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REST and the Real World

February 20, 2002

In the last article I described a new model for web services construction. It is called Representational State Transfer (REST), and it applies the principles of the Web to transaction-oriented services, rather than publishing-oriented sites. When we apply the strategy in the real world, we do so using web technologies such as URIs, HTTP, and XML. Unlike the current generation of web services technologies, however, we make those three technologies central rather than peripheral -- we rethink our web service interface in terms of URIs, HTTP, and XML. It is this rethinking that takes our web services beyond the capabilities of the first generation technologies based on Remote Procedure Call APIs like SOAP-RPC.

In this article I discuss the applicability to REST of several industry buzzwords such as reliability, orchestration, security, asynchrony, and auditing. Intuitively, it seems that the Web technologies are not sophisticated enough to handle the requirements for large-scale inter-business commerce. Those who think of HTTP as a simple, unidirectional GET and POST protocol will be especially surprised to learn how sophisticated it can be.

Quick Review

REST is a model for distributed computing. It is the one used by the world's biggest distributed computing application, the Web. When applied to web services technologies, it usually depends on a trio of technologies designed to be extremely extensible: XML, URIs, and HTTP. XML's extensibility should be obvious to most, but the other two may not be.

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Full Description

URIs are also extensible: there are an infinite number of possible URIs. More importantly, they can apply to an infinite number of logical entities called "resources." URIs are just the names and addresses of resources. Some REST advocates call the process of bringing your applications into this model "resource modeling." This process is not yet as formal as object oriented modeling or entity-relation modeling, but it is related.

The strength and flexibility of REST comes from the pervasive use of URIs. This point cannot be over-emphasized. When the Web was invented it had three components: HTML, which was about the worst markup language of its day (other than being simple); HTTP, which was the most primitive protocol of its day (other than being simple), and URIs (then called URLs), which were the only generalized, universal naming and addressing mechanism in use on the Internet. Why did the Web succeed? Not because of HTML and not because of HTTP. Those standards were merely shells for URIs.

HTTP's extensibility stems primarily from the ability to distribute any payload with headers, using predefined or (occasionally) new methods. What makes HTTP really special among all protocols, however, is its built-in support for URIs and resources. URIs are the defining characteristic of the Web: the mojo that makes it work and scale. HTTP as a protocol keeps them front and center by defining all methods as operations on URI-addressed resources.

Auditing and Securing REST Web Services

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The most decisive difference between web services and previous distributed computing problems is that web services must be designed to work across organizational boundaries. Of course, this is also one of the defining characteristics of the Web. This constraint has serious implications with respect to security, auditing, and performance.

REST first benefits security in a sort of sociological manner. Where RPC protocols try as hard as possible to make the network look as if it is not there, REST requires you to design a network interface in terms of URIs and resources (increasingly XML resources). REST says: "network programming is different than desktop programming -- deal with it!" Whereas RPC interfaces encourage you to view incoming messages as method parameters to be passed directly and automatically to programs, REST requires a certain disconnect between the interface (which is REST-oriented) and the implementation (which is usually object-oriented).

In the previous article I discussed how it is possible to use Access Control Lists (ACLs) to secure services which use URIs as their organizational model. It is much harder to secure an RPC-based system where the addressing model is proprietary and expressed in arbitrary parameters, rather than being group together in a single URI.

With URI-based (REST) web services, administrators can apply ACLs to the service itself and to every document that passes through the service, because each of them would have a URI. As two business partners work their way through a process, each step could be represented by a new document with an attached ACL. Other partners (or auditors) could be given access to this document later merely by manipulating the ACLs.

In the REST model, both business partners would have a shared view of the URI-space representing the process. Rather than sending each other business documents through an email-style pipe, they would PUT them on each other's web sites with shared URIs and passwords. These could be easily checked for discrepancies. Third parties can be brought into the process (perhaps for auditing) merely by pointing them at one or both of the URIs. Standard HTTPS and HTTP authentication and authorization would be sufficient to keep intruders from also being able to look at the documents.

Of course, HTTP-based Web Services can go through firewalls easily, but that is the only point of similarity with RPC tunneling through HTTP such as XML-RPC or SOAP-RPC over HTTP. When you use HTTP over a firewall, you are being very explicit about what is going on. Your system administrator can look at the logs to determine what services are running and who is accessing them. She can disable PUT or POST to make certain parts of the service read-only. She can use standard filtering and hacker detection tools. When you use HTTP as HTTP, you and the system administrator are on the same team.

Conversely, when you tunnel XML-RPC or SOAP on top of HTTP, just to get through a firewall, you are deliberately subverting her work and reducing the efficacy of her tools. Because you are hiding your real actions in the XML body, you make it much harder for her to use standard filtering tools. This greatly expands the opportunity for new security holes. Famed security expert Bruce Schneier has spoken out against SOAP over HTTP for exactly this reason.

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