Web Platform Limitations, Part 1 – XMLHttpRequest Priority

The web is inching towards being a general-purpose applications platform that rivals native apps for performance and functionality. However, to this day, API gaps make certain use cases hard or impossible.

Today I want to talk about streaming network resources for a 3D world.

Streaming Data

In IMVU, when joining a 3D room, hundreds of resources need to be downloaded: object descriptions, 3D mesh geometry, textures, animations, and skeletons. The size of this data is nontrivial: a room might contain 40 MB of data, even after gzip. The largest assets are textures.

To improve load times, we first request low-resolution thumbnail versions of each texture. Then, once the scene is fully loaded and interactive, high-resolution textures are downloaded in the background. High-resolution textures are larger and not critical for interactivity. That is, each resource is requested with a priority:

High Priority Low Priority
Skeletons High-resolution textures
Meshes
Low-resolution textures
Animations

Browser Connection Limits

Let’s imagine what would happen if we opened an XMLHttpRequest for each resource right away. What happens depends on whether the browser is using plain HTTP or SPDY.

HTTP

Browsers limit the number of simultaneous TCP connections to each domain. That is, if the browser’s limit is 8 connections per domain, and we open 50 XMLHttpRequests, the 9th would not even submit its request until the 8th finished. (In theory, HTTP pipelining helps, but browsers don’t enable it by default.) Since there is no way to indicate priority in the XMLHttpRequest API, you would have to be careful to issue XMLHttpRequests in order of decreasing priority, and hope no higher-priority requests would arrive later. (Otherwise, they would be blocked by low-priority requests.) This assumes the browser issues requests in sequence, of course. If not, all bets are off.

There is a way to approximate a prioritizing network atop HTTP XMLHttpRequest. At the application layer, limit the number of open XMLHttpRequests to 8 or so and have them pull the next request from a priority queue as requests finish.

Soon I’ll show why this doesn’t work that well in practice.

SPDY

If the browser and server both support SPDY, then there is no theoretical limit on the number of simultaneous requests to a server. The browser could happily blast out hundreds of HTTP requests, and the responses will make full use of your bandwidth. However, a low-priority response might burn bandwidth that could otherwise be spent on a high-priority response.

SPDY has a mechanism for prioritizing requests. However, that mechanism is not exposed to JavaScript, so, like HTTP, you either issue requests from high priority to low priority or you build the prioritizing network approximation described above.

However, the prioritizing network reduces effective bandwidth utilization by limiting the number of concurrent requests at any given time.

Prioritizing Network Approximation

Let’s consider the prioritizing network implementation described above. Besides the fact that it doesn’t make good use of the browser’s available bandwidth, it has another serious problem: imagine we’re loading a 3D scene with some meshes, 100 low-resolution textures, and 100 high-resolution textures. Imagine the high-resolution textures are already in the browser’s disk cache, but the low-resolution textures aren’t.

Even though the high-resolution textures could be displayed immediately (and would trump the low-resolution textures), because they have low priority, the prioritizing network won’t even check the disk cache until all low-resolution textures have been downloaded.

That is, even though the customer’s computer has all of the high-resolution textures on disk, they won’t show up for several seconds! This is an unnecessarily poor experience.

Browser Knows Best

In short, the browser has all of the information needed to effectively prioritize HTTP requests. It knows whether it’s using HTTP or SPDY. It knows what’s in cache and not.

It would be super fantastic if browsers let you tell them. I’ve seen some discussions about adding priority hints, but they seem to have languished.

tl;dr Not being able to tell the browser about request priority prevents us from making effective use of available bandwidth.

FAQ

Why not download all resources in one large zip file or package?

Each resource lives at its own URL, which maximizes utilization of HTTP caches and data sharing. If we downloaded resources in a zip file, we wouldn’t be able to leverage CDNs and the rest of the HTTP ecosystem. In addition, HTTP allows trivially sharing resources across objects. Plus, with protocols like SPDY, per-request overhead is greatly reduced.

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