What are Web Services?

Justin Sampson posted a great reply to a question on the REST Discuss mailing list this evening, here’s a quote:

The fundamental insight I take from REST as it relates to Web services is that well-behaved Web services should feel a lot like well-behaved Web sites. A Web service is just a machine-readable Web application, and a Web application is just a dynamic Web site. The principles of the Web architecture that made it so successful apply to all three.

Stop trying to build RESTful Web services and starting just doing things the way you’ve been doing them for years, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

What REST is Not

With all the coverage REST is getting, lots of systems are being touted as RESTful, so I thought it was about time I wrote not about what REST is, but what REST is not.

A messaging system

REST is not a protocol, it is an architectural style, it is a way of transfering representations of resources between two points. A resource can be anything, an application object, a database record, etc. and a representation is a way of expressing that resource in a useful way, whether that be as a HTML file, an XML document, an image, a comma separated value, etc.

A messaging system is a way of passing messages between entities, SOAP is a messaging system. Messaging systems, RPC systems, are useful, they allow our applications to talk to each other over the network by sending short messages between one another. The problem with messaging systems is that they work fine when you control both ends of the equation but when it comes to scaling them up to the size of the Internet, where anyone can send a message to anyone else, they quickly fall apart.

HTTP may look like a messaging system at first glance, but it’s not, it’s a representation transfer system, no messages are ever sent back and forth, only requests and responses as representations of the resources modelled on the server.


Just because you are sending XML over HTTP does not mean your Web service is RESTful, a lot of Web services that claim to be REST services are nothing more than XML over HTTP. To be RESTful requires that you embrace “the cult of REST”. This includes:

If you don’t cover all these points then you’re not being RESTful, you’re just delivering XML over HTTP (which is fair enough, just don’t claim to be RESTful).

Tidy URLs

URLs without large querystrings has been a trendy thing in Web circles for the last 4 or so years and it is one of the things REST says is “a good thing”. But when it comes to REST it isn’t just about being neat and tidy, the poritions of a URL have a meaning, it’s not a random string of characters that happens to point to a file on your Web server.

URLs do not point to files on Web servers, they point to resources. The querystring portion of the URL is used to pass in query parameters to a URL, so if you have an index file listing a number of other resources a querystring can be used to limit the URLs returned in the listing (kind of like a WHERE clause in SQL). Just because your URLs are tidy, doesn’t mean you’re being RESTful.