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1.3 Overall Operation Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia
1.3 Overall Operation

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1.3 Overall Operation

1.3 Overall Operation

The HTTP protocol is based on a request/response paradigm. A client establishes a connection with a server and sends a request to the server in the form of a request method, URI, and protocol version, followed by a MIME-like message containing request modifiers, client information, and possible body content. The server responds with a status line, including the message's protocol version and a success or error code, followed by a MIME-like message containing server information, entity metainformation, and possible body content.

Most HTTP communication is initiated by a user agent and consists of a request to be applied to a resource on some origin server. In the simplest case, this may be accomplished via a single connection (v) between the user agent (UA) and the origin server (O).

          request chain ------------------------>
       UA -------------------v------------------- O
          <----------------------- response chain

A more complicated situation occurs when one or more intermediaries are present in the request/response chain. There are three common forms of intermediary: proxy, gateway, and tunnel. A proxy is a forwarding agent, receiving requests for a URI in its absolute form, rewriting all or parts of the message, and forwarding the reformatted request toward the server identified by the URI. A gateway is a receiving agent, acting as a layer above some other server(s) and, if necessary, translating the requests to the underlying server's protocol. A tunnel acts as a relay point between two connections without changing the messages; tunnels are used when the communication needs to pass through an intermediary (such as a firewall) even when the intermediary cannot understand the contents of the messages.

          request chain -------------------------------------->
       UA -----v----- A -----v----- B -----v----- C -----v----- O
          <------------------------------------- response chain

The figure above shows three intermediaries (A, B, and C) between the user agent and origin server. A request or response message that travels the whole chain must pass through four separate connections. This distinction is important because some HTTP communication options may apply only to the connection with the nearest, non-tunnel neighbor, only to the end-points of the chain, or to all connections along the chain. Although the diagram is linear, each participant may be engaged in multiple, simultaneous communications. For example, B may be receiving requests from many clients other than A, and/or forwarding requests to servers other than C, at the same time that it is handling A's request.

Any party to the communication which is not acting as a tunnel may employ an internal cache for handling requests. The effect of a cache is that the request/response chain is shortened if one of the participants along the chain has a cached response applicable to that request. The following illustrates the resulting chain if B has a cached copy of an earlier response from O (via C) for a request which has not been cached by UA or A.

          request chain ---------->
       UA -----v----- A -----v----- B - - - - - - C - - - - - - O
          <--------- response chain

Not all responses are cachable, and some requests may contain modifiers which place special requirements on cache behavior. Some HTTP/1.0 applications use heuristics to describe what is or is not a "cachable" response, but these rules are not standardized.

On the Internet, HTTP communication generally takes place over TCP/IP connections. The default port is TCP 80 [15], but other ports can be used. This does not preclude HTTP from being implemented on top of any other protocol on the Internet, or on other networks. HTTP only presumes a reliable transport; any protocol that provides such guarantees can be used, and the mapping of the HTTP/1.0 request and response structures onto the transport data units of the protocol in question is outside the scope of this specification.

Except for experimental applications, current practice requires that the connection be established by the client prior to each request and closed by the server after sending the response. Both clients and servers should be aware that either party may close the connection prematurely, due to user action, automated time-out, or program failure, and should handle such closing in a predictable fashion. In any case, the closing of the connection by either or both parties always terminates the current request, regardless of its status.


Next: 1.4 HTTP and MIME

Connected: An Internet Encyclopedia
1.3 Overall Operation

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