Can HTTP/2 Replace MQTT?
Yesterday I got an interesting question:
Would you agree that HTTP/2 with HPACK would certainly rule out any reason for using MQTT?
Well, I never thought about that possibility before, so I went and read through the specs for HPACK and HTTP/2. What follows is my analysis to the best of my understanding. If I get something wrong, feel free to leave a well-intentioned comment.
If you’re not familiar, MQTT is a publish/subscribe protocol that is typically associated with
the Internet of Things because of it’s compact header size. It uses a long-lasting TCP connection
to send messages with (minimum) 2-byte headers. The main verbs are
UNSUBSCRIBE (the others are different forms of acknoledgements used to implement
higher delivery guarantees than TCP).
Implementing HTTP/2 Pub/Sub
Of course, the reason this question is even being asked is because HTTP/2 supports multiplexing of requests. This means that a single HTTP connection can be reused by the server to send many requests and responses. Even better, a single request can receive multiple responses – so the server can effectively push more messages to the client than they requested.
If you were to implement the rough equivalent of MQTT using HTTP/2 you could:
foo/barby sending a
http://example.com/topic/foo/barwith the message in the body of the request.
foo/barby sending a
foo/barby sending a
All information normally transmitted in the MQTT
CONNECT would happen naturally through
headers on requests and
DISCONNECT would be a matter of severing the HTTP connection. To deliver
a published message to a subscribing client, the server could simply open another stream and push
the message to the client. This is called server push.
Streams are a new concept in HTTP/2. They’re somewhat equivalent to an HTTP/1.1 connection,
except that a server can initiate a stream in order to do a server push. If a
client makes a GET request and, while responding to the request, the server decides that the
client will also want another complimentary item (image, stylesheet, etc) the server
can send a
PUSH_PROMISE message then immediately open a new stream and send the additional
item without the client having to request it.
In our miniature MQTT look-alike, when the client makes a
GET request to subscribe to a topic,
the server would send response headers but leave the stream open. Whenever a new message comes
in on that subscription, the server would send a
PUSH_PROMISE and then open a new stream to
transmit the actual message.
I’m sure someone could develop a much better pub/sub framework than I did in 2 minutes, but you get the idea. HTTP/2 lends itself surprisingly well to the pub/sub pattern, despite being designed for request/response.
A Little About HPACK & Huffman Coding
HPACK is part of HTTP/2 for header compression. One of the causes for hesitation on using HTTP/1.1 for Internet of Things applications is the massive header size. If HTTP were ever to be viable, some sort of header compression like HPACK would be a necessary part of this.
Internally, HPACK uses an old compression algorithm called Huffman coding to find the minimum number of bits to encode strings based on their frequency. The encoded version of strings are variable length - a common string could be 2 bits and another less common string could be 17 bits (just examples, of course). If you’ve never heard of Huffman coding before or just want a reasonable programming challenge, I highly recommend walking through the Wikipedia page and trying to implement it in your favorite programming language.
Huffman coding finds the optimal number of bits to encode symbols, but there’s still much better compression algorithms. In fact, many popular compression formats including PKZIP, JPEG and MP3 have used Huffman coding in addition to other steps. So why didn’t the IETF choose the optimal compression format for compressing headers? Well, frankly, compression takes compute power and memory space. Huffman coding does fairly well with both of these constraints.
It takes 2 passes to encode data with Huffman. The first pass you build a tree out of occurrences of bit strings and track the frequency of the bit string. This is also where the optimization happens. On the second pass, bit strings are looked up in the tree and replaced with the corresponding optimially sized short codes.
Normally, the entire tree/table of codes is transimitted or stored preceding the fully encoded message. HPACK has two “tables” - a static table and a dynamic table (you could call them trees, like we talked about previously with Huffman coding). The static table is known by the HTTP/2 client a priori because it’s part of the spec. This static table was decided on based on samples of actual web traffic on the Internet.
The dynamic table is calculated by the encoder or decoder based on live data for just the current HTTP/2 connection and, unlike the static table, is transmitted at the start of each message. A single HTTP/2 connection can be used to service many HTTP requests and responses. The dynamic table is refined with each message so compression gets better the longer the connection stays open (or so I assume).
To better understand the question, we need to talk about ways people actually use MQTT.
As A Funnel Protocol
The most common (and arguably the best) usage for MQTT is to have embedded devices publish data to a multi-protocol broker over MQTT and re-distribut the data via another protocol that’s more suitable for server-to-server traffic such as HTTP, Apache Kafka, AMQP or Amazon Kinesis. I gave a presentation on using MQTT to funnel into Kafka at ApacheCon 2014. From there the data is typically funneled into a storage or analytics system like Hadoop, Cassandra, a timeseries database or some sort of web API.
At 2lemetry we quickly ran into issues scaling what we call the firehose subscription (
which basically means that a single MQTT client wants to consume all the traffic (or just a lot of it)
that passes through the broker. The biggest problem with this is that a subscription can only be
serviced by a single connection on a single computer. At some point you’re going to find the memory
or I/O limits of the NIC. On the other hand, Kafka and Kinesis both offer consumer groups,
which are essentially a consistent hash ring of clients that cooperatively process a single
subscription. This effectively fixes the firehose subscription problem by spreading the load over
Some embedded devices have extremely limited resources (8-16 KB of memory, slow 8 bit CPUs, expensive data transfer rates), so they generally want to transmit that telemetry data with as little effort as possible and consuming the least amount of bandwidth. This is one of the greatest strengths of MQTT and is primarily where HPACK will come into play. The Huffman coding that we discussed earlier is relatively gentle on the CPU, but encoding/decoding messages requires roughly 2x the memory than the actual data frame (I believe). However, a message can be split over several data frames to control memory usage, so this may not be as big of an issue as I’m making it.
From what I can tell, as the client re-uses the HTTP connection for PUBLISH after PUBLISH, the headers would continue to be compressed better and better (I’m not sure this is actually true since the dynamic table also drops entries over the life of the connection). In comparison, MQTT is certainly smaller on the wire (and easier to parse) but time will tell if the difference is big enough to make people use it over HTTP/2 (people seem to generally avoid using too many protocols/technologies).
To Ignore Faulty Networks
MQTT provides three quality of service (QoS) levels that govern delivery guarantees. The lowest (and most common) has the same guarantees as TCP. At Least Once (QoS=1) uses the unique client identifier to re-deliver messages that the client may have missed while offline. The highest level, Exactly Once (QoS=2) isn’t actually possible according to some basic distributed systems principles.
The ability to have missed messages delivered while offline is extremely helpful for some embedded systems. I would wager that any protocol targeted for the Internet of Things absolutely must have the ability to give At Least Once guarantees. As far as I can tell, HTTP/2 doesn’t support this level of delivery guarantee, but I believe it would be trivial to implement it on top of HTTP/2.
Scaling HTTP/2 On The Server
When discussing IoT protocols, scaling is rarely a topic we discuss. But, working for 2lemetry, this is a topic I deal with frequently so I’ll briefly address it.
HTTP/1.1 is easy to scale. Just throw a load balancer in front of a cluster of servers and voila! It scales!. This is true with HTTP/2 for single use connections, but if multiplexing is heavily used, load balancing could become difficult. Think about it, if the connection stays open for minutes or hours, how does the server tell the client “connect to another server, I’m getting bogged down”. This is a problem we run into frequently when scaling MQTT, as connections are frequently left open for days on end. I’m sure we’ll solve this problem with HTTP/2, but I’m not quite sure what that will look like.
Obligatory Notes About CoAP
CoAP (RFC 7252) is a proposed standard (Correction: it is finalized) to implement a RESTful architecture (like HTTP) for constrained devices. It’s a very compact, trivial to parse, binary protocol that runs over UDP and has support for optional guaranteed delivery. CoAP also supports server push in mostly the same way that HTTP/2 does.
CoAP maps very well to HTTP/1.1. In fact, there’s a section of the specification dedicated to proxying between HTTP and CoAP. Two CoAP features (server push and multicast) aren’t supported natively by HTTP/1.1, so having HTTP/2 support server push only narrows the gap and makes these two protocols a great match. Use CoAP in constrained environments and use HTTP/2 everywhere else. After all, CoAP can almost always be proxied neatly to HTTP/2.
MQTT definitely has a smaller size on the wire. It’s also simpler to parse (let’s face it, Huffman isn’t that easy to implement) and provides guaranteed delivery to cater to shaky wireless networks. On the other hand, it’s also not terribly extensible. There aren’t a whole lot of headers and options available, and there’s no way to make custom ones without touching the payload of the message.
It seems that HTTP/2 could definitely serve as a reasonable replacement for MQTT. It’s reasonably small, supports multiple paradigms (pub/sub & request/response) and is extensible. Its also supported by the IETF (whereas MQTT is hosted by OASIS). From conversations I’ve had with industry leaders in the embedded software and chip manufacturing, they only want to support standards from the IETF. Many of them are still planning to support MQTT, but they’re not happy about it.
I think MQTT is better at many of the things it was designed for, but I’m interested to see over time if those advantages are enough to outweigh the benefits of HTTP. Regardless, MQTT has been gaining a lot of traction in the past year or two, so you may be forced into using it while HTTP/2 catches up.