REST APIs: The concepts and applications

If you are into web programming you might have come across the terms “REST API” or “RESTful” and you might have felt curious as to what they really are. In this post, we shall take our time to go through some of the concepts / ideas behind REST and it’s applications.

The REST-less Developer

You might have noticed that the technology world is changing so fast. Back in the days, we used to love using Desktop applications. For example, we would probably want to check our emails on Outlook Express or Thunderbird then. Soon the web became popular and web applications started becoming extremely popular for the conveniences they offered. We now love Gmail, don’t we? But then we realized webmails are great and all but that’s not good enough. I want my emails on my phone and tablets. I for example, like to check my emails on my phone – I do that a lot because I can not be in front of a laptop all day. If you think carefully, in a few more years, we would want those emails on our wrist watches.

Now if you were the developer of such a popular email service, how would you serve these different types of devices? For example, the webmail can use HTML fine, mobile phones can browse HTML too but what about desktop and the smart watch apps? Also on phone, people would like native apps more than mobile web apps. So how to feed them data? Don’t be RESTless, some REST always helps! 😉

The RESTful Web

The good old web was working very well for us, for a time being. But the hypertext / HTML is not the native tongue for many devices that we have to accommodate into our services. Also the web is no longer about just “documents”, it is so much more. The REST architecture can shape the modern web in a way that provides uniform access to all our clients (devices). The core idea behind REST is that the client does not need to know anything before hand, it will connect to a server and the server will provide the client with available options via an agreed upon medium. For the web the medium is “HTML”.

For example, when your browser connected to this website, it didn’t know anything beforehand. The server served it a HTML page that has links to various posts and the search form to search content. By reading the source code (HTML), the client (browser) now knows what actions are available. Now, if you click a link or enter a search keyword and perform search, the browser would perform that action. But it has no idea what would happen next. When it performs the action, the server supplies new html telling it what it can do next. So the server is supplying information that the client can use to further interact with the server.

Hypertext or Hypermedia

But hey, not every device can understand HTML, no? Yes, you are absolutely right. That is why the server is no way just confined to HTML. It can provide other responses too, for example XML and JSON are also valid (and two popular) medium of communication. This is why when we describe REST, we usually say “hypermedia” instead of “hypertext”.

The principle that the client does not need to know anything before hand and the server dynamically generates hypermedia responses through which the client interacts with the server – this principle is aptly named “Hypermedia as the engine of application state” aka “HATEOAS“. That is one big name but if you read and think about it, it makes perfect sense. In this principle, the hypermedia generated by the server works as the “engine” of the application’s state. Cool, eh? HATEOAS is a key driving principle of the RESTful web but there’s more. Are you ready to dive in?

Fitting REST into HTTP and APIs

We now understand that in a REST like architecture, there will be a client and a server. The server will provide dynamically generated hypermedia on which the client will act upon. It all makes sense but how do we make our web APIs RESTful?

The idea of communicating over HTTP very often involves Verbs and Resources. Did you notice how very often the same URL can output different responses depending on which http method (GET or POST) we used? The URL can be considered as a resource and the http methods are the verbs. There’s more to just GET and POST. There are PUT, PATCH, DELETE etc.

The purpose/intent of the common http verbs are:

  • GET: The purpose is to literally get the data.
  • POST: This method translates to “create“.
  • PUT / PATCH: We use these methods to update data.
  • DELETE: Come on, do I even need to explain what this one does? 😀

Now while building our APIs, we can map these verbs to our resources. For example, we have User resources. You can access it on Now when someone makes a GET request, we can send them a list of available users. But when they send new user data via POST, we create a new user. What if they want to view / update / delete a single user instance?

Resources: Collections vs Elements

We can broadly classify the resources into two categories – “collections” and “elements” and apply the http verbs to them. Now we have two different kinds of resources – “user collection” as a whole and “individual users”. How do we map the different http verbs to them? Wikipedia has a nice chart for us.

For Collections: (/user)

  • GET – List all users
  • POST – Create a new user
  • PUT – Replace all users with these new users
  • DELETE – Delete all users

For Elements: (/user/123)

  • GET – Retrieve data about user with ID 123
  • POST – Generally not used and throws errors but can be used if the resource itself is a nested collection. In that case creates new element within that collection.
  • PUT – Replace the user data
  • DELETE – Delete the user

Is this Official?

Everything makes sense and sounds good. So I guess everyone on the web follows this standard? Well, no. Technically, REST is an architecture or architectural style/pattern. It is not a protocol or a standard itself (although it does use other standards like XML or JSON). The sad fact is that nobody has to follow the principles. This is why we often would come across APIs which would not adhere to these principles and design things their own way. And that is kind of alright given REST is not engraved in a holy stone.

But should we follow the principle? Of course we should, we want to be the good citizens of the RESTful web, don’t we?

How can I consume  / create REST APIs?

You do have a curious mind, don’t you? What good is our knowledge of REST if we are not using it ourselves? Of course we shall. This blog post just scratches the surface of it. There is so much more to learn about REST and we shall learn those things in time. I have plans to write detailed posts on consuming and creating REST APIs in the future. You just have to stay in touch! If you haven’t yet, it would be a good idea to subscribe to the mailing list and I will let you know when I write the next piece, deal?

If you have any feedback on this post, please feel free to let me know in the comments. I hope you liked reading it. Also don’t forget to tell your friends about the wonderful world of REST, will you? 🙂