HTTP Compression Speeds up the Web

A longer version of this appeared on WebReference.

by Peter Cranstone The volume on the Web is forecasted to more than triple over the next three years and the category expecting the fastest growth is data. The solution: compression.

The volume on the Web is forecasted to more than triple over the next three years and the category expecting the fastest growth is data. Data and content will remain the largest percentage of Web traffic and the majority of this information is dynamic so it does not lend itself to conventional caching technologies. Issues range from Business to Consumer response and order confirmation times, to the time required to deliver business information to a road warrior using a wireless device, to the download time for rich media such as music or video. Not surprisingly, the number one complaint among Web users is lack of speed. That's where compression can help, by using mod_gzip.

The Solution: Compression

The idea is to compress data being sent out from your Web server, and have the browser decompress this data on the fly, thus reducing the amount of data sent and increasing the page display speed. There are two ways to compress data coming from a Web server, dynamically, and pre-compressed. Dynamic Content Acceleration compresses the data transmission data on the fly (useful for e-commerce apps, database-driven sites, etc.). Pre-compressed text based data is generated beforehand and stored on the server (.html.gz files etc).

The goal is to send less data. To do this the data must be analyzed and compressed in real time and be decompressed with no user interaction at the other end. Since smaller amounts of data (less packets) are being sent, they consume less bandwidth and arrive significantly faster. The network acceleration solutions need to be focused on the formats utilized for data and content including HTML, XML, SQL, Java, WML and all other text based languages. Both types of compression utilize HTTP compression and compress HTML files fully three times smaller.

To get an idea of the improvement in speed involved, here's a live demonstration:

Real time Web server content acceleration test:

Why Compress HTML?

HTML is used in most Web pages, and forms the framework where the rest of the page appears (images, objects, etc). Unlike images (GIF, JPEG, PNG) which are already compressed, HTML is just ASCII text, which is highly compressible. Compressing HTML can have a major impact on the performance of HTTP especially as PPP lines are being filled up with data and the only way to obtain higher performance is to reduce the number of bytes transmitted. A compressed HTML page appears to pop onto the screen, especially over slower modems.

The Last Mile Problem

The Web is as strong as its weakest link. This has and always will be the last mile to the consumer's desktop. Even with the rapid growth of residential broadband solutions the growth of narrowband users and data far exceeds its limited reach. According to Jakob Nielsen he expects the standard data transmission speed to remain at 56K until at least 2003 so there is a distinct need to do something to reduce download times. Caching data has its benefits, but only content reduction can make a significant difference in response time. It's always going to be faster to download a smaller file than a larger one.

Is Compression Built into the Browser?

This article was originally published on Oct 13, 2000
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