IEInternals

A look at Internet Explorer from the inside out. @EricLaw left Microsoft in 2012, but was named an IE MVP in '13 & an IE userAgent (http://useragents.ie) in '14

Bugs in IE8's Lookahead Downloader

Bugs in IE8's Lookahead Downloader

All bugs mentioned in this post are now fixed. 

Internet Explorer has a number of features designed to render pages more quickly. One of these features is called the "Lookahead Downloader" and it's used to quickly scan the page as it comes in, looking for the URLs of resources which will be needed later in the rendering of the page (specifically, JavaScript files). The lookahead downloader runs ahead of the main parser and is much simpler-- its sole job is to hunt for those resource urls and get requests into the network request queue as quickly as possible. These download requests are called "speculative downloads" because it is not known whether the resources will actually be needed by the time that the main parser reaches the tags containing the URLs. For instance, inline JavaScript runs during the main rendering phase, and such script could (in theory) actually remove the tags which triggered the speculative downloads in the first place. However, this "speculative miss" corner case isn't often encountered, and even if it happens, it's basically harmless, as the speculative request will result in downloading a file which is never used.

IE8 Bugs and their impact
Unfortunately, since shipping IE8, we've discovered two problems in the lookahead downloader code that cause Internet Explorer to make speculative requests for incorrect URLs. Generally this has no direct impact on the visitor's experience, because when the parser actually reaches a tag that requires a subdownload, if the speculative downloader has not already requested the proper resource, the main parser will at that time request download of the proper resource. If your page encounters one of these two problems, typically:

  • The visitor will not notice any problems like script errors, etc
  • The visitor will have a slightly slower experience when rendering the page because the speculative requests all "miss"
  • Your IIS/Apache logs will note requests for non-existent or incorrect resources

If your server is configured to respond in some unusual way (e.g. logging the user out) upon request of a non-existent URL, the impact on your user-experience may be more severe.

The BASE Bug

Update: The BASE bug is now
 
fixed.

The first problem is that the speculative downloader "loses" the <BASE> element after its first use. This means that if your page at URL A contains a tag sequence as follows:

<html><head><base href=B><script src=relC><script src=relD><script src=relE><body>

which requests 3 JavaScript files from the path specified in "B", IE8's speculative downloader will incorrectly request download of URLs "B+relC", and "A+relD" and "A+relE". Correct behavior is to request download of URLs "B+relC", "B+relD", and "B+relE". Hence, in this case, two incorrect requests are sent, usually resulting in 404s from the server. Of course, when the main parser gets to these script tags, it will determine that "B+relC" is already available, but "B+relD", and "B+relE" have not yet been requested, and it will request those correct two URLs and complete rendering of the page.

At present, there is no simple workaround for this issue. Technically, the following syntax will result in proper behavior:

 <html><head><base href=B><script src=relC><base href=B><script src=relD><base href=B><script src=relE><body>

...but this is not standards-compliant and is not recommended. If the page removes its reliance upon the BASE tag, the problem will no longer occur.

Remember: The BASE bug is now fixed.

The Missing 4k Bug

Update: The 4k bug is now fixed. 

The second problem is significantly more obscure, although a number of web developers have noticed it and filed a bug on Connect. Basically, the problem here is that there are a number of tags which will cause the parser and lookahead downloader to restart scanning of the page from the beginning. One such tag is the META HTTP-EQUIV Content-Type tag which contains a CHARSET directive. Since the CHARSET specified in this tag defines what encoding is used for the page, the parser must restart to ensure that is parsing the bytes of the page in the encoding intended by the author. Unfortunately, IE8 has a bug where the restart of the parser may cause incorrect behavior in the Lookahead downloader, depending on certain timing and network conditions.

The incorrect behavior occurs if your page contains a JavaScript URL which spans exactly the 4096th byte of the HTTP response. If such a URL is present, under certain timing conditions the lookahead downloader will attempt to download a malformed URL consisting of the part of the URL preceding the 4096th byte combined with whatever text follows the 8192nd byte, up to the next quotation mark. Web developers encountering this problem will find that their logs contain requests for bogus URLs with long strings of URLEncoded HTML at the end.

As with the previous bug, end users will not typically notice this problem, but examination of the IIS logs will show the issue.

For many instances of this bug, a workaround is available-- the problem only appears to occur when the parser restarts, so by avoiding parser restarts, you can avoid the bug.  By declaring the CHARSET of the page using the HTTP Content-Type header rather than specifying it within the page, you can remove one cause of parser restarts.

So, rather than putting

<META HTTP-EQUIV="Content-Type" CONTENT="text/html; charset=utf-8">

In your HEAD tag, instead, send the following HTTP response header:

Content-Type: text/html; charset=utf-8

Note that specification of the charset in the HTTP header results in improved performance in all browsers, because the browser's parsers need not restart parsing from the beginning upon encountering the character set declaration. Furthermore, using the HTTP header helps mitigate certain XSS attack vectors.

Unfortunately, however, suspension of the parser (e.g. when it encounters an XML Namespace declaration) can also result in this problem, and it's not feasible for a web developer to avoid suspension of the parser.

But, remember: The 4k bug is now fixed. 

Summary
While these problems are significant, they are not so dire as some readers will conclude at first glance. The second bug, in particular, is quite rarely encountered due to its timing-related nature and the requirement that page have a JavaScript URL spanning a particular byte in the response. Encountering the second issue is not nearly as prevalent as some web developers believe-- for instance, we've heard claims that IE6, 7, and Firefox all have this problem, which is entirely untrue. Readers can easily determine if a page is hitting either bug by examining server logs, or watching network requests with Fiddler.

The IE team will continue our investigation into these bugs and, as with any reported issues, may choose to make available an IE8 update to resolve the issues.

Remember: All bugs mentioned in this post are now fixed. 

Apologies for the inconvenience, and thanks for reading!

-Eric

  • @figz: No. While it's true that IE9 development is well underway, Microsoft continues to issue updates for browsers for ~10 years after they are released.

  • Just to inform you that some of us (see URL submitted with this post) encouter that bug is preventing some of us to use the Silverligth interfaces of SharePoint 2010 on XP SP3 client machines.

  • I've updated this bug to reflect that both Lookahead Downloader issues are fixed.

    Note: There's still an active bug on the BASE element failing to be respected when the containing page runs in Standards mode and the BASE URI specifies a HREF that uses the FILE:// protocol.

    This is totally unrelated to the preparser issue discussed in this post.

  • Any idea when we can expect a patch for the base href/file URI bug Eric ?

  • Just to reiterate for folks who aren't reading the comment thread above:

    Unfortunately I'm not able to make any statements or speculations about IE code fixes (either availability or timeframe).

  • Just one question... Which version of IE is this fixed as of?  What KB etc do we need to tell our clients to install?

  • Ah, finally found your other post regarding the IE8 cumulative update.

  • @Luke: The bug only existed in IE8, and was fixed in the 3/30 Cumulative Update. Of course, clients should be installing all Cumulative Updates (which are, well, cumulative), but the 3/30 update was KB980182 and until June, that's the latest cumulative update.

  • Thanks Eric for continually keeping us up to date with regards to the 4k issue. You are a star!

    I noticed the following link is no longer accessible. Has the URL been updated?

    "https://connect.microsoft.com/IE/feedback/details/467062/bug-ie8-4k-dropped-invalid-viewstate-when-loading-scriptresource-axd-or-webresource-axd-asp-net"

  • @Kenza: Nope, that URL still works fine for me. I've heard a few reports from folks that have had problems viewing reports on CONNECT.

    FWIW: There's no useful data in the CONNECT bug that you won't find here.

  • I am using MSIE 9 and encountered exactly the same bug. The difference to the described scenario is only, that the whole document is inside an iframe. Any ideas why this isn't fixed?

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