • GeoLocation: You can no longer seek user’s location if you are on HTTP
  • Web Push Notification: Push Notifications are only available on HTTPS.  
  • GetUserMedia: You can no longer trigger permissions of using user’s camera/ microphone if you are on HTTP
  • HTTP/2: All major browsers, support HTTP/2 for HTTPS now.

Soon to be removed:

  • AppCache: A feature that allows developers to cache content in the browser and make it available for offline viewing, will soon only be restricted to HTTPS sites.
  • Encrypted Media Extensions: Ability to manage playback of protected content.

From both a security and user experience point of view, the type of certificate you choose can have an impact. Consider how different certificates alter how your website appears in the web browser address bar.

https and http protocol

Some Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the “Cost” for migrating website with X user traction from HTTP to HTTPS?

It is a typical question, but I am afraid there is no answer to this. The cost will depend on nothing but the amount of data you are transferring. There are a lot of variables that will influence the cost, not just the user traction,. Here if we are talking about banking data, you need to bear the cost, however significant or insignificant it might be.

The entire cost calculation itself is very subjective and I don't really have a number for this.

  • Does being on HTTPS impact the load time of your website?

Yes, it does absolutely!

  • Why do web push notifications need SSL?

Yes, web push notifications have been there for a while and can only work on websites that are on HTTPS protocol. Before we answer that question, let us understand how this really functions -

The reason for the web push notifications to work only on the HTTPS protocol is - the data that is pushed and received is a private data. To ensure the privacy, it is supported only on HTTPS protocol.

Notifications are fundamentally personal to users. We definitely want this communication to be secure. In this specific case, the server is able to ping the browser.

When the book of the Protocols was written, it was mentioned that HTTP is a Connection-Less-Protocol. It means that the server sitting in the data center can not do anything until the browser raises/makes a request. And once the response is given, the browser will decide if it wants to do something about it or not. It is entirely the browser's decision, the server can not command the browser to take actions. The idea of a random server controlling your browser or your screen/machine is scary. It is to prevent this possibility, HTTP is and continues to be a Connection-Less-Protocol.

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Popular Misconceptions or Myths

  • My website is not transactional in nature. Why do I need to be on HTTPS protocol?
  • SSL Certificates are expensive
  • Migrating to HTTPS protocol from HTTP will impact website performance drastically
  • Impact on other 3rd parties.

Watch this video from the Progressive Web App Summit to bust all these misconceptions

More about Web Push Notifications

Interestingly, in the case of web push notifications, actually, the server is pushing data to the browser. But it is saved in a manner that the server is only sending a blip to the browser intimating that there is a notification waiting for you - that's it. Here is a step by step process of what actually happens -

  • Server sends a blip to the browser
  • Then the protocol kicks in, asking for data. This data could be very personalized. I might be sending you a message - 'You have transacted XX amount'.
  • Notification is fetched by the service worker and displayed to the end user.

If I have to decide the protocol today, which has the potential to be extremely personalized (as notifications are personalized), I would definitely like to make it secure.

Can The Web Push work on HTTP? Of course.

Should it work on HTTP? Strict No No.

The idea behind Service-Worker

There is another angle to it - to keep the sanity of HTTP, we have the service workers. As the server is merely sending a blip that you have a notification. It switches to the old conventional connectionless protocol and asks what do I need to show and it shows it. So, the server doesn't push data. It just tells them that there is something. Yes, it becomes a bit complicated, but those who understand service worker, know that it meant to keep HTTP as sacred as it was supposed to be.

Some Handy Resources

Read our next post to start migrating from HTTP to HTTPS protocol, by choosing the right SSL certificate provider for your domain.

Understanding HTTP HTTPS protocols with Sachin Grover

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Ruchika Sharma
Ruchika Sharma
Ruchika Sharma, the Product Marketer at iZooto is an Art Lover & Creative Writer who likes to sketch in her free time. She dreams of travelling the world someday, all by herself. To connect with her, follow her on Twitter: @Sh_ruchika

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