GOTO Berlin: DO’s and DON’Ts in a Web API

| by Jan Stenberg on Oct 19, 2013. Estimated reading time: 3 minutes |

There are a lot of discussions in matters around REST and web APIs in mailing lists and discussion forums and this is my opinionated thoughts in some of these matters, there is no absolute truth here, Oliver Wolf, principal consultant at InnoQ, started his talk at the GOTO Berlin Conference called ”Web API DOs and DON'Ts".

Don’t think in terms of endpoints. SOAP has a facade with a single entry point. In contrast the web has lots of entry points that are built on relations and interconnections with hypermedia as a critical element. Instead of letting your API be a black hole with only one way in you should use hypermedia controls to link your resource representations in ways that are meaningful for your audience.

Don’t expose your domain model in the API. A problem with many models is that they contain only data, lacking all form of behaviour, so called anaemic models. If you expose such a model you will end up with CRUD, (Create, Read, Update, Delete), resources. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, sometimes all you need is a pure CRUD API. Otherwise a problem exposing a CRUD model is that a client using such an API needs a lot of knowledge; what actions it can perform on which resources, in what order to do things and so on. A lot of logic is encoded in the client, giving a tight coupling between client and server.

Design your API after intent. Think about what your client wants to do and how they will do it. Sometimes this requires a trade-off between clarity and flexibility, how clear and simple your API should be versus what flexibility is needed. A flexible but also more imperative way of getting the most profitable customers might be:

GET /customers?sortBy=grossmargin&order=descending

In contrast, a more declarative style, exposing intent, but also less flexible, might be:

GET /most_profitable_customers

Oliver’s take-away point here is to think about what a client needs to use your API for, what the intent should be and try to tailor it for that need.

Don’t overuse GET and POST. Basically this means you shouldn’t use them in the wrong way and violate the HTTP specification. You should for example not use GET or POST to delete a resource. The HTTP verbs are defined for a reason, they have complimentary qualities and you gain a lot by embracing the specification. Using the verbs communicates intent, what the client wants to do and what behaviour the client can expect from the server.

Don’t limit your choice of error codes to 200 and 500. Use the whole spectrum of error codes, there are 160 error codes to choose from so there is one for almost every conceivable type of error. Using the right error code is a key in proper error handling on the client.
A common problem is servers returning 200, OK, although an error has occurred. Pretending that everything is fine when in fact it’s not is seldom a good idea.

Don’t ignore caching. There will be caches involved no matter what, and they are an important part of the web. Help the caches by adding proper cache headers, e.g. if you don’t want caching, be explicit and turn them off.
One of the better ways of controling caching is to use validators, preferably Etags. They allow the server side to act on arbitrary data, an Etag is just a value the server generates and passes to the cache, the cache later on passes the Etag back, asking the server if the resource if fresh or not.

Don’t require versioning. What is thought of as a change in a resource is often in fact just a change in the representation; it’s still the same resource and should have the same URL, therefore avoid versioning the URL. Instead there should be a new version of the media type, e.g. by adding v2


Don’t use extensions for content negotiation. The proper way to negotiate about a representation format is using Accept and Content-Type in the header.

The GOTO Berlin Conference 2013 is the first GOTO conference in Berlin, with about 420 attendees and 80 speakers.

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There is a spelling mistake by Muhammad Gelbana

"HHTP" instead of "HTTP"

Re: There is a spelling mistake by Jan Stenberg

Thanks, I will fix it.

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