I talk a lot to people about REST, but with the acronym having become a commonplace among Web folk, I often find myself having to explain that what they have read about as REST or think of as REST is actually POX, HTTP-RPC or whatever you want to call it.
I'm also an advocate of the idea that REST isn't just about "Web services" but is also a good model for building fast sustainable Web applications. As such, in my quest to educate the ideas of REST, today I want to outline a different way to build Web apps, a RESTful way, an alternative to the popular MVC model, a model I call RMR, or Resource-Method-Representation.
The current popular way of building Web applications is using the MVC pattern. This pattern separates the application into three parts:
This architecture has been widely embraced by Web developers even though it was designed for desktop applications. As far as I'm concerned, MVC doesn't really work on the Web, it doesn't model and expose resources in a convenient way (URL routing is evil and actions are methods on controllers exposed as resources rather than methods on resources themselves.
It just doesn't model resources, the fundamental element of the Web is totally ignored. So how can we fix this?
We all agree that slicing our code up into pieces is a good idea, separating concerns allows us to concentrate on the particular task in hand and make maintenance easier, how can we separate it that makes more sense in a Web context than MVC?
We start with resources. The Web is made up of resources, so to make our application work with the Web we should model resources. A resource is an object within a RESTful system, they contain information, are identified a unique identifier (URLs in HTTP), and respond to the standard interface (in HTTP the standard HTTP methods of GET, PUT, etc.).
So in an OO language, a HTTP resource can be thought of as an object with private member variables and a number of public methods that correspond to the standard HTTP methods. From an MVC point of view, a resource can be thought of as a model with a bit of controller thrown in.
Each request is routed to a resource automatically since each resource has a unique URL, and the method corresponding to the HTTP request method is run. This acts like an MVC controller, doing any operations necessary to prepare the request response based on the request.
Finally, the last part of the puzzle is the response. In a RESTful system, resources are exposed to the client as representations, where a representation is in essence a concreting of the resource into a wire format.
This Web page you are looking at right now for example, is a HTML representation of the resource that is this article. There could be other representations, you could view this article as a ASCII text file, or a PDF document, if I'd made them available to you.
So the representation is like a view in MVC, we give it a resource object and tell it to serialize the data into it's output format.
So lets create some example code of how we might set up an RMR system. We'll do it in pseudo-code to keep things quick and simple.
First we'll need a front controller to handle all incoming requests and to do the routing:
This is pretty similar to an MVC front controller, we read data from the request and do something depending on what's there. The only real question is where do we load a resource from for a give URL?
A simple resource it might just be a class that pulls some data from somewhere, or no data as all the data may be in the representation (as with a HTML page).
The other case is that we have a collection of data we want to expose as resources, like a bunch of weblog posts, or the users of the application, or stock in a warehouse,.. you get the idea. In is case we probably want to map our collection URLs to a resource class that pulls a row from a database table.
To program our application, we write resource classes to model our application data, so what could a base resource class look like:
Our class will load it's data on construction and then run one of the request methods. The methods that correspond to PUT, POST and DELETE requests all return a 405 response object (Method Not Allowed) since we don't want them to do anything by default, while our GET method returns a representation that corresponds to the request URL and the data loaded into the resource.
The final piece of the puzzle is how we route incoming requests to their respective resource classes. There are many ways to do this and the way you choose depends on personal preference.
We could follow a convention, saying that a URL of a format
to a resource class called
Something, and then for collections of resources we
could say that any URL of a format
/something/item would map to a single
resource class representing the resources in the collection called something like
The other extreme would be to map each URL or collection of URLs explicitly to a resource class.
So given a bunch of resource classes, some representations, and a way to map URLs to resource classes and resource methods to representations, we can build up a Web application in a RESTful way. Add in some HTTP goodness like conditional GET and cache headers, and we've got a pretty good system.