Internet DRAFT - draft-moore-using-http


Network Working Group                                        Keith Moore
Internet-Draft                                   University of Tennessee
16 October 2000
Expires: 16 April 2001

         On the use of HTTP as a Substrate for Other Protocols


     This document is an Internet-Draft and is in full conformance with
all provisions of Section 10 of RFC2026.

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     Recently there has been widespread interest in using Hypertext
Transport Protocol (HTTP) as a substrate for other applications-level
protocols.  This document recommends technical particulars of such use,
including use of default ports, URL schemes, and HTTP security

1. Introduction

     Recently there has been widespread interest in using Hypertext
Transport Protocol (HTTP) [1] as a substrate for other applications-
level protocols.  Various reasons cited for this interest have included:

o    familiarity and mindshare,

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o    compatibility with widely deployed browsers,

o    ability to reuse existing servers and client libraries,

o    ease of prototyping servers using CGI scripts and similar extension

o    ability to use existing security mechanisms such as HTTP digest
     authentication [2] and SSL or TLS [3],

o    the ability of HTTP to traverse firewalls, and

o    cases where a server often needs to support HTTP anyway.

     The Internet community has a long tradition of protocol reuse,
dating back to the use of Telnet [4] as a substrate for FTP [5] and SMTP
[6].  However, the recent interest in layering new protocols over HTTP
has raised a number of questions when such use is appropriate, and the
proper way to use HTTP in contexts where it is appropriate.
Specifically, for a given application that is layered on top of HTTP:

o    Should the application use a different port than the HTTP default
     of 80?

o    Should the application use traditional HTTP methods (GET, POST,
     etc.) or should it define new methods?

o    Should the application use http: URLs or define its own prefix?

o    Should the application define its own MIME-types, or use something
     that already exists (like registering a new type of MIME-directory

     This memo recommends certain design decisions in answer to these

     This memo is intended as advice and recommendation for protocol
designers, working groups, implementors, and IESG, rather than as a
strict set of rules which must be adhered to in all cases.  Accordingly,
the capitalized key words defined in RFC 2119, which are intended to
indicate conformance to a specification, are not used in this memo.

2. Issues Regarding the Design Choice to use HTTP

     Despite the advantages listed above, it's worth asking the question
as to whether HTTP should be used at all, or whether the entire HTTP
protocol should be used.

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2.1 Complexity

     HTTP started out as a simple protocol, but quickly became much more
complex due to the addition of several features unanticipated by its
original design.  These features include persistent connections, byte
ranges, content negotiation, and cache support.  All of these are useful
for traditional web applications but may not be useful for the layered
application.  The need to support (or circumvent) these features can add
additional complexity to the design and implementation of a protocol
layered on top of HTTP.  Even when HTTP can be "profiled" to minimize
implementation overhead, the effort of specifying such a profile might
be more than the effort of specifying a purpose-built protocol which is
better suited to the task at hand.  Even if existing HTTP client and
server code can often be re-used, the additional complexity of HTTP over
a purpose-built protocol can increase the number of interoperability

2.2 Overhead

     Further, although HTTP can be used as the transport for a "remote
procedure call" paradigm, HTTP's protocol overhead, along with the
connection setup overhead of TCP, can make HTTP a poor choice.  A
protocol based on UDP, or with both UDP and TCP variants, should be
considered if the payloads are very likely to be small (less than a few
hundred bytes) for the foreseeable future.  This is especially true if
the protocol might be heavily used, or if it might be used over slow or
expensive links.

     On the other hand, the connection setup overhead can become
negligible if the layered protocol can utilize HTTP/1.1's persistent
connections, and if the same client and server are likely to perform
several transactions during the time the HTTP connection is open.

2.3 Security

     Although HTTP appears at first glance to be one of the few "mature"
Internet protocols that can provide good security, there are many
applications for which neither HTTP's digest authentication nor TLS are
sufficient by themselves.

     Digest authentication requires a secret (e.g. a password) to be
shared between client and server.  This further requires that each
client know the secret to be used with each server, but it does not
provide any means of securely transmitting such secrets between the
parties.  Shared secrets can work fine for small groups where everyone
is physically co-located; they don't work as well for large or dispersed
communities of users.  Further, if the server is compromised a large
number of secrets may be exposed, which is especially dangerous if the

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same secret (or password) is used for several applications.  (Similar
concerns exist with TLS based clients or servers - if a public key is
compromised then the attacker can impersonate the party whose key it

     TLS and its predecessor SSL were originally designed to
authenticate web servers to clients, so that a user could be assured
(for example) that his credit card number was not being sent to an
imposter.  However, many applications need to authenticate clients to
servers, or to provide mutual authentication of client and server.  TLS
does have a capability to provide authentication in each direction, but
such authentication may or may not be suitable for a particular

     Web browsers which support TLS or SSL are typically shipped with
the public keys of several certificate authorities (CAs) "wired in" so
that they can verify the identity of any server whose public key was
signed by one of those CAs.  For this to work well, every secure web
server's public key has to be signed by one of the CAs whose keys are
wired into popular browsers.  This deployment model works when there are
a (relatively) small number of servers whose identities can be verified,
and their public keys signed, by the small number of CAs whose keys are
included in a small number of different browsers.

     This scheme does not work as well to authenticate millions of
potential clients to servers.  It would take a much larger number of CAs
to do the job, each of which would need to be trusted by browser vendors
(and by users of those browsers), and each of those CA's keys would need
to be "wired into" popular browsers.  Those CAs would also have a more
difficult time verifying the identities of ordinary users than they do
in verifying the identities of commercial and other enterprises that
need to run secure web servers.

     Also, in a situation where there were a large number of clients
authenticating with TLS, it seems unlikely that there would be a set of
CAs whose keys were trusted by every server.  A client that potentially
needed to authenticate to multiple servers would therefore need to be
configured as to which key to use with which server when attempting to
establish a secure connection to the server.

     For the reasons stated above, client authentication is rarely used
with TLS.  A common technique is to use TLS to authenticate the server
to the client and to establish a private channel, and for the client to
authenticate to the server using some other means - for example, a
username and password using HTTP basic or digest authentication.

     For any application that requires privacy, the 40-bit ciphersuites
provided by some SSL implementations (to conform to outdated US export

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regulations or to regulations on the use or export of cryptography in
other countries) are unsuitable.  Even 56-bit DES encryption, which is
required of conforming TLS implementations, has been broken in a matter
of days with a modest investment in resources.  So if TLS is chosen it
may be necessary to discourage use of small key lengths, or of weak
ciphersuites, in order to provide adequate privacy assurance.  If TLS is
used to provide privacy for passwords sent by clients then it is
especially important to support longer keys.

     None of the above should be taken to mean that either digest
authentication or TLS are generally inferior to other authentication
systems, or that they are unsuitable for use in other applications
besides HTTP.  Many of the limitations of TLS and digest authentication
also apply to other authentication and privacy systems.  The point here
is that neither TLS nor digest authentication is a "magic pixie dust"
solution to authentication or privacy.  In every case, an application's
designers must carefully determine the application's users' requirements
for authentication and privacy before choosing an authentication or
privacy mechanism.

     Note also that TLS can be used with other TCP-based protocols, and
there are SASL [7] mechanisms similar to HTTP's digest authentication.
So it is not necessary to use HTTP in order to benefit from either TLS
or digest-like authentication.  However, HTTP APIs may already support
TLS and/or digest.

2.4 Compatibility with Proxies, Firewalls, and NATs

     One oft-cited reason for the use of HTTP is its ability to pass
through proxies, firewalls, or network address translators (NATs).  One
unfortunate consequence of firewalls and NATs is that they make it
harder to deploy new Internet applications, by requiring explicit
permission (or even a software upgrade) to accommodate each new
protocol.  The existence of firewalls and NATs creates a strong
incentive for protocol designers to layer new applications on top of
existing protocols, including HTTP.

     However, if a site's firewall prevents the use of unknown
protocols, this is presumably a conscious policy decision on the part of
the firewall administrator.  While it is arguable that such policies are
of limited value in enhancing security, this is beside the point - well-
known port numbers are quite useful for a variety of purposes, and the
overloading of port numbers erodes this utility.  Attempting to
circumvent a site's security policy is not an acceptable justification
for doing so.

     It would be useful to establish guidelines for "firewall-friendly"
protocols, to make it easier for existing firewalls to be compatible

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with new protocols.

2.5 Questions to be asked when considering use of HTTP

o    When considering payload size and traffic patterns, is HTTP an
     appropriate transport for the anticipated use of this protocol?

     (In other words: will the payload size be worth the overhead asso-
     ciated with TCP and HTTP?  Or will the application be able to make
     use of HTTP persistent connections to amortize the cost of that
     overhead over several requests?)

o    Is this new protocol usable by existing web browsers without

     (for example: Is the request transmitted as if it were a filled-in
     HTML form?  Is the response which is returned viewable from a web
     browser, say as HTML?)

o    Are the existing HTTP security mechanisms appropriate for the new

o    Are HTTP status codes and the HTTP status code paradigm suitable
     for this application?  (see section 8)

o    Does the server for this application need to support HTTP anyway?

3. Issues Regarding Reuse of Port 80

     IANA has reserved TCP port number 80 for use by HTTP.  It would not
be appropriate for a substantially new service, even one which uses HTTP
as a substrate, to usurp port 80 from its traditional use.   A new use
of HTTP might be considered a "substantially new service", thus
requiring a new port, if any of the following are true:

o    The "new service" and traditional HTTP service are likely to
     reference different sets of data, even when they both operate on
     the same host.

o    There is a good reason for the "new service" to be implemented by a
     separate server process, or separate code, than traditional HTTP
     service on the same host, at least on some platforms.

o    There is a good reason to want to easily distinguish the traffic of
     the "new service" from traditional HTTP, e.g. for the purposes of
     firewall access control or traffic analysis.

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o    If none of the above are true, it is arguable that the new use of
     HTTP is an "extension" to traditional HTTP, rather than a "new
     service".  Extensions to HTTP which share data with traditional
     HTTP services should probably define new HTTP methods to describe
     those extensions, rather than using separate ports.  If separate
     ports are used, there is no way for a client to know whether they
     are separate services or different ways of accessing the same
     underlying service.

4. Issues Regarding Reuse of the http: Scheme in URLs

     A number of different URL schemes are in widespread use and many
more are in the process of being standardized.  In practice, the URL
scheme not only serves as a "tag" to govern the interpretation of the
remaining portion of the URL, it also provides coarse identification of
the kind of resource or service which is being accessed.  For example,
web browsers typically provide a different response when a user mouse-
clicks on an "http" URL, than when the user clicks on a "mailto" URL.

     Some criteria that might be used in making this determination are:

o    Whether this URL scheme is likely to become widely used, versus
     used only in limited communities or by private agreement.

o    Whether a new "default port" is needed.  If reuse of port 80 is not
     appropriate (see above), a new "default port" is needed.  A new
     default port in turn requires that a new URL scheme be registered
     if that URL scheme is expected to be widely used.  Explicit port
     numbers in URLs are regarded as an "escape hatch", not something
     for use in ordinary circumstances.

o    Whether use of the new service is likely to require a substantially
     different setup or protocol interaction with the server, than
     ordinary HTTP service.  This could include the need to request a
     different type of service from the network, or to reserve
     bandwidth, or to present different TLS authentication credentials
     to the server, or different kind of server provisioning, or any
     number of other needs.

o    Whether user interfaces (such as web browsers) are likely to be
     able to exploit the difference in the URL prefix to produce a
     significant improvement in usability.

     According to the rules in [8] the "http:" URI is part of the "IETF
Tree" for URL scheme names, and IETF is the maintainer of the "IETF
Tree".  Since IESG is the decision-making body for IETF, IESG has the
authority to determine whether a resource accessed by a protocol that is
layered on top of HTTP, should use http: or some other URL prefix.

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     Note that the convention of appending an "s" to the URL scheme to
mean "use TLS or SSL" (as in "http:" vs "https:") is nonstandard and
should not be propagated.  For most applications, a single "use TLS or
SSL" bit is not sufficient to adequately convey the information that a
client needs to authenticate itself to a server, even if it has the
proper credentials.  Authentication or other connection setup
information should be communicated in URL parameters, rather than in the
URL prefix.

5. Issues regarding use of MIME media types

     Since HTTP uses the MIME media type system [9] to label its
payload, many applications which layer on HTTP will need to define, or
select, MIME media types for use by that application.  Especially when
using a multipart structure, the choice of media types requires careful
consideration.  In particular:

o    Should some existing framework be used, such as text/directory
     [10], or XML [11,12], or should the new content-types be built from
     scratch?  Just as with HTTP, it's useful if code can be reused, but
     protocol designers should not be over-eager to incorporate a gen-
     eral but complex framework into a new protocol.  Experience with
     ASN.1, for example, suggests that the advantage of using a general
     framework may not be worth the cost.

o    Should MIME multipart or message types be allowed?  This can be an
     advantage if it is desirable to incorporate (for example) the mul-
     tipart/alternative construct or the MIME security framework.  On
     the other hand, these constructs were designed specifically for use
     in store-and-forward electronic mail systems, and other mechanisms
     be appropriate for the application being considered.

     The point here is that a decision to use MIME content-type names to
     describe protocol payloads (which is generally desirable if the
     same payloads may appear in other applications) does not imply that
     the application must accept arbitrary MIME content-types, including
     MIME multipart or security mechanisms.  Nor does it imply that the
     application must use MIME syntax or that it must recognize or even
     tolerate existing MIME header fields.

o    If the same payload is likely to be sent over electronic mail, the
     differences between HTTP encoding of the payload and email encoding
     of the payload should be minimized.  Ideally, there should be no
     differences in the "canonical form" used in the two environments.
     Text/* media types can be problematic in this regard because MIME
     email requires CRLF for line endings of text/* body parts, where
     HTTP traditionally uses LF only.

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o    A MIME content-type label describes the nature of the object being
     labeled. It does not describe, and should not be used to describe,
     the semantics which should be applied when the object is received.
     For instance, the transmission of an object with a particular con-
     tent-type using HTTP POST, should not be taken as a request for
     some operation based solely on the type . The request should be
     separate from the content-type label and it should be explicit.

     When it is necessary for a protocol layered on HTTP to allow dif-
     ferent operations on the same type of object, this can be communi-
     cated in a number of different ways:  HTTP methods, HTTP request-
     URI, HTTP request headers, the MIME Content-Disposition header
     field, or as part of the payload.

6. Issues Regarding Existing vs. New HTTP Methods

     It has been suggested that a new service layered on top of HTTP
should define one or more new HTTP methods, rather than allocating a new
port.  The use of new methods may be appropriate, but is not sufficient
in all cases.  The definition of one or more new methods for use in a
new protocol, does not by itself alleviate the need for use of a new
port, or a new URL type.

7. Issues regarding reuse of HTTP client, server, and proxy code

     As mentioned earlier, one of the primary reasons for the use of
HTTP as a substrate for new protocols, is to allow reuse of existing
HTTP client, server, or proxy code.  However, HTTP was not designed for
such layering.  Existing HTTP client and code may have "http"
assumptions wired into them.  For instance, client libraries and proxies
may expect "http:" URLs, and clients and servers may send (and expect)
"HTTP/1.1", in requests and responses, as opposed to the name of the
layered protocol and its version number.

     Existing client libraries may not understand new URL types.  In
order to get a new HTTP-layered application client to work with an
existing client library, it may be necessary for the application to
convert its URLs to an "http equivalent" form.  For instance, if service
"xyz" is layered on top of HTTP using port ###, the xyz client may need,
when invoking an HTTP client library, to translate its URLs from
"xyz://host/something" format to "http://host:###/something" for the
purpose of calling that library.  This should be done ONLY when calling
the HTTP client library - such URLs should not be used in other parts of
the protocol, nor should they be exposed to users.

     Note that when a client is sending requests directly to an origin
server, the URL prefix ("http:") is not normally sent.  So translating
xyz: URLs to http: URLs when calling the client library should not

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actually cause http: URLs to be sent over the wire.  But when the same
client is sending requests to a proxy server, the client will normally
send the entire URL (including the http: prefix) in those requests.  The
proxy will remove the http: prefix when the request is communicated to
the origin server.

     Existing HTTP client libraries and servers will transmit "HTTP/1.1"
(or a different version) in requests and responses.  To facilitate reuse
of such libraries and servers by a new protocol, such a protocol may
therefore need to transmit and accept "HTTP/1.1" rather than its own
protocol name and version number.   Designers of protocols which are
layered on top of HTTP should explicitly choose whether or not to accept
"HTTP/1.1" in protocol exchanges.

     For certain applications it may be necessary to require or limit
use of certain HTTP features, for example, to defeat caching of
responses by proxies.  Each protocol layered on HTTP must therefore
specify the specific way that HTTP will be used, and in particular, how
the client and server should interact with HTTP proxies.

8.  Issues regarding use of HTTP status codes

     HTTP's three-digit status codes were designed for use with
traditional HTTP applications (e.g. document retrieval, forms-based
queries), and are unlikely to be suitable to communicate the specifics
of errors encountered in dissimilar applications.  Even when it seems
like there is a close match between HTTP status codes and the codes
needed by the application, experience with reuse of other protocols
indicates that subtle variations in usage are likely; and that this is
likely to degrade interoperability of both the original protocol (in
this case HTTP) and any layered applications.

     HTTP status codes therefore should not be used to indicate subtle
errors of layered applications.  At most, the "generic" HTTP codes 200
(for complete success) and 500 (for complete failure) should be used to
indicate errors resulting from the content of the request message-body.
Under certain circumstances, additional detail about the nature of the
error can then be included in the response message-body.  Other status
codes than 200 or 500 should only appear if the error was detected by
the HTTP server or by an intermediary.

     A layered application should not define new HTTP status codes.  The
set of available status codes is small, conflicts in code assignment
between different layered applications are likely, and they may be
needed by future versions of, or extensions to, mainstream HTTP.

     Use of HTTP's error codes is problematic when the layered
application does not share same notion of success or failure as HTTP.

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The problem exists when the client does not connect directly to the
origin server, but via one or more HTTP caches or proxies.  (Since the
ability of HTTP to communicate through intermediaries is often the
primary motivation for reusing HTTP, the ability of the application to
operate in the presence of such intermediaries is considered very
important.)  Such caches and proxies will interpret HTTP's error codes
and may take additional action based on those codes.  For instance, on
receipt of a 200 error code from an origin server (and under other
appropriate conditions) a proxy may cache the response and re-issue it
in response to a similar request.  Or a proxy may modify the result of a
request which returns a 500 error code in order to add a "helpful" error
message.  Other response codes may produce other behaviors.

     A few guidelines are therefore in order:

o    A layered application should use appropriate HTTP error codes to
     report errors resulting from information in the HTTP request-line
     and header fields associated with the request.  This request
     information is part of the HTTP protocol and errors which are
     associated with that information should therefore be reported using
     HTTP protocol mechanisms.

o    A layered application for which all errors resulting from the
     message-body can be classified as either "complete success" or
     "complete failure" may use 200 and 500 for those conditions,
     respectively.  However, the specification for such an application
     must define the mechanism which ensures that its successful (200)
     responses are not cached by intermediaries, or demonstrate that
     such caching will do no harm; and it must be able to operate even
     if the message-body of an error (500) response is not transmitted
     back to the client intact.

o    A layered application may return a 200 response code for both
     successfully processed requests and errors resulting from the
     request message-body (but not from the request headers).  Such an
     application must return its error code as part of the response
     message body, and the specification for that application protocol
     must define the mechanism by which the application ensures that its
     responses are not cached by intermediaries.  In this case a
     response other than 200 should be used only to indicate errors
     with, or the status of, the HTTP protocol layer (including the
     request headers), or to indicate the inability of the HTTP server
     to communicate with the application server.

o    A layered application which cannot operate in the presence of
     intermediaries or proxies that cache and/or alter error responses,
     should not use HTTP as a substrate.

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9. Summary of recommendations regarding reuse of HTTP

1.   All protocols should provide adequate security.  The security needs
     of a particular application will vary widely depending on the
     application and its anticipated use environment.  Merely using HTTP
     and/or TLS as a substrate for a protocol does not automatically
     provide adequate security for all environments, nor does it relieve
     the protocol developers of the need to analyze security
     considerations for their particular application.

2.   New protocols - including but not limited to those using HTTP -
     should not attempt to circumvent users' firewall policies,
     particularly by masquerading as existing protocols.  "Substantially
     new services" should not reuse existing ports.

3.   In general, new protocols or services should not reuse http: or
     other URL schemes.

4.   Each new protocol specification that uses HTTP as a substrate
     should describe the specific way that HTTP is to be used by that
     protocol, including how the client and server interact with

5.   New services should follow the guidelines in section 8 regarding
     use of HTTP status codes.

10. Security Considerations

     Much of this document is about security.  Section 2.3 discusses
whether HTTP security is adequate for the needs of a particular
application, section 2.4 discusses interactions between new HTTP-based
protocols and firewalls, section 3 discusses use of separate ports so
that firewalls are not circumvented, and section 4 discusses the
inadequacy of the "s" suffix of a URL prefix for specifying security

11. Author's address

Keith Moore
University of Tennessee Computer Science Department
1122 Volunteer Blvd, Suite 203
Knoxville TN, 37996-3450

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12. References

[1]  R. Fielding, J. Gettys, J. Mogul, H. Frystyk, L. Masinter, P.
     Leach, T. Berners-Lee.  Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.1.
     RFC 2616, June 1999.

[2]  J. Franks, P. Hallam-Baker, J. Hostetler, S. Lawrence, P. Leach, A.
     Luotonen, L.  Stewart.  HTTP Authentication: Basic and Digest
     Access Authentication.  RFC 2617, June 1999.

[3]  T. Dierks, C. Allen.  The TLS Protocol Version 1.0.  RFC 2246,
     January 1999.

[4]  J. Postel, J.K. Reynolds.  Telnet Protocol Specification.  RFC 854,
     May 1983.

[5]  J. Postel, J.K. Reynolds.  File Transfer Protocol. RFC 959, October

[6]  J. Postel.  Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.  RFC 821, August 1982.

[7]  J. Myers.  Simple Authentication and Security Layer (SASL).  RFC
     2222, October 1997.

[8]  R. Petke, I. King.  Registration Procedures for URL Scheme Names.
     BCP 35, RFC 2717, November 1999.

[9]  N. Freed, N. Borenstein.  Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions
     (MIME) Part Two: Media Types.  RFC 2046, November 1996.

[10] T. Howes, M. Smith, F. Dawson.  A MIME Content-Type for Directory
     Information.  RFC 2425, September 1998.

[11] T. Bray, J. Paoli, C. M. Sperberg-McQueen.  "Extensible Markup
     Language (XML)".  World Wide Web Consortium Recommendation REC-
     xml-19980210, February 1998.

[12] E. Whitehead, M. Murata. XML Media Types.  RFC 2376, July 1998.

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