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Safety, Idempotence, and the Resource-Oriented Architecture

In this conclusion to a four-part series on the resource-oriented architecture, you will learn (among other things) about safety and idempotence, and why they matter. This article is excerpted from chapter four of the book RESTful Web Services, written by Leonard Richardson and Sam Ruby (O'Reilly, 2008; ISBN: 0596529260). Copyright © 2008 O'Reilly Media, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission from the publisher. Available from booksellers or direct from O'Reilly Media.

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By: O'Reilly Media
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February 20, 2009
  1. · Safety, Idempotence, and the Resource-Oriented Architecture
  2. · Safety and Idempotence
  3. · Why safety and idempotence matter
  4. · Why the Uniform Interface Matters
  5. · That’s It!

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Safety, Idempotence, and the Resource-Oriented Architecture - Why the Uniform Interface Matters
(Page 4 of 5 )

The important thing about REST is not that you use the specific uniform interface that HTTP defines. REST specifies a uniform interface, but it doesn’t say which uniform interface. GET, PUT, and the rest are not a perfect interface for all time. What’s important is the uniformity: that every service use HTTP’s interface the same way.

The point is not that GET is the best name for a read operation, but that GET means “read” across the Web, no matter which resource you’re using it on. Given a URI of a resource, there’s no question of how you get a representation: you send an HTTP GET request to that URI. The uniform interface makes any two services as similar as any two web sites. Without the uniform interface, you’d have to learn how each service expected to receive and send information. The rules might even be different for different resources within a single service.

You can program a computer to understand what GET means, and that understanding will apply to every RESTful web service. There’s not much to understand. The service-specific code can live in the handling of the representation. Without the uniform interface, you get a multiplicity of methods taking the place of GET: doSearch and getPage and nextPrime. Every service speaks a different language. This is also the reason I don’t like overloaded POST very much: it turns the simple Esperanto of the uniform interface into a Babel of one-off sublanguages.

Some applications extend HTTP’s uniform interface. The most obvious case is WebDAV, which adds eight new HTTP methods including MOVE, COPY, and SEARCH. Using these methods in a web service would not violate any precept of REST, because REST doesn’t say what the uniform interface should look like. Using them would violate my Resource-Oriented Architecture (I’ve explicitly tied the ROA to the standard HTTP methods), but your service could still be resource-oriented in a general sense.

The real reason not to use the WebDAV methods is that doing so makes your service incompatible with other RESTful services. Your service would use a different uniform interface than most other services. There are web services like Subversion that use the WebDAV methods, so your service wouldn’t be all alone. But it would be part of a much smaller web. This is why making up your own HTTP methods is a very, very bad idea: your custom vocabulary puts you in a community of one. You might as well be using XML-RPC.

Another uniform interface consists solely of HTTP GET and overloaded POST. To fetch a representation of a resource, you send GET to its URI. To create, modify, or delete a resource, you send POST. This interface is perfectly RESTful, but, again, it doesn’t conform to my Resource-Oriented Architecture. This interface is just rich enough to distinguish between safe and unsafe operations. A resource-oriented web application would use this interface, because today’s HTML forms only support GET and POST.

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