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REST Revisited

REST Revisited

REST Revisited

Two weeks ago, I wrote What the REST?, asking for help answering questions around REST that I thought were incomplete. With all the beauty of REST and HATEOAS, I was coming across very real challenges and gaps when trying to write a tutorial on how to do it well. It seemed like there was a lot of talk, but not a lot of real-world proven examples to back this all up.

Wonderfully, a lot of people showed up to offer their thoughts, which you can see as comments on that post. In this entry, I wanted to summarize the problems and the solutions we found. I may still say some wrong things, and hopefully people will once again come to my rescue.

Overall, one big message is that you don't really want to get REST perfect. You want to get as close as you can, then bend the rules happily when it makes sense. Also, the "best practices" don't really exist, and there really are holes in how this should all be done. So if you can't find out the "right" way to do something, it may be because there isn't a "right" way. Instead, do your best to make an educated decision.


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Original discussion

Since a link contains a URI, and a URI is an address to a resource, the difference between a link and a resource can be fuzzy. In fact, if your API were entirely made up of only so-called CRUD operations (e.g. creating a user, viewing a representation of that user, editing that user, deleting the user), then each resource will probably only have one link to it.

But as soon as you have some special, non-standard action that needs to be taken on a resource, then you may have 2, 3 or more links to that resource. I mentioned that with a HAL example. This is what I argued in my first post, and I think it's correct, or close enough.

2. Self-Describing APIs and "rels"

One of the seeming advantages of a truly RESTful API is that it has the potential of being self-describing, which means that you can learn everything you need to know about the API from the API. After talking with people (especially Luke Stokes and Larry Garfield), I think the importance of this is over-emphasized. And worse, it's probably very difficult to achieve.

Remember that HATEOAS (at least how we're using it) emphasizes links and says that the rel of the link describes its importance. Instead of coding our clients to the URIs, we code them to recognize the rel of a link and know how to process it. To quote Larry:

It's not reasonable to expect a client to see a new rel it doesn't understand
and somehow derive meaning from it. However, if it sees a rel that it *does*
understand, in concept, then it should be able to know what it means
and figure out logically what it means in relation to the source of the

To use the example you already cited, a client that knows what "next"
and "prev" mean can automatically "know" what it should do with those
links if it sees them on a resource. If it sees "bob", though, it doesn't
know what "bob" means. It should therefore ignore it until a human comes
along and programs in the Meaning of Bob. Documentation is for a human.

So the lifecycle of developing an API client might look like this:

A. A human crawls the API by starting on the homepage and observing the links. When the human sees an interesting link, the rel is used to look up the human documentation, which tells him the HTTP methods available, fields, and other information (see The 4 Missing Pieces of a Link).

B. The human programs the API client to go to the homepage and look for a link with the "rel" that he looked up previously. The client uses the URI from that link along with information that the human has hardcoded into the client (like the HTTP method to use and fields to send). This hardcoded information came from the human documentation.

C. A month later, the API author changes the URI behind one of the links. The client doesn't notice or care, since it's looking at the "rel" of the link and using whatever URI is there. This is all a bit theoretical, but hopefully it makes sense.

D. 3 months later, a new link relation is created on the homepage. The client initially doesn't see it or care about it, since it's not hardcoded to look for the "rel" on this link.

E. The human reads a blog post about a sweet new feature to the API, which is exposed via the above-mentioned new link. He surfs the API, notices the link and looks up the human documentation via its "rel". He then adds code to the client to look for this "rel" and tells the client exactly what to do when it follows it (e.g. make a PUT request with the following parameters). He looked up those details in the human API.

That's it! Rinse and repeat. As long as a human can find documentation for a "rel", then we're in good shape. The client responds to "rel"s that it recognizes, because a human has looked up the documentation on that rel and filled in the missing pieces.

So the "rel" becomes the new all-important key, instead of the URI. But really, both are very similar. Both the "rel" in a HATEOAS API and a URI in an older API somehow give you a pointer to the documentation. And in both cases, a human is needed to read that and figure out exactly how to make a request.


More information-rich formats like JSON-LD

Like I mentioned in my previous post, there are other formats like JSON-LD that seem to try to offer even more information about the link, like what fields are in it and how that information should be sent in the request (e.g. as simple application/json or application/x-www-form-urlencoded). I think this is really interesting. However, I still think that a human needs to be involved. Even if you can programmatically determine that an endpoint needs firstName and lastName fields, your API client will need to be programmed to figure out the significance of these fields and what data goes into which field. Your client could give you warnings if something changes in the future (e.g. suddenly firstName is missing from the field list), but an API could also return a 400 validation error if you made a breaking change like this. In other words, I think this is cool, but I'm not sure I really see whether or not it gets us a whole lot further.

In my previous post, I mentioned 2 situations where I end up with only the URI without its rel.

For me, this was a serious problem. Even if we're relying on a human to find external documentation, the API should be easy for a human to use. This means that whenever the API isn't self-describing, it should tell us where the documentation lives. The "rel" is the pointer to the documentation, except that it's missing in these 2 cases.

It turns out that this is maybe ok. What!? Let's revisit the first situation: I POST to create a new user resource. The response contains a 201 status code with a Location header to /users/5, but no rel.

After talking with Luke Stokes, he pointed out that in order to even know how to POST to create the user, a human would have needed to look at the documentation for the users rel (something like https://api.example.com/rels/users, which we would have discovered by walking the API). As long as that documentation clearly states that POST'ing will create a user resource and that the "main rel" to that resource is https://api.example.com/rels/user, then we're in business! The user can then look up that documentation to figure out what to do with the URI in the Location header.

Embedded Resources: Not as Clean

The same could be argued for the second place this problem shows up, embedded resources (example). In other words, you should look at the "https://api.example.com/rels/users" rel documentation to see that the embedded users key contains items whose "main rel" is https://api.example.com/rels/user.

But this "smells" to me a little bit. I think a link should always give me enough information to follow it. In our API, that means a URI and a rel so that we can look up the rest of the information in the human docs. This is missing from embedded resources, and I think that's unfortunate.

This also affects how we program our API client. When we see these links, we don't know if we recognize how to use them because the rel is missing. Instead of hardcoding the "rel" and looking for it, we would need to hardcode the fact that the embedded users resource after following a https://api.example.com/rels/users link contains links whose "self" is https://api.example.com/rels/user. That's a bummer.

A Better Way?

First, this problem doesn't need to be solved. All the information is there for the human to understand the API and for the client to use it. I think the API could be more useable for the human and a little cleaner for the client, but it's not the end of the world.

I think that a link should always give us enough information to follow it, even if that means just pointing us to the docs. And for the simplicity of the API client, I think every link should have a "rel" so that we know if this is a link that we have already programmed the client to understand.

One suggestion that Raul Fraile from ServerGrove suggested is to add a header on the 201 response when creating a resource (e.g. X-Location-Rel: https://api.example.com/rels/user). For me, this is kind of cool because if we think of the response as a "link", it now contains the URI (Location header) and the rel (X-Location-Rel header). The only downside is that it's odd to invent things like this when this is clearly a problem shared by many people.

But what about the embedded resources issue? For this, I don't know. Could we duplicate the "self" link by adding another link with the true "rel"? Should it be more clear that the "users" key will contain resources whose "main rel" is https://api.example.com/rels/user? Where would we put this?

On this issue, I'm still a little dissatisfied.


The "main rel" of a resource

I've said "main rel" a few times to mean the link to a resource that represents its CRUD operations. I'm not sure this is totally correct, but I invented this term because in practice, there is always a "main" link to a resource, which includes the implied GET operation that you can do on any resource. This link is represented as the "self" rel of an embedded resource.

4. Walking the API - Caching

One of the key assumptions of a REST API is that it will be used by REST API clients. This means that your API clients will not hardcode your URIs, but will instead "browse" your API whenever it needs to do something, looking for link rels that it recognizes.

In reality, while you may have some true REST clients, if your API is used by many people, a lot of them will probably hardcode your URLs. I think that's life, and as long as we've made the API easy to understand for these people, then it's ok. This includes explaining clearly that the documentation is connected to the "rel" and (ideally) making sure people don't get stranded without a rel, like I talked about in the previous section.

But if you do build an API client, this means that it will always start from the homepage of the API and browse to where it needs to go. At first, this seems like a REST client could never be fast. Instead of hardcoding a URI and making 1 request, we browse the API and maybe make 2, 3 or more requests.

But Luke pointed out that this is where HTTP caching comes into play. If you've designed your REST API well, then you're returning HTTP caching headers that allow the client to cache the responses. This means that even though your code may look like it's making 4 API requests, the first 3 that browse the API are cached, meaning no request is actually made.

This sounds complicated, but if you use Guzzle to make the API requests in your client, then it happens automatically by using their HTTP Cache Plugin. So if "making too many requests" was one of your worries, it may not be such a big deal.

5. Custom Actions

One of the most difficult things to figure out is how custom "actions" should work on a resource. The basic operations are covered by the HTTP verbs GET, POST, PUT and DELETE. But what if I have an endpoint to /users that sends an invitation email to anyone that hasn't confirmed their registration yet? How should that look? Once again, Larry helped here by mentioning a few good points:

A) This is where REST starts to break down, so cheating here is not so bad.

B) POST is a great "fall-back" method to use for custom actions.

C) You can sort of, "invent" new URIs (i.e. resources) for these actions.

Larry gave 2 examples in his comment, and I'll give 2 more possibilities for my "resend" idea, which is a little bit less clean since we're operating on a collection resource. So, check out his comment and then come back:

PUT /users/reinvite (bad!)

POST /users/reinvite (better!)

In both cases, I used a new URI instead of POST'ing to /users with some special request body that indicated that I want to reinvite users instead of creating a new user resource. That point is debatable, but this seems cleaner.

Can you spot the problem with the first? It works in Larry's example (PUT /article/1/published with a body containing "1"), but in our example, this wouldn't be idempotent. That's an overused word, but I should always be able to issue a PUT request multiple times without adverse affects. In this example, making this request multiple times will probably email people multiple times. For that reason, POST is probably better.

My point here was to give a few examples that probably cheat a little with REST and show how the thinking on these endpoints is always a little fuzzy. I typically feel that someone will be able to come along and suggest a better way to format a custom verb. I hope they do. But in your API, choose something and live with it :).

To the Tutorial!

After all of this, I am once again working on the REST tutorial. In fact, we'll probably have 2: one for PHP talking about all the difficult things we've discussed here, and another for Symfony, using FOSRestBundle, and probably bundles like FSCHateoasBundle.

You can watch progress and contribute (that would be awesome) to the upcoming tutorial on GitHub. Or follow us on Twitter or Register and add yourself to the email list for a poke when it comes out.


Title image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/hmk/1442578687/

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