A Busy Developer's Guide to RESTful Services in Java

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A Busy Developer's Guide to RESTful Services in Java

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The Internet doesn't lack expositions on REST architecture, RESTful services, and their implementation in Java. But, here is another one. Why? Because I couldn't find something concise enough to point readers of the eValhalla blog series.

What is REST?
The acronym stands for Representational State Transfer. It refers to an architectural style (or pattern) thought up by one of the main authors of the HTTP protocol. Don't try to infer what the phrase "representational state transfer" could possibly mean. It sounds like there's some transfer of state that's going on between systems, but that's a bit of a stretch. Mostly, there's transfer of resources between clients and servers. The clients initiate requests and get back responses. The responses are resources in some standard media type such as XML  or JSON or HTML. But, and that's a crucial aspect of the paradigm, the interaction itself is stateless. That's a major architectural departure from the classic client-server model of the 90s. Unlike classic client-server, there's no notion of a client session here. 

REST is offered not as a procotol, but as an architectural paradigm. However, in reality we are pretty much talking about HTTP of which REST is an abstraction. The core aspects of the architecture are (1) resource identifiers (i.e. URIs);  (2) different possible representations of resources, or internet media types (e.g. application/json); (3) CRUD operations support for resources like the HTTP methods  GET, PUT, POST and DEL. 

Resources are in principle decoupled from their identifiers. That means the environment can deliver a cached version or it can load balance somehow to fulfill the request. In practice, we all know URIs are actually addresses that resolve to particular domains so there's at least that level of coupling.  In addition, resources are decoupled from their representation. A server may be asked to return HTML or XML or something else. There's content negotiation going on where the server may offer the desired representation or not. The CRUD operations have constraints on their semantics that may or may not appear obvious to you. The GET, PUT and DEL operations require that a resource be identified while POST is supposed to create a new resource.
The GET operation must not have side-effects. So all other things being equal, one should be able to invoke GET many times and get back the same result.  PUT updates a resource, DEL removes it and therefore they both have side-effects just like POST. On the other hand, just like GET, PUT may be repeated multiple times always to the same effect. In practice, those semantics are roughly followed. The main exception is the POST method which is frequently used to send data to the server for some processing, but without necessarily expecting it to create a new resource. 

Implementing RESTful services revolves around implementing those CRUD operations for various resources. This can be done in Java with the help of a Java standard API called JAX-RS.

REST in Java =  JAX-RS = JSR 311
In the Java world, when it comes to REST, we have the wonderful JAX-RS. And I'm not being sarcastic! This is one of those technologies that the Java Community Process actually got right, unlike so many other screw ups. The API is defined as JSR 311 and it is at version 1.1, with work on version 2.0 under way. 

The beauty of JAX-RS is that it is almost entirely driven by annotations. This means you can turn almost any class into a RESTful service. You can simply turn a POJO into a REST endpoint by annotating it with JSR 311 annotations. Such an annotated POJOs is called a resource class in JAX-RS terms.

Some of the JAX-RS annotations are at the class level, some at the method level and others at the method parameter level. Some are available both at class and method levels. Ultimately the annotations combine to make a given Java method into a RESTful endpoint accessible at an HTTP-based URL. The annotations must specify the following elements:

  • The relative path of the Java method - this is accomplished with @Path annotation.
  • What the HTTP verb is, i.e. what CRUD operation is being performed - this is done by specifying one of @GET, @PUT, @POST or @DELETE annotations. 
  • The media type accepted (i.e. the representation format) - @Consumes annotation.
  • The media type returned - @Produces annotation.

The two last ones are optional. If omitted, then all media types are assumed possible. Let's look at a simple example and take it apart:

import javax.ws.rs.*;

public class EmailService
    public String sendEmail(@FormParam("subject") String subject,
                            @FormParam("to") String to,
                            @FormParam("body") String body)  {
        return "new email sent";
    public String getUnread()  {
        return "[]";
    public String deleteEmail(@PathParam("id") int emailid)  {
        return "delete " + id;
    public String exportHtml(@QueryParam("searchString") 
                             @DefaultValue("") String search) {
        return "<table><tr>...</tr></table>";

The class define a RESTful interface for a hypothetical HTTP-based email service. The top-level path mail is relative to the root application path. The root application path is associated with the JAX-RS javax.ws.rs.core.Application  that you extend to plugin into the runtime environment. Then we've declared with the @Produces annotation that all methods in that service produce JSON. This is just a class-default that one can override for individual methods like we've done in the exportHtml method. The sendMail method defines a typical HTTP post where the content is sent as an HTML form. The intent here would be to post to http://myserver.com/mail/new a form for a new email that should be sent out. As you can see, the API allows you to bind each separate form field to a method parameter. Note also that you have a different method for the exact same path.

If you do an HTTP get at /mail/new, the Java method annotated with @GET will be called instead. Presumably the semantics of get /mail/new would be to obtain the list of unread emails. Next, note how the path of the deleteEmail method is parametarized by an integer id of the email to delete. The curly braces indicate that "id" is actually a parameter. The value of that parameter is bound to the whatever is annotated with  @PathParam("id"). Thus if we do an HTTP delete at http://myserver.com/mail/453 we would be calling the deleteEmail method with argument emailid=453. Finally, the exportHtml method demonstrates how we can get a handle on query parameters. When you annotate a parameter with @QueryParam("x") the value is taken from the HTTP query parameter named x. The @DefaultValue annotation provides a default in case that query parameter is missing. So, calling http://myserver.org/mail/export?searchString=RESTful will call the exportHtml method with a parameter search="RESTful".

To expose this service, first we need to write an implementation of javax.ws.rs.core.Application. That's just a few lines:

public class MyRestApp extends javax.ws.rs.core.Application {
   public Set>Class> getClasses() {
      HashSet S = new HashSet();
      return S;

How this gets plugged into your server depends on your JAX-RS implementation. Before we leave the API, I should mentioned that there's more to it. You do have access to a Request and Response objects. You have annotations to access other contextual information and metadata like HTTP headers, cookies etc. And you can provide custom serialization and deserialization between media types and Java objects.

RESTful vs Web Services
Web services (SOAP, WSDL) were heavily promoted in the past decade, but they didn't become as ubiquitous as their fans had hoped. Blame XML. Blame the rigidity of the XML Schema strong typing. Blame the tremendous overhead, the complexity of deploying and managing a web service. Or, blame the frequent compatibility nightmares between implementations. Reasons are not hard to find and the end result is that RESTful services are much easier to develop and use. But there is a flip side!

The simplicity of RESTful services means that one has less guidance in how to map application logic to a REST API. One of the issues is that instead of the programmatic types we have in programming languages, we have the Java primitives and media types. Fortunately, JAX-RS allows to implement whatever conversions we want between actual Java method arguments and what gets sent on the wire.  The other issue is the limited set of operations that a REST service can offer. While with web services, you define the operation and its semantics just as in a general purpose programming language, with RESTful you're stuck with get, put, post and delete. So, free from the type mismatch nightmare, but tied into only 4 possible operations. This is not as bad as it seems if you view those operations as abstract, meta operations.

The key point when designing RESTful services, whether you are exposing existing application logic or creating a new one, is to think in terms of data resources. That's not so hard since most of what common business applications do is manipulate data. First, because every single thing is identified as a resource, one must come up with an appropriate naming schema. Because URIs are hierarchical, it is easy to devise a nested structure like /productcategory/productname/version/partno. Second, one must decide what kinds of representations are to be supported, both in output and input. For a modern AJAX webpp, we'd mostly use JSON. I would recommend JSON over XML even in a B2B setting where servers talk to each other.

Finally, one must categorize business operation as one of GET, PUT, POST and DELETE. This is probably a bit less intuitive, but it's just a matter of getting used to. For example, instead of thinking about a "Checkout Shopping Cart" operation, think about POSTing a new order. Instead of thinking about a "Login User" operation think about GETing an authentication token. In general, every business operation manipulates some data in some way. Therefore, every business operation can fit into this crude CRUD model. Clearly, most read-only operations should be a GET. However, sometimes you have to send a large chunk of data to the server in which case you should use POST. For example you could post some very time consuming query that require a lot of text to specify. Then the resource you are creating is for example the query result. Another way to decide if you should POST or no is if you have a unique resource identifier. If not, then use POST. Obviously, operations that cause some data to be removed should be a DELETE. The operations that "store" data are PUT and again POST. Deciding between those two is easy: use PUT whenever you are modifying an existing resource for which you have an identifier. Otherwise, use POST. 

Implementations & Resources
There are several implementations to choose from. Since, I haven't tried them all, I can't offer specific comments. Most of them used to require a servlet containers. The  Restlet framework by Jerome Louvel never did, and that's why I liked it. Its documentation leaves to be desired and if you look at its code, it's over-architected to a comical degree, but then what ambitious Java framework isn't. Another newcomer that is strictly about REST and seems lightweight is Wink, an Apache incubated project. I haven't tried it, but it looks promising. And of course, one should not forget the reference implementation Jersey. Jersey has the advantage of being the most up-to-date with the spec at any given time. Originally it was dependent on Tomcat. Nowadays, it seems it can run standalone so it's on par with Restlet which I mentioned first because that's what I have mostly used. 

Here are some further reading resources, may their representational state be transferred to your brain and properly encoded from HTML/PDF to a compact and efficient neural net:
  1. The Wikipedia article on REST is not in very good shape, but still a starting point if you want to dig deeper into the conceptual framework. 
  2. Refcard from Dzone.com: http://refcardz.dzone.com/refcardz/rest-foundations-restful#refcard-download-social-buttons-display 
  3. Wink's User Guide seems well written. Since it's an implementation of JAX-RS, it's a good documentation of that technology.
  4. http://java.dzone.com/articles/putting-java-rest: A fairly good show-and-tell introduction to the JAX-RS API, with a link in there to a more in-depth description of REST concepts by the same author. Worth the read. 
  5.  http://jcp.org/en/jsr/detail?id=311: The official JSR 311 page. Download the specification and API Javadocs from there.
  6. http://jsr311.java.net/nonav/javadoc/index.html: Online access of JSR 311 Javadocs.
If you know of something better, something nice, please post it in a comment and I'll include in this list.

PS: I'm curious if people start new projects with Servlets, JSP/JSF these days? I would be curious as to what the rationale would be to pick those over AJAX + RESTful services communication via JSON. As I said above, this entry is intended to help readers of the eValhalla blogs series which chronicles the development of the eValhalla project following precisely the AJAX+REST model.



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