Feike Wierda

How Chrome's pre-connect breaks HaProxy (and HTTP)

Written by Feike Wierda on

How an otherwise pretty nifty feature in Google's Chrome browser causes many users to experience random 408 errors.

Somewhere last week, reports of users encountering HTTP 408 errors served by our HaProxy based loadbalancers started trickling in. Loadbalancer errors tend to occur sometimes when a loadbalancer cannot forward a request to any of the backend servers. Sometimes the backend is actually be overloaded, but the most common cause is if something really nasty happens like Apache encountering a segfault. In this case HaProxy has already established a connection to a backend server, but that connection is abrubtly lost, at wich point, of course, HaProxy can do little else than inform the user of failure and close the connection.

These errors are generally easy enough to debug: logs will quickly reveal the server that's in trouble and we can disable it, fix it and put it back into action. This time around, it proved much more difficult. The number of reports of these errors steadily increased, but the errors never correlated to issues on the backend servers.

Digging deeper into the issue, we discovered the inexplicable errors were only occurring in Google Chrome and its open source brother Chromium. What puzzled us most, was that an error that is essentialy a time out error occurred instantly, click a link and bam, there it was. Eventually, with much debugging and logging, we discovered that certain behaviour in Chrome could fairly consistently trigger the error. Most of time, hovering a bit before clicking a link would trigger it.

As it turns out, it's Google pre-connect feature that was causing the error. We're not completely clear on the exact changes to Chrome that cause it (this feature has been in Chrome for about three years), but the basic cause is that Chrome opens a TCP connection to the webserver and leaves it open without sending a request. The idea being that if you predict click behaviour, you can do all the TCP stuff first and get the data instantly when the user requests it, offering a faster browsing experience. This means that Chrome will open a TCP connection when a user hovers a link (among other things, it appears things like browsing history are also factored into the equation) and send the GET request for that link once the link is actually clicked. While it's abusing HTTP, it will usually be OK, but not in the case of HaProxy which has to be careful with its resources as it's handling traffic for many (tens, possibly hundreds) of web servers.

HaProxy will only wait for so long after a TCP connection was etablished before issuing a timeout, typically 2 seconds. This means that the TCP connection opened by Chrome to speed up your browsing, may already have received a timeout before the actual link is even clicked. Once the user finally does click the link, HaProxy already has its 408 message ready to go and smacks it into the user's face instantly. This is because HaProxy does exactly what the HTTP protocol expects it to do: report the error and close the connection. Because Chrome at this point thinks it has already received data for the requested page, it serves this data - which contains no more than the 408 error - directly to the user.

The solution to this problem is as easy as it is problematic: having HaProxy serve /dev/null on a 408. This is problematic because it breaks HTTP: an error should be reported, but we don't, just to allow Chrome's weird behaviour. Sending /dev/null as the error means that HaProxy closes the connection, but sends no data, so Chrome has no alternative than to reconnect en re-request the page. Problem solved, but not as neatly as you would want.

The feature has been in Chrome for years, but has only now become a problem, we've filed it as a bug and hopefully the issue wil be resolved soon. Meanwhile, if you're using Chrome, it's definitely adviseable to disable this feature for now (see http://www.technize.net/chrome-extra-bandwidth/). We can now work around the problem on our end, but there are many reports of other loadbalanced websites experiencing the exact same issue. Since writing this article, a blog post on the issue has also surfaced on the official HaProxy blog: http://blog.haproxy.com/2014/05/26/haproxy-and-http-errors-408-in-chrome/