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3.11 Tuning POST and PUT requests

The main assumption behind the design of the HTTP protocol is that requests are idempotent: since a request can be repeated by a client, a server is allowed to drop a connection at any time. This fact, more than anything else, explains the amazing scalability of the protocol.

This assumption breaks down in the case of POST requests. Indeed, a POST request usually causes some action to be performed (a page to be printed, a significant amount of money to be transferred from your bank account, or, in Florida, a vote to be registered), and such a request should not be repeated.

The only solution to this problem is to reserve HTTP to idempotent activities, and use reliable protocols for action-effecting ones. Notwithstanding that, HTTP/1.1 makes a weak attempt at making POST requests slightly more reliable and efficient than they are in HTTP/1.0.

When speaking to an HTTP/1.1 server, an HTTP client is allowed to request that the server check a priori whether it intends to honour a POST request. This is done by sending an expectation, a specific header with the request, ‘Expect: 100-continue’, and waiting for either an error message or a ‘100 Continue’ reply from the server. If the latter arrives, the client is welcome to send the rest of the POST request10.

Polipo’s behaviour w.r.t. client expectations is controlled by the variable expectContinue. If this variable is false, Polipo will never send an expectation to the server; if a client sends an expectation, Polipo will fail the expectation straight away, causing the client (if correctly implemented) to retry with no expectation. If expectContinue is maybe (the default), Polipo will behave in a standards-compliant manner: it will forward expectations to the server when allowed to do so, and fail client expectations otherwise. Finally, if expectContinue is true, Polipo will always send expectations when it is reasonable to do so; this violates the relevant standards and will break some websites, but might decrease network traffic under some circumstances.



This, of course, is only part of the story. Additionally, the server is not required to reply with ‘100 Continue’, hence the client must implement a timeout. Furthermore, according to the obsolete RFC2068, the server is allowed to spontaneously send ‘100 Continue’, so the client must be prepared to ignore such a reply at any time.

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