The fundamental concept in any RESTful API is the resource. A resource is an object with a type, associated data, relationships to other resources, and a set of methods that operate on it. It is similar to an object instance in an object-oriented programming language, with the important difference that only a few standard methods are defined for the resource (corresponding to the standard HTTP GET, POST, PUT and DELETE methods), while an object instance typically has many methods.

Resources can be grouped into collections. Each collection is homogeneous so that it contains only one type of resource, and unordered. Resources can also exist outside any collection. In this case, we refer to these resources as singleton resources. Collections are themselves resources as well.

Collections can exist globally, at the top level of an API, but can also be contained inside a single resource. In the latter case, we refer to these collections as sub-collections. Sub-collections are usually used to express some kind of “contained in” relationship. We go into more detail on this in Relationships.

The diagram below illustrates the key concepts in a RESTful API.


We call information that describes available resources types, their behavior, and their relationships the resource model of an API. The resource model can be viewed as the RESTful mapping of the application data model.

Resource Data

Resources have data associated with them. The richness of data that can be associated with a resource is part of the resource model for an API. It defines for example the available data types and their behavior.

Based on my experience, I have developed a strong conviction that the JSON data model has just the right “richness” so that it is an ideal data model for RESTful resources. I would recommend that everybody use it.

In JSON, just three types of data exist:

  • scalar (number, string, boolean, null).
  • array
  • object

Scalar types have just a single value. Arrays contain an ordered list of values of arbitrary type. Objects consist of a unordered set of key:value pairs (also called attributes, not to be confused with XML attributes), where the key is a string and the value can have an arbitrary type. For more detailed information on JSON, see the JSON web site.

Why the strong preference for JSON? In my view, JSON has the right balance between expressiveness, and broad availability. The three types of data (scalars, arrays and objects) are powerful enough to describe in a natural way virtually all the data that you might want to expose as resource, and at the same time these types are minimal enough so that almost any modern language has built-in support for them.

XML would be the other obvious contender. Actually, in the final incarnation of the RHEV-M API, XML is used to describe resources, via an XMLSchema definition. With hindsight, I believe that the XML data model is a bad choice for a RESTful API. On one side, it is too rich, and on the other side, it lacks features. XML, as an SGML off-shoot, is in my view great for representing structured documents, but not for representing structured data.

Features of XML that are too rich include:

  1. Attributes vs elements. An XML element can have both attributes as well as sub-elements. A data item associated with a resource could be encoded in either one, and it would not be clear beforehand which one a client or a server should use.
  2. Relevance of order. The order between child-elements is relevant in XML. It is not natural in my view for object attributes to have ordering.

The limitations of the XML data model are:

  1. Lack of types. Elements in XML documents do not have types, and in order to use types, one would have to use e.g. XMLSchema. XMLSchema unfortunately is a strong contender for the most convoluted specification ever written.
  2. Lack of lists. XML cannot natively express lists. This can lead to issues whereby it is not clear whether a certain element is supposed to be a list or an object, and where that element ends up being both.

Application Data

We define the data that can be associated with a resource in terms of the JSON data model, using the following mapping rules:

  1. Resources are modeled as a JSON object. The type of the resource is stored under the special key:value pair “_type”.
  2. Data associated with a resource is modeled as key:value pairs on the JSON object. To prevent naming conflicts with internal key:value pairs, keys must not start with “_”.
  3. The values of key:value pairs use any of the native JSON data types of string, number, boolean, null, or arrays thereof. Values can also be objects, in which case they are modeling nested resources.
  4. Collections are modeled as an array of objects.

We will also refer to key:value pairs as attributes of the JSON object, and we will be sloppy and use that same term for data items associated with resources, too. This use of attributes is not to be confused with XML attributes.

REST Metadata

In addition to exposing application data, resources also include other information that is specific to the RESTful API. Such information includes URLs and relationships.

The following table lists generic attributes that are defined and have a specific meaning on all resources. They should not be used for mapping application model attributes.

Attribute Type Meaning
id String Identifies the unique ID of a resource.
href String Identifies the URL of the current resource.
link Object Identifies a relationship for a resource. This attribute is itself an object and has “rel” “href” attributes.

Other Data

Apart from application data, and REST metadata, sometimes other data is required as well. This is usually “RPC like” data where a setting is needed for an operation, and where that setting will not end up being part of the resource itself.

One example that I can give here is where a resource creation needs a reference to another resource that is used during the creation, but where that other resource will not become part of the resource itself.

It is the responsibility of the API code to merge the application data together with the REST metadata and the other data into a single resource, resolving possible naming conflicts that may arise.


We have defined resources, and defined the data associated with them in terms of the JSON data model. However, these resources are still abstract entities. Before they can be communicated to a client over an HTTP connection, they need to be serialized to a textual representation. This representation can then be included as an entity in an HTTP message body.

The following representations are common for resources. The table also lists the appropriate content-type to use:

Type Content-Type
HTML text/html

Note: all these content types use the “x-” experimental prefix that is allowed by RFC2046.

JSON Format

Formatting a resource to JSON is trivial because the data model of a resource is defined in terms of the JSON model. Below we give an example of a JSON serialization of a virtual machine:

  "_type": "vm",
  "name": "A virtual machine",
  "memory": 1024,
  "cpu": {
    "cores": 4,
    "speed": 3600
  "boot": {
    "devices": ["cdrom", "harddisk"]

YAML Format

Formatting to YAML is only slightly different than representing a resource in JSON. The resource type that is stored under the “_type” key/value pair is serialized as a YAML ”!type” annotation instead. The same virtual machine as above, now in YAML format:

name: A virtual machine
memory: 1024
  cores: 4
  speed: 3600
  - cdrom
  - harddisk

XML Format

XML is the most complex representation format due to both its complexity as well as its limitations. I recommend the following rules:

  • Resources are mapped to XML elements with a tag name equal to the resource type.
  • Attributes of resources are mapped to XML child elements with the tag name equal to the attribute name.
  • Scalar values are stored as text nodes. A special “type” attribute on the containing element should be used to refer to an XML Schema Part 2 type definition.
  • Lists should be stored as a single container element with child elements for each list item. The tag of the container element should be the English plural of the attribute name. The item tag should be the English singular of the attribute name. Lists should have the “xd:list” type annotation.

The same VM again, now in XML:

<vm xmlns:xs="">
  <name type="xs:string">My VM</name>
  <memory type="xs:int">1024</memory>
    <cores type="xs:int">4</cores>
    <speed type="xs:int">3600</speed>
    <devices type="xs:list">
      <device type="xs:string">cdrom</device>
      <device type="xs:string">harddisk</device>

HTML Format

The exact format of a HTML response can be API dependent. HTML is for human consumption, and the only requirement is therefore that it be easy to understand. A simple implementation may choose the following representation:

  • For a collection, a <table> with a column per attribute where each object is listed in a separate row.
  • For a resource, a <table> with two columns, one with all the attribute names, one with the corresponding attribute value.


As can be seen above, I am advocating the use of a generic content types “application/x-resource+format” and “application/x-collection+format”. In my view this represents the right middle ground between two extremes that are commonly found in RESTful APIs:

Some RESTful APIs only use the “bare” XML, JSON or YAML content types. An example of such as API is the Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization API. In this case, the content type expresses nothing but the fact that an entity is in XML, JSON or YAML format. In my view, this is not sufficient. Resources and collections have some specific semantics around for example the use of “href” attributes, “link” attributes, and types. Therefore, these are a specialization of XML, JSON and YAML and should be defined as such.

Other RESTful APIs define a content-type for every resource type that exists in the resource model. Examples of such APIs include for example VMware’s vSphere Director API. In my view, this is not proper either. Specifying detailed content types invites both the API implementer, as well as a client implementer to think about these types as having specific interfaces. In my view though, all resources should share the same basic interface, which is defined by the RESTful design principles and expressed by the “application/x-resource” content type.

One reason that is sometimes given in favor of defining detailed content types is that this way, the content type can be associated with a specific definition in some type definition language (such as XMLSchema). This, supposedly, facilitates client auto-discovery because a client can know available attributes for a certain type. I go into a lot of detail on this topic in Forms but the summary is that I do not agree with this argument.

Selecting a Representation Format

Clients can express their preference for a certain representation format using the HTTP “Accept” header. The HTTP RFC defines an elaborate set of rules in which multiple formats can be requested, each with its own priority. In the following example, the client tells the API that it accepts only YAML input:

GET /api/collection
Accept: application/x-collection+yaml