Introspected REST: An alternative to REST and GraphQL

In this manifesto, we will give a specific definition of what REST is, according to Roy, and see the majority of APIs and API specs (JSONAPI, HAL etc) fail to follow this model. We will see what problems a RESTful API brings and why API designers have been constantly avoiding using it but instead come up with half-way solutions or retreat to alternative models like RPC-over-HTTP or, lately, GraphQL. Then, we will propose a new model, Introspected REST, that solves the issues that REST creates and allows the design of progressively evolvable APIs, in a much simpler way than conventional REST. As part of this manifesto we will also present the concept of MicroTypes, small reusable modules that compose a Media Type and facilitate the evolvability and extensibility of our new model.

For the implementation of our new model in HTTP, we will have to go back in time, dig deep in existing RFCs and uncover forgotten concepts, like reactive content negotiation and Media Type parameters, in order to bend the existing Internet infrastructure, which has been mostly influenced by REST concepts, and successfully apply our new model.

1. Definitions

First some definitions, that we will use through the text:

We will use the term APIs and networked APIs interchangeably.

2. Introduction

REST defined by Roy was a magnificent piece of work, much ahead of its time which took us many years to understand what its capabilities are. However, now, almost 20 years later REST model shows its age. It’s inflexible, difficult to implement, difficult to test, with performance and implementation issues. But most importantly, any implementation of REST model is very complex. Now, one could say that, most APIs are not build with mind to last for decades and maybe that’s the reason that this model hasn’t seen much adoption. The former is true but even if the latter is also true could it mean that this model is not suitable for short-term APIs?

We firmly believe that REST is much better than any API that does not follow REST principles (like RESTly APIs), even for short-term APIs. Networked services have very peculiar characteristics which, until now, only REST and GraphQL have fully addressed them. Being able to evolve our API without breaking the clients is critical.

Imagine the following scenario: we have built an Online Social Network and an iOS app that talks to the API on our backend. Now imagine that, after a company meeting, our CEO needs us to make tiny yet important change in the signup page: require the user to fill in her age, a field in the signup form we didn’t have before. Essentially, this means, in API terms, add an extra field in the accepted object and require it from the client to be filled in by the user before sending it over.

If our API is RESTly and not REST, this means that we need to fix the code in the iOS side, test it and send a new iOS app to Apple store. It takes roughly 1 week for Apple to review our app and if our app doesn’t get rejection during the review process for some reason, our tiny change will take action at least a week later after requested. If our API was REST, that would mean a simple change on the server’s response, denoting which fields are required to submit the form. We would have the change deployed 10 minutes later.

Roy notes in his thesis:

A system intending to be as long-lived as the Web must be prepared for change

— Roy Fielding

In the world of startups and money-driven companies, the following will sound more appealing:

If you want to move fast, you should build a change-first API.

An API that can change the state of the client without needing the latter to change.

Given that, how can we have a simpler model than REST, yet derive the same, if not more, functionality of REST? As we will show, Introspected REST is an API architectural style that solves that. An architectural style is not an implementation and it’s not a spec either. As Roy notes:

An architectural style is a coordinated set of architectural constraints that restricts the roles/features of architectural elements and the allowed relationships among those elements within any architecture that conforms to that style.

— Roy Fielding

Introspected REST is based on Roy’s initial model but removes the need for runtime HATEOAS. Instead, the client derives the state on demand, using introspection, by retrieving the necessary metadata that are of interest. Eventually this brings the same advantages as Roy’s model while being it’s much simpler, much more flexible and backwards compatible with any RESTly or RESTless API.

But first let’s discuss about Networked Services.

3. Networked Services and APIs

Nowadays JSON has become so popular that developers almost forget that there is whole bunch of protocols below it. Developers also forget that JSON is just a specification in the message level, like XML. It’s not the only one and definitely it’s not the best we could use. Nevertheless it’s simple and simplicity is a virtue.

While OSI model is the conceptual model that we use to describe computer networks, with TCP/IP following 5 out of 7 OSI’s abstraction layers, in our case, we will make a more API-specific description. When we want to request a resource from a networked hypermedia-based API, we roughly have the following levels:

3.1. Application level

In the application level, the client starts content negotiation (or content selection), usually asking for only one Media Type. A Media Type provides information about the structure of the content and the message format used in the data it describes, as described by RFC 2046.

In the HTTP the content negotiation is achieved by a client using the Accept header which denotes the Media Types that it can understand, in a preference order. Then the server responds with a Media Type proposed by the client in Content-Type header.

application/json is a Media Type that denotes that the data format of the requested representation is in JSON data format. Specifically the type of this Media Type is application while the subtype is json. JSON itself is not a Media Type but a message format.

Media Types can be a bit more complex as well: application/vnd.api+json, the media type of JSONAPI spec, (roughly) means that

In theory, JSONAPI spec semantics could also be applied using XML as the data format (like in the case of HAL), or even YAML, however in practice we tend to forget that and we treat all Media Types as single and not composite.

However, it should also be noted that the Media Types and the content negotiation in general, are not restricted to HTTP only. Although HTTP is one of the most popular application network protocols today, the same logic could be applied in other (mostly text-based) protocols like SIP, CoAP, QUIC etc.

To sum up, the application level semantics are defined by the Media Type requested and should not be tightly coupled to the semantics of the message level (like JSON) or the underlying protocol level (like HTTP).

3.2. Message level

In the message level we find the format that is used for the actual representation. Nowadays we have almost mixed the message level with JSON but in practice other formats could successfully be used: XML, YAML, TOML to name a few.

Usually the message format that is used is described by the Media Type’s suffix.

3.3. Protocol level

In the protocol level, the requests are usually sent using the HTTP. After all, nowadays most of the development happens around the Web and HTTP is the only protocol that browsers officially support.

Nonetheless, there are other similar stateless protocols as well. QUIC is a HTTP alternative protocol that is targeted for low latency and uses UDP underneath. CoAP is targeted in the IoT and also uses UDP underneath (full TCP/IP stack is quite heavy for constraint devices). SIP is also a text-based protocol with the same semantics as HTTP and is used in VoIP.

3.4. Network level

Finally, in the network level, the browser (or any other non-browser client) sends the networked request in one of the TCP, UDP, etc.

The actual protocol depends on the protocol used in the protocol level.

4. Roy’s REST model

Roy came up with the REST model in order to solve issues that were arising by the unique propertied of networked services during the infancy of Internet. When we develop an application that will be deployed in a networked environment and is expected to be accessed by other networked services, we need to think about its evolvability: if we need to add, remove or change functionality of that application we cannot expect services on the other end that talk with our application to be updated by humans. Such problems that arise from the peculiarities of networks, like discovery and evolvability must be solved using machine-to-machine communication.

REST model that solves such issues is an architectural style which is not tight to any spec, protocol or format of the aforementioned levels.

a RESTful API is just a website for users with a limited vocabulary (machine to machine interaction)

— Roy Fielding

When Roy talks about REST, he mentions 5 crucial properties of REST model:

4.1. Access methods have the same semantics for all resources

induces visible, scalable, available through layered system, cacheable, and shared caches

Failure to provide consistency on access would imply that we don’t provide a generic interface but instead we have resource-specific or even object-specific interfaces.

Actually a common interface is one of the most crucial parts of REST: without a common uniform interface it would be impossible to derive REST.

The central feature that distinguishes the REST architectural style from other network-based styles is its emphasis on a uniform interface between components. 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.

— Roy Fielding

Subsequently, the next 4 constraints, the core of REST, is a result of the effort to obtain a uniform interface between different components.

4.2. All important resources are identified by one resource identifier mechanism

induces simple, visible, reusable, stateless communication

Roy explains that very well in his thesis:

A resource is a conceptual mapping to a set of entities, not the entity that corresponds to the mapping at any particular point in time.

More precisely, a resource R is a temporally varying membership function MR(t), which for time t maps to a set of entities, or values, which are equivalent. The values in the set may be resource representations and/or resource identifiers. […] Some resources are static in the sense that, when examined at any time after their creation, they always correspond to the same value set. Others have a high degree of variance in their value over time. The only thing that is required to be static for a resource is the semantics of the mapping, since the semantics is what distinguishes one resource from another.

— Roy Fielding

4.3. Resources are manipulated through the exchange of representations

induces simple, visible, reusable, cacheable, and evolvable (information hiding)

The representation that we expose from our public API could be totally different from our implementation internally or how the data are stored in our database. It could also be the same. Nevertheless the client expects and is expected to manipulate any resource using the representation we expose.

4.4. Representations are exchanged via self-descriptive messages

induces visible, scalable, available through layered system, cacheable, and shared caches induces evolvable via extensible communication

This would mean that the data of the response should follow the Media Type that the client requested and understands. Given that the client negotiated for that Media Type, it should be able to parse and understand any part of the response.

Interaction is stateless between requests, standard methods and Media Types are used to indicate semantics and exchange information, and responses explicitly indicate cacheability.

— Roy Fielding

If our Media Type is very weak (like application/json) and we need functionality that the Media Type does not describe then we need to define another Media Type which will describe the new semantics and wait until client(s) incorporate the new Media Type changes.

Breaking our Media Type’s semantics, or just extending them with new functionality, will have exactly the same result for the client: not self-descriptive messages that will require out-of-band information, like documentation.

4.5. Hypertext as the engine of application state (HATEOAS)

induces simple, visible, reusable, and cacheable through data-oriented integration induces evolvable (loose coupling) via late binding of application transitions

This is one of the most misunderstood parts of Roy’s REST model. The idea here is that, once the client and server have reached a consensus on the Media Type after the negotiation, the server’s response should strictly provide all the available options for the client to manipulate the resource and navigate to other resources, using semantics defined by the Media Type agreed.

As Roy notes:

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).

— Roy Fielding

However, one of the requirements for HATEOAS to work is that the Media Type itself must allow to its vocabulary hypermedia. For instance, with application/json Media Type this wouldn’t work as JSON itself (application/json Media Type is nothing more than a JSON) does not provide any of those mechanisms.

Instead, the server and client must agree on a format that provide such mechanisms.

Unfortunately though, the common practice is to put application/json in our Content-Type header denoting that the response type follows that Media Type and then inside the response we add semantics regarding hypermedia. Then we hand off out-of-band information to the client, like documentation, and demand to check them before identifying parsing and using the hypermedia semantics of our API.

5. API Clients and Applications

5.1. Client and Application responsibilities

Client and Application responsibilities some times are mixed together.

A client is responsible for understanding, interacting with the API and manipulating any API’s resources, based on the Media Type’s semantics and runtime HATEOAS. The client is responsible for providing in the application the list of resources that are available in the API, their fields, their capabilities, available actions and any hypermedia available.

The application responsibility on the other hand should not include API specific details. Instead, using the client, it should fetch whatever is needed by the application domain, within the API’s capabilities.

Think about the traditional home telephone devices. The phone wire and its signals is the API. The device used to encode/decode the wire signals is the API client. On top of a device we can run our application. The PSTN, ISDN, (A)DSL etc are all different Media Types for the same API (wire signals). For each one, we need a client (device/modem) that will understand (encode/decode) the wire signals of that Media Type. Using that client we can built any type of application, in the feasible space of the Media Type. The application does not deal with the API’s semantics, but instead it uses the Client to perform its tasks.

5.2. The Human factor principle

There are 2 types of human involvement when building an API client:

An API that follows the REST model should be evolvable without the need of human involvement in the client side, given that the client understands the Media Type. A side effect of such evolvability and 1-fold clients is that the versioning should not take place in the URL but in the Media Type itself.

Versioning an interface is just a polite way to kill deployed applications

The reason to make a real REST API is to get evolvability … a “v1” is a middle finger to your API customers, indicating RPC/HTTP (not REST)

Roy Fielding

6. REST applied in a modern API

When engineering a REST API, there are 2 approaches:

Specialized APIs could be more efficient, or have crucial advantageous characteristics for the domain that were built for since they are optimized only for that specific case. However, they pose difficulties when they need to be reused by any other application which does not share the same UI. As a result, such APIs are very special and a bit rare.

On the other hand, the data-driven APIs, are more generic and facilitate any application to request the data optimized (in the framework of the API’s capabilities) for its use case. Being able to specify our application’s needs when requesting data from an API is crucial, especially if our business depends on the adoptability of our API.

For the following subsections, we will mostly focus in the generic data APIs, however most of the things mentioned here can also be applied in a specialized or UI-driven API.

6.1. Requirements from a modern REST API

REST model is built for machine-to-machine communication, of any type. However, as this form of communication is getting more and more common, clients are expecting more options (capabilities) from the server for their responses. It’s not enough to just request and get the resource but we should be able to specify to the server what transformations should apply, according to our needs. Nowadays we have been using networked APIs so much that now we essentially have to provide an ORM to the client over the HTTP (or any other protocol).

We provide here a list of features (we call them capabilities) that we think should be built in a modern networked API, in 2017.

6.1.1. Sparse fields (collection/resource)

The client should be able to ask and get specific attributes (i.e. a subset) of the resource representation. Also related, we should note that a representation of a resource could have completely different set of attributes for different clients, usually depending on the client’s permissions or user role that it represents.

6.1.2. Associations on demand (collection/resource)

The client should be able to ask related associations to the main initial resource, in the same request.

What differentiates an association from an attribute is that the former has a dedicated identification. What is more, if the API exposes the association as a dedicated resource, the id can be used as identification.

6.1.3. Sorting & pagination (collection only)

The client should be able to sort based on one or more attributes and paginate the collection based on the page, page size and possibly an offset.

6.1.4. Filtering collections (collection only)

The client should be able to run any sort of collection filtering, as long as it does not pose any security thread or slows down the API performance.

6.1.5. Aggregation queries (collection only)

The client should be able to run any sort of aggregation queries, as long as it does not pose any security thread or slows down the API performance.

6.1.6. Data types !

The client should know the data types of the attributes of the requested representation of a resource. Message formats provide some data types but they are pretty basic. For instance, JSON defines String, Boolean, Number, Array, and null. Anything more than that we need to define it in the documentations.

We feel that these 5 data types that JSON provides are just a joke for modern APIs and that we should have a much larger list of options to select from. Additionally, we should be able to provide custom types in an easy way, for instance, a field is String but has maximum length of 255 characters, it follows a specific regex etc.

6.1.7 Plot twist: this list is endless

Although we feel that today these capabilities should exist in any modern API, this list is not exclusive. In fact, there could be capabilities in the future that might not seem necessary today. For example, joining together one or more resources, other database-inspired operations applied on resources, internationalization and localization of the data, HTTP/2 Server Push on some requests, Generic Event Delivery Using HTTP Push on other resources on specific states and other capabilities that we haven’t even imagined yet. In any case, these capabilities must be transparent and self-descriptive to the client without any documentation or human involvement, other than programming the client to support the Media Type(s) and pointing it to the initial API URI.

6.2. Media Types vs HATEOAS

Now the reader could be wondering: where is the appropriate place to describe those capabilities, in our API’s Media Type or using HATEOAS ? What goes where?

6.2.1. Defining a new Media Type is not easy and should be avoided

Creating a new Media Type for our API is generally considered bad practice. Create a new Media Type only if you are sure that none of the already published Media Types can fit in your API design.

Also, extending an existing Media Type or adding a complementing Media Type to an existing one (like application/vnd.api+json+my_custom_data_types) wouldn’t work. Not only the existing Media Type specification does not provide any extensibility principles, but also, the main reason is that the client must understand the Media Type before hand. As a result, if we would like to use some new custom types in our (already deployed) API, we would have to publish the Media Type before hand and let humans implement code to fully parse API responses that follow this Media Type or API responses that their media type also include this new media type.

6.2.2. HATEOAS can get pretty heavy

Imagine if we have to describe in a resource, all the available actions along with the available API capabilities in that specific resource. Our API response would just explode in terms of size while making our API super complex.

6.2.3. Balancing between Media Types and HATEOAS

The idea is that Media Types describe the generic capabilities while HATEOAS describe the resource-specific capabilities.

However we should note that Media Types are not parsed by the client (there was never such intention anyway) which means that the client must be programmed by a human before hand in order to support that Media Type. As a result, the Media Type can’t be very restrictive because that would mean it would restrict the API designer’s freedom to design the API the way she wants.

For instance, for pagination, most RESTy APIs use a page and a per_page parameter in the URL. If the Media Type describes how to do pagination using, say, a URL template on the resource path (like /{resource}?page={page}&per_page={per_page}&offset={offset}) this would mean that all APIs following this Media Type should have the pagination following that URL template. The level of restriction becomes more obvious when describing more complex capabilities.

On the other hand, if everyone follows that Media Type then it’s easier to program our clients. Specifically, especially when having a restrictive Media Type, if we create a client that parses responses using that Media Type then it’s easy to “configure” it for another API which also follows the same Media Type.

Essentially, HATEOAS should complement the Media Type by providing the Media Type’s hypermedia-ed defined semantics in runtime for the client to work properly. For instance, HATEOAS could describe on a per-resource basis if the pagination is supported, what is the maximum per_page etc.

6.2.4. An alternative architecture

We feel that the current Media Type specification and use is outdated. If Software Engineering has learned us something, is that composition can enforce Single Responsibility Principle, if used correctly. Inspired by that, later, we will suggest a new concept, MicroTypes, small reusable modules that combined together can form a Media Type. As a result, clients should be able to even negotiate parts of the Media Type and not the Media Type as a whole.

Also, instead of mixing up data with HATEOAS in the API responses, we will introduce introspectiveness of our resources.

7. API Specs Today

Now that we defined what REST is, according to Roy, what capabilities modern APIs should support, and where they should provide them, let’s see the specs for REST(y) APIs available as today, September 2017, what they provide and how closely these follow the REST model.

7.1. Our use case

Our use case is a miniature of yet another Social App. Specifically, in our API domain, we have a User resource which has other, associated resources, like Micropost, Like, etc

For our message format, we will use JSON as it’s the most popular but it could be anything like XML, YAML etc.

So given those REST model properties we could have the following routes:

Users and User are 2 distinct resources which are often, mistankenly, misthought as a single, one, resource. Also, the fact that Users is a collection of User objects is because it suits our needs but it doesn’t have necessarily to be like that.

As we mentioned, User resource has also some associations (or relations/relationships if you prefer), like Microposts.

7.1.1. User resource

In plain JSON the User resource would look like:

{
  "user": {
    "id":"685",
    "email":"[email protected]",
    "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
    "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
    "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "microposts_count":50
  }
}

7.1.2. Users resource (a collection of User resources)

A collection of User resources, the Users resource, would look like:

{
  "users": [{
    "id":"685",
    "email":"[email protected]",
    "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
    "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
    "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "microposts_count":50
  }, {
    "id":"9124",
    "email": "[email protected]",
    "name": "Robert Clarsson",
    "birth_date": "1940-11-10",
    "created-at": "2016-10-06T16:01:24Z",
    "microposts-count": 17,
  }]
}

Now that we defined the scope of our little API, let’s see how this would be implemented in the specs for REST(y) APIs currently available. We feel that most currently deployed APIs have a lot of similarities with the following specs, namely the structure and the HATEOAS part (regarding linking), and as a result by comparing those specs with our model would be sufficient.

We will evaluate the specs for the following:

7.2. JSONAPI

JSONAPI was originally created by Yehuda Katz, as part of Ember’s ember-data library. Since then a lot of people have contributed and has risen as one of the most supported API specs as of 2017 in terms of tools and libraries.

7.2.1. User resource

{
  "data":{
    "id":"1",
    "type":"users",
    "attributes":{
      "email":"[email protected]",
      "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
      "birth_date":"1988-12-12",
      "created-at":"2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
      "microposts-count":50
    },
    "relationships":{
      "microposts":{
        "links":{
          "related":"/api/microposts?user_id=1"
        }
      },
      "likes":{
        "links":{
          "related":"/api/likes?user_id=1"
        }
      }
    }
  }
}

7.2.2. Users resource (a collection of User resources)

{
  "data":[
    {
      "id":"1",
      "type":"users",
      "attributes":{
        "email":"[email protected]",
        "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
        "birth_date":"1988-12-12",
        "created-at":"2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
        "microposts-count":50
      },
      "relationships":{
        "microposts":{
          "links":{
            "related":"/api/microposts?user_id=1"
          }
        },
        "likes":{
          "links":{
            "related":"/api/likes?user_id=1"
          }
        }
      }
    },
    {
      "id":"9124",
      "type":"users",
      "attributes":{
        "email":"[email protected]",
        "name":"Robert Clarsson",
        "birth_date":"1940-11-10",
        "created-at":"2016-10-06T16:01:24Z",
        "microposts-count":17
      },
      "relationships":{
        "microposts":{
          "links":{
            "related":"/api/microposts?user_id=9124"
          }
        },
        "likes":{
          "links":{
            "related":"/api/likes?user_id=9124"
          }
        }
      }
    }
  ],
  "links":{
    "self":"/api/users?page=1&per_page=10",
    "next":"/api/users?page=2&per_page=10",
    "last":"/api/users?page=3&per_page=10"
  }
}

7.2.3. Reflections

While the spec makes a great effort describing the structure of the document, we see some notable issues. Namely:

To sum up, it doesn’t entirely follow REST model while it requires both documentation and multi-fold human factor.

7.3. HAL

HAL was created by Mike Kelly in 2012. The key feature of HAL when it was released was the browsability/explorability of any API that adopted. Another feature is the idea of curies, links inside the resource that lead to the documentation, targeted to humans and not machines.

The resources of our use case that are presented here use JSON as a message format, but HAL is not tight to that.

7.3.1. User resource

{
    "_links": {
        "self": {
            "href": "/api/users/{id}"
        },
        "microposts": {
            "href": "/api/microposts/user_id={id}",
            "templated": true
        },
        "likes": {
            "href": "/api/likes/user_id={id}",
            "templated": true
        }
    },
    "id": "1",
    "name": "Filippos Vasilakis",
    "email": "[email protected]",
    "createdAt": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "micropostsCount": 50,
}

7.3.2. Users resource (a collection of User resources)

{
   "_links":{
      "self":{
         "href":"/api/users"
      },
      "curries":[
         {
            "name":"ea",
            "href":"https://example.com/docs/rels/{rel}",
            "templated":true
         }
      ]
   },
   "_embedded":{
      "users":[
         {
            "_links":{
              "self":{
                "href":"/api/users/{id}",
                "templated": true
              },
              "microposts":{
                "href":"/api/microposts?user_id={id}",
                "templated": true
              },
              "likes": {
                "href": "/api/likes/user_id={id}",
                "templated": true
              }
            },
            "id": 9123,
            "name": "Filippos Vasilakis",
            "email": "[email protected]",
            "createdAt": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
            "micropostsCount": 50
         }, {
            "_links":{
              "self":{
                "href":"/api/users/{id}",
                "templated": true
              },
              "microposts":{
                "href":"/api/microposts?user_id={id}",
                "templated": true
              },
              "likes": {
                "href": "/api/likes/user_id={id}",
                "templated": true
              }
            },
            "id": 9123,
            "name": "Robert Clarsson",
            "email": "[email protected]",
            "created-at": "2016-10-06T16:01:24Z",
            "microposts-count": 50,
         }
      ]
   }
}

7.3.3. Reflections

Although this spec does have templated links, we see some notable issues. Namely:

To sum up, it doesn’t entirely follow REST while it requires documentation and multi-fold human factor (curies facilitate that).

7.4. Siren

Siren was created by Kevin Swiber in 2012 and revolves around entities, a URI-addressable resource that has properties and actions associated with it.

The resources of our use case that are presented here use JSON as a message format, but Siren is not tight to that.

7.4.1. User resource

{
  "class": [ "user" ],
  "properties": {
    "name": "Filippos Vasilakis",
    "email": "[email protected]",
    "createdAt": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "micropostsCount": 50,
  },
  "actions": [
    {
      "name": "get-user",
      "title": "Get User",
      "method": "GET",
      "href": "https://example.com/api/users/1",
      "type": "application/json",
    },
    {
      "name": "update-user",
      "title": "Update User",
      "method": "PUT",
      "href": "https://example.com/api/users/1",
      "type": "application/json",
      "fields": [
        { "name": "name", "type": "text" },
      ]
    },
    {
      "name": "delete-user",
      "title": "Get User",
      "method": "GET",
      "href": "https://example.com/api/users/1",
      "type": "application/json",
    }
  ],
  "links":[
    { "rel":["self"], "href":"https://example.com/api/users/1" },
    { "rel":["microposts"], "href":"/api/microposts?user_id=1" }
    { "rel":["likes"], "href":"/api/likes?user_id=1" }
  ]
}

7.4.2. Users resource (a collection of User resources)

{
  "class":["users"],
  "properties":null,
  "entities":[
    {
      "class":["user"],
      "rel":["https://example.com/users/1"],
      "href":"https://example.com/users/1",
      "properties":{
        "name": "Filippos Vasilakis",
        "email": "[email protected]",
        "createdAt": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
        "micropostsCount": 50,
      },
      "links":[
        { "rel":["self"], "href":"https://example.com/api/users/1" },
        { "rel":["microposts"], "href":"/api/microposts?user_id=1" }
      ]
    },
    {
      "class":["user"],
      "rel":["https://example.com/users/9124"],
      "href":"https://example.com/users/9124",
      "properties":{
        "email": "[email protected]",
        "name": "Robert Clarsson",
        "birth_date": "1940-11-10",
        "created-at": "2016-10-06T16:01:24Z",
        "microposts-count": 17,
      },
      "links":[
        { "rel":["self"], "href":"https://example.com/api/users/9124" },
        { "rel":["microposts"], "href":"https://example.com/api/microposts?user_id=9124" }
        { "rel":["likes"], "href":"https://example.com/api/likes?user_id=9124" }
      ]
    }
  ],
  "actions":[
    {
      "name":"create-user",
      "title":"Create User",
      "method":"POST",
      "href":"https://example.com/users/",
      "type":"application/json",
      "fields": [
        { "name": "name", "type": "text" },
        { "name": "email", "type": "text" },
        { "name": "birth_date", "type": "date" },
      ]
    }
  ],
  "links":[
    {"rel":["self"], "href":"https://example.com.api/users"},
    {"rel":["next"], "href":"https://example.com.api/users?page=2"}
  ]
}

7.4.3. Reflections

The spec takes a huge leap towards REST principles by supporting, links, actions with fields and data types, there are still some issues that require human-involvement:

To sum up, Siren is very close to a self-described REST API but in practice it requires documentation and multi-fold human factor.

8. Ideal REST API

How many years these specs could sustain in terms of evolvability ? Are they built with a lifespan of 2-3 years or are they built with a life span of 50 years?

8.1. Capabilities of an Ideal REST API

In an ideal REST API, the client should be able to have all the necessary information for both the request and response.

Although this list is not exhaustive, an architecture style is timeless anyway, we feel that the aforementioned capabilities ought to appear in an idealized modern REST API.

We should also note that the reason we don’t mention anything about the headers that are required, or, the status codes is because we feel that these belong to the Protocol level and not in the Application level. Any changes on this level imply that the API breaks the protocol. However, we are pragmatic and we understand that an API designer could want to add (not change) a status code or a header in a given request/response and as a result, ideally, this should also be possible to be described.

8.1.1. Today’s REST is far from ideal

Now to the reader, it should be obvious that even if we manage to offload some of the aforementioned information to the Media Type, we would still have a very complex, massive, response from the server that mostly includes HATEOAS and not actual data.

In our experience, such responses are very hard to implement correctly, test, be performant and even debug. After all, a human will sit down and write the initial code and debugging the code by the eye is important. Simplicity is crucial.

Moreover, some clients might not be interested in hypermedia and evolvability at all but only the data. However such APIs force the clients to deal with it.

Ideally we would like to give the option to the client to decide the extend of the hypermedia that it will support and follow, without taking on defaults. Some clients might want to follow 100% the HATEOAS part of the API (and as a result be evolvable) some other clients might want the 50%, some clients might be interested only in data.

By outputting a whole bunch of hypermedia-related information to the clients that, after all, might never use them is a bad practice.

8.1.2. Making an API REST-compliant by downplaying its capabilities

One could argue that we require all APIs to support features that shouldn’t, like resource manipulation. For instance, we could have a weather API with application/vnd.weather+yaml Media Type that is only supposed to provide a single attribute with its value, as Integer:

temperature: 25

This API should be REST-compliant by not providing any API capabilities, hypermedia or actions. Of course, the imaginary Media Type application/vnd.weather+yaml is supposed to provide all the necessary information because otherwise the client would fail to understand things like

We feel that although this is true, most APIs are not as simple as that. Moreover such APIs can’t actually be evolved without releasing a new Media Type and breaking the existing API clients. There is no way of introducing change, which essentially breaks REST’s principles.

However we are pragmatic: we understand that such APIs will exist and API designers want to spend as less time as possible to build such APIs. Introspected REST, an architecture that we will describe later, solves that by serving hypermedia information on side and in an incremental way without breaking the simplicity.

8.1.3. A JSON API back in time

A JSON-based API built around 2006 would return just data. No hypermedia, no HATEOAS, only data.

In our use case, User resource would look like this:

{
  "user": {
    "id":"685",
    "email":"[email protected]",
    "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
    "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
    "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "microposts_count":50
  }
}

As simple as that.

Compared with a HATEOAS-ed response it’s simple as hell, obvious, easy to debug and understand by a human (and a client).

Is it possible to build an API that is simple as that, be Hypermedia driven and give the client the option to decide the level and type of HATEOAS it will follow?

8.2. Deriving the need for a new model

8.2.1. REST is complex

As we described earlier, mixing data with hypermedia leads to increased complexity, for both the server and the client. Just compare the size of our resource’s data and the size of our resource when represented by Siren, a hypermedia-ed API that doesn’t even being REST-compatible by missing numerous information as described in its reflections. Imagine how bloated the response would look like, if we added all the capabilities described in section 6.1.

Moreover, the hypermedia must be tailored for the user role the client acts on behalf of. For instance, a user with very basic access role might only have access to retrieving resources and not manipulating them. Or such role could only have access to specific capabilities of the API. As a result, the hypermedia provided on the response object should reflect that by not providing hypermedia that will lead to unauthorized access. In fact, such design is quite difficult to implement and test from the server side.

8.2.2. REST enforces possibly useless information

In REST, even if the hypermedia are rendered by taking into account the user’s role, eventually we might send more data that the client wants. Exactly because we don’t know in advance what the client might need, we must send all the possible hypermedia information to the client, just in case. The client however could only be interested in the data, or specific hypermedia types, like links, but instead gets a fully bloated response by the server.

8.2.3. REST sacrifices performance for evolvability

Complex or long-lived APIs tend to have many hypermedia data (links, actions, custom metadata) related to the resource itself, its associations and related resources. As a result, even if the actual data could be very small the resulted response object gets much larger in size slowing down the server rendering and the client receiving and parsing. The performance issues become more apparent on lossy networks like mobile clients, a trend that has increased over the past decade, or on constrained devices and environments, like IoT.

8.2.4. REST does not support caching of hypermedia

In practice, the hypermedia part of a resource rarely changes, compared to the resource’s data. In REST, by design, the client can’t cache the hypermedia part of the resource, even for relatively small amount of time, because hypermedia is part of the resource, thus caching the hypermedia can’t be separate from caching the response itself.

8.2.5. REST doesn’t make it easy to evolve hypermedia

Another issue of REST is that due to the fact that everything is mixed in together, evolving hypermedia separately from the data can’t happen. We understand that this is actually another feature of REST design and not an issue, treating a response object as a whole and not breaking into different parts like hypermedia and data, however, in practice, this poses difficulties for easier evolvement and maintenance of the API.

Although REST is not dependent on any protocol or spec, the truth is that it has dominated in HTTP. As we described earlier, in protocols like HTTP, content negotiation between client and server is achieved using Media Types, which is the only mechanism to define the semantics of a response. Given that composite Media Types never had real composability, and the fact that they cannot be parsed by clients, there is a trade off between what should go to the Media Type and what to the actual response through hypermedia, as described in section 6.2.3. This limits the design flexibility and evolvability. As a result Media Types become big monoliths that are inflexible and limit the evolvability of the API.

8.2.6.1. No backwards compatible with any RESTly or RESTless API

In a perfect world, APIs are built to be alive for many decades and clients are exploiting every little feature of the API and its Media Type. However, we are in a pragmatic world where nothing is perfect and clients are built by humans who take decisions based on their time and money.

Although we firmly believe that a REST API is better than any RESTly or RESTless API, we understand that there could be cases where API designers have to initially skip hypermedia part.

The problem is that when REST is applied to HTTP, it doesn’t allow us to easily integrate hypermedia at a later point. The reason is that, in a RESTless API, adding hypermedia at a later stage would mean that we would need a new Media Type because otherwise it would break the current semantics.

We would like to see a model that embraces both architectural API styles:

8.2.7.2 REST does not embrace composition

Although REST does not rejects the idea of composability of different API capabilities using different specs in the same response, or composite Media Types, it doesn’t embrace it either. The symptom of non-composability is clearly visible in protocols like HTTP where Media Types act as big monoliths trying to describe everything in one place. RFC 6906 (The ‘profile’ Link Relation Type) was created to overcome such issues but as we will see later this specifications lags behind over true composability and proper negotiation of the different profile types from the client perspective.

In Introspected REST, the MicroTypes is a conceptual solution to the outdated Media Type concept and allows us to mix-in different concepts for different kind of metadata of a resource, yet have all of them on demand and separated by the actual data.

9. Introspected REST

Simple things should be simple and complex things should be possible.

— Alan Kay

In the following section we will describe our new architectural style based on a model for Networked APIs that goes beyond REST. The model itself steps on Roy’s initial REST model but with the difference that instead of providing resource hypermedia at runtime, it provides them on the side, only if requested. Hence, by keeping the uniform interface the derived 3 out of 4 REST constraints that Roy defined still exist in this model: identification of resources; manipulation of resources through representations and self-descriptive messages. However, instead of having the constraint of hypermedia as the engine of application state (HATEOAS), we have introspection as the engine of application state (IATEOAS). Moreover, the introspection process can provide other kind of information, apart from hypermedia and links, that can facilitate the client to take decisions on how to proceed with the application’s requests.

To achieve this, composition of different specs is a vital part of our model and for that we will use a new concept, MicroTypes, small reusable modules that a final Media Type can be composed of. Before moving on, we will give concise definitions over hypermedia and metadata and break it down to different kinds of classes, according to Introspected REST model. These terms can overlap in the REST, however we feel that each one has its own place in our model that embraces composability.

9.1. Data, metadata and hypermedia

9.1.1. Data

Data is the main variables of a resource, at a given state, at a given time. Data is very volatile compared to other parts of a response.

9.1.2. Hypermedia

Originally the hypermedia term was mostly used for linked data, in the sense of hyperlinks. In REST, eventually, it also includes information for interaction and resource manipulation. Hypermedia can be dynamic or static but regardless they are not considered part of the response data, because they define ways to interact with the data.

Hypermedia is a very broad term and needs to be broken down in different parts. Although there isn’t any clear definition or consensus in the literature and the community, we will try to provide definitions and descriptions for all the different types of Hypermedia, according to our model’s perception.

The most basic class of hypermedia, basically URIs that can be used to provide linking between related resources to the primary resource. The properties of a link, like placement inside the response, strictly follow the semantics of the Media Type agreed.

9.1.2.2. Actions

Actions are links along with information for manipulating a resource. Although CRUD are the most popular actions of a resource, the beauty with REST, and consequently with Introspected REST, is that actions can go beyond plain CRUD. In fact, we can define any type of action or meta-action of our internal resource, through the representation that we expose. As a result, actions of a resource could be quite complex or simplistic depending on the needs and decisions of the API designer. Actions should also describe any relevant information for the client to perform it, unless the Media Type itself describe those details.

9.1.2.3. Forms

Another way of describing the manipulation options of a resource is the notion of forms. The difference between actions and forms is that the latter are strictly semantically equivalent to an HTML form, for the client to render.

9.1.3. Metadata

If hypermedia is links and actions, then what is metadata ?

Metadata are information about the resource that is not related with the data, including hypermedia. In essence, metadata is a superset of hypermedia and it’s crucial for the client to understand API’s responses, access the API’s capabilities and manipulate the resources.

Metadata could be API-specific, resource-specific, action-specific or even object-specific. There could also be different kinds of metadata: runtime (i.e. pagination information), structural (i.e. data types of a resource object), hypermedia (i.e. links, actions, forms), informational targeted to humans (i.e. general information, descriptions), etc.

Usually metadata is much less volatile than data, if not static, except runtime metadata that depend on the request and the resource at the given time and state respectively.

9.2. MicroTypes: reusable modules composing a Media Type

Imagine how poor the Web would have been if we had limited HTML to what was needed by an FTP client. That’s what most JSON APIs are today.

— Roy Fielding, on Twitter, 27 Aug 2016

We have been talking so much about the concept of MicroTypes but what exactly are ?

Currently, Media Types act as big monoliths that clients need to understand beforehand through human involvement. We believe that Media Types should be broken in smaller reusable media types, MicroTypes, each describing very carefully a specific functionality of a modern API. The reasoning is that, in our experience, we have seen that different APIs and API specs define the same functionalities in similar, but not identical, ways.

Examples of MicroTypes could be semantics for:

Each one of these could be defined as separate MicroTypes that specify in isolation how that part of the API works. At the same time they should be generic enough or follow some specific semantics so that it’s possible to be referenced parent Media Types targeted for Introspected APIs. The parent Media Type doesn’t need to know in advance all the MicroTypes that the API designer intends to use because that would mean that adding new MicroTypes would require a new parent Media Type which consequently means breaking the clients. Instead, each MicroType should be attachable to a parent Media Type that defines introspected behavior and clients would take into account only MicroTypes that are programmed to understand.

9.2.1. Benefits of MicroTypes

The benefits when leveraging such architecture are multi-fold.

9.2.1.1. Granular parameterization of API functionality by clients

First, by allowing the client and server to do the regular negotiation flow even for those sub-media-types, the communication between the 2 ends is parameterized to the needs of the client, down to the semantics level. For instance, a server might provide 3 MicroTypes for error information, each one having different representation or semantics. By letting the server to decide the appropriate MicroType for the client by analyzing the client’s incoming request, might not be efficient as the client can only send a part of its properties through the request, for various reasons like privacy concerns and performance, and thus the server has partial knowledge of the client’s state and properties. The server has to make an arbitrary choice for the client, what it thinks it’s thinks best, using this partial knowledge.

Instead, by giving the client the option to negotiate parts of the API functionality, we shift the responsibility towards the client to select the best representation and semantics of various, isolated, API functionalities. Given that the client can know much more about its needs than the server, it will make the best available choice for each API functionality, from the server’s options, which eventually will lead to the optimized combination of MicroTypes. As we will see later, in HTTP protocol, this is called reactive negotiation, a forgotten but still valid negotiation mechanism.

9.2.1.2. Reusability

Secondly, the MicroTypes specs and possibly implementations can be re-used by both the servers and clients. Instead of defining a whole Media Type, API designers will be able to include various small modules that extend the API functionality they way it’s needed. We firmly believe that once the community defines a number of MicroTypes, it will be much easier for an API designer to design a new API by reusing the MicroTypes she thinks fit best to her needs.

9.2.2. MicroType shims

Imagine that we want to use an existing spec as a MicroType, like JSON Schema. We cannot create a MicroType out of it with just a reference to the original spec because it lacks the context of the underlying protocol (like HTTP) and Media Type with which it will be used. It also lacks information about the requirements of the parent Media Type and the compatibility with other MicroTypes. Instead, we need to extend the original spec with the necessary, additional, semantics in the context of Media Types. Those semantics should be as minimal as possible, with respect to the initial specification and without altering its core semantics but enough for usage in its new context. When this method is followed, the new MicroType is called a “wrapper” or a “shim” of the original spec.

9.3. Introspection as the engine of application state (IATEOAS)

The idea of introspection is to be able to examine properties of a system at runtime. In the case of Introspected REST, introspection defines a process for a client to be able to introspect the API’s, resource’s, action’s or even object’s metadata at runtime. Through those metadata, server provides all the available states, manipulation actions as well as the available transitions. The implementation of the process is up to the API designer although usually a RESTish interface even for each MicroType’s metadata is a wise choice. In any case, we would like to point out some key properties that should appear on any introspection process.

9.3.1. Composability over monoliths

The process should embrace the use of distinct MicroTypes to form a Media Type instead of using a single Media Type. Such an architecture will lead to a system whose each MicroType’s metadata is independent, self-contained and detached from the metadata of the rest MicroTypes.

The API designer should first investigate and embrace the use of MicroTypes, RFCs and specs that are already defined and published, instead of creating her own custom, unpublished spec. The reason for this suggestion is that creating a new spec is difficult and usually such custom specs are used only for domain-specific APIs that were created for and live as long as this API is used. Instead, by trying to adapt published, battle-tested, RFC-community-reviewed specs assures the API designer in terms of compatibility, adoptability, clarity and possibly implementation, for both ends of the communication.

9.3.2. Plain data separated from metadata

The process of introspection should be distinctly different from requesting data. To that extend, introspection responses should not include any data but only metadata, and data responses should not include any metadata, except, possibly, runtime metadata.

9.3.3. Identifiable metadata of each Microtype

Given that metadata are already separated from plain data, by being able to identify and retrieve metadata of a specific MicroType there are various advantages because each MicroType becomes independent and self-sufficient. For instance, caching will be possible using the underlying protocol’s mechanisms, for each metadata type separately. Another example is the detached evolvability of each MicroType’s metadata, independently, given that the MicroType’s semantics permit that.

9.3.4. Discovery of resource capabilities

An Introspected REST API should provide capabilities discovery per resource that provides all the necessary information to the client to understand what it is possible to request from the API.

9.3.5. Client bootstraping

An Introspected REST API should provide an API-wide capabilities discovery that lists all MicroTypes that are used API-wide along with resources that can be accessed directly and in general, any information that could be of interest and could help the client to bootstrap faster.

The location of this detailed list should be in the conceptual root resource/URL of the API.

9.3.6. Automatic documentation generation

Possibly the API will provide a MicroType targeted to humans and not machines that contains informational descriptions and explanations. It should be noted that this information must not be needed for a client to parse and understand the API responses, and even for humans such information should weight very little compared to the rest metadata.

In the same way, the API should automate the generation of the documentation using all metadata from all MicroTypes for every resource. The way the documentation is requested and its format should be distinctly defined by a MicroType or the parent Media Type.

10. Introspected REST applied to HTTP

Introspected REST architectural style is not bound to any protocol or spec, just as is REST. Here we will review the challenges that are rising through its adaptation in HTTP protocol. For instance, we need to solve issues like announcement and negotiation of MicroTypes bound to a Media Type, priority order in case of overlaps or collisions, identification, and the actual introspection process in HTTP.

10.1 Revisiting content negotiation in HTTP

As we have already seen, content negotiation in HTTP is achieved through Accept request header but it’s not the only header which can be used by the server to determine the appropriate representation for the client. Accept-Charset, Accept-Encoding, Accept-Language request headers can also be used. In practice, User-Agent header is also used by the server for choosing the right content for the client because it contains some device and agent characteristics, although it’s not part of the standard negotiation headers. Lately even, a new draft standard is being created, HTTP Client Hints, that extends the HTTP with new request headers which indicate device and agent characteristics. The server uses all those headers as hints in order to determine the most suitable representation of the content to be served to the client.

This hint-based mechanism, which according to RFC 7231 is called server-driven or proactive content negotiation, has been extensively used in HTTP protocol. In the context of MicroTypes and Introspected REST, using this mechanism, the client can negotiate for runtime MicroTypes: API functionalities that define semantics for the data and runtime metadata. This type of MicroTypes, should tend to appear less often because if anything can be introspected on the side instead of runtime, it will be defined as non-runtime, introspective metadata.

Interestingly, RFC 7231 notes that reactive negotiation has some serious disadvantages:

Proactive negotiation has serious disadvantages:

o It is impossible for the server to accurately determine what might be “best” for any given user, since that would require complete knowledge of both the capabilities of the user agent and the intended use for the response (e.g., does the user want to view it on screen or print it on paper?);

o Having the user agent describe its capabilities in every request can be both very inefficient (given that only a small percentage of responses have multiple representations) and a potential risk to the user’s privacy;

o It complicates the implementation of an origin server and the algorithms for generating responses to a request; and,

o It limits the reusability of responses for shared caching.

RFC 7231

In fact, from the beginnings of HTTP (since RFC 2068, published in 1997), the protocol allowed another negotiation type: agent-driven or reactive content negotiation negotiation, that matches very well our introspective concept. As RFC 7231 notes, in reactive content negotiation the server provides a list of options to the client to choose from.

With reactive negotiation (a.k.a., agent-driven negotiation), selection of the best response representation (regardless of the status code) is performed by the user agent after receiving an initial response from the origin server that contains a list of resources for alternative representations.

(…)

A server might choose not to send an initial representation, other than the list of alternatives, and thereby indicate that reactive negotiation by the user agent is preferred. For example, the alternatives listed in responses with the 300 (Multiple Choices) and 406 (Not Acceptable) status codes include information about the available representations so that the user or user agent can react by making a selection.

RFC 7231

With reactive negotiation, the client is responsible for choosing the most appropriate representation, according to its needs. That goes inline with Introspective REST, as the client, after receiving all the possible server options, uses the ones that best fit to its use case or understands better. As the RFC notes, such negotiation has the advantage of choosing the best combination of MicroTypes, because the client does the selection out of a predefined list that the server publishes.

10.2. Runtime MicroTypes

Runtime MicroTypes are targeted for API functionality that is used during the request/response cycle of plain data. Such functionality could be pagination, URI querying language, error descriptions etc or it could even be semantics around the data itself. It should also be noted that even runtime MicroTypes could have content for introspection but the key difference from pure introspective MicroTypes is that part of their functionality affects the semantics of the client’s request or server’s response.

The negotiation of runtime MicroTypes should follow the regular negotiation flow: The client should negotiate for the principal Media Type using the Accept request header and the server responds with Content-Type response header, denoting the selected representation. However the key difference is that for each principal Media Type, it should also negotiate for the MicroTypes to be used with it. For that, we will employ the Media Type parameters, a rarely used mechanism:

Media types MAY elect to use one or more media type parameters, or some parameters may be automatically made available to the media type by virtue of being a subtype of a content type that defines a set of parameters applicable to any of its subtypes. In either case, the names, values, and meanings of any parameters MUST be fully specified when a media type is registered in the standards tree, and SHOULD be specified as completely as possible when media types are registered in the vendor or personal trees.

Parameter names have the syntax as media type names and values:

  parameter-name = restricted-name

RFC 6838

An example of an imaginary Media Type with a couple of parameters for MicroTypes is:

Accept: application/vnd.api+json; pagination=simple-spec; querying=graphql;

In the aforementioned example, the client asks for representation of application/vnd.api+json, (which as we have seen earlier it vaguely means a vendor application that follows the semantics of api, in JSON representation) but wants the pagination to follow the semantics of simple-spec and the querying language of graphql.

The client should be able to even set a preference order:

Accept: application/vnd.api+json; pagination=simple-spec; querying=graphql; querying=jsonapi;

Here the client shows preference to the imaginary graphql querying language but if that doesn’t exist then it will accept the jsonapi querying language. It should be noted that this preference is different from a Media Type preference using the relative weight q parameter (also called quality value) as it applies to the MicroType level. An example with multiple Media Types could be:

Accept: application/vnd.api+json; pagination=simple-spec; querying=graphql; querying=jsonapi, application/vnd.api2+json; pagination=simple-spec; querying=jsonapi; querying=jsonapi; q=0.9

In this example the client shows preference to the application/vnd.api+json Media Type (it has default quality value of 1.0) with specific preferences on MicroType level, as we explained above. However if this Media Type is not available then it will accept the next most preferred, application/vnd.api2+json, by requesting specific MicroTypes.

If the server can provide only the less preferred Media Type with the less preferred querying it would answer:

Content-Type: application/vnd.api2+json; pagination=simple-spec; querying=graphql

10.3. Introspective MicroTypes

Introspective MicroTypes don’t alter the semantics of request/response cycle but are still valuable to the client and the decisions they should take based on the current state and the input from the application developer. They can provide information about the data types, RDF Schema of the resources, etc. Introspective MicroTypes should employ reactive negotiation.

The question though is how can the server advertise the availability of MicroTypes for the client to introspect. Ideally we would like to inform the client for all possible options through HTTP instead of employing a serialization format. Unfortunately, the HTTP protocol doesn’t say much about this type of negotiation, only that the status code when requesting such information should be 300 and Link relation header of RFC 5988 could be potentially used to provide the list with all the available options, mostly for historical reasons that date back to RFC 2068:

The 300 (Multiple Choices) status code indicates that the target resource has more than one representation, each with its own more specific identifier, and information about the alternatives is being provided so that the user (or user agent) can select a preferred representation by redirecting its request to one or more of those identifiers. In other words, the server desires that the user agent engage in reactive negotiation to select the most appropriate representation(s) for its needs (Section 3.4). (…)

For request methods other than HEAD, the server SHOULD generate a payload in the 300 response containing a list of representation metadata and URI reference(s) from which the user or user agent can choose the one most preferred. (…)

Note: The original proposal for the 300 status code defined the URI header field as providing a list of alternative representations, such that it would be usable for 200, 300, and 406 responses and be transferred in responses to the HEAD method. However, lack of deployment and disagreement over syntax led to both URI and Alternates (a subsequent proposal) being dropped from this specification. It is possible to communicate the list using a set of Link header fields [RFC5988], each with a relationship of “alternate”, though deployment is a chicken-and-egg problem.

RFC 7231

To our knowledge, reactive negotiation has never been analyzed, used or suggested before. Here, apart from Link relation header, we also suggest two more alternative implementation to solve this issue and we will let the community to choose what is the more appropriate solution.

10.4.1 The HTTP OPTIONS method

The server can describe the meta-data of a resource in the response body of the OPTIONS request. In fact, OPTIONS method has historically been used for getting information on methods supported on a specific resource.

According to RFC 7231 this method should be used to determine the capabilities of the server for the targeted resource:

The OPTIONS method requests information about the communication options available for the target resource, at either the origin server or an intervening intermediary. This method allows a client to determine the options and/or requirements associated with a resource, or the capabilities of a server, without implying a resource action.

RFC 7231

The OPTIONS method could be used for the server to provide a list of available introspective MicroTypes and let the client choose what it thinks best.

The same RFC mentions that there isn’t any practical use of sending an OPTIONS request to the root url.

An OPTIONS request with an asterisk (“*”) as the request-target (Section 5.3 of [RFC7230]) applies to the server in general rather than to a specific resource. Since a server’s communication options typically depend on the resource, the “*” request is only useful as a “ping” or “no-op” type of method; it does nothing beyond allowing the client to test the capabilities of the server. For example, this can be used to test a proxy for HTTP/1.1 conformance (or lack thereof).

RFC 7231

However, we feel that this is the perfect case for hosting an API’s discovery for available capabilities using reactive negotiation. We could keep the /* for “ping” or “no-op” type of method as the RFC notes and have the root / for listing all API’s capabilities through MicroTypes for all resources, as IATEOAS denotes.

Now that we know how to fetch the MicroTypes that the server offers, we need to find an appropriate representation for it. One option is to employ a common JSON format for describing each MicroType, its URL for introspection along with the expected Media Type the response in the specified URL uses. For instance if we would like to introspect resource /api/users/1 of an API we would get the following information by sending an OPTIONS request to the resource’s url.

{
  "JSON-Schema": {
    "url": "/api/users/1?microtype=json-schema",
    "method": "OPTIONS",
    "content-type": "application/schema+json"
  },
  "RDF": {
    "url": "/api/users/1?microtype=rdf",
    "method": "OPTIONS",
    "content-type": "application/rdf+xml"
  },
  "JSON-LD": {
    "url": "api/users/1?microtype=json-ld",
    "method": "OPTIONS",
    "content-type": "application/ld+json"
  }
}

The problem though is that such functionality (sending an OPTIONS request to /api/users/1) must be described somewhere so that the client knows where to look for it, possibly in the parent Media Type or using another MicroType. An alternative option is to use the OPTIONS request in combination with the Link header, as described later, that will announce the MicroTypes availability. Such functionality should still be described somewhere as RFC 7231 only makes a suggestion for the Link header usage.

It is our intention to advice the community to use this solution for the introspection process, without the Link header but with a response body that describes the MicroTypes availability. The structure and semantics of the response could be available in various serializations and formats and the clients could specify their preference using the regular, proactive, HTTP negotiation flow of Media Types. Although, as we will see later, it comes at a cost, we feel that it’s the best among all three solutions presented here and the conceptual notion of OPTIONS method, as described by HTTP specs, matches very well with our intended use case. Furthermore, such process gives much more flexibility to append any additional information to the client, than an HTTP header.

10.4.2. Well-known URIs and JSON Home

RFC 5785 defines a pre-defined URI for accessing server’s various metadata:

It is increasingly common for Web-based protocols to require the discovery of policy or other information about a host (“site-wide metadata”) before making a request. For example, the Robots Exclusion Protocol http://www.robotstxt.org/ specifies a way for automated processes to obtain permission to access resources; likewise, the Platform for Privacy Preferences [W3C.REC-P3P-20020416] tells user-agents how to discover privacy policy beforehand. (…)

When this happens, it is common to designate a “well-known location” for such data, so that it can be easily located. However, this approach has the drawback of risking collisions, both with other such designated “well-known locations” and with pre-existing resources.

To address this, this memo defines a path prefix in HTTP(S) URIs for these “well-known locations”, “/.well-known/”. Future specifications that need to define a resource for such site-wide metadata can register their use to avoid collisions and minimise impingement upon sites’ URI space.

RFC 5785

Using this specification, the server can register a well-known URI that is expected to be the first URI the client requests to introspect. To that extend, a new draft spec is being developed, JSON Home that defines such document structure that provides all the server resources and capabilities. Regardless if JSON Home is used, well-known URIs can provide a way to introspect only the server-wide capabilities:

/.well-known/metadata

Here, metadata would be a new well-known URI registry that either defined in the parent Media Type or defined by itself as a MicroType. The spec does not provide a scheme for well-known URIs per resource or nested URI and this means that we need to build something upon well-known URIs functionality in order to provide introspection per resource. How this will be achieved can be defined by the community, if used eventually, but a possible implementation could be to pass the desired resource URL as a query in the metadata well-known URI registry:

/.well-known/metadata?query=/api/users/1

Again as with HTTP OPTIONS, the server will either have to provide a representation of the available MicroTypes inside the response body of the well-known URI or use the Link header.

Although this solution could work, we feel that RFC 5785 was not designed to be used for such specific URIs but instead for more generic properties that usually apply to the host itself.

Regadless if HTTP OPTIONS or well-known URIs are used, Link header, defined in RFC 5988, is an alternative way of publishing the available MicroTypes by the server, in a representation-agnostic way.

A means of indicating the relationships between resources on the Web, as well as indicating the type of those relationships, has been available for some time in HTML [W3C.REC-html401-19991224], and more recently in Atom [RFC4287]. These mechanisms, although conceptually similar, are separately specified. However, links between resources need not be format specific; it can be useful to have typed links that are independent of their serialisation, especially when a resource has representations in multiple formats.

To this end, this document defines a framework for typed links that isn’t specific to a particular serialisation or application. It does so by redefining the link relation registry established by Atom to have a broader domain, and adding to it the relations that are defined by HTML.

RFC 5988

As the next (draft) version of RFC 5988 notes:

a link published through Link header can be viewed as a statement of the form “link context has a link relation type resource at link target, which has target attributes”.

rfc5988bis-07

As a result, this RFC provides us a representation-agnostic mechanism through which we can announce link relations of the current visited URL, along with their relation types. For instance, the following example

Link: <http://example.com/TheBook/chapter2>; rel="previous";
     title="previous chapter"

would denote that that “chapter2” is previous to this resource in a logical navigation path. Note that title is a target attribute or parameter to this link relation.

In the case of Introspected REST, we would use it to announce introspective MicroTypes related to the resource the client visits. By exploiting the target attributes we would also like to specify the HTTP method and optionally the Media Type the client should expect in order to introspect the given MicroType.

Link: <https://www.example.com/api/users/1?microtype=json-schema>; rel="microtype";
     method="options"; type="application/schema+json" name="json-schema",
      <https://www.example.com/api/users/1?microtype=rdf>; rel="microtype";
     method="options"; type="application/schema+json" name="rdf",
      <https://www.example.com/api/users/1?microtype=json-ld>; rel="microtype";
     method="options"; type="application/schema+json" name="json-ld",

Also related, Erik Wilde is working on an IETF draft, named Link Relation Types for Web Services that defines a way to announce metadata of a resource through this mechanism. Given that and also the fact that this solution has the advantage of solving the MicroTypes announcement in the HTTP protocol without being tight to a specific serialization, it’s easy to think that it’s the most appropriate way to specify the MicroTypes supported on a specific resource.

Unfortunately, this solution has a couple of drawbacks. First and foremost, the link header size is limited and if other headers of the response are already overloaded then the server might refuse to render the response to the client but instead return an HTTP error possibly “413 Request Entity Too Large” or “414 Request-URI Too Long” although there isn’t an HTTP status code explicitly defined for such case. A possible solution to this could be Linkset: A Link Relation Type for Link Sets RFC proposal (a work also by Erik Wilde) but currently it’s in draft state. Once published, a Linkset could group together a set of links and provide them to the client by reference. However Linksets don’t actually solve our issue because eventually the MicroTypes announcement would not be solved in the HTTP level as a Linkset would have to provide a body format as well.

Another issue is that the server cannot specify a caching strategy for all links at once because there is no mechanism in HTTP which allows us to specify caching directives for specific headers only. As a result, unless we used a Linkset which we can’t yet and would cancel any advantages that Link header provides due to the need of a response body, the client would have to dereference all MicroTypes to figure out their caching properties.

On a side note, over the past few years, we have seen an explosion of link types used along with Link header defined by RFC 5988. The authors of Introspected REST are skeptical with this trend and feel that the Link header should not be overused. For instance, having more than 5 links in the Link header feels that something is wrong, probably too many things are defined in the protocol level whereas maybe they should be defined somewhere else. We will let the community to decide if this approach is good for publishing MicroTypes but we would like to stress the point that having a link in the HTTP level through Link header might be better for related resources that all clients would understand, which is not always the case in Introspected REST. The API designer could add more MicroTypes, progressively, as the time passes and simultaneously, some clients might not be interested or understand all MicroTypes of an Introspected REST. Requiring the client to receive all MicroType information for every data request is made would probably be against the principles of Introspected REST.

10.5. Considerations

10.5.1 Diversifing from existing RFCs

Although we have managed to apply Introspective REST to HTTP, a protocol that has been influenced so much by Roy’s REST model (and vice verca) this adaptation comes to a cost: we need to diversify from some RFCs specifications that we make use of. Fortunately this diversification is relatively very small compared to the gains and all changes are backwards compatible with existing deployed clients.

10.5.1. HTTP OPTIONS responses are not cacheable

First and most importantly, according to RFC 7231:

Responses to the OPTIONS method are not cacheable.

RFC 7231

This is the biggest breaking change to existing HTTP specs that Introspected REST applies. Unfortunately for a reason unknown to us, HTTP spec requires the clients to not cache responses of HTTP OPTIONS, essentially breaking out thinking of detached hypermedia and other metadata from plain data. In practice though, adding cache headers in that HTTP method should be possible although limitations by existing client implementations could exist. If an API designer doesn’t want to break this part of HTTP spec then she should define the introspection process through the other suggested solutions, or come up with a new one. What is important though is that, as Introspected REST specifies, introspection process should be recognizably distinct from regular data requests.

The authors of Introspected REST don’t see the reasoning of this constraint by HTTP spec and advise the community to investigate the possibility of ignoring this limitation and proceed with HTTP OPTIONS introspection process that fits best to this architectural style. Eventually, that would lead the IETF to completely drop it from HTTP spec. Also, although the change itself could be considered as breaking because we alter a functionality that RFC 7231 specifies, this alteration does not break existing clients but only the existing spec, because allowing clients to cache a response, which previously was not allowed, is backwards compatible.

10.5.2. Media Type parameters must be very well defined beforehand

According to RFC 6831 any Media Type parameters must be very well defined beforehand:

Media types MAY elect to use one or more media type parameters, or some parameters may be automatically made available to the media type by virtue of being a subtype of a content type that defines a set of parameters applicable to any of its subtypes. In either case, the names, values, and meanings of any parameters MUST be fully specified when a media type is registered in the standards tree, and SHOULD be specified as completely as possible when media types are registered in the vendor or personal trees.

This goes against our concept of arbitrary number of autonomous MicroTypes that can be included by a parent Media Type parameters. However, we feel that given the sparse use of Media Types parameters, such breaking change will have a very small effect. The authors of Introspected REST advice the community to investigate the possibility of pushing IETF to drop this requirement, or extend Media Type parameters with specialized parameters that can have arbitrary names.

10.5.3. Media Types must function as actual media formats

Another thing that we differentiate is that according to same spec, each Media Type’s primary functionality shoud be that of being media formats.

Media types MUST function as actual media formats. Registration of things that are better thought of as a transfer encoding, as a charset, or as a collection of separate entities of another type, is not allowed. For example, although applications exist to decode the base64 transfer encoding [RFC2045], base64 cannot be registered as a media type.

This requirement applies regardless of the registration tree involved.

RFC 6831

In our concept of MicroTypes, the parent Media Type acts as the base media format but has the possibility to be extended by small components, MicroTypes. These small components, which could be different in each request, define functionalities of different parts of the API and such functionality is not always in the context of media formats as RFC 6831 indicates.

10.5.4. Mixed priorities are confusing

One more limitation comes from our MicroTypes definition through Media Type’s parameters and is related to priorities between MicroTypes and parent Media Types. Imagine the client is sending the following to the server:

Accept: application/vnd.api+json; pagination=simple-spec; querying=graphql; querying=jsonapi, application/vnd.api2+json;

Given this header, the client sets the priorities in the following order:

  1. application/vnd.api+json with the following MicroTypes
    • pagination=simple-spec
    • querying=graphql or alternatively querying=jsonapi
  2. application/vnd.api+json with the following MicroTypes
    • pagination=simple-spec
    • querying=jsonapi or alternatively querying=jsonapi
  3. application/vnd.api2+json

But how can the client prioritize (3) choice over (2) ? Having multilevel priorities is difficult in this context and could be only solved by sending 3 options to the server, essentially flatting and removing the MicroTypes priority scheme that we showed and falling back to the classic Media Type negotiation:

Accept: application/vnd.api+json; pagination=simple-spec; querying=graphql, application/vnd.api2+json, application/vnd.api+json; pagination=simple-spec; querying=jsonapi;

In our experience though, negotiation in HTTP is not used that extensively (although it should): clients are usually prepared before hand for one Media Type (and its MicroTypes in our context). Thus, we don’t think this will be an issue in practice, at least initially, until community embraces Introspectiveness and new standards are created solving these limitations.

This is also not a breaking change per-se but it’s good to have it in mind and possibly reconsider it or alter it when eventually patterns for MicroTypes and parent Media Types for Introspected REST APIs are settled down.

10.5.5. The community should experiment

To our knowledge we haven’t broken any other HTTP-related specification for Introspected REST and the broken changes that we had were very minor to our understanding, all of them being backwards-compatible to existing clients. Given that the whole HTTP, related protocols and implementations, since its inception have always been based on proactive negotiation we think that these changes are affordable for our new model. Even when they are not affordable we feel that there are alternative ways to mitigate those limitations. But after all, IETF, W3C and related organizations usually are not preceding implementations but instead implementations affect and drive these specifications through the committees. If IETF sees that people are using the specifications differently than these have been defined, they should update them or create new ones, as long as these don’t break the existing Internet infrastructure, which they definitely do not in our case.

10.5.2. Performance considerations

Introspected REST adds some performance issues related to introspection process: the client needs to first do a reconnaissance request to figure out what capabilities the server supports. Then for each capability that is described by a MicroType, the client might possibly need to send another request to retrieve the metadata of that MicroType. This adds much more requests than regular REST APIs which would lead to increased latency until the client fetches or sends the actual resource.

However, according to Introspected REST, the client can cache all this information using server’s caching headers, which could be different for each MicroType. In that way, Introspected REST could possibly be more performant than regular REST because the client might have to actually request metadata very sparsely compared to actual data requests and given that the data responses will be much smaller than REST’s equivalent responses (which would also hold all the necessary metadata), it should lead to better performance in the long run. We should also note that Introspected REST is not ideal for all API designs and there could be cases that REST becomes a better choice than Introspected REST. Nevertheless, we feel that for most machine-to-machine communications Introspected REST is a better choice for all the advantages it offers and possibly more performant than REST.

11. An Introspected REST API prototype in the world of HTTP and JSON

In the following we will describe the architecture of the Introspected REST APIs through a proposed implementation. The reader though should not confuse the proposed implementation details with the actual architecture style. This is by no means a complete Media Type, but just an example of the potential of Introspected REST. The actual MicroTypes and Media Types will be created by the community.

For our solution, we will use JSON, JSON Schemas, JSON super schemas, JSON-LD and problem+json each representing a different MicroType. But the reader could apply the same ideas using any message format and spec.

Our use case will be the same as the one in section 7.1, a miniature of yet another Social App. Given that Introspected REST differs only in HATEOAS part of REST, the identification of the resources should be kept the same, namely:

Let’s assume that our parent Media Type is application/vnd.api+json.

11.1. Isolating the actual data from metadata

Our top priority is to offload the final response object from the metadata, like hypermedia. Instead, we will provide to the user only the data and possibly any runtime metadata.

When the client manipulates a User resource, the response should contain only the data:

{
  "user": {
    "id":"685",
    "email":"[email protected]",
    "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
    "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
    "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "microposts_count":50
  }
}

Similarly, a Users resource will be a collection of User resources:

{
  "users": [{
    "id":"685",
    "email":"[email protected]",
    "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
    "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
    "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "microposts_count": 50
  }, {
    "id":"9124",
    "email": "[email protected]",
    "name": "Robert Clarsson",
    "birth_date": "1940-11-10",
    "created-at": "2016-10-06T16:01:24Z",
    "microposts-count": 17,
  }]
}

The actual format of the data could vary regarding the root element or possibly the place of the primary id. Such details will be described by the Media Type. What is important here is that the data does not contain any metadata, apart from runtime metadata, that we will describe later.

11.2 Introspection Method

For introspection method we will use the HTTP OPTIONS, as described in 10.4.1, but with the additional description of runtime MicroTypes, which in our case do have some introspective content for the client to fetch. The specific semantics of this document will be described in the parent Media Type, but it would look like this:

{
  "micro-types": {
    "runtime": {
      "pagination": {
        "url": "/api/users/1?microtype=pagination",
        "method": "OPTIONS",
        "content-type": "application/simple-pagination+json",
        "priority": "1.0"
      },
      "errors": {
        "url": "/api/users/1?microtype=errors",
        "method": "OPTIONS",
        "content-type": "application/simple-errors+json",
        "priority": "1.0"
      }
    },
    "introspective": {
      "json-schema": {
        "url": "/api/users/1?microtype=json-schema",
        "method": "OPTIONS",
        "content-type": "application/schema+json",
        "priority": "0.8"
      },
      "json-hyper-schema": {
        "url": "/api/users/1?microtype=json-hyper-schema",
        "method": "OPTIONS",
        "content-type": "application/schema+json",
        "priority": "0.8"
      },
      "json-ld": {
        "url": "/api/users/1?microtype=json-ld",
        "method": "OPTIONS",
        "content-type": "application/ld+json",
        "priority": "0.5"
      },
      "simple-description": {
        "url": "/api/users/1?microtype=simple-description",
        "method": "OPTIONS",
        "content-type": "application/json",
        "priority": "0.2"
      }
    }
  },
  "documentation": {
    "url": "/documentation#user",
    "method": "GET",
    "content-type": "text/html"
  }
}

Each entry describes the url which the client can access it, the HTTP method the client should use along with the Media Type of the expected response. Finally, the priority number specifies the preceding order of each MicroType in case a functionality is described by one or more MicroTypes.

Note that the Media Type of the introspective content will be described by the MicroType the client tries to access. As a result, if a client doesn’t recognize a MicroType, it wouldn’t try to access it anyway.

11.2. Runtime Metadata

11.2.1. Pagination

It goes without saying that when a client requests a collection of resources, it expects some kind of pagination with it. For pagination MicroType we have a number of different options. One option is to use the Link header and define the links there, in a representation-agnostic way. But given that our application is intended to powerful clients that would also parse the JSON body we wouldn’t gain much, possibly we would make things even more complex for them.

Another possibility, with some inspiration from JSONAPI, is to use the first, last, prev and next to specify the first, last, previous and next page respectively.

{
  "users": [{
    "id":"685",
    "email":"[email protected]",
    "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
    "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
    "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "microposts_count": 50
  }, {
    "id":"9124",
    "email": "[email protected]",
    "name": "Robert Clarsson",
    "birth_date": "1940-11-10",
    "created-at": "2016-10-06T16:01:24Z",
    "microposts-count": 17,
  }],
  "meta":{
    "self":"/api/users?page=2&per_page=10&offset=0",
    "first":"/api/users?page=1&per_page=10&offset=0",
    "prev":"/api/users?page=1&per_page=10&offset=0",
    "next":"/api/users?page=2&per_page=10&offset=0",
    "last":"/api/users?page=9&per_page=10&offset=0"
  }
}

A different approach is to just specify the page, per_page and offset to the client and also provide a URI template to use with those values to access any page.

{
  "users": [{
    "id":"685",
    "email":"[email protected]",
    "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
    "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
    "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "microposts_count": 50
  }, {
    "id":"9124",
    "email": "robert.clar[email protected]",
    "name": "Robert Clarsson",
    "birth_date": "1940-11-10",
    "created-at": "2016-10-06T16:01:24Z",
    "microposts-count": 17,
  }],
  "meta": {
    "page": 2,
    "per_page": 10,
    "offset": 0
  }
}

We could provide the URI template when introspecting the pagination MicroType:

{
  "link": "/api/resource{?page, per_page, offset}"
}

Of course, the MicroType spec would specify how the client should parse and determine the pagination links from this introspective content. In that way, we don’t treat the clients as stupid but smart enough to understand what they need to do on their part to get what they want.

Which is the best solution? It depends, and that’s why we should embrace MicroTypes. The Link header-based solution is representation-agnostic and could benefit some clients that don’t deal much with the content but in practice such clients are very rare, especially in our use case. The second solution would limit the client application developer if she wanted to have a link of a specific page, while the last solution would limit the API designer to avoid having the number of total pages in the response, because it could be a huge cost to the database level. In any case, Introspected REST doesn’t restrict us to specify two or more alternative MicroTypes for the same API functionality, like pagination.

11.2.2 The Errors MicroType

When the API is supposed to return an unexpected response to the user, like a 4xx or 5xx error, the response will have a different structure than the resource that the client requested.

Usually the semantics of an error respond are defined in the API’s Media Type but we will use the newly-published RFC 7807 (Problem Details for HTTP APIs), which defines the problem+json Media Type for JSON HTTP APIs. To give an example how the response will seem when following this RFC, imagine that when updating a User object, the application developer might wrongly send an invalid birth_date. Then the application should respond with the following structure:

{
  "title": "The birthdate has an invalid format.",
  "details": "The birthdate must be in the format of 1985-04-12T23:20:50.52Z.",
  "status": 422
}

If you inspect the spec you will notice that the spec limits us by omitting specifying a way to associate an error message with a specific resource attribute. As a result, we can only specify the falsy attribute in the title or details attribute of the error object, which are human-targeted, and thus informing only the end user and not the client. We could add extension members, as the spec suggests, to customize the error object in our needs but the final response object wouldn’t be self-descriptive, unless we customly extended it.

The good thing though is that normally such errors should be caught on the client-side by the introspected MicroTypes for the resource structure, which in our use case are the schema validations from the JSON Schema MicroType. The error object could be used for more advanced errors, like the following:

{
  "title": "Transaction failed",
  "details": "The remaining amount of virtual coins in your account is not enough for this purchase",
  "status": 403
}

Another thing that we should take care is the fact that this RFC requires returning a different Media Type than the one used by the API. In theory the API’s Media Type explain how the errors work using the same semantics as defined in problem+json RFC but the RFC suggests using application/problem+json for Media Type.

The data model for problem details is a JSON [RFC7159] object; when formatted as a JSON document, it uses the “application/problem+json” media type.

RFC 7807

However in order for this to work the client needs to negotiate it and accept this Media Type, otherwise we have a gap in the client-server communication. The client can’t be asking for the API’s Media Type and unexpectedly receive the application/problem+json Media Type.

In HTTP that would be achieved using the Accept header, which could look like that:

Accept: application/vnd.api+json, application/problem+json

But that reminds us the concept of (runtime) MicroTypes, right? Even the negotiation looks very similar. To that extend, creating a wrapper MicroType shim around this Media Type, that other API designers can also use, should be effortless.

To take one step further, given that such error information is crucial for the user to understand why her action is not advancing, we feel that the client should be able to negotiate the errors MicroType, that is, the information and structure of the returned errors object. Some clients might need the most basic error information and use only the HTTP status code, other clients might be interested in as much possible information available in order to show it to the user. For instance, the client might show preference to another problems Media Type before falling back to problem+json, as seen in the following Accept header example:

Accept: application/vnd.api+json, errors=problem/extensive+json, errors=problem+json;

11.3. Introspective Metadata

We will describe our APIs capabilities by mixing together different MicroTypes targeted each one for a specific capability of our API, following the Single Responsibility Principle. The client will be able to retrieve the information of each metadata MicroType by introspecting the resource.

11.3.1. Structural metadata

One of the most important things for a client to know is the expected structure of the request/response resource object along with information on the data types. For that we will use JSON Schemas, a powerful spec that enables you to describe and validate your JSON data.

Given that this specification has been published using the RFC method and taking into account its popularity, it is very probable that there is an implementation for that MicroType for the client’s environment. Also, a cool side effect of having the structure definition of the resource as a MicroType available through resource’s introspection, is that the client can use this information to first validate the object before sending it over the wire to the server.

11.3.1.1. User resource
{
  "$schema":"https://json-schema.org/draft-04/schema#",
  "$id":"https://example.com/user.json",
  "properties":{
    "user":{
      "type":"object",
      "properties":{
        "id":{
          "maxLength":64,
          "type":"string"
        },
        "email":{
          "maxLength":255,
          "type":"string",
          "format":"email"
        },
        "name":{
          "maxLength":255,
          "type":["null", "string"]
        },
        "birth_date":{
          "type":"string",
          "pattern":"^[0-9]{4}-[0-9]{2}-[0-9]{2}$"
        },
        "created_at":{
          "maxLength":255,
          "type":"string",
          "formate":"date-time"
        },
        "microposts_count":{
          "type":"integer"
        }
      },
      "required":[
        "id",
        "email",
        "name",
        "birth_date",
        "created_at",
        "microposts_count"
      ]
    }
  },
  "required":[
    "user"
  ],
  "type":"object"
}
11.3.1.2. Users resource

Note that the Users resource is just a collection of User object and as a result it references the User schema.

{
  "$schema":"https://json-schema.org/draft-04/schema#",
  "$id":"https://example.com/users.json",
  "properties":{
    "users":{
      "type": "array",
      "$href": "https://example.com/user.json#/properties/user"
    },
    "meta": {
      "type":"object",
      "page": {
        "type": "integer",
        "default": 0,
        "minimum": 0,
        "$ref": "#/definitions/extra"
      },
      "per_page": {
        "type": "integer",
        "minimum": 1,
        "maximum": 100,
        "default": 50
      },
      "offset": {
        "type": "integer",
        "minimum": 0,
        "default": 0
      },
      "required":[
        "page",
        "per_page",
        "offset"
      ],
    }
  },
  "required":[
    "users",
    "meta"
  ],
  "type":"object"
}
11.3.1.3. Request Response inconsistency

Although here we have the same object semantics for request and response object, in theory these could be different. If that’s the case, we should denote each object in the response parented under distinct JSON attributes (like accepts/produces or accepts/returns).

11.3.2. Hypermedia metadata

For the Hypermedia part we will use JSON Hyper Schemas. Specifically we will use the draft V4 of JSON Hyper Schemas as the next versions (V5, V6) are targeted to hypermedia APIs that are HTML-equivalents. For instance, there is no way we can define a method attribute, restricting us to GET and POST depending whether there is a body to send or not. In the Introspected REST terminology, V5 and V6 provide hypermedia semantics only for forms and not actions.

Resource schemas defined in the previous section are referenced by the following Hyper Schemas, in order to avoid duplication of our metadata. Such functionality would have to be described by both MicroTypes.

11.3.2.1. User resource
{
  "$schema":"https://json-schema.org/draft-04/schema#",
  "$id":"https://example.com/user-links.json",
  "properties":{
    "$href": "https://example.com/user.json#/properties"
  },
  "links": [
    {
      "rel": "microposts",
      "href": "/microposts?user={userId}&page={page}&per_page={per_page}&offset={offset}",
      "hrefSchema": {
        "allOf": [
          {
            "$ref": "https://example.com/users.json#/properties/meta"
          },
          {
            "$ref": "https://example.com/users.json#/properties/user/id"
          },
        ]
      }
    },
    {
      "rel": "update-user",
      "href": "/users",
      "method": "PATCH",
      "targetSchema": {
        "$ref": "https://example.com/user.json"
      }
    },
    {
      "rel": "delete-user",
      "href": "/users",
      "method": "DELETE",
      "targetSchema": {
        "$ref": "https://example.com/user.json"
      }
    }
  ]
}
11.3.2.2. Users resource
{
  "$schema":"https://json-schema.org/draft-04/schema#",
  "$id":"https://example.com/users-links.json",
  "properties":{
    "$href": "https://example.com/users.json#/properties"
  },
  "links": [
    {
      "rel": "self",
      "href": "/users?page={page}&per_page={per_page}&offset={offset}",
      "hrefSchema": {
        "$ref": "https://example.com/users.json#/properties/meta"
      }
    },
    {
      "rel": "create-user",
      "href": "/users",
      "method": "POST",
      "targetSchema": {
        "$ref": "https://example.com/user.json"
      }
    }
  ]
}

Notice that we also define here the pagination, by referencing parts of the user’s meta object. Our strategy is duplicate common functionality in MicroTypes, wherever we can, in order to help our clients. Possibly not all clients will be programmed for all our MicroTypes, especially if we release them progressively.

11.3.4. Descriptions metadata

For human-targeted information, we could use a custom MicroType that describes each attribute of the response object. Note that this information must not be required to parse and understand the API but to use the API data on our application domain. For instance, understanding that when updating the email attribute an email is triggered to inform the user for the change, is not part of the API client responsibility but it’s vital for the application developer to to know what to expect from it.

{
  "user": {
    "id": {
      "title": "The identifier of the resource.",
      "description": [
        "This identifier should not be exposed to the user, to avoid any confusions."
      ]
    },
    "email": {
      "title": "The primary email of the user's account",
      "description": [
        "The email is used for any transactional email.",
        "Also, the same email is used when user authenticates to the system.",
        "Please note that whenever you update the email, user receives an automated email describing the change"
      ]
    },
    "name": {
      "title": "The user's full name (first and last name concataned)",
      "description": [
        "This field could be empty or null.",
        "If so, the application should show the email instead for the user's name."
      ]
    },
    "birth_date": {
      "title": "The date of birth of the user",
      "description": []
    },
    "microposts_count": {
      "title": "The number of published microposts the user has.",
      "description": [
        "Please note that due to caching this number could have a small delay to reflect the actual number",
        "The application should either inform the user about that or make sure it manually updates the microposts counter after publishing/deleting a micropost after publishing/deleting a micropost."
      ]
    }
  }
}

This metadata will be used for the documentation generation, as we will see in section 11.7.

11.3.5. The case of a non-compatible spec for introspection: Linked Data metadata using JSON-LD

For denoting the semantic meaning of each attribute of our resources we will employ JSON-LD. It should be noted that JSON-LD spec was developed with the goal to require as little effort as possible from developers to transform their existing JSON to JSON-LD but also to not require breaking changes to your existing API, which makes it backwards compatible with any current deployed API. This conflicts with our design of introspection because having contexts without the data would break the spec. As a result we have the following 2 options.

11.3.5.1. Extending spec by creating a Shim MicroType

Our first option is to create a wrapper shim MicroType that defines how the spec should work for the clients to parse and understand the data, with the least possible changes. A naive shim, that we show here, would output the context information in the introspected process. Then the client should match this information in combination with the runtime data.

11.3.3.1. User resource
{
  "@context": {
    "@vocab": "https://schema.org/",
    "@type": "Person",
    "birth_date": "birthDate",
    "created_at": "dateCreated",
    "microposts_count": null
  }
}
11.3.3.2. Users resource
{
  "@context": {
    "@vocab": "https://schema.org/",
    "birth_date": "birthDate",
    "created_at": "dateCreated",
    "microposts_count": null
  },
  "@graph": [
    {
      "@type": "Person"
    }
  ]
}
11.3.5.2. Considering it as runtime metadata

Our second option is to exploit the IATEOAS principles regarding runtime metadata and append them inside the response by considering them as object-specific runtime metadata. However, we feel that such decision should be taken only if nothing else is possible, given that in Introspected REST data and metadata should be distinctively separated.

11.7. Automating the documentation generation

The documentation of our API should be a dedicated page under the API’s URL namespace (i.e. /api), by returning a regular web page, targeted to humans and not machines. The technical details is out of the scope of this prototype example but we can’t stress enough that the generated documentation should mostly use information from MicroTypes available for the machines, programmatically wrapped in a human-friendly format.

12.1. GraphQL

GraphQL is a data query language that was created by Facebook and released to the public in 2015. The specification of the query language is not tight to the protocol used underneath or the message format, although HTTP in combination with JSON is usually used. What is different about GraphQL is that it makes the client’s requirements and performance as a top priority, regardless of the internal implementation of the data layer in the server. As a result, front-end engineers tend to love it due to its expressiveness that usually is not found in REST APIs.

For instance, retrieving a User object with a subset of it’s attributes, along with some microposts ordered by creation date, is very easy, given that the server implementation support those filters:

{
  user(id: "1") {
    name
    email
    birth_date
    microposts (limit: 10, orderBy: created_at)
      title
    }
  }
}

The query not only specifies what the client wants to retrieve but also it specifies the structure the response should have. Also, GraphQL supports an introspection process that clients can use in order to figure out the available fields of each resource along with other useful information, like data types, the available operations those resource support (mutations in GraphQL terminology) etc.

GraphQL solves common issues in networked APIs in a radical, unique way. Facebook engineers figured out that instead of trying to adapt existing Internet infrastructure and protocols to their needs, they designed a query language that solves their problems and use HTTP as a dumb pipe to do the hard work of communicating both queries and data. In terms of REST principles, GraphQL responses are both evolvable and self-descriptive, as GraphQL’s introspection is very powerful allowing the clients to learn anything that is needed about the resources.

However, we feel that GraphQL does have some costs and it’s not a solution that any business can apply. First, GraphQL doesn’t play well with the existing HTTP infrastructure. For instance, most GraphQL implementations, use a single endpoint with the same HTTP method, POST, for the client-server communication. As a result, the specification cannot take advantage of existing HTTP protocols and mechanisms but instead has to re-invent the wheel on some of them, like caching.

Also, adding GraphQL to an existing service has huge costs. Although there are libraries for most languages and frameworks that facilitate the development of GraphQL API, this is not always the case. But apart from that, the server engineer must take full responsibility for supporting all kind of queries the client might need and at the same time these queries need to be efficient and scalable. When we can know in advance what are the limits of a query, we are able to optimize for it, however, with GraphQL, a client can send any query using any of the all the possible resources and structure them in a way that for the server is random. In such cases, it’s impractical to optimize beforehand and solving scaling issue becomes a real challenge that possibly only companies with huge amount of resources can really afford.

And again, as with existing Media Types design, GraphQL creates a closed silo in our API and differentiating from the existing spec is nearly impossible. For instance, if we need to support an additional data type, it’s impossible because we are dependent to the existing libraries and creating our own GraphQL library would require too much time. But even if that was solved, a possible modification in the current spec would probably break most existing clients. We feel that a MicroType-based architecture is more powerful than a specification that, although powerful, limits the users to its semantics.

The fact that REST API designers haven’t treated very well front-end engineers in the past, in combination with the complexity a modern REST API could have, has given a lot of space to GraphQL to rise as one of the most prominent API designs. Although GraphQL is a great asset to have it around, we don’t think that it’s practical for all API cases, but instead it mostly suits best big companies that can afford the costs. The API designer must balance the trade off between the cost of development and the client’s affordances.

With Introspected REST and a number of powerful MicroTypes it is possible to replicate the existing GraphQL specification and even leverage existing HTTP infrastructure. In fact, we feel that Introspected REST is far more powerful than GraphQL: not only it gives you the ability to balance the costs of implementation and client performance, but also it can support multiple, different, querying specs for different classes of clients, all these by leveraging the existing HTTP infrastructure.

12.2. Linked Data and Semantic Web

Linked data and semantic web has been trying to solve the problem of mutual understanding between machines many years now. Using a pre-defined vocabulary, machines can determine the type of a resource, like if it’s a person, an employee, an athlete or even the types of each attribute of a resource, like a name, an email etc. It is a step close to have self-descriptive APIs that machines can understand and process. For instance, using JSON-LD as we saw earlier, we can specify all attributes of a User resource:

{
  "user": {
    "@context": {
      "@vocab": "https://schema.org/",
      "@type": "Person",
      "birth_date": "birthDate",
      "created_at": "dateCreated",
      "microposts_count": null
    },
    "@id":"685",
    "email":"[email protected]",
    "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
    "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
    "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "microposts_count":50
  }
}

Moreover, modern specifications like JSON-LD allow us to omit the definitions from the response’s data and instead provide only a link to a publicly accessible directory that a machine can dereference, similarly to the introspection method of Introspected REST. The resource ony needs to have the vocab attribute inside JSON-LD’s context.

{
  "user": {
    "@context": {
      "@vocab": "https://example.com/my-custom-schema/"
    },
    "@id":"685",
    "email":"[email protected]",
    "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
    "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
    "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
    "microposts_count":50
  }
}

The idea of semantic web can be found even in real life. In an example taken by Donald Norman, and often quoted by Mike Amundsen’s talks, in real life when we see a door, we know instantly how it opens because we have associated the design of the door with its opening mechanism: if a door has a bar across it then we push while if there is a little handle in the door then we pull.

While semantic web allow us to associate resources in the web with entities that hold metadata and have specific properties, in Introspected REST we ask the door itself how its mechanism works: using the door’s metadata we can learn how to open any door and eventually we can even open doors whose opening mechanism we have never seen before.

In any case, in Introspected REST we embrace semantic web by employing the necessary MicroTypes and we don’t really feel that this work is related to Introspected REST in a competing sense but instead, both concepts could complement each other. In fact, we feel that using linked data is just great and API designers should employ it more often.

12.2.1 Hydra

To that extend, Markus Lantaler developed Hydra, which not only allows us to associate common resources and attributes with their representation but also RESTful hypermedia concepts on them, like actions (called operations), links, status codes etc.

So again in our use case, we can specify some actions using Hydra:

{
  "@context": [
    "http://www.w3.org/ns/hydra/core",
    {
      "@vocab": "https://example.com/my-custom-user-vocab",
      "@type": "Person",
      "birth_date": "birthDate",
      "created_at": "dateCreated",
      "microposts_count": null
    }
  ],
  "@id":"685",
  "email":"[email protected]",
  "name":"Filippos Vasilakis",
  "birth_date": "1988-12-12",
  "created_at": "2014-01-06T20:46:55Z",
  "microposts_count":50,
  "operation": {
    "@type": "UpdateUser",
    "method": "PATCH",
    "expects": {
      "@id": "https://example.com/my-custom-user-vocab",
      "supportedProperty": [
        {
          "@type": "email",
          "property": "email",
          "required": false
        },
        {
          "@type": "name",
          "property": "name",
          "required": false
        },
        {
          "@type": "birthDate",
          "property": "birth_date",
          "required": false
        }
      ]
    }
  }
}

Again, Hydra’s-specific content, like operations, can become dereferencable thus making response’s load much smaller, although this is not a requirement as in Introspected REST.

Although we support initiatives that allow API designers to serve metadata on the side, like Hydra does with dereferencable content, we can’t miss the fact that Hydra has become a very complex specification and still it’s type system is a weak one. We firmly believe that MicroTypes for actions (Hydra’s equivalent to operations) will be much more powerful than hydra’s semantics of required, writable, readable, and soon an API designer will be able to choose one MicroType from the same class of MicroTypes, like data types, that fits best for her. Specifications that try to define everything in one place, like Hydra does, limit the API designers a lot and eventually such specs deliver an mediocre set of choices to choose from.

In any case, we feel that Hydra spec is one of the few API specs that significantly differs from the conventional API specs and can provide almost completely self descriptive responses, an unfortunately rare key property of modern APIs.

Similar to the profile media type parameter that Toby A. Inkster had proposed in 2009, Erik Wilde suggested a profiling mechanism of the underlying Media Type through the HTTP Link header, that was later published as RFC 6906.

A profile is defined not to alter the semantics of the resource representation itself, but to allow clients to learn about additional semantics (constraints, conventions, extensions) that are associated with the resource representation, in addition to those defined by the media type and possibly other mechanisms.

RFC 6906

Essentially, the profile parameter, given that the client understands it, would define additional semantics of the response’s representation that are not defined through the Media Type used. The information for the additional semantics would be found in all responses regardless the client but only the “smarter” clients would be able to parse, understand and use this information whereas the rest would just ignore it.

This link relation type is similar to our work of MicroTypes but unfortunately fails to advocate towards reusable profiles.

While this specification associates profiles with resource representations, creators and users of profiles MAY define and manage them in a way that allows them to be used across media types; thus, they could be associated with a resource, independent of their representations (i.e., using the same profile URI for different media types). However, such a design is outside of the scope of this specification, and clients SHOULD treat profiles as being associated with a resource representation.

RFC 6906

By having profiles attached to specific Media Types results in much less adoptability and flexibility and fails to signal the actual practicability of such architecture. However, if profiles take the conceptual form of independent MicroTypes, then the clients can negotiate for those and eventually choose the one that fits best. Although the negotiation part is skipped from the RFC, we feel that such works are towards the right direction that will allow us to build evolvable, self-described APIs.

12.4. JSON Home

Note that JSON Home is still in a draft state.

JSON home is a draft specification that defines a “home document” format for non-browser HTTP clients to first request in order to discover the server’s capabilities that it support. Specifically, the document specifies semantics to describe the API itself (like author, documentation link etc) along with its resources. For each resource, the document can provide a link for the client to access it directly (instead of figuring out the link using REST state transitions) and more information, mostly hints, like permitted methods, media types etc.

It should be noted that JSON Home it’s one of the few specifications along with RFC 7807 (Problem Details for HTTP APIs) and possibly Linksets that because of their semantics and specifications, they slide away from Roy’s REST model and acknowledge the distinction between browser-based clients that are driven by real humans, and non-browser, machine based-clients and suggests that the latter should be treated differently.

As the draft notes the benefits of using such a home document are multifold:

o Extensibility - Because new server capabilities can be expressed as link relations, new features can be layered in without introducing a new API version; clients will discover them in the home document. This promotes loose coupling between clients and servers.

o Evolvability - Likewise, interfaces can change gradually by introducing a new link relation and/or format while still supporting the old ones.

o Customisation - Home documents can be tailored for the client, allowing diffrent classes of service or different client permissions to be exposed naturally.

o Flexible deployment - Since URLs aren’t baked into documentation, the server can choose what URLs to use for a given service.

o API mixing - Likewise, more than one API can be deployed on a given server, without fear of collisions.

Home Documents for HTTP APIs, draft 06

Although we can instantly see the benefits of such structure, we believe that a specification like JSON Home is very weak. Specifically, it is tight in JSON message format which, although very popular, could possibly be inappropriate in some use cases. Instead, a better idea would be to define the necessary attributes and semantics that a Home document should provide and then let the API designer to choose if these will be implemented in JSON, XML or binary format. Such architecture would be more robust and would give more options to an API designer.

Secondly, the document resource hints are very abstract and generic that probably are not sufficient for the client to parse them without some documentation. Our work makes use of MicroTypes that allows the API designer to offload such information to more specific formats, possible duplicated in multiple specs to support as many as possible clients, but also to let the clients select the most appropriate MicroType(s) for them. We firmly believe that a MicroType-based architecture is much more powerful than a simple, semantically identical for all APIs, JSON-specific, home document.

However we can’t neglect the fact that influencing engineers are finally recognizing the dissimilarity of browser-based, driven by humans clients and machine-based clients. In fact, carving our infrastructure for machine-based clients to be similar with human-driven clients we underestimate their capabilities: machines can be much more powerful and smart than humans.

12.5. RESTful API Description Languages

Over the past years, there has been a trend on creating API documentation through specialized tools, like OpenAPI specification (ex. Swagger).

As we have already noted, in a REST API documentation, in the sense of offline contracts, shouldn’t even exist and thus such approach is fundamentally wrong. By giving so much weight on the documentation but at the same time treating it as something different, separated from the code leads to inconsistencies between the actual API and the API description. Those tools have been improved so much lately that now allow us to write the documentation and let them generate the basis of our code, depending on our language/framework, which could fix the inconsistencies issues. Unfortunately though, such approach leads to an RPC design instead of a hypermedia-based system.

We believe that API designers are limited by marrying these tools. The tools themselves have limitations, but also, having tools that aim to provide all-in-one to the API designer is against our philosophy: tools should do one thing and do it well.

12.6. API directories

Another trend for APIs is to register them in an online service, called API dictionary and possible push there the API documentation as well. We feel that this is not a very helpful structure. APIs should be discoverable by themselves without using centralized services. The API’s conceptual root url should provide everything that is needed, and using already published protocols like WebFinger, which builds upon Well-Known Uniform Resource Identifiers RFC and can give API information for client bootstraping.

13. Conclusion

The best software architecture “knows” what changes often and makes that easy.

— Paul Clements

Is it the API spec designers to blame for creating non self-descriptive REST specifications or did they make a deliberate choice to avoid fully support the HATEOAS constraint of REST and instead delegate such information to documentation?

In the research of a fully REST API, we determined that REST is complex and inflexible. Moreover, its adaptation in HTTP goes through the mechanism of Media Types which specifies the whole API vocabulary in a sole place while HATEOAS need to bear the brunt of communicating to the client the available capabilities of the server, based on Media Type’s vocabulary, for each resource. The result is very complex API responses that tangle together hypermedia with data making development a real challenge for both the client and the server.

Our new model, Introspected REST, which solves most of REST issues, steps on Roy’s initial model but takes a different path regarding hypermedia. It requires the server to deliver only data when a resource is requested, stripping out any HATEOAS-related information and instead deliver the hypermedia on the side whenever a client needs it. However, Introspected REST goes beyond conventional hypermedia by supporting more classes of metadata, other than hypermedia, through our concept of MicroTypes which act as small reusable components of API functionality. MicroTypes are not intended to be used only for allowing the client to derive the application state at runtime. They also make the clients smarter by allowing them to take an active role in the client-server communication while enabling them to provide essential feedback to the application layer.

We firmly believe that Introspected REST is the key to evolvable services of the future that are accessed by unmanned clients with a lifespan of decades. Our model allows the API designers to fine-tune the flexibility and extensibility of the API to their needs, even progressively or asymmetrically for different classes of clients. Choosing between REST or GraphQL won’t be necessary as our model can support both styles simultaneously, using multiple sets of MicroTypes.