Sunday, June 29, 2014

Book Review: REST API Design Rulebook (Mark Masse)

RESTful style architectures are becoming more and more ubiquitous. There are many reasons for this:
  • Web Tiers are full of JavaScript yearning to make nice simple AJAX requests
  • The obvious shortcomings of SOAP style strong contracts 
  • They are a nice alternative to ESB's for integrating heterogeneous architectures
However, like the MVC design pattern or the Agile Software Methodology, while many projects may be claiming to be using the RESTful architectural approach everyone is doing it differently.

In 2010, Martin Fowler - in his excellent blog - discussed the Richardson Maturity Model. This model provided a very good categorisation technique to assess the degree of RESTfullness based on how many core REST principles were being used.  Although, that same model gets a reference in Mark Masse's REST API Design Rulebook, Masse's book goes much more into low level detail about various REST best practises.

For example:
  • Negative caching: adding cache headers not just for positive responses but to 3xx and 4xx responses.  This is something that may not be obvious, but could be a good performance / scalability boost depending on the nature of your application and user usage patterns etc.
  • How to version your URIs, your representational forms and your resource objects
  • Using a consistent forms to represent link relations 
In addition, there is a abundance of other ideas and guidelines, some pretty simple but nonetheless important:
  • Don't end URI's with a slash
  • Don't use underscores in URI paths
  • Put "api" in the domain part of your rest resource path, e.g.
The main reason why I think it is good to have a book like this is because when a development team are trying to use a REST style architecture, disagreements, misunderstanding will inevitably happen. For example, the proverbial: 'Should a URI end in a plural or singular noun?'
It is always good to be able to reference a respected industry resource to prevent rabbit holes appearing and eating into your valuable project time.

Furthermore, there are some really quick and easy things you can do to make a much a better REST API that are discussed in the book. For example:
  • Adding an ETag HTTP header to that shopping cart resource as items go in and out of it.
  • Using query fields to generate partial responses and using the ! for an excludes option.
Now for some constructive criticism.  Firstly, I don't there will ever be complete consistency in REST approaches. Some of the so called best practises could be argued to be just subjective or nice-to-haves. They are not something that are going to make a big difference to either functional or non-functional aspects of your architecture. Some of the industry leaders not only take different approaches in their REST APIs, but they are also sometimes doing the opposite of what Massé suggests. For example, Massé suggests not to include a file extension type in your REST URLs (see Chapter 2), but  (at the time of writing) Twitter do just that (the URI is:

Furthermore, in a lot of projects you will be writing a REST API purely to serve JSON back to a Web client.   This is quite different to a public facing API on the scale of Twitter, Amazon etc.   Therefore you need to ask yourself if you really need to put the time investment in so that you are adhering to every single REST best practise instead of just doing what makes sense for your project.  Some obviously make sense, some could be argued to be overkill. For example making sure you are sending back the correct HTTP code when you know the client never even checks if it is a 403 or 405.

I do think this book is written more as if you were designing a public facing API.  If you find yourself in that situation you should definitely, definitely, definitely be considering everything Massé is saying in the book.  But note, the emphasis is on considering which doesn't always mean adhering or adopting.

The book does a very good job in covering best practises that a lot of developers just wouldn't think of (setting response headers such as content-length, setting the location header in responses for newly created resources, how to support HTTP 1.0 when you are trying to discourage caching) and is definitely worth a read but you really have to think about what makes sense for your project. As stated, some of the suggestions are quick wins others you have to assess the cost and the benefit. Following the core basic REST principles (statelessness, a good resource model, uniform interface etc.) is what is really important after that the challenge is figuring out what works best for each specific project and how to make the most of your time. That will vary from project to project and will depend on project scope, scale etc.   A good architectural decision should always consider the various options but make the appropriate decision for the appropriate project.

Until the next time, take care of yourselves.


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