SSL handshake latency and HTTPS optimizations


At work today, I started investigating the latency differences for similar
requests between HTTP and HTTPS. Historically, I was running with the assumption
that higher latency on HTTPS (SSL) traffic was to be expected since SSL handshakes
are more CPU intensive. I didn’t really think about the network consequences of
SSL until today.It’s all in the handshake.

TCP handshake is a
3-packet event. The client sends 2 packets, the server sends 1. Best case,
you’re looking at one round-trip for establishing your connection. We can show
this empirically by comparing ping and tcp connect times:

% fping -q -c 5 : xmt/rcv/%loss = 5/5/0%, min/avg/max = 112/115/123

Average is 115ms for ping round-trip. How about TCP? Let’s ask curl how long tcp connect takes:

% seq 5 | xargs -I@ -n1 curl -so /dev/null -w "%{time_connect}\n"

There’s your best case. This is because when you (the client) receive the 2nd
packet in the handshake (SYN+ACK), you reply with ACK and consider the
connection open. Exactly 1 round-trip is required before you can send your http

What about when using SSL? Let’s ask curl again:

% curl -kso /dev/null -w "tcp:%{time_connect}, ssldone:%{time_appconnect}\n"
tcp:0.117, ssldone:0.408

# How about to google?
% curl -kso /dev/null -w "tcp:%{time_connect}, ssldone:%{time_appconnect}\n"
tcp:0.021, ssldone:0.068

3.5x jump in latency just for adding SSL to the mix, and this is before we sent
the http request.

The reason for this is easily shown with tcpdump. For this test, I’ll use
tcpdump to sniff https traffic and then use openssl s_client to simply connect
to the http server over ssl and do nothing else. Start tcpdump first, then run
openssl s_client.

terminal1 % sudo tcpdump -ttttt -i any 'port 443 and host'

terminal2 % openssl s_client -connect

Tcpdump output trimmed for content:

# Start TCP Handshake
00:00:00.000000 IP snack.home.40855 > Flags [S] ...
00:00:00.114298 IP > snack.home.40855: Flags [S.] ...
00:00:00.114341 IP snack.home.40855 > Flags [.] ...
# TCP Handshake complete.

# Start SSL Handshake.
00:00:00.114769 IP snack.home.40855 > Flags [P.] ...
00:00:00.226456 IP > snack.home.40855: Flags [.] ...
00:00:00.261945 IP > snack.home.40855: Flags [.] ...
00:00:00.261960 IP > snack.home.40855: Flags [P.] ...
00:00:00.261985 IP snack.home.40855 > Flags [.] ...
00:00:00.261998 IP snack.home.40855 > Flags [.] ...
00:00:00.273284 IP snack.home.40855 > Flags [P.] ...
00:00:00.398473 IP > snack.home.40855: Flags [P.] ...
00:00:00.436372 IP snack.home.40855 > Flags [.] ...

# SSL handshake complete, ready to send HTTP request. 
# At this point, openssl s_client is sitting waiting for you to type something
# into stdin.

Summarizing the above tcpdump data for this ssl handshake:

  • 12 packets for SSL, vs 3 for TCP alone
  • TCP handshake took 114ms
  • Total SSL handshake time was 436ms
  • Number of network round-trips was 3.
  • SSL portion took 322ms (network and crypto)

The server tested above has a 2048 bit ssl cert. Running ‘openssl speed rsa’ on
the webserver shows it can do a signature in 22ms:

                  sign    verify    sign/s verify/s
rsa 2048 bits 0.022382s 0.000542s     44.7   1845.4

Anyway. The point is, no matter how fast your SSL accelerators (hardware
loadbalancer, etc), if your SSL end points aren’t near the user, then your
first connect will be slow. As shown above, 22ms for the crypto piece of SSL
handshake, which means 300ms of the SSL portion above was likely network
latency and some other overhead.

Once SSL is established, though, it switches to a block cipher (3DES, etc)
which is much faster and the resource (network, cpu) overhead is pretty tiny by

Summarizing from above: Using SSL incurs a 3.5x latency overhead for each
handshake, but afterwards it’s generally fast like plain TCP. If you accept
this conclusion, let’s examine how this can affect website performance.

Got firebug? Open any website. Seriously. Watch the network activity. How many
HTTP requests are made? Can you tell how many of those that go to the same
domain use http pipelining (or keepalive)? How many initiate new requests each
time? You can track this with tcpdump by looking for ‘syn’ packets if you want
(tcpdump 'tcp[tcpflags] == tcp-syn').

What about the street wisdom for high-performance web servers? HAProxy’s site

“If a site needs keep-alive, there is a real problem. Highly loaded sites
often disable keep-alive to support the maximum number of simultaneous
clients. The real downside of not having keep-alive is a slightly increased
latency to fetch objects. Browsers double the number of concurrent connections
on non-keepalive sites to compensate for this.”

Disabling keep-alive on SSL connections means every single http request is
going to take 3 round-trips before even asking for data. If your server is
100ms away, and you have 10 resources to serve on a single page, that’s 3
seconds of network latency before you include SSL crypto or resource transfer
time. With keep alive, you could eat that handshake cost only once instead of
10 times.

Many browsers will open multiple simultaneous connections to any given
webserver if it needs to fetch multiple resources. Idea is that parallelism
gets you more tasty http resources in a shorter time. If the browser opens
two connections in parallel, you’ll still incur many sequential SSL handshakes
that slow your resource fetching down. More SSL handshakes in parallel means
higher CPU burden, too, and ultimately memory (per open connection) scales more
cheaply than does CPU time – think: above, one active connection cost 22ms of
time (most of which is spent in CPU) and costs much more than that connection
holds in memory resources and scales better (easier to grow memory than cpu).

For some data, Google and Facebook both permit keep-alive:

% URL=
% curl  -w "tcp: %{time_connect} ssl:%{time_appconnect}\n" -sk -o /dev/null $URL -o /dev/null $URL
tcp: 0.038 ssl:0.088
tcp: 0.000 ssl:0.000

% URL=
% curl  -w "tcp: %{time_connect} ssl:%{time_appconnect}\n" -sk -o /dev/null $URL -o /dev/null $URL
tcp: 0.054 ssl:0.132
tcp: 0.000 ssl:0.000

The 2nd line of output reports zero time spent in tcp and ssl handshaking.
Further, if you tell curl to output response headers (curl -D -) you’ll see
“Connection: keep-alive”. This is data showing that at least some of big folks
with massive qps are using keep alive.

Remember that new handshakes are high cpu usage, but existing SSL connections
generally aren’t as they are using a cheaper block cipher after the handshake.
Disabling keep alive ensures that every request will incur an SSL handshake
which can quickly overload a moderately-used server without SSL acceleration
hardware if you have a large ssl key (2048 or 4096bit key).

Even if you have SSL offloading to special hardware, you’re still
incuring the higher network latency that can’t be compensated by faster
hardware. Frankly, in most cases it’s more cost effective to buy a weaker SSL
certificate (1024 bit) than it is to buy SSL hardware – See Google’s Velocity 2010 talk on SSL.

By the way, on modern hardware you can do a decent number of SSL handshakes per
second with 1024bit keys, but 2048bit and 4096bit keys are much harder:

# 'openssl speed rsa' done on an Intel X5550 (2.66gHz)
rsa 1024 bits 0.000496s 0.000027s   2016.3  36713.2
rsa 2048 bits 0.003095s 0.000093s    323.1  10799.2
rsa 4096 bits 0.021688s 0.000345s     46.1   2901.5

Fixing SSL latency is not totally trivial. The CPU intensive part can be
handled by special hardware if you can afford it, but the only way sure way to
solve network round-trip latency is to be closer to your user and/or to work on
minimizing the total number of round-trips. You can be further from your users
if you don’t force things like keep-alive to be off, which can save you money
in the long run by letting you have better choices of datacenter locations.

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