RESTful APIs with ZF2, Part 1

RESTful APIs have been an interest of mine for a couple of years, but due to circumstances, I've not had much chance to work with them in any meaningful fashion until recently.

Rob Allen and I proposed a workshop for PHP Benelux 2013 covering RESTful APIs with ZF2. When it was accepted, it gave me the perfect opportunity to dive in and start putting the various pieces together.

Background

I've attended any number of conference sessions on API design, read countless articles, and engaged in quite a number of conversations. Three facts keep cropping up:

  1. JSON is fast becoming the preferred exchange format due to the ease with which it de/serializes in almost every language.
  2. The "holy grail" is Richardson Maturity Model Level 3.
  3. It's really hard to achieve RMM level 3 with JSON.

Richardson Maturity Model

As a quick review, the Richardson Maturity Model has the following 4 levels:

  • Level 0: "The swamp of POX." Basically, a service that uses TCP for transport, primarily as a form of remote procedure call (RPC). Typically, these are not really leveraging HTTP in any meaningful fashion; most systems will use HTTP POST for all interactions. Also, you will often have a single endpoint for all interactions, regardless of whether or not they are strictly related. XML-RPC, SOAP, and JSON-RPC fall under this category.
  • Level 1: "Resources." In these services, you start breaking the service into multiple services, one per "resource," or, in object oriented terms, per object. This means a distinct URL per object, which means each has its own distinct identity on the web; this often extends not only to the collection of objects, but to individual objects under the collection as well (e.g., "/books" as well as "/books/life-of-pi"). The service may still be RPC in nature, however, and, at this level, often is still using a single HTTP method for all interactions with the resource.
  • Level 2: "HTTP Verbs." At this level, we start using HTTP verbs with our services in the way the HTTP specification intends. GET is for safe operations, and should be cacheable; POST is used for creation and/or updating; DELETE can be used to delete a resource; etc. Rather than doing RPC style methods, we leverage HTTP, occasionally passing additional parameters via the query string or request body. Considerations such as HTTP caching and idempotence are taken into account.
  • Level 3: "Hypermedia Controls." Building on the previous level, our resource representations now also include links, which indicate what we can do next. At this level, our API becomes practically self-describing; given a single end-point, we should be able to start crawling it, using the links in a representation to lead us to the next actions.

When I first started playing with web services around a decade ago, everything was stuck at Level 0 or Level 1 -- usually with Level 1 users downgrading to Level 0 because Level 0 offerred consistency and predictability if you chose to use a service type that had a defined envelope format (such as XML-RPC or SOAP). (I even wrote the XML-RPC server implementation for Zend Framework because I got sick of writing one-off parsers/serializers for custom XML web service implementations. When you're implementing many services, predictability is a huge win.)

A few years ago, I started seeing a trend towards Level 2. Web developers like the simplicity of using HTTP verbs, as they map very well to CRUD operations -- the bread and butter of web development. Couple this concept with JSON, and it becomes trivially simple to both create a web service, as well as consume it.

I'd argue that the majority of web developers are quite happy to be at Level 2 -- and have no problem staying there. They're productive, and the concepts are easy -- both to understand and to implement.

Level 3, though, is where it becomes really interesting. The idea that I can examine the represention alone in order to understand what I can do next is very intriguing and empowering.

JSON and Hypermedia

With XML, hypermedia basically comes for free. Add some <link> elements to your representation, and you're done -- and don't forget the link relations!

JSON, however, is another story.

Where do the links go? There is no single, defined way to represent a hyperlink in JSON.

Fortunately, there are some emerging standards.

First is use of the "Link" HTTP header. While the page I linked shows only a single link in the header, you can have multiple links separated by commas. GitHub uses this when providing pagination links in their API. Critics will point out that the HTTP headers are not technically part of the representation, however; strict interpetations of REST and RMM indicate that the hypermedia links should be part of the resource representation. Regardless, having the links in the HTTP headers is useful for pre-traversal of a service, as you can perform HEAD requests only to discover possible actions and workflows.

Collection+JSON is interesting, as it describes the entire JSON envelope. My one criticism is that it details too much; whenever I see a format that dictates how to describe types, I think of XML-RPC or SOAP, and get a little twitchy. It's definitely worth a look, though.

What's captured my attention of late, however, is Hypertext Application Language, or HAL for short. HAL has very few rules, but succinctly describes both how to provide hypermedia in JSON as well as how to represent embedded resources - the two things that most need standardized structure in JSON. It does this while still providing a generic media type, and also describing a mirror image XML format!

HAL Media Types

HAL defines two generic media types: application/hal+xml and application/hal+json. You will use these as the response Content-Type, as they describe the response representation; the client can simply request application/json, and the response format remains compatible.

HAL and Links

HAL provides a very simple structure for JSON hypermedia links. First, all resource representations must contain hypermedia links, and all links are provided in a "_links" object:


{
    "_links": {
    }
}

Second, links are properties of this object. The property name is the link relation, and the value is an object containing minimally an "href" property.


{
    "_links": {
        "self": {"href": "http://example.com/api/status/1234"}
    }
}

If a given relation can have multiple links, you provide instead an array of objects:


{
    "_links": {
        "self": {"href": "http://example.com/api/status/1234"},
        "conversation": [
            {"href": "http://example.com/api/status/1237"},
            {"href": "http://example.com/api/status/1241"}
        ]
    }
}

Individual links can contain other attributes as desired -- I've seen people include the relation again so that it's self-contained in the link object, and it's not uncommon to include a title or name.

HAL and Resources

HAL imposes no structure over resources other than requiring the hypermedia links; even then, you typically do not include the hypermedia links when making a request of the web service; the hypermedia links are included only in the representations returned by the service.

So, as an example, you would POST the following:


POST /api/status
Host: example.com
Accept: application/json
Content-Type: application/json

{
    "status": "This is my awesome status update!",
    "user": "mwop"
}

And from that request, you'd receive the following:


201 Created
Location: http://example.com/api/status/1347
Content-Type: application/hal+json

{
    "_links": {
        "self": {"href": "http://example.com/api/status/1347"}
    },
    "id": "1347",
    "timestamp": "2013-02-11 23:33:47",
    "status": "This is my awesome status update!",
    "user": "mwop"
}

HAL and Embedded Resources

The other important thing that HAL defines is how to embed resources. Why is this important? If the resource references other resources, you will want to be able to link to them so you can perform operations on them, too.

Embedded resources are represented inside an "_embedded" object of the representation, and, as resources, contain their own "_links" object as well. Each resource you embed is assigned to a property of that object, and if multiple objects of the same type are returned, an array of resources is assigned. In fact, this latter is how you represent collections in HAL.

Let's consider a simple example first. In previous code samples, I have a "user" that's a string; let's make that an embedded resource instead.


{
    "_links": {
        "self": {"href": "http://example.com/api/status/1347"}
    },
    "id": "1347",
    "timestamp": "2013-02-11 23:33:47",
    "status": "This is my awesome status update!",
    "_embedded": {
        "user": {
            "_links": {
                "self": {"href": "http://example.com/api/user/mwop"}
            }
            "id": "mwop",
            "name": "Matthew Weier O'Phinney",
            "url": "http://mwop.net"
        }
    }
}

I've moved the "user" out of the representation, and into the "_embedded" object -- because this is where you define embedded resources. Note that the "user" is a standard HAL resource itself -- containing hypermedia links.

Now let's look at a collection:


{
    "_links": {
        "self": {"href": "http://example.com/api/status"},
        "next": {"href": "http://example.com/api/status?page=2"},
        "last": {"href": "http://example.com/api/status?page=100"}
    },
    "count": 2973,
    "per_page": 30,
    "page": 1,
    "_embedded": {
        "status": [
            {
                "_links": {
                    "self": {"href": "http://example.com/api/status/1347"}
                },
                "id": "1347",
                "timestamp": "2013-02-11 23:33:47",
                "status": "This is my awesome status update!",
                "_embedded": {
                    "user": {
                        "_links": {
                            "self": {"href": "http://example.com/api/user/mwop"}
                        }
                        "id": "mwop",
                        "name": "Matthew Weier O'Phinney",
                        "url": "http://mwop.net"
                    }
                }
            }
            /* ... */
        ]
    }
}

Note that the "status" property is an array; semantically, all resources under this key are of the same type. Also note that the parent resource has some additional link relations -- these are related to pagination, and allow a client to determine what the next and last pages are (and, if we were midway into the collection, previous and first pages). Since the collection is also a resource, it has some interesting metadata -- how many resources are in the collection, how many we represent per page, and what the current page is.

Also note that you can nest resources -- simply include an "_embedded" object inside an embedded resource, with additional resources, as I've done with the "user" resource inside the status resource shown here. It's turtles all the way down.

Next Time

The title of this post indicates I'll be talking about building RESTful APIs with ZF2 -- but so far, I've not said anything about ZF2.

I'll get there. But there's another detour to take: reporting errors.

Updates

Note: I'll update this post with links to the other posts in the series as I publish them.

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