One of the foundations of the Internet has just been upgraded. Quic, a protocol for transmitting data between computers, improves speed and security on the Internet and may replace Transmission Control Protocol, or TCP, a standard that dates back to Ye Olde Internet of 1974.
Earlier this week, the Internet Engineering Working Group, which sets many standards for the global network, published Quic as standard. Web browsers and online services have been testing the technology for years, but the IETF’s imprimatur is a sign that the standard is mature enough to be fully adopted.
It is extremely difficult to improve the Internet at the fundamental level of data transmission. Countless devices, programs and services are designed to use the old infrastructure, which lasted for decades. Quic has been in public development for almost eight years since Google first announced Quic in 2013 as an experimental addition to its Chrome browser.
But upgrades to the Internet’s foundations are crucial to keeping the backbone of communication and commerce buzzing globally. That’s why engineers put so much effort into titanic transitions like Quic, HTTPS for secure website communications, post-quantum cryptography to protect data from future quantum computers, and IPv6 to accommodate many more devices on the Internet.
“The the internet transport ecosystem has shrunk for decades now, “Jana Iyengar, an engineer who helped lead Quic standardization at Internet infrastructure company Fastly, said in a blog post. “Quic is ready to lead the charge on the next generation of Internet innovations.”
In a Quic Research Paper 2017, Google said its in-house version of the technology reduced the expectation of web search results by 8% on PCs and by 4% on phones. The time people wasted buffering YouTube – waiting for the video to catch up with playback – fell 18% for PC users and 15% for mobile users.
Transmission control protocol governs how data is sent from one computing device to another over the Internet. TCP and Quic work in conjunction with another seminal standard, IP, short for Internet Protocol. TCP controls the distribution of data into individually addressed packets, sent through the Internet routing infrastructure, and then reassembled at the other end of the connection.
It is TCP’s job to do the Internet resilient enough to withstand nuclear attacks. Among other things, TCP manages how connections are made and how to recover data packets that are lost in transmission.
Quic is designed to do the same tasks, only better. It co-opts another Internet standard, called UDP (User datagram protocol), it is faster than TCP but it lacks TCP’s mechanism to recover lost packets. Quic has its own separate recovery mechanism which is faster than TCP’s. (When Google first announced Quic, the company said it stood for Quick UDP Internet Connection, but the IETF standard says Quic is not an acronym.)
Quic is also faster at setting up encrypted connections, an important consideration because Quic, like TCP before it, is a staple of the HTTP standard that your browser uses to retrieve web pages. On an Internet scale, small delays add to a big problem.
Quic should handle network changes more gracefully, like when you leave your home Wi-Fi network and start using your phone’s cellular network.