What is REST? That is one of my favorite questions when conducting a technical interview. You can learn so much about one's practical experience with web services and applications by simply chatting casually about REST. I've heard so many definitions over the years. Even people who have built many web services do not always agree on what is and isn't REST.
Where you pull the line when complying to REST? What best practices do we all follow when designing our APIs? What's practical and what's not worth the effort?
What is REST?
- Is it a protocol?
- Is it a standard?
- Is it a technology?
- Is it a pattern?
- Is it a constraint?
- Is it just an idea?
Representational state transfer
REST is an architectural pattern we follow to build RESTful web services and applications. It defines a set of constraints we follow to be consistent when designing and building our backends. If you consider constaints as limitations then you should think of REST as a set of design principles for making network communication more scalable and flexible. We talk about REST mostly when we are building web APIs. But REST is bigger than that. When building a web application we still follow the same architectural styles that guide us when building an API. We follow REST to craft loosely coupled systems. Is your web service RESTful? According to Roy Fielding: No! Should you nonetheless put yourself in RESTful constraints? Yes, definitely!
I won't focus on every little detail here but instead will try to cover the most basic hard rules that I follow in all cases no matter what. I will focus on what is practical and makes sense. I will try to explain where I pull the line when complying to REST principles, which RESTful constraints I readily embrace and which cause me more pain than gain. I am intentionally going to skip Caching, Layered System and Code on Demand, otherwise this blog post could become even longer than Roy Fielding original thesis. Let's focus on the first three: client-server, stateless and uniform interface.
The most obvious constraint of them all. You have a client and you have a server. The client sends a request to the server. The server processes that request and responds. A standard request-response cycle. The goal is separation of concerns - clear boundaries between a client and a server. The client and the server can evolve independently of one another, be implemented using any technology and live on any platform. For web applications the browser is the client.
RESTful APIs are stateless. The client and the server do not keep knowledge of each other in between requests. Once the server responds, it forgets everything about the client who made the request. The server usually has a persistent storage, a database, where it saves data about the resources it manages. But each request is processed independently from the previous one. That means that each time the client has to send everything the server needs to process the client request. A request is self-descriptive and has enough context for the server to process that message. Stateless may seem as an overhead at first compared to stateful, but it is the most fundamental concept used in building high-availability systems where you need to distribute the load among many application servers. This RESTful constraint makes it possible to scale the server without breaking clients. If you have like ten application servers behind a load balancer, the first request from a client could go to one server and the second request from the same client could go to a completely different server and still be processed correctly. That allows your application to easily scale out horizontally when facing heavy load.
Everything in REST is represented by a resource. That is fundamental to REST. This constraint simplifies and decouples RESTful architectures the most. There are a lot of aspects to touch here but instead I just focus on the key points.
- Identification of resources
A resource should exist at a uniform consistent URL. For example, if you want to get all orders made by a user you hit an endpoint such as:
Having nested resources with ID in between is not a RESTful constraint as defined by Roy Fielding, but it is a good practice that most people follow to achieve consistent and understandable designs of their web services and applications. In comparison with remote procedure calls (RPC) where you have URLs modelled around methods, you will then have an endpoint like:
In that case you don't identify a resource but you identify an operation. Building your endpoints around operations instead of around resources can trick developers into inventing all sorts of unimaginable URLs by going really "creative" around the namings. With RPC you are coupling together the client with the server, the resource with the operations on it, which may trick you to expose endpoints that do too much.
- Manipulation of resources through representations
We manage resources with HTTP verbs as actions. For example we use a GET to fetch a representation of a resource, POST to create, PUT to update, PATCH to partially update, DELETE to destroy, etc. In short we use the verbs that come from the HTTP protocol to manage our nouns. A simple rule to follow is to avoid verbs in your URLs. Resources are expressed by nouns. Actions are expressed using HTTP verbs. You want to go for consistency in your project and among projects. Endpoints should follow well-established patterns that everyone understands.
- Self-descriptive messages
Each message contains enough information to describe how to process the message. I won't go into much detail here. Enough is to mention that everything needed for the server to process a request should come with the request payload. The server should not need to ping back the client and ask for any further information in order to be able to complete the job and send a response.
Sometimes written as HATEOS (Hypermedia As The Engine Of Application State). It simply means data in various formats which is all linked by hyperlinks. Clients cannot construct identifiers. They can only follow links included in the representation. This one causes more pains than gains for me personally. It is much more practical to give a client API documentation which developers can understand and hardcode those URIs for different actions inside the client, rather than the client trying to follow some sort of service discovery and understand which operations are available for a given resource on the fly.
- Ephemeral resources
But we do not have a resource? I hear that a lot. The fact that you do not have a resource directly mapped to a database model is no excuse to start inventing custom endpoints. Let's look at the most obvious example - subscribing a user to a topic. The headfirst approach could be:
POST /subscribe POST /unsubscribe
These endoints are not RESTful as they designate operations rather than resources. They use verbs to specify actions rather than relying on the HTTP verbs. The REST way to achieve the same would be:
POST /topics/1/subscriptions DELETE /topics/1/subscriptions
The first call creates a subscription, i.e. subscribes the current user to a topic. The second deletes a subscription, i.e. unsubscribes the user from a topic. We do not really do any CRUD operations on a persisted database model here. Still that's no excuse for not being RESTful. A resource may be ephemeral, like approving a form or authenticating to a server. Whether permanent or ephemeral a resource is a noun, a high-level description of the thing you are trying to manage when you submit a request. We can still use POST when we are not creating a record in a table. We can still use DELETE when we are not deleting a record in a table. That's fine.
POST /login <> POST /sessions POST /logout <> DELETE /sessions/1 POST /follow <> POST /followings POST /unfollow <> DELETE /followings/1
Of course if you need fancy URLs to show to your users going with
logout is perfectly fine as long as they are simply aliases to RESTful routes underneath.
REST imposes a particular style, order and logic on your services. In my work when it comes to building backends I always follow REST strictly, trying to be as much RESTful as possible. This is one of those rules which once broken you start to feel pain during development, especially if you are creating large-scale distributed systems.
Consistent discoverable easy to understand code
When discussing why we should follow an architectural style, my position is always the same - if you work alone on a small application you may get away with any approach, but when you have teams working together at large scale, then unless you all put yourselves in the same set of constraints, chaos will reign and your landscape will be a mess. Imagine you have 4-5 teams and everyone does things differently. How would you even agree on the API contracts among each other leaving alone the clients? I really enjoy the predictability of API endpoints when only the standard seven actions are used. REST brings in convenience and best practices out of the box. It makes a developer's life easier.
RESTful API can easily grow
Since everything is stateless, if you need to scale out horizontally you may add up new application servers behind your load balancer and they immediately will start processing new client requests. The clients remain completely ignorant of that process. You may scale out when facing heavy load and then scale down to reduce infrastructure costs when you have less load.
Simple continuous deployments
Stateless services simplifies deployments of highly available services by a factor. You may tear down any application server behind your load balancer and the others will still continue to process client requests. In contrast with stateful services where the server and the client share a persistent connection, and if the server needs to go down then it breaks the connection with the client and the state is lost.
Simple functional workflows
The client-server model together with the stateless communication allows for very simple functional workflows. The client sends a request, the server process it and responds and we are done. No state is being managed on either side. If you are familiar with the concepts around functional programming, a pure function is very similar to a RESTful interaction between the client and the server. You receive some input, you do some work and return some output. No state preserved, no side effects.
Alternatives to REST
REST was the status quo for a long time and at the time of writing this blog post, it still is one of the most popular choices to connect client and server applications. However, in the constantly evolving world of modern web development, new challenges arise every day that are better solved by new tools. Backends nowadays respond to many clients with specific needs. In more complex systems, one may easily fall down the road of creating a specific REST API for each client need in order to have more control over what data is sent, as RESTful architecture defines data available for each resource, while a mobile application may only need a fraction of it. This problem is called overfetching. Another use case where REST falls short is when you have to build a complex dashboard presenting numerous resources at once. In that case, a client application has to read multiple resources through multiple network calls to fetch all the information that is needed. If you are in the shoes of Facebook or Netflix, and REST poses more pains than gains for your complex system, then you should look for alternatives to REST.
GraphQL was introduced by Facebook. It is an entirely different approach. Instead of having a separate endpoint for each resouce, it exposes a whole graph of resources behind a single endpoint and you can query any part of that graph. But unless you are in the same constraints as Facebook, you may not want to go down that road as it will bring tons of complexity to your system and it may not be worth paying that price at the end. I find GraphQL suitable when exposing API to mobile applications as you can fetch all you need with one call. Still if you have a relational database to store your data, it may be a challenge to answer all these fancy GraphQL queries.
I've provided a well-rounded pros and cons list for GraphQL in my blog post GraphQL: Pros and Cons. You may check that out if you are trying to choose whether REST or GraphQL is the better choice for your specific project.
Falcor was introduced by Netflix and in general it solves the same problem which Facebook are solving with GraphQL. Same as Facebook, Netflix are put in very specific constraints – serving huge volumes of static content that mostly never changes. But if you are building a business application let's say in the financial sector you are in a completely different set of constraints. So before jumping on any new hype you may want to sit down and think what problem you are solving and what is the simplest possible way to solve it.
Om Next is a uniform extensible approach to building networked interactive applications. The bigger picture here is pretty much the same as those two guys above which is - REST makes sense for certain things but we are going to try something else for our use cases.
How do we choose?
Should we follow the modern trend and go all-in with GraphQL? Or should we be more conservative and stick to the good old REST? The anwser is always: "It depends". Who are the clients of your API? Are you serving data to a mobile application that needs everything delivered with one call or are you building a payment provider where clients mostly create transactions? Is your use case solved better (or simpler) with many fine-grained endpoints or one coarse-grained endpoint?
Having many small endpoints, each having a single responsibility, obeys the interface segregation principle and the API is easier to understand and maintain, but could present a challenge to a mobile application which have to perform multiple calls to gather what it needs. That mobile app would be better served by one God endpoint that delivers all data in a single call.
Having a GraphQL endpoint that is backed by a relational database poses some challenges as well. You should consider those before dumping REST for GraphQL as you may have to pay a significant price for developing and maintaining a GraphQL API. Mapping a graph-based schema to a normalised relational database is not always a straight-forward job. If you do not have a good abstraction between the queries and the underlying data models, they are tightly coupled, that would make changing the database schema a real pain. N+1 problems become tougher to detect and avoid.
Another aspect to consider is caching. By having one God endpoint you loose caching. It difficult to leverage caching when you have one endpoint and a crazy number of arbitrary requests. So you have to choose between the performance gains from making one single request and those from caching.
Context is king
Always remember that REST and GraphQL are just tools. Which tool is better always depends on the context. Never blindly follow the hype but always carefully consider your context - the problem you are solving, your tooling, your budget, your consumers, your team experience. GraphQL brings a completely different developer experience. GraphQL poses new challenges to everyone who would consume your API.
- Architectural Styles and the Design of Network-based Software Architectures by Roy Fielding
- What RESTful actually means by Lauren Long
- Richardson Maturity Model by Martin Fowler
- GraphQL Deep Dive: The Cost of Flexibility by Samer Buna