Debian's curl now supports HTTP3

Samuel Henrique (samueloph) July 04, 2024 [debian, curl]


Starting with curl 8.0.0-2, you can now use HTTP3.

curl --http3-only

Or, if you would like to try it out in a container:

podman run debian:unstable apt install --update -y curl && curl --http3-only

(in case you haven't noticed, apt now has the --update option for the upgrade and install commands, although not available on stable yet)


The challenge

HTTP3 is fresh new, well... not really, but at least fresh enough that I'm not aware of any other Linux distribution supporting it on curl, the reason is likely two-fold:

  1. OpenSSL is not there yet

    OpenSSL still doesn't have proper HTTP3 support, and given that OpenSSL is so widely used, almost every curl distributor/packager will build curl with it and thus changing the TLS backend to something else is risky.

    Unfortunately, proper support for the OpenSSL libcurl is unlikely to come anytime before the end of this year, the OpenSSL performance is not good enough yet as of version 3.3.

    Daniel Stenberg has written about the state of this multiple times, most recently at HTTP/3 in curl mid 2024, if you're interested, I suggest reading through his other posts as well.

    Some might have noticed that nginx does support HTTP3 through OpenSSL, although when you look closely, it's not exactly perfect:

    An SSL library that provides QUIC support is recommended to build nginx, such as BoringSSL, LibreSSL, or QuicTLS. Otherwise, the OpenSSL compatibility layer will be used that does not support early data.

    As you can see, they don't recommend using OpenSSL, and when doing so, you don't get complete support.

  2. HTTP3 support for GnuTLS/nghttp3/ngtcp2 is recent

    The non-experimental support arrived back in October 2023, and so that's when I started seriously planning for this.

    curl has been working on HTTP3 support for years, and so it did support other TLS backends before that, but out of them, the one most feasible for a distribution to ship would be GnuTLS, which gets HTTP3 support through ngctp2 and nghttp3.

How it was done

The Debian curl package has historically shipped at least two variants of libcurl, an OpenSSL and a GnuTLS one.

The OpenSSL libcurl can't support HTTP3 for the reasons explained above, but the GnuTLS libcurl can (with ngtcp2 and nghtp3).

Debian packages can choose which version of libcurl to link against (without having to modify any upstream source code). Debian's "git" package being a famous example of a package that links against the GnuTLS libcurl.

Enabling HTTP3 on curl was done in three steps:

  1. Make sure all required dependencies fulfill the minimum requirements.
  2. Enable HTTP3 for GnuTLS libcurl.
  3. Change the libcurl used by the curl CLI, from OpenSSL to GnuTLS.

curl's HTTP3 support requires a somewhat recent version of nghttp3 and updating that required a transition (due to the SONAME bump), while we've also had months of freeze for transitions due to the time_t transition.

After the dependencies were in place, enabling HTTP3 for the GnuTLS libcurl was straightforward.

Then, for the last part, we had to switch the TLS backend used by the curl CLI. Doing the swap is also quite easy on the packaging level, but we have to consider the chances of this change breaking our users' environments.

Ensuring there are no breakages

The first thing to consider regarding breakages is that this change is not going to be pushed directly to the current Debian stable releases, it will be present in the next stable release (13/trixie) but the current one will stick to the version that's already shipped.

Secondly, we have to consider the risk of losing the ability to use certain parameters from the curl CLI which could be limited to the OpenSSL backend. During curl-up 2024, the curl developers pointed out the existence of a page that lists the TLS related options and the backends they work with.

Analysing that page, ignoring all of the options that are suffixed with "BLOB" (only pertinent to the library, not the CLI), the only one left which is attention worthy is CURLOPT_ECH.

This experimental feature requires a special build of OpenSSL, as ECH is not yet supported in OpenSSL releases. In contrast ECH is supported by the latest BoringSSL and wolfSSL releases.

As it turns out, Encrypted Client Hello is experimental and it's not supported by the vanilla OpenSSL.

This was enough of an investigation for me to go ahead with the change. Noting that even in the worst case scenario (we find a horrible regression), we can rollback without having affected a single stable release.

Now that the package is on Debian unstable, the CI tests (autopkgtest) of every package that depends on curl is currently running, the results are compared against the migration-reference (in this case, the curl CLI with OpenSSL, before the change).

If everything goes right, curl with HTTP3 support will migrate to Debian testing in around 5 days. If we spot any issues, we'll have to solve them first and it's going to be hard to predict how long it takes, although it's fair to expect less than a month.


Feel free to join the Matrix room for the Debian curl maintainers:
We have historically spoken Portuguese in the room but we'll switch to English in case anyone joins.


It took us a bit longer than expected to be able to enable HTTP3, nonetheless it's still early enough to be excited about.

A lot of people were crucial to make this happen.

I should recognize in the first place, obviously, the curl developers and the developers of the supporting libraries: GnuTLS, nghttp3, ngtcp2. Participating in the curl-up 2024 conference helped me get motivated to push this through, besides becoming aware of the right documentation to research for impact.

On the Debian side, Sakirnth Nagarasa <sakirnth> was responsible for updating and taking care of the transition for nghttp3 and ngtcp2.

Also on the Debian side, I've got loads of help and support from the co-maintainers of the curl package: Sergio Durigan Junior <sergiodj> and Carlos Henrique Lima Melara <charles>.