Everything should get faster in the network, and not only where thick lines can compensate for inefficient traffic management on the information superhighway, but everywhere. The large platforms in particular have hired hosts of developers to work on accelerating traffic so that the ever-new apps and their content reach the user smoothly.
With the Quic protocol introduced by Google, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the most important standardization organization for the basic protocols of the Internet, now believes that it has found a promising successor to the good old Transport Control Protocol (TCP).
For 50 years, TCP was considered the “workhorse” for transporting IP packets. It is the most widely used network transport protocol, writes Geoff Huston, chief scientist at Asia’s IP address registry Apnic and, so to speak, the top “surveyor” in the Internet world. TCP, Huston says, runs in billions of devices today, proof of its flexibility and robustness. “If it wasn’t so solid, we would have found something else long ago.”
Faster, faster, faster and safer
But the network of 2021 looks different than that of 1981, when TCP was published under number RFC 793. Anyone who calls up a website today often receives an entire content, advertising and communication portal back, with hundreds or thousands of individual elements. This is where the workhorse TCP has its problems. If the connection is lost due to a problem, all elements must be reloaded. That takes time. Quic is supposed to change that because it allows parallel data streams and a lost packet from the stream can also be delivered later.
At the same time, the developers have built in encryption for Quic. Unsecured connections are excluded with Quic by design. Since the revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden, TCP traffic has also been secured with the so-called Transport Layer Security Protocol (TLS). But TLS is already firmly integrated in Quic, and the new racehorse hides even more metadata from the eyes of unauthorized third parties, be it secret services or other attackers.
Next generation internet
But Snowden’s warnings were not the only reason for the integrated encryption. Integration is also more efficient. In addition, Quic tricked all the devices by encrypting them, which in the past few decades have made major network modifications almost impossible.
According to developers, the so-called middle boxes, which include firewalls, have literally “calcified” the data lines. Because Quic reveals little information to the outside world, the middle boxes do not even see what is happening in the encrypted part of the packet. For classic network operators, network researchers and also law enforcement officers, there is less to observe in Quic traffic.
The new transport protocol is definitely an uprising by the young application providers against the old network providers. Quic gives those who offer applications such as browsers more freedom of design. No wonder that companies like Mozilla, Fastly, Akamai or Cloudflare set the tone in standardization and that the original Quic draft comes from Google.
However, one of the two heads of the IETF working group for Quic, the German Lars Eggert, notes that Google could have promoted and implemented Quic on its own. Google developers have been working on Quic since 2012, and the company currently provides the most Quic connections, around ten percent of total Internet traffic, through the use of Quic in its Chrome browser. But because Google brought Quic to the IETF standardization organization, others were also able to contribute to the final design and therefore benefit from it, says Eggert, who is the main technical director of data management–Company Net-App is.
What do users get out of it?
Eggert does not want to completely deny two potential dangers. Quic is of course a complex protocol, even if not much more complex than a TCP that is subsequently enriched and secured with all kinds of additions. Getting the last bit of effectiveness out, that will probably remain a matter for the big players, for which time gains in the millisecond range are reflected in billions in sales. Nevertheless, “the end users also benefit,” he emphasizes, especially in regions where the network is worse than in the major cities of Central Europe. By the way, everyone benefits from increased security.
Researchers from the Human Rights Protocol Considerations Working Group (HRPC WG) have come to a similar conclusion. For a few years now, the group, which is part of the IETF’s research sister, the Internet Research Task Force, has been investigating the fundamental rights of protocols. “Quic delivers considerable improvements in fundamental rights”, is the final judgment of Beatrice Martini from Harvard University and Niels ten Oever from the University of Amsterdam.
Both the improvements in connectivity in weak networks and the encryption are to be welcomed. The latter makes censorship and surveillance more difficult. However, Martini and ten Oever would like to see possible effects related to the concentration of information in the hands of a few large providers. They also recommend that software for running Quic servers be made widely available to smaller operators.
TCP as an emergency solution
The sheer power of the few big platforms could give Quic a formidable rebound later this year. Quic’s share of network traffic already made up a stable ten percent last year, and from mid-2020 its share even increased to 20 percent, reports Christoph Dietzel from Decix, the world’s largest Internet exchange hub. But that doesn’t mean that TCP will retire. Even the young wild ones cannot do without the old workhorse. Not only because TCP will run on many servers for many years to come, but also because Quic needs a plan B in the event of connection errors.