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REST – Epic Semantic Fail

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REST – Epic Semantic Fail

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Roy Fielding writes a PhD dissertation describing the architectural style of the World Wide Web. He coins the term ‘Representational State Transfer’ (REST) to describe it – after all, if you’re going to talk about something, you need to give it a name. Somehow, in a semantic shift of epic fail proportions, the term REST has also come to mean something completely different to most people, a ‘style’ of writing web services. This style has no agreed protocol.

The result? The internet is ablaze with an out of control REST flame war. It seems that many people think there’s a REST protocol when in fact there’s no such thing. Looking for a protocol in Roy Fielding’s dissertation will get you nowhere because it’s an academic paper describing an architectural style, there’s no protocol to be had. The only contribution Mr Fielding makes to the debate is to tell almost anyone who describes their API as RESTful, that it is not.

Writing RESTful web services, in practice – in the real world – means that you are on your own. You have to write your own protocol (probably implicitly, because you don’t even realise that’s what you’re doing). Now the whole thing about a protocol – TCP/IP, HTTP, SMTP, SOAP – is that everyone agrees on a set of (reasonably) unambiguous rules for communication. These can then be coded into libraries, toolkits, servers, what have you, and my Linux web server written in PHP can communicate with your .NET client running on Windows because the TCP/IP, HTTP and HTML specs are unambiguous enough to ensure that if you follow them stuff will work. If you write your own protocol and nobody else adopts it, it’s not very useful. If I want to write a client to communicate with your REST API I’m in a world of pain; there’s no serviceutil I can point at your API to generate me a proxy, instead I have to carefully read your documentation (if it exists) and then lovingly handcraft my client using low level HTTP API calls.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think a web service protocol based on a RESTful architectural style would be a wonderful thing, but let’s not kid ourselves that such a thing exists.

Show me the metadata.

The core missing pieces of any RESTful web service protocol are agreed standards on media type and link metadata. Everyone seems to agree that the Content-Type header should describe the structure and purpose of the resource, but currently it’s up for grabs how you might navigate from a media type description (like ‘application/vnb.sutekishop.customer+json’) to a machine readable schema definition for the customer – should it be XSD? JSON schema? . The same goes for hyperlinks. Although there’s an established HTML standard (the A tag), how links should be encoded in an XML or JSON representation is up to the individual API author. Similarly although there seems to be agreement that the link metadata should live at URI described by the ‘rel’ attribute, what that metadata should look like is also undefined.

Sure there are some valiant attempts to come up with a protocol – I quite liked HAL, and the HAL browser is an interesting take on how RIA UIs might be purely metadata driven at runtime – these are all still just proposals.

I think we’ll know when we have an established RESTful web service protocol, or protocols. It will be when we stop using the term ‘REST’ to describe what we are doing. When we’re writing SOAP based services we call them just that. “I’m writing a SOAP web service.” Not, “I’m writing ‘XML based RPC tunnelled over HTTP’”, which of course could be open to interpretation about exactly how we’re doing it. When we have an established protocol, ‘REST’ will be retuned to its rightful place, and the only people who will use the term will be software architecture academics like Mr Fielding.

Evolution works for me

So far the tone of this rant has been somewhat negative, It seems like I’ve been rubbishing the whole ‘REST’ project. Actually I think the current situation is healthy. Monolithic ‘enterprise’ protocols like SOAP usually end up being a bad idea. The internet is a soup of small layered protocols, each one simple in itself, but that work together to make a much larger whole. The debate around REST has reminded us that much of the infrastructure to create hugely scalable services already exists. If the community can build on this, and fill in the missing pieces, preferably with small protocols that solve each problem individually, then I think we will arrive at a much better place. My reason for writing this piece is simply a warning to the unwary, regular ‘Morts’ like myself, that when someone says, “Mike, can you write us a REST API?” to be aware that the rule book has not yet been written and that you will be making much of it up as you go along.

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