Thoughts on Web Services, REST APIs, and Message Structure

Part 1: HTTP

Love it or hate it, HTTP is ubiquitous. It’s been around for thirty years. It has evolved alot in those thirty years. One critical way it has evolved is to support flexibility. Despite the huge benefits of that flexibility it can and has lead people away from recommended and expected usage and patterns.

“No big deal”, some say, but being lead away from recommended usage leads to re-discovery and re-invention and an evolutionary way of working (i.e. it’s never right the first time). This evolutionary process is a constraining process, each step must be based on the last and all that came before it. That’s great when you do have to invent something that never existed; but when a solution already exists, this process needlessly constrains progress sometimes to the point of missing the actual recommendation or expectation.

The flexibility of HTTP really means that people have to have a deep or broad knowledge of it to use it properly. Take the Accept request header and media types. It allows a requestor to limit and rank the possible content format. We typically see this with at least XML and JSON nowadays. To be clear this means Web APIs can have different formats of responses. The Content-Type header field means the inverse, that an API can accept multiple request content formats. As flexible as this is, different content formats have at least some lack of parity of features. As an example, XML has rich syntax that includes things like full featured consistent schema definitions. JSON is working towards things like that, but this is an example where the two have different semantic structure. There are things that can be done to compensate, but at the end of the day neither was designed to work exactly like the other (that’s kinda the point, isn’t it?) This is just one example where there’s possibility of mismatch, mismatch in how two content formats can represent the same thing.

You may be thinking, where am I going this with? Thanks for the segue. What this means is there will be times when you change the structure or schema of content (request or response) because it’s one type OR the other. Which leads me back towards media types. If the schema of a JSON response changes but the XML doesn’t, what does versioning of APIs mean? Well, it means that because there are different formats of content is independently changing schemas you cannot reliably the version an API by URI. You can’t even use a general header field that applies to all content because a change to one could be breaking but unnecessary or non-breaking in the other. Making versioning problematic at best. This means you really must use media type as the versioning mechanism. (“MTATEOV”: Media Type As The Engine of Versionability?)

But, if you’ve ignored media types and effectively ignored schemas and cause breaking changes because it just works and breaking changes have been tolerable. Of course, being in this situation and let the flexibility herd you into this corner. But, it really is fairly easy also ends up solving these issues as well as open up some opportunities like Web Linking to content type and version! Let’s have a look at the standard format of the media type.

Media types consist of a type and a subtype, separated by a forward slash.
For example “application/xml”, “application/json”. The subtype is further structured in a tree that provides many options. There are standards subtypes that are fixed or *standard” like “text/html” and “image/png” which specify a standard format. The standards subtypes typically fall under types like “text”, “image”, etc.

There can be application-specific subtypes and those fall under the “application” type. There is a bit of inconsistency in media types, like JSON is “application/json” and XML is “text/xml” despite the two content formats having standard structure and semantics. But, I’ll focus on application-specific structures because you should only need to version application-specific structures.

Despite application-specific, the application-specific parts can be built off of those standard content structures like XML and JSON to create a custom subset schema (so to speak). Media type standard supports that including a suffix and parameters to the subtype. The subtype format is essentially subtype["+" suffix] [*";" parameter] or “subtype” followed by an optional suffix separated by “+” followed by one or more parameters separated by “;”.
And each parameter may have an optional value separated by “=”. So, I could specify that I have HTML text encoding as UTF-8 as “text/html; charset=UTF-8” or I could specific an application-specific format (like “gibberish”) that is based on XML like this “application/gibberish+xml”.

In order to avoid name clashes with other vendors, these media types are expected to be in the Vendor Tree where standards types fall under the root or Standards Tree. Trees are specified with a prefix to the subtype, making the standard structure of a subtype like this [tree "."] subtype["+" suffix] [*";" parameter]. tree as the structure of tree *["." subtree] meaning there can be many trees separated by “.”. The standard details that the Vendor Tree starts with the “vnd.” prefix. So, our custom type should really have the form “application/vnd.pri.gibberish+xml”, where “pri” is a vendor-specific name or identifier. Or if JSON format is required: “application/vnd.pri.gibberish+xml”.

Now that we know about custom, vendor application-specific type identifiers, on to dealing with changes to that content format that may introduce breaking changes, or versioning. Since we’re dealing with vendor and application- specific identifiers within subtype we deviate into an area not covered specifically by a standard. And you’re basically free to do anything you want to specify the version, some have a format like “application/vnd.pri.gibberish.v2+xml”. Some use a subtype parameter like “application/vnd.pri.gibberish+xml;v=2” or “application/vnd.pri.gibberish+xml;version=2”. Since what lead us on this particular journey was the problem of diverging versions between underlying structures, the parameter route makes more sense because the version really applies, in that case, to the content with an underlying structure. And being a parameter after the prefix, it’s less like a version of the subtype. e.g. “application/vnd.pri.gibberish.v2+xml” could be interpreted as gibberish version 2 with an underlying XML structure. But “application/vnd.pri.gibberish+xml;v=2” is easier to interpret as gibberish+xml version 2.

Side note: In the versions I’ve shown here I’ve not used a minor version (like 2.1). I did that on purpose based on SEMVER that stipulates major version number increment to signify breaking changes. Non-breaking changes in content is achieved with optional values, so client requestors that don’t know the new optional values won’t use them and thus minor version doesn’t matter. Also, if new optional values appear in a response, the requester shouldn’t care either. You can structure your schema to make such that a requestor need to care about it, but that is a breaking change and a major version increment, not a minor version increment.

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