The Job of the API Designer¶
Before we dive fully into RESTful API design, it makes sense to look in a little more detail what the job of a RESTful API designer is.
APIs don’t exist in isolation. Instead, APIs expose functionality of an application or service that exists independently of the API. In my view, the job of the RESTful API designer is two-fold.
- Understanding enough of the important details of the application for which an API is to be created, so that an informed decision can be made as to what functionality needs to be exposed, how it needs to be exposed, and what functionality can instead be left out.
- Modeling this functionality in an API that addresses all use cases that come up in the real world, following the RESTful principles as closely as possible.
There are three distinct components involved in RESTful API design: the application, the API code, and the client. The image above illustrates how these three components interact.
The application for which an API is to be provided exists independently of that API. Maybe the application has a GUI, and you have a requirement to add a programmatic interface to it. Or maybe the application was designed under the assumption that it would be accessed only via the API you are designing.
Like any application, the application for which the API is to be created contains state. That state is dynamic, and will change due to various operations that are executed on it. This state, and the operations on it, need to be modeled and exposed, and will form the API you are designing.
The easiest way to think about the application state, is to assume that it is is described by an application data model, which can be described by an Entity-Relationship diagram. The ER-Diagram lists the details of the entities (I will call them objects) in the application state, and the relationships between them.
In some cases, it is very easy to create the ER diagram. For example, in case of a web application that stores all its state in a database, it can be trivially created from the schema of the database. In other cases where there is not such a precise definition, the job of the API designer becomes a little more difficult. In such a case it would actually make sense to create an ER diagram for the application in question. That is a useful exercise in its own right, as it will make you better understand the application you’re designing the API for. But more importantly, it will also help you in designing a good RESTful API. We will talk more about that in a minute. Going forward, I will assume that an ER diagram is available.
In addition to understanding the application data model, and the operations on it, you of course need an entry point into the application that allows you to access and change the application state. This “way in” is fully application dependent and could take many forms. We will call this “way in” the application interface. Formally, this application interface could be considered an API as well. The difference, though, is that this interface is usually not intended for external consumption or even fully documented. In order not to introduce any confusion, we will not refer to this interface as an API: that term will be reserved for the RESTful API that is being designed.
The API Code¶
The job of the API code is to access the application state, as well as the operations on that state, via the application interface, and expose it as a RESTful API. In between the application interface and the RESTful API, there is a transformation step that adapts the application data model and makes it comply with the RESTful architecture style.
The result of this transformation would be RESTful resources, operations on those resources, and relationships between the resources. All of these are described by what we call the RESTful resource model.
Resources are the foundation behind any RESTful API, and we will go into a lot of detail on them in Resources. For now, just think of resources as being very similar to the entities from the ER diagram (which is why I encouraged you to create an ER diagram for your application in case it didn’t exist).
Relationships between resources are expressed as hyperlinks in the representation of the resource. This is one of the fundamental principles of RESTful API design. Resources also respond to a very limited set of operations (usually just 4), which is a second principle of the RESTful architectural style.
When transforming objects from the application data model to RESTful resources, you may find it useful to define two utility functions:
This function is assumed to take an object from the application data model, and convert it into a resource.
This function is assumed to take a resource, and translate it into an object in the application data model.
We don’t discuss these methods further, other than mentioning that these can be rather simple functions if the application data model is similar to the resource model you’re exposing, and can be quite complicated if they are very different.
The client consumes the RESTful API via the standard HTTP protocol. In theory, the service could be provided on top of other protocols as well. Since HTTP is so ubiquitous, however, it is not certain how valuable such a mapping to another protocol would be in the real world. Therefore, this essay limits itself to describing our RESTful protocol in terms of HTTP.
Clients would typically use an HTTP library to access the RESTful API. HTTP has become a moderately complex protocol, and very good libraries exist for many target platforms / languages. It therefore makes a lot of sense to use one of those libraries.
In some cases, it may make sense to use a generic REST library on top of an HTTP library. However, since there are so many different conventions in RESTful APIs, this library may actually be specific to the API that you are consuming.