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Roy Fielding has weighed in on the recent "buzzwordiness" (hey, if Colbert can make up "truthiness", then I can make up "buzzwordiness") of calling everything a "REST API", a tactic that has become more en vogue of late as vendors discover that the general programming population is finding the WSDL-based XML services stack too complex to navigate successfully for all but the simplest of projects. Contrary to what many RESTafarians may be hoping, Roy doesn't gather all these wayward children to his breast and praise their anti-vendor/anti-corporate/anti-proprietary efforts, but instead, blasts them pretty seriously for mangling his term:

I am getting frustrated by the number of people calling any HTTP-based interface a REST API. Today’s example is the SocialSite REST API. That is RPC. It screams RPC. There is so much coupling on display that it should be given an X rating.

Ouch. "So much coupling on display that it should be given an X rating." I have to remember that phrase--that's a keeper. And I'm shocked that Roy even knows what an X rating is; he's such a mellow guy with such an innocent-looking face, I would've bet money he'd never run into one before. (Yes, people, that's a joke.)

What needs to be done to make the REST architectural style clear on the notion that hypertext is a constraint? In other words, if the engine of application state (and hence the API) is not being driven by hypertext, then it cannot be RESTful and cannot be a REST API. Period. Is there some broken manual somewhere that needs to be fixed?

Go Roy!

For those of you who've not read Roy's thesis, and are thinking that this is some kind of betrayal or trick, let's first of all point out that at no point is Roy saying that your nifty HTTP-based API is not useful or simple. He's simply saying that it isn't RESTful. That's a key differentiation. REST has a specific set of goals and constraints it was trying to meet, and as such prescribes a particular kind of architectural style to fit within those constraints. (Yes, REST is essentially an architectural pattern: a solution to a problem within a certain context that yields certain consequences.)

Assuming you haven't tuned me out completely already, allow me to elucidate. In Chapter 5 of Roy's thesis, Roy begins to build up the style that will ultimately be considered REST. I'm not going to quote each and every step here--that's what the hyperlink above is for--but simply call out certain parts. For example, in section 5.1.3, "Stateless", he suggests that this architectural style should be stateless in nature, and explains why; the emphasis/italics are mine:

We next add a constraint to the client-server interaction: communication must be stateless in nature, as in the client-stateless-server (CSS) style of Section 3.4.3 (Figure 5-3), such that each request from client to server must contain all of the information necessary to understand the request, and cannot take advantage of any stored context on the server. Session state is therefore kept entirely on the client.

This constraint induces the properties of visibility, reliability, and scalability. Visibility is improved because a monitoring system does not have to look beyond a single request datum in order to determine the full nature of the request. Reliability is improved because it eases the task of recovering from partial failures [133]. Scalability is improved because not having to store state between requests allows the server component to quickly free resources, and further simplifies implementation because the server doesn't have to manage resource usage across requests.

Like most architectural choices, the stateless constraint reflects a design trade-off. The disadvantage is that it may decrease network performance by increasing the repetitive data (per-interaction overhead) sent in a series of requests, since that data cannot be left on the server in a shared context. In addition, placing the application state on the client-side reduces the server's control over consistent application behavior, since the application becomes dependent on the correct implementation of semantics across multiple client versions.

In the HTTP case, the state is contained entirely in the document itself, the hypertext. This has a couple of implications for those of us building "distributed applications", such as the very real consideration that there's a lot of state we don't necessarily want to be sending back to the client, such as voluminous information (the user's e-commerce shopping cart contents) or sensitive information (the user's credentials or single-signon authentication/authorization token). This is a bitter pill to swallow for the application development world, because much of the applications we develop have some pretty hefty notions of server-based state management that we want or need to preserve, either for legacy support reasons, for legitimate concerns (network bandwidth or security), or just for ease-of-understanding. Fielding isn't apologetic about it, though--look at the third paragraph above. "[T]he stateless constraint reflects a design trade-off."

In other words, if you don't like it, fine, don't follow it, but understand that if you're not leaving all the application state on the client, you're not doing REST.

By the way, note that technically, HTTP is not tied to HTML, since the document sent back and forth could easily be a PDF document, too, particularly since PDF supports hyperlinks to other PDF documents. Nowhere in the thesis do we see the idea that it has to be HTML flying back and forth.

Roy's thesis continues on in the same vein; in section 5.1.4 he describes how "client-cache-stateless-server" provides some additional reliability and performance, but only if the data in the cache is consistent and not stale, which was fine for static documents, but not for dynamic content such as image maps. Extensions were necessary in order to accomodate the new ideas.

In section 5.1.5 ("Uniform Interface") we get to another stinging rebuke of REST as a generalized distributed application scheme; again, the emphasis is mine:

The central feature that distinguishes the REST architectural style from other network-based styles is its emphasis on a uniform interface between components (Figure 5-6). By applying the software engineering principle of generality to the component interface, the overall system architecture is simplified and the visibility of interactions is improved. Implementations are decoupled from the services they provide, which encourages independent evolvability. The trade-off, though, is that a uniform interface degrades efficiency, since information is transferred in a standardized form rather than one which is specific to an application's needs. The REST interface is designed to be efficient for large-grain hypermedia data transfer, optimizing for the common case of the Web, but resulting in an interface that is not optimal for other forms of architectural interaction.

In order to obtain a uniform interface, multiple architectural constraints are needed to guide the behavior of components. REST is defined by four interface constraints: identification of resources; manipulation of resources through representations; self-descriptive messages; and, hypermedia as the engine of application state. These constraints will be discussed in Section 5.2.

In other words, in order to be doing something that Fielding considers RESTful, you have to be using hypermedia (that is to say, hypertext documents of some form) as the core of your application state. It might seem like this implies that you have to be building a Web application in order to be considered building something RESTful, so therefore all Web apps are RESTful by nature, but pay close attention to the wording: hypermedia must be the core of your application state. The way most Web apps are built today, HTML is clearly not the core of the state, but merely a way to render it. This is the accidental consequence of treating Web applications and desktop client applications as just pale reflections of one another.

The next section, 5.1.6 ("Layered System") again builds on the notion of stateless-server architecture to provide additional flexibility and power:

In order to further improve behavior for Internet-scale requirements, we add layered system constraints (Figure 5-7). As described in Section 3.4.2, the layered system style allows an architecture to be composed of hierarchical layers by constraining component behavior such that each component cannot "see" beyond the immediate layer with which they are interacting. By restricting knowledge of the system to a single layer, we place a bound on the overall system complexity and promote substrate independence. Layers can be used to encapsulate legacy services and to protect new services from legacy clients, simplifying components by moving infrequently used functionality to a shared intermediary. Intermediaries can also be used to improve system scalability by enabling load balancing of services across multiple networks and processors.

The primary disadvantage of layered systems is that they add overhead and latency to the processing of data, reducing user-perceived performance [32]. For a network-based system that supports cache constraints, this can be offset by the benefits of shared caching at intermediaries. Placing shared caches at the boundaries of an organizational domain can result in significant performance benefits [136]. Such layers also allow security policies to be enforced on data crossing the organizational boundary, as is required by firewalls [79].

The combination of layered system and uniform interface constraints induces architectural properties similar to those of the uniform pipe-and-filter style (Section 3.2.2). Although REST interaction is two-way, the large-grain data flows of hypermedia interaction can each be processed like a data-flow network, with filter components selectively applied to the data stream in order to transform the content as it passes [26]. Within REST, intermediary components can actively transform the content of messages because the messages are self-descriptive and their semantics are visible to intermediaries.

The potential of layered systems (itself not something that people building RESTful approaches seem to think much about) is only realized if the entirety of the state being transferred is self-descriptive and visible to the intermediaries--in other words, intermediaries can only be helpful and/or non-performance-inhibitive if they have free reign to make decisions based on the state they see being transferred. If something isn't present in the state being transferred, usually because there is server-side state being maintained, then they have to be concerned about silently changing the semantics of what is happening in the interaction, and intermediaries--and layers as a whole--become a liability. (Which is probably why so few systems seem to do it.)

And if the notion of visible, transported state is not yet made clear in his dissertation, Fielding dissects the discussion even further in section 5.2.1, "Data Elements". It's too long to reprint here in its entirety, and frankly, reading the whole thing is necessary to see the point of hypermedia and its place in the whole system. (The same could be said of the entire chapter, in fact.) But it's pretty clear, once you read the dissertation, that hypermedia/hypertext is a core, critical piece to the whole REST construction. Clients are expected, in a RESTful system, to have no preconceived notions of structure or relationship between resources, and discover all of that through the state of the hypertext documents that are sent back to them. In the HTML case, that discovery occurs inside the human brain; in the SOA/services case, that discovery is much harder to define and describe. RDF and Semantic Web ideas may be of some help here, but JSON can't, and simple XML can't, unless the client has some preconceived notion of what the XML structure looks like, which violates Fielding's rules:

A REST API should be entered with no prior knowledge beyond the initial URI (bookmark) and set of standardized media types that are appropriate for the intended audience (i.e., expected to be understood by any client that might use the API). From that point on, all application state transitions must be driven by client selection of server-provided choices that are present in the received representations or implied by the user’s manipulation of those representations. The transitions may be determined (or limited by) the client’s knowledge of media types and resource communication mechanisms, both of which may be improved on-the-fly (e.g., code-on-demand). [Failure here implies that out-of-band information is driving interaction instead of hypertext.]

An interesting "fuzzy gray area" here is whether or not the client's knowledge of a variant or schematic structure of XML could be considered to be a "standardized media type", but I'm willing to bet that Fielding will argue against it on the grounds that your application's XML schema is not "standardized" (unless, of course, it is, through a national/international/industry standardization effort).

But in case you'd missed it, let me summarize the past twenty or so paragraphs: hypermedia is a core requirement to being RESTful. If you ain't slinging all of your application state back and forth in hypertext, you ain't REST. Period. Fielding said it, he defined it, and that settles it.


Before the hate mail comes a-flyin', let me reiterate one vitally important point: if you're not doing REST, it doesn't mean that your API sucks. Fielding may have his definition of what REST is, and the idealist in me wants to remain true to his definitions of it (after all, if we can't agree on a common set of definitions, a common lexicon, then we can't really make much progress as an industry), but...

... the pragmatist in me keeps saying, "so what"?

Look, at the end of the day, if your system wants to misuse HTTP, abuse HTML, and carnally violate the principles of loose coupling and resource representation that underlie REST, who cares? Do you get special bonus points from the Apache Foundation if you use HTTP in the way Fielding intended? Will Microsoft and Oracle and Sun and IBM offer you discounts on your next software purchases if you create a REST-faithful system? Will the partisan politics in Washington, or the tribal conflicts in the Middle East, or even the widely-misnamed "REST-vs-SOAP" debates come to an end if you only figure out a way to make hypermedia the core engine of your application state?

Yeah, I didn't think so, either.

Point is, REST is just an architectural style. It is nothing more than another entry alongside such things as client-server, n-tier, distributed objects, service-oriented, and embedded systems. REST is just a tool for thinking about how to build an application, and it's high time we kick it off the pedastal on which we've placed it and let it come back down to earth with the rest of us mortals. HTTP is useful, but not sufficient, so solve our problems. REST is as well.

And at the end of the day, when we put one tool from our tool belt "above all others", we end up building some truly horrendous crap.

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