HTTP Working GroupM. Nottingham
Internet-DraftMarch 31, 2023
Intended status: Standards Track
Expires: October 2, 2023

Retrofit Structured Fields for HTTP


This specification nominates a selection of existing HTTP fields as having syntax that is compatible with Structured Fields, so that they can be handled as such (subject to certain caveats).

To accommodate some additional fields whose syntax is not compatible, it also defines mappings of their semantics into new Structured Fields. It does not specify how to negotiate their use.

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1. Introduction

Structured Field Values for HTTP [STRUCTURED-FIELDS] introduced a data model with associated parsing and serialization algorithms for use by new HTTP field values. Fields that are defined as Structured Fields can realise a number of benefits, including:

However, a field needs to be defined as a Structured Field for these benefits to be realised. Many existing fields are not, making up the bulk of header and trailer fields seen in HTTP traffic on the internet.

This specification defines how a selection of existing HTTP fields can be handled as Structured Fields, so that these benefits can be realised -- thereby making them Retrofit Structured Fields.

It does so using two techniques. Section 2 lists compatible fields -- those that can be handled as if they were Structured Fields due to the similarity of their defined syntax to that in Structured Fields. Section 3 lists mapped fields -- those whose syntax needs to be transformed into an underlying data model which is then mapped into that defined by Structured Fields.

Note that while implementations can parse and serialise compatible fields as Structured Fields subject to the caveats in Section 2, a sender cannot generate mapped fields from Section 3 and expect them to be understood and acted upon by the recipient without prior negotiation. This specification does not define such a mechanism.

1.1. Notational Conventions

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in BCP 14 [RFC2119] [RFC8174] when, and only when, they appear in all capitals, as shown here.

2. Compatible Fields

The HTTP fields listed in Table 1 can usually have their values handled as Structured Fields according to the listed parsing and serialisation algorithms in [STRUCTURED-FIELDS], subject to the listed caveats.

The listed types are chosen for compatibility with the defined syntax of the field as well as with actual internet traffic. However, not all instances of these fields will successfully parse. This might be because the field value is clearly invalid, or it might be because it is valid but not parseable as a Structured Field.

An application using this specification will need to consider how to handle such field values. Depending on its requirements, it might be advisable to reject such values, treat them as opaque strings, or attempt to recover a structured value from them in an ad hoc fashion.

Table 1: Compatible Fields
Field NameStructured Type

Note the following caveats regarding compatibility:

Parsing differences:
Some values may fail to parse as Structured Fields, even though they are valid according to their originally specified syntax. For example, HTTP parameter names are case-insensitive (per Section 5.6.6 of [HTTP]), but Structured Fields require them to be all-lowercase. Likewise, many Dictionary-based fields (e.g., Cache-Control, Expect-CT, Pragma, Prefer, Preference-Applied, Surrogate-Control) have case-insensitive keys. Similarly, the parameters rule in HTTP (see Section 5.6.6 of [HTTP]) allows whitespace before the ";" delimiter, but Structured Fields does not. And, Section 5.6.4 of [HTTP] allows backslash-escaping most characters in quoted strings, whereas Structured Field Strings only escape "\" and DQUOTE. The vast majority of fields seen in typical traffic do not exhibit these behaviors.
Error handling:
Parsing algorithms specified (or just widely implemented) for current HTTP headers may differ from those in Structured Fields in details such as error handling. For example, HTTP specifies that repeated directives in the Cache-Control header field have a different precedence than that assigned by a Dictionary structured field (which Cache-Control is mapped to).
Token limitations:
In Structured Fields, tokens are required to begin with an alphabetic character or "*", whereas HTTP tokens allow a wider range of characters. This prevents use of mapped values that begin with one of these characters. For example, media types, field names, methods, range-units, character and transfer codings that begin with a number or special character other than "*" might be valid HTTP protocol elements, but will not be able to be represented as Structured Field Tokens.
Integer limitations:
Structured Fields Integers can have at most 15 digits; larger values will not be able to be represented in them.
IPv6 Literals:
Fields whose values contain IPv6 literal addresses (such as CDN-Loop, Host, and Origin) are not able to be represented as Structured Fields Tokens, because the brackets used to delimit them are not allowed in Tokens.
Empty Field Values:
Empty and whitespace-only field values are considered errors in Structured Fields. For compatible fields, an empty field indicates that the field should be silently ignored.
Some ALPN tokens (e.g., h3-Q43) do not conform to key's syntax, and therefore cannot be represented as a Token. Since the final version of HTTP/3 uses the h3 token, this shouldn't be a long-term issue, although future tokens may again violate this assumption.
Note that Content-Length is defined as a List because it is not uncommon for implementations to mistakenly send multiple values. See Section 8.6 of [HTTP] for handling requirements.
Only the delta-seconds form of Retry-After can be represented; a Retry-After value containing a http-date will need to be converted into delta-seconds to be conveyed as a Structured Field Value.

3. Mapped Fields

Some HTTP field values have syntax that cannot be successfully parsed as Structured Fields. Instead, it is necessary to map them into a separate Structured Field with an alternative name.

For example, the Date HTTP header field carries a date:

Date: Sun, 06 Nov 1994 08:49:37 GMT

Its value would be mapped to:

SF-Date: @784111777

As in Section 2, these fields are unable to carry values that are not valid Structured Fields, and so an application using this specification will need to how to support such values. Typically, handling them using the original field name is sufficient.

Each field name listed below indicates a replacement field name and a means of mapping its original value into a Structured Field.

3.1. URLs

The field names in Table 2 (paired with their mapped field names) have values that can be mapped into Structured Fields by treating the original field's value as a String.

Table 2: URL Fields
Field NameMapped Field Name

For example, this Location field


could be mapped as:

SF-Location: ""

3.2. Dates

The field names in Table 3 (paired with their mapped field names) have values that can be mapped into Structured Fields by parsing their payload according to Section 5.6.7 of [HTTP] and representing the result as a Date.

Table 3: Date Fields
Field NameMapped Field Name

For example, an Expires field could be mapped as:

SF-Expires: @1659578233

3.3. ETags

The field value of the ETag header field can be mapped into the SF-ETag Structured Field by representing the entity-tag as a String, and the weakness flag as a Boolean "w" parameter on it, where true indicates that the entity-tag is weak; if 0 or unset, the entity-tag is strong.

For example, this:

ETag: W/"abcdef"
SF-ETag: "abcdef"; w

If-None-Match's field value can be mapped into the SF-If-None-Match Structured Field, which is a List of the structure described above. When a field value contains "*", it is represented as a Token.

Likewise, If-Match's field value can be mapped into the SF-If-Match Structured Field in the same manner.

For example:

SF-If-None-Match: "abcdef"; w, "ghijkl", *

3.4. Cookies

The field values of the Cookie and Set-Cookie fields [COOKIES] can be mapped into the SF-Cookie Structured Field (a List) and SF-Set-Cookie Structured Field (a List), respectively.

In each case, a cookie is represented as an Inner List containing two Items; the cookie name and value. The cookie name is always a String; the cookie value is a String, unless it can be successfully parsed as the textual representation of another, bare Item structured type (e.g., Byte Sequence, Decimal, Integer, Token, or Boolean).

Cookie attributes map to Parameters on the Inner List, with the parameter name being forced to lowercase. Cookie attribute values are Strings unless a specific type is defined for them. This specification defines types for existing cookie attributes in Table 4.

Table 4: Set-Cookie Parameter Types
Parameter NameStructured Type

The Expires attribute is mapped to a Date representation of parsed-cookie-date (see Section 5.1.1 of [COOKIES]).

For example, these unstructured fields:

Set-Cookie: lang=en-US; Expires=Wed, 09 Jun 2021 10:18:14 GMT;
               samesite=Strict; secure
Cookie: SID=31d4d96e407aad42; lang=en-US

can be mapped into:

SF-Set-Cookie: ("lang" "en-US"); expires=@1623233894;
               samesite=Strict; secure
SF-Cookie: ("SID" "31d4d96e407aad42"), ("lang" "en-US")

4. IANA Considerations

Please add the following note to the "Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) Field Name Registry":

Then, add a new column, "Structured Type", with the values from Section 2 assigned to the nominated registrations, prefixing each with "*" to indicate that it is a retrofit type.

Then, add the field names in Table 5, with the corresponding Structured Type as indicated, a status of "permanent" and referring to this document.

Table 5: New Fields
Field NameStructured Type

Finally, add a new column to the "Cookie Attribute Registry" established by [COOKIES] with the title "Structured Type", using information from Table 4.

5. Security Considerations

Section 2 identifies existing HTTP fields that can be parsed and serialised with the algorithms defined in [STRUCTURED-FIELDS]. Variances from existing parser behavior might be exploitable, particularly if they allow an attacker to target one implementation in a chain (e.g., an intermediary). However, given the considerable variance in parsers already deployed, convergence towards a single parsing algorithm is likely to have a net security benefit in the longer term.

Section 3 defines alternative representations of existing fields. Because downstream consumers might interpret the message differently based upon whether they recognise the alternative representation, implementations are prohibited from generating such fields unless they have negotiated support for them with their peer. This specification does not define such a mechanism, but any such definition needs to consider the implications of doing so carefully.

6. Normative References

Bingler, S., West, M., and J. Wilander, “Cookies: HTTP State Management Mechanism”, Internet-Draft draft-ietf-httpbis-rfc6265bis-11 (work in progress), November 2022.
Fielding, R., Ed., Nottingham, M., Ed., and J. Reschke, Ed., “HTTP Semantics”, STD 97, RFC 9110, DOI 10.17487/RFC9110, June 2022, <>.
Bradner, S., “Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels”, BCP 14, RFC 2119, DOI 10.17487/RFC2119, March 1997, <>.
Leiba, B., “Ambiguity of Uppercase vs Lowercase in RFC 2119 Key Words”, BCP 14, RFC 8174, DOI 10.17487/RFC8174, May 2017, <>.
Nottingham, M. and P. Kamp, “Structured Field Values for HTTP”, Internet-Draft draft-ietf-httpbis-sfbis-01 (work in progress), December 2022.

Author's Address

Mark Nottingham