A few semantic points for HTTP/1.0 draft

Chuck Shotton (cshotton@oac.hsc.uth.tmc.edu)
Tue, 29 Nov 1994 08:07:05 -0600

After a quick read through the HTTP/1.0 draft, I have a couple of comments.
By and large, the draft seems to be a very good representation of standard
practice (with a nod to concerns over multi-part messages), but there are
two "pet peeves" that remain unresolved and could be cleared up with a
short addition of some semantic info to the spec.

Specifically, there are minor ambiguities regarding the 503 error code
defined in section 6.3.4 and the encoding of object-body parts as described
in section 7 and RFC 1630.

Regarding section 6.3.4, the draft specifies that the error code "503
Service Unavailable" simply indicates that the server is unable to handle
the request. There are two different occasions when this code can be
returned, both of which are detailed in this paragraph. Unfortunately, one
is a short-term, transient condition (busy) that the client may reasonably
expect to disappear momentarily. The other, a server is administratively
off-line, is a condition of indeterminent duration and the client cannot
infer how long this condition will last.

Current client support for 503 is minimal. As an example, NetScape's
response to a 503 error is to begin repeatedly resending the client's
request until it is satisfied or the client times out. If the server is
moderately busy, the client may be quickly serviced without impacting
performance from the user's or server's perspective. If the server is
heavily overloaded, a rapid, repeated resubmission of the request will only
make the problem worse.

In the case that the server is administratively off line, and 503 is being
returned to indicate that the server is alive but unable to process
connections, client behavior as above is clearly unacceptable. Obviously,
some guidance in implementing client responses to this error code is
needed. Optimally, information should be returned to a client to help
determine an appropriate client response to a 503 error.

As a solution, I'd like to propose an additional response-header for the
503 error response that specifies a time at which the client may expect the
server to be able to handle requests again. This time should be relative to
the Date: header sent by the client. I propose that this time be specified
as a delta from this date in terms of hours, minutes, and seconds until
availability. The client should not attempt to resend its request before
this delta period of time has elapsed.

For the case of a busy server, this could be a delta of a few seconds from
the present (or a delta value calculated on the load of the server, depth
of the request queue, etc.) For an "off-line" server, this could be a delta
supplied by administration (i.e. the server will be back up in 30 minutes)
or an arbitrarily longer value (10 seconds, a few minutes) that would
prevent rapid client retries.

A candidate syntax for this response header field returned by the server is:

Retry-After = "Retry-After" ":" *LWSP-char 3DIGIT ":" 2DIGIT ":" 2DIGIT

The 3 numeric fields represent the number of hours, minutes, and seconds to
wait before attempting to contact the server again after the server has
reported a 503 error. The server should also return its own Date: field as
part of the response in all cases.

With regard to comment number 2, the encoding of object-body parts, there
is a non-trivial ambiguity in RFC 1630 regarding the encoding of spaces as
"+", and where this is allowed. For WWW clients that encode object-bodies
using the URL-encoding scheme, behavior is inconsistent. Some clients
encode specials in the object-body text using %xx hex encodings
exclusively. Others use %xx encodings for all specials except space, and
encode spaces as "+".

According to 1630, "+" may be used as a shorthand for space in the search
portion of a URI. Unfortunately, the BNF for URIs is ambiguous in that the
definition of the non-terminal "xpalphas" includes separating "xalphas"
with "+", implying that spaces can be encoded as "+" anywhere.

In my opinion, the object-body of a HTTP request is not the search portion
of a URI. Therefore, spaces should only be encoded using %xx encodings and
not "+" encodings. This ambiguity has never been resolved and a definitive
statement regarding appropriate encoding of object-bodies using
URL-encoding in this draft of the HTTP standard would be helpful. It may be
a moot point, since many clients encode POST arguments using both
techniques, and many gateway apps parse pluses as space. Nonetheless, an
appropriate "ruling" should be made in the HTTP standard.

Thanks for your consideration,
Chuck Shotton

p.s. I am not subscribed to www-talk@info.cern.ch, so I'd appreciate being
CC'ed on any responses from that list.

Chuck Shotton
cshotton@oac.hsc.uth.tmc.edu "I am NOT here."