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How I Became a REST 'Convert'

REST is a style of distributed software architecture that offers an alternative to the commonly accepted XML-based web services

Many of you know me as one half of the ZapThink team – an advisor, analyst, sometimes-trainer, and pundit that has been focused on XML, web services, service oriented architecture (SOA), and now cloud computing over the past decade or so. Some you may also know that immediately prior to starting ZapThink I was one of the original members of the UDDI Advisory Group back in 2000 when I was with ChannelWave, and I also sat on a number of standards bodies including RosettaNet, ebXML, and CPExchange initiatives. Furthermore, as part of the ZapThink team, I tracked the various WS-* standards from their inception to their current “mature” standing.

I’ve closely followed the ups and downs of the Web Service Interoperability (WS-I) organization and more than a few efforts to standardize such things as business process. Why do I mention all this? To let you know that I’m no slouch when it comes to understanding the full scope and depth of the web services family of standards. And yet, when push came to shove and I was tasked with implementing SOA as a developer, what did I choose? REST.

Representational State Transfer, commonly known as REST, is a style of distributed software architecture that offers an alternative to the commonly accepted XML-based web services as a means for system-to-system interaction. ZapThink has written numerous times about REST and its relationship to SOA and Web Services. Of course, this has nothing to do with Service-Oriented Architecture, as we’ve discussed in numerous ZapFlashes in the past. The power of SOA is in loose coupling, composition, and how it enables approaches like cloud computing. It is for these reasons that I chose to adopt SOA for a project I’m currently working on. But when I needed to implement the services I had already determined were necessary, I faced a choice: use web services or REST-based styles as the means to interact with the services. For the reasons I outline below, REST was a clear winner for my particular use case.

Web services in theory and in practice

The main concepts behind Web Services were established in 1999 and 2000 during the height of the dot-com boom. SOAP, then known as the Simple Object Access Protocol and later just “SOAP,” is the standardized, XML-based method for interacting with a third-party service. Simple in concept, but in practice, there’s many ways to utilize SOAP. RPC style (we think not) or Document style? How do you identify end points? And what about naming operations and methods? Clearly SOAP on its own leaves too much to interpretation.

So, this is the role that the Web Services Description Language (WSDL) is supposed to fill. But writing and reading (and understanding) WSDL is a cumbersome affair. Data type matching can be a pain. Versioning is a bear. Minor server-side changes often result in different WSDL and a resulting different service interface, and on the client-side, XSD descriptions of the service are often similarly tied to a particular version of the SOAP endpoint and can break all too easily. And you still have all the problems associated with SOAP. In my attempts to simply get a service up and running, I found myself fighting more with SOAP and WSDL than doing actual work to get services built and systems communicating.

Writing and reading (and understanding) WSDL is a cumbersome affair.

The third “leg” of the web services concept, Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI), conceptually makes a lot of sense, but in practice, hardly anyone uses it. As a developer, I couldn’t even think of a scenario where UDDI would help me in my particular project. Sure, I could artificially insert UDDI into my use case, but in the scenario where I needed loose coupling, I could get that by simply abstracting my end points and data schema. To the extent I needed run-time and design-time discoverability or visibility into services at various different states of versioning, I could make use of a registry / repository without having to involve UDDI at all. I think UDDI’s time has come and gone, and the market has proven its lack of necessity. Bye, bye UDDI.

As for the rest of the WS-* stack, these standards are far too undeveloped, under implemented, under-standardized, inefficient, and obscure to make any use of whatever value they might bring to the SOA equation, with a few select exceptions. I have found the security-related specifications, specifically OAuth, Service Provisioning Markup Language (SPML), Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML), eXtensible Access Control Markup Language (XACML), are particularly useful, especially in a Cloud environment. These specifications are not web services dependent, and indeed, many of the largest Web-based applications use OAuth and the other specs to make their REST-based environments more secure.

Why REST is ruling

I ended up using REST for a number of reasons, but the primary one is simplicity. As most advocates of REST will tell you, REST is simpler to use and understand than web services. development with REST is easier and quicker than building WSDL files and getting SOAP to work and this is the reason why many of the most-used web APIs are REST-based. You can easily test HTTP-based REST requests with a simply browser call. It can also be more efficient as a protocol since it doesn’t require a SOAP envelope for every call and can leverage the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) as a data representation format instead of the more verbose and complex to process XML.

But even more than the simplicity, I appreciated the elegance of the REST approach. The basic operation and scalability of the Web has proven the underlying premise of the fundamental REST approach. HTTP operations are standardized, widely accepted, well understood, and operate consistently. There’s no need for a REST version of the WS-I. There’s no need to communicate company-specific SOAP actions or methods – the basic GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE operations are standardized across all Service calls.

As most advocates of REST will tell you, REST is simpler to use and understand than web services.

Even more appealing is the fact that the vendors have not polluted REST with their own interests. The primary driver for web services adoption has been the vendors. Say what you might about the standard’s applicability outside a vendor environment, one would be very hard pressed to utilize web services in any robust way without first choosing a vendor platform. And once you’ve chosen that platform, you’ve pretty much committed to a specific web services implementation approach, forcing third-parties and others to comply with the quirks of your particular platform.

Not so with REST. Not only does the simplicity and purity of the approach eschew vendor meddling, it actually negates much of the value that vendor offerings provide. Indeed, it’s much easier (and not to mention lower cost) to utilize open source offerings in REST-based SOA approaches than more expensive and cumbersome vendor offerings. Furthermore, you can leverage existing technologies that have already proven themselves in high-scale, high-performance environments.

Focus on architecture, not on HTTP

So, how did I meld the fundamental tenets of SOA with a REST-based implementation approach? In our Web-Oriented SOA ZapFlash, we recommended using the following approach to RESTafarian styles of SOA:

  • Make sure your services are properly abstracted, loosely coupled, composable, and contracted
  • Every web-oriented service should have an unambiguous and unique URI to locate the service on the network
  • Use the URI as a means to locate as well as taxonomically define the service in relation to other services.
  • Use well-established actions (such as POST, GET, PUT, and DELETE for HTTP) for interacting with services
  • Lessen the dependence on proprietary middleware to coordinate service interaction and shift to common web infrastructure to handle SOA infrastructure needs

    Much of the criticism of REST comes not from the interaction approach, but rather from the use of HTTP.

Much of the criticism of REST comes not from the interaction approach, but rather from the use of HTTP. Roy Fielding, the progenitor of REST, states in his dissertation that REST was initially described in the context of HTTP, but is not limited to that protocol. He states that REST is an architectural style, not an implementation, and that the web and the use of the HTTP protocol happens to be designed under such style. I chose to implement REST using eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) as a way of doing distributed, asynchronous messaging styles of REST-based Service interaction. XMPP, also known as the Jabber Protocol, has already proven itself as a widely-used, highly-scalable messaging protocol for secure and distributed near-realtime messaging protocol. XMPP-based software is deployed widely across the Internet, and forms the basis of many high-scale messaging systems, including those used by Facebook and Google.

Am I bending the rules or the intent of REST by using XMPP instead of HTTP? Perhaps. If HTTP suits you, then you have a wide array of options to choose from in optimizing your implementation. Steven Tilkov does a good job of describing how to best apply HTTP for REST use. But you don’t have to choose XMPP for your implementation if HTTP doesn’t meet your needs. There are a number of other open-source approaches to alternative transports for REST existing including RabbitMQ (based on the AMQP standard), ZeroMQ, and Redis.

The ZapThink take

The title of this ZapFlash is a bit of a misnomer. In order to be a convert to something you first need to be indoctrinated into another religion, and I don’t believe that REST or web services is something upon which to take a religious stance. That being said, for the past decade or so, dogmatic vendors, developers, and enterprise architects have reinforced the notion that to do SOA properly, you must use web services.

ZapThink never believed that this was the case, and my own experiences now shows that SOA can be done well in practice without using Web Services in any significant manner. Indeed, my experience shows that it is actually easier, less costly, and potentially more scalable to not use Web Services unless there’s an otherwise compelling reason.

The conversation about SOA is a conversation about architecture – everything that we’ve talked about over the past decade applies just as equally when the Services are implemented using REST or Web Services on top of any protocol, infrastructure, or data schema. While good enterprise architects do their work at the architecture level of abstraction, the implementation details are left to those who are most concerned with putting the principles of SOA into practice.

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Ron Schmelzer is founder and senior analyst of ZapThink. A well-known expert in the field of XML and XML-based standards and initiatives, Ron has been featured in and written for periodicals and has spoken on the subject of XML at numerous industry conferences.

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