Most HTTP responses include an entity which contains information for interpretation by a human user. Naturally, it is desirable to supply the user with the “best available” entity corresponding to the request. Unfortunately for servers and caches, not all users have the same preferences for what is “best,” and not all user agents are equally capable of rendering all entity types. For that reason, HTTP has provisions for several mechanisms for “content negotiation” — the process of selecting the best representation for a given response when there are multiple representations available.
Note: This is not called "format negotiation" because the alternate representations may be of the same media type, but use different capabilities of that type, be in different languages, etc.
Any response containing an entity-body MAY be subject to negotiation, including error responses.
There are two kinds of content negotiation which are possible in HTTP: server-driven and agent-driven negotiation. These two kinds of negotiation are orthogonal and thus may be used separately or in combination. One method of combination, referred to as transparent negotiation, occurs when a cache uses the agent-driven negotiation information provided by the origin server in order to provide server-driven negotiation for subsequent requests.
If the selection of the best representation for a response is made by an algorithm located at the server, it is called server-driven negotiation. Selection is based on the available representations of the response (the dimensions over which it can vary; e.g. language, content-coding, etc.) and the contents of particular header fields in the request message or on other information pertaining to the request (such as the network address of the client).
Server-driven negotiation is advantageous when the algorithm for selecting from among the available representations is difficult to describe to the user agent, or when the server desires to send its “best guess” to the client along with the first response (hoping to avoid the round-trip delay of a subsequent request if the “best guess” is good enough for the user). In order to improve the server’s guess, the user agent MAY include request header fields (Accept, Accept-Language, Accept-Encoding, etc.) which describe its preferences for such a response.
Server-driven negotiation has disadvantages:
1. It is impossible for the server to accurately determine what might be "best" for any given user, since that would require complete knowledge of both the capabilities of the user agent and the intended use for the response (e.g., does the user want to view it on screen or print it on paper?).
2. Having the user agent describe its capabilities in every request can be both very inefficient (given that only a small percentage of responses have multiple representations) and a potential violation of the user's privacy.
3. It complicates the implementation of an origin server and the algorithms for generating responses to a request.
4. It may limit a public cache's ability to use the same response for multiple user's requests.
HTTP/1.1 includes the following request-header fields for enabling server-driven negotiation through description of user agent capabilities and user preferences: Accept (section 14.1), Accept- Charset (section 14.2), Accept-Encoding (section 14.3), Accept- Language (section 14.4), and User-Agent (section 14.43). However, an origin server is not limited to these dimensions and MAY vary the response based on any aspect of the request, including information outside the request-header fields or within extension header fields not defined by this specification.
The Vary header field can be used to express the parameters the server uses to select a representation that is subject to server- driven negotiation. See section 13.6 for use of the Vary header field by caches and section 14.44 for use of the Vary header field by servers.
With agent-driven negotiation, selection of the best representation for a response is performed by the user agent after receiving an initial response from the origin server. Selection is based on a list of the available representations of the response included within the header fields or entity-body of the initial response, with each representation identified by its own URI. Selection from among the representations may be performed automatically (if the user agent is capable of doing so) or manually by the user selecting from a generated (possibly hypertext) menu.
Agent-driven negotiation is advantageous when the response would vary over commonly-used dimensions (such as type, language, or encoding), when the origin server is unable to determine a user agent’s capabilities from examining the request, and generally when public caches are used to distribute server load and reduce network usage.
Agent-driven negotiation suffers from the disadvantage of needing a second request to obtain the best alternate representation. This second request is only efficient when caching is used. In addition, this specification does not define any mechanism for supporting automatic selection, though it also does not prevent any such mechanism from being developed as an extension and used within HTTP/1.1.
HTTP/1.1 defines the 300 (Multiple Choices) and 406 (Not Acceptable) status codes for enabling agent-driven negotiation when the server is unwilling or unable to provide a varying response using server-driven negotiation.
Transparent negotiation is a combination of both server-driven and agent-driven negotiation. When a cache is supplied with a form of the list of available representations of the response (as in agent-driven negotiation) and the dimensions of variance are completely understood by the cache, then the cache becomes capable of performing server- driven negotiation on behalf of the origin server for subsequent requests on that resource.
Transparent negotiation has the advantage of distributing the negotiation work that would otherwise be required of the origin server and also removing the second request delay of agent-driven negotiation when the cache is able to correctly guess the right response.
This specification does not define any mechanism for transparent negotiation, though it also does not prevent any such mechanism from being developed as an extension that could be used within HTTP/1.1.