Shahzad Bhatti

October 25, 2008

My gripes about REST services

Filed under: REST — admin @ 11:17 am

I love REST style services because of their simplicity and ease of testing. I have discussed benefits of REST earlier. I have used a number of distributed technologies over seventeen years such as LU6.2 (CICS) for mainframes, BSD Sockets, RPC, CORBA, RMI, JINI, Messaging Middlewares, SOAP, etc. In most of those technologies, you had to use special libraries to interact with the server. I worked in some organizations where I saw real dependency hell or jar hell, where I had to import dozens of client jars from different groups to talk to those services. REST, on the other hand only relies on http (and security) libraries.

I first wrote REST style service in late 90s before I knew about the REST term. At the time, I worked as a consultant for government DOTs and built CORBA based system to provide traffic data to media agencies. However, people were scraping our website for the data so I built an XML over HTTP service to download the data with some credentials. I think a lot of people used simplicity of HTTP to build similar services. And many of them didn’t understand REST as put forth by Roy Fielding. Over past few years, a lot of people are promoting real style of REST such as Sam Ruby, Stefan Tilkov, Steve Vinosky and Roy Fielding himself. At the same time, they are chastising people who diverge from their vision.

I have tried building REST style services over last few years and recently I have started building new services that will be used for entire organization. As, these services will need to support large number of transactions, performance and scalability are critical. Also, these services need to support batch of requests. In my older blog, I discussed commandments for writing service and wrote about importance of batch requests for scalability. That requirement changes a few things, for example instead of taking advantage of request parameters in HTTP, I had to use XML for input request and had to use XML for response. Though, this style is suitable for POST or PUT where you are expecting to read request as a file but is unnatural for GET types.

Another tenant of REST style services is resource. In this style, you interact with the service similar to how users interact with a web site, i.e., you click on links to go to another page, which returns more links and so on. However, this style in service adds network communication. For example, in one of the service for workflow I had to return active tasks for a particular workflow. In true REST style, I would have to return a hyperlink for each task instead of contents of task and the client would have to ask server for task content by hitting the resource for the task. As, you might guess this adds significant network latency so I am being practical instead of purest and as a result, I am returning task contents. Also, the sevice allows you to pass requests for multiple workfows and returns a single response for all workflows.

I used similar style when using messaging middlewares that allowed serving batches of requests in a single message. I found messaging middlewares offered more flexible options, e.g. you can design an aggregator service that waits for a few seconds for incoming requests and then puts them in a single request to another service that serve them. These kind of batch services are integral for building scalable systems. I have discussed some of these limitations in earlier blog, especially its lack of push based architecture. Though there are some workaround for push such as long-lived http connection that are difficult to use behind firewall, comet style or reverse ajax based communication, which is limited and more recently reverse http, which is too new to apply in real applications. Perhaps, messaging standards like XMPP can fill this gap.

I find that IT industry is largely driven by a single minded attitude where every new technology, language or process is adopted by bandwagon of people who just repeat each other’s words without understanding. For example, I have seen similar attitude from agile folks, folks from object oriented programming, aspect oriented programming, metaprogramming or dynamic programming, design patterns, etc. In the end, I believe you have to be practical instead of purest and as always answer to every question in IT is “it depends”, i.e., there is no single universal solution.

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