HTTP vs. HTTPS – Learn about difference between HTTP and HTTPS
If you’re an eCommerce business owner or handle sensitive information on your website, it’s essential to make sure that your site is secure. One of the ways to do this is to switch your website from HTTP to HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure).
Now, HTTP and HTTPS are the most used protocols for web browsing. However, the former is a less secure protocol. HTTPS is a more modern form of security in which data is secured with SSL/TLS encryption to prevent eavesdropping or tampering by third parties.
This article will help you understand the key differences between HTTP and HTTPS – so you can choose what’s best for your business.
What is HTTP?
HTTP stands for (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), a set of rules that govern how information is transmitted over the internet. HTTP allows for data exchanges with an HTTP server and can be seen in the form of URLs, search engine requests, and web page content. For example, when shopping online or filling out forms on websites like Facebook, HTTP protocol is used.
HTTP uses port 80 by default, but this can vary depending on the server configuration; it also doesn’t have encryption or other privacy features in place as standard. As a result, HTTP is vulnerable to HTTP Request Hijacking, an attack that man-in-the-middle hackers can use.
What is an HTTP Request?
HTTP Request can be defined as a message sent by a client to a server using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). In practice, it is composed of a message header and an optional body. The HTTP Request may also include entity-specific parameters that are encoded in an ‘application/x-www-form-urlencoded‘ format or as ‘multipart/form-data‘.
To send an HTTP request, a client must open a network connection to the server and send a well-formed message in the request phase. The web server, which is waiting for incoming requests, will then parse this message and decide how it should be processed. In particular, there are two main possibilities:
- If the request is valid (e.g., the syntax of the message can be parsed), then the webserver will proceed with the next phase, which usually corresponds to a response;
- On the contrary, if a server can identify an error in the HTTP Request message, it will return an error response containing valuable information to help the client correct its request.
Common types of HTTP Requests are:
- GET HTTP Requests: HTTP GET requests are used to retrieve information from an HTTP server. For example, if you type google.com into your browser’s address bar and hit enter, an HTTP Get Request is sent.
- POST HTTP Requests: HTTP POST requests are used to send data in the form of variables (text strings) or files that HTTP servers will process. POST requests are often used to submit forms, upload files and send data
- HEAD HTTP Requests: HTTP HEAD requests are like GET requests, but they only return the HTTP headers without any of the content from an HTTP server
What is an HTTP Response?
HTTP Response is the response that comes back from HTTP servers like HTTP headers and HTTP content. HTTP Responses can be seen in the form of HTTP headers, web page content, or URLs.
A typical example is status Code (200): A status code tells you what happened with an HTTP request – for example, a 200 status code means that an HTTP request succeeded.
What does a Typical HTTP Request look like?
The structure of an HTTP request is defined by the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) standard. You can use several different methods on your browser for sending requests. The most commonly used methods are POST and GET, but there are also other methods (e.g., PUT, DELETE ).
In this overview, we will focus on POST and GET requests:
There are essentially three parts of an HTTP request: the Request line, Headers, and Entity-body. The first line of an HTTP request is called a Request-Line. It contains several pieces of information about the client’s wish to the server in general terms. The most important part is the method that the client wants to use.
In this example, we have a POST request, which is indicated by the keyword POST. Other methods would be GET or PUT. The other part of the request line is the resource path on which you want to apply that action (e.g., /sample).
The next critical piece in an HTTP request is the headers. These are essentially key-value pairs in which each key has a value. More information about what exactly can be used as a key and what it means if you have, e.g., content-encoding: gzip, will follow in the section about headers.
The last part of an HTTP request is the entity-body, which contains the data that should be sent to a server. In our example, we have proper HTML code for displaying a page, but in general, this can also be binary data (e.g., image or audio/video files).
The headers of an HTTP request contain information about the client’s wish to the server and the state of the communication in general. In our example request, there are three headers specified that are used for fetching a resource from a server:
- Accept: defines what type and how encoded data is expected (e.g., Content-Type: image/png )
- Accept-Language: define which language is expected (e.g., Content-Language: de) and
- User-Agent: defines which browser and version is used by the client
Several other headers can be used: Host, Connection, Referer, Cookie, and many more. In general, any piece of information (key/value pair) can be sent as an HTTP header.
The entity-body is basically a chain of chunks of data separated by a unique character called CRLF (the carriage return followed by line feed). In our example, we send HTML code to the server that will be interpreted and displayed. But this could also contain binary data such as images or audio/video files.
The following is an example of a complete HTTP request (including the headers) sent to a server:
POST /sample HTTP/1.1 Host: www.example.com Accept: image/png, image/gif, */* Accept-Language: de User-Agent: Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_8_4) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/28.0.1500.71 Safari/537.36 Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate Connection: keep-alive Referer: http://www.example.com/sample Cookie: foo=bar; baz=bat
The data that is being sent to the server is URL encoded in this example (e.g., spaces are replaced by “+”). This is necessary to send binary data, which may contain characters not allowed in a URL (e.g., spaces).
Advantages of HTTP
- HTTP was designed specifically for use on the internet and does not have any telecommunications or file transfer protocols involved, making it easier and faster communication than other protocols.
- HTTP is platform-independent and network friendly, making it easier to work on other operating systems (such as Macintosh or UNIX) without any conversion problems. Many networking applications use HTTP, so the portability of these applications becomes an essential feature for designers to implement in their software. This also makes it possible for applications to be written that can be used on many different computers across the internet and other networks.
- HTTP also does not rely on a session to communicate data between clients and servers, making it easier for client-server applications to function over firewalls and through proxy servers. This is an essential point for web-based applications where access can be limited in specific areas across the internet.
- HTTP is also a stateless protocol which means that it does not use any type of session or connection to keep the client connected to the server during the transfer process. This can be beneficial when using HTTP as some systems do not require an ongoing connection for their internet applications.
List of limitations of HTTP
The limitations of HTTP are:
- Unencrypted meaning that data sensitive data can be read during transit
- No end-to-end protection, making it a prime target for hackers who may want to intercept the connections.
- Imposes a single way of doing things, i.e., centralized control
- Too small for new features
- Not scalable (unable to handle the demand on Gmail, Facebook, and other services)
What is HTTPS?
HTTPS is HTTP over HTTP Secure, which means it encrypts data transferred between servers and web browsers. HTTPS essentially does the same thing as HTTP, but it encrypts all data – not just the content of a page or document. This makes HTTPS traffic safer and less vulnerable to spyware or hackers because they won’t be able to see any of your HTTPS content.
How does TLS/SSL encrypt HTTP requests and responses?
The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) usually is unencrypted. This means that anyone monitoring network traffic or examining a computer’s network log files can easily see which websites someone has visited, what data they have submitted, etc., as the information appears in clear text. HTTPS is an extension of the HTTP protocol that adds encryption to make this sort of spying impossible if a browser supports it – this way, sensitive information such as passwords are kept safe from prying eyes on the same Local Area Network (LAN).
The Transport Layer Security protocol (TLS) or Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) provides communication security over a computer network where connections may be untrusted and therefore eavesdropped or even actively malicious. In addition to securing communications against eavesdropping and tampering, TLS/SSL can also be used to authenticate parties, such as access control within Internet Protocol Security (IPsec).
As with other protocols based on TLS, such as HTTPS and IMAPS, communication over Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) can be secured through TLS/SSL to provide confidentiality and integrity of data exchanged between two parties. Data confidentiality using TLS/SSL consists of encryption mechanisms that ensure that only authorized recipients can read information sent over the network.
Data integrity ensures that messages received have not been altered during transmission. Any attacker who can access a computer connected to a network could theoretically intercept any communications transmitted in clear text without being detected by either party. A well-secured HTTPS site displays a padlock sign to assure security. Unlike HTTP, which uses port 80 for data communication, HTTPS relies on port 443.
The process for how TLS works can be divided into four phases which are explained below. Note that not all of these phases are necessary for each type of application using TLS.
- Handshake phase: The key exchange is the first step to initiate a secure session. During this process, the client and server agree on various parameters used to establish the connection. These parameters determine whether mutual authentication will occur during the handshake. If mutually authenticated keys are available from previous sessions with another party or public-key certificates are available, it may be possible for either party’s implementation to reuse those previously established secret keys rather than perform a full key exchange. This mode is called an abbreviated handshake, or just handshake, and it usually results in a faster connection time. Since this process is optional, an implementation may choose not to perform client-side authentication during the key exchange phase.
- Interactive session: Once both parties have agreed upon parameters, they will use them to generate a master secret which will be used to encrypt subsequent communications in the secure session. Using the generated master secret, both parties can derive shared keys without further help from the TLS protocol: The client (and any proxy) uses its copy of the master secret and some supplied data to generate a set of encryption keys for the bulk of further communication. The server (or proxy if appropriate) does likewise and sends its set of keys. All further communication will be encrypted using keys that require only one set of derived shared keys and can therefore be used by both client and server.
- Anonymous key exchange: This phase is optional, depending on whether the client has sufficient credentials to allow it to participate in a mutually authenticated secure session without further anonymous exchanges. If so, then this phase is omitted, and the tickets are sent immediately after the handshake. Otherwise, any communications between the initiator and responder could be maliciously modified or intercepted as they pass through intermediate nodes (such as application gateways). To prevent this from happening, either party may solicit an SSL/TLS ticket from a Ticket Granting Server. This message includes information about the host being connected to and permits that server to authenticate the client’s identity. The server may respond with a ticket for the proposed host and one or more temporary keys encrypted in the long-term secret key, keying material that can be used to establish shared private encryption keys with the service.
- The last phase is optional and consists of an optional exchange of messages generated using a newly generated key, which can be any random value (e.g., if both parties have been authenticated, then it can be derived from their session cookies). If these messages are not used, this step is often skipped to speed up authentication; however, they are sometimes exchanged to provide forward secrecy between sessions or avoid reusing keying material from previous connections.
What are the Advantages of HTTPS?
- As of the time of writing this piece, 95 percent of active websites use HTTPS. When users visit a website using HTTPS (and has an SSL certificate), they know that their information will be encrypted from eavesdropping, keeping their data and identity safe. Businesses should always use https to secure customers’ online transactions and social media accounts.
- HTTPS is a ranking factor in Google’s search algorithm. It may not be the biggest for some keywords, but it does play some role in rankings.
- HTTPS is also a ranking factor for Bing. Again, this doesn’t mean that if you make your site available only via HTTPS, it will start ranking high immediately, but some people are ready to give more credit to the sites with HTTPS when they’re making their site search results.
- Another advantage of HTTPS (or rather of HTTP/2) is that it reduces load times. Recently Google has started giving preference to websites with fast loading speeds, and if you want higher ranks, you should try hard to shorten your website’s load times. There are multiple ways to do that, but using HTTPS via SPDY or HTTP/2 will do the trick.
- And the last benefit of using an SSL certificate is reliability – especially for businesses whose websites deal with sensitive information. If they use non-secure connections, users would have to worry whether their personal data and credit card information are being protected by any means possible – and that isn’t a good thing at all! With HTTPS, everything is encrypted, meaning there wouldn’t be anything for visitors to worry about.
What is the difference between HTTP and HTTPS?
- HTTP doesn’t come with a security mechanism designed to encrypt data, while HTTPS utilizes SSL/TLS digital certificates in securing messages shared between the server and the client.
- HTTP is slightly faster than HTTPS because of the high amount of computation power that HTTPS needs in encrypting communication channels
- Unlike HTTPS, which operates at the Transport Layer, HTTP operates just at the Application Layer.
- In HTTP communication, data is transferred in plain text, while in HTTPS, the data is transmitted in ciphertext (encrypted text)
- By default, HTTPS operates on port 443, while HTTP operates on port 80
Switching from HTTP to HTTPS: What to do
To switch your website from HTTP to HTTPS, there are two main methods: Option 1: Redirecting HTTP to HTTPS using .htaccess, which occurs at the domain level.
Here, you will need to add redirects from HTTP to HTTP in your website’s .htaccess file – this will also include any webpages within it. The second option you have is to use a tool like Google Webmaster Tools and add 301 Redirect HTTP to HTTPS (found under Search Console > HTTP Status Codes)
Once you’ve completed this process, all HTTP requests to your website will be redirected to the secure version with a 301 HTTP response. And vice versa: if someone tries going to an HTTP URL on your site, it’ll automatically redirect them over to the SSL-secured protocol instead of giving them that HTTP “not found” error.
– Before making the switch, you should know these things:
- Assume all requests and responses are insecure
- All cookies must be HTTPS-only cookies, not HTTP-only cookies. This means you need to have a secure flag set for each cookie
- Server certificates must use the same domain name as your app’s URL (e.g., https://example.com). If at all possible, configure your SSL certificate to include the www subdomain (e.g., example.com and www.example.com)
- Make sure all resources are available through both HTTP and HTTPS
- If your app or website is already live, then you need to have a transition period. During this time, make sure 301 redirects are in place from HTTP to HTTPS on all resources (e.g., images)
You can switch your website from HTTP to HTTPS anytime. It is an excellent way of making sure that the data transmitted between user and server are encrypted. You also can use encryption certificates which will help authenticate web servers for them to be trusted by browsers.