Internet History 002: The REST Architectural Style

November 12, 2020

In the previous posts in this series, we've looked at the internet into which the web emerged and its early history. We saw that Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist working at CERN, invented a way for people to collaborate by writing documents that could link to each other across web sites. We saw that when CERN released that technology into the public domain, and internet networks were becoming available to the public (largely through commercial businesses), and the early browser Mosaic gave people an intuitive way to navigate this growing system, the World Wide Web really took off. We saw how it developed in many directions at once, for many different people who had many different goals, and how all of those people had reasons to care about its structure. We saw how the need for a well-defined structure outgrew Tim Berners-Lee's original informal notes, and a team including Roy Fielding took on the challenge of trying to define that structure and articulate its guiding principles. Fielding named those guiding principles the "Representational State Transfer (REST) architectural style," in his dissertation, and they're what we're going to look at now.

When we talk about something as justifiably controversial as "guiding principles of the web," we need to focus carefully on the big picture. Fielding describes the project this way:

The goal has always been to maintain a consistent and correct model of how I intend the Web architecture to behave...rather than to create an artificial model that would be limited to the constraints originally imagined when the work began.

Throughout his work, Fielding uses the word constraint to mean something very specific. He describes a constraint as a limit that guides the way you design something to achieve a goal. For instance, imagine you wanted to send a message to every person in the world. You might use the constraint that "the message must be 25 words or less," because if you keep the message short, you have a better chance of achieving the goal of getting it to everyone. But the constraint becomes invalid if it interferes with achieving the goal--if the message you need to send can't be made shorter than 27 words, then you need to change the constraint so that it accomodates the message, not the other way around. What Fielding is saying is that he wants to keep evolving the constraints so that they continue to support the goal, not pick a set of specific rules to carve in stone. The goal is to continually observe what the web is at its best, and work backwards from that to arrive at the constraints that support its success. We should pay the closest attention to what he identifies as the goal, and when we are satisfied that it's still valid, we should look at the constraints he proposes to help us get there. We should expect that we will discover different goals that are also worth pursuing, and that those goals may be best supported by different sets of constraints.

So what does Fielding identify as the goal? He says:

Berners-Lee [20] writes that the "Web's major goal was to be a shared information space through which people and machines could communicate." What was needed was a way for people to store and structure their own information, whether permanent or ephemeral in nature, such that it could be usable by themselves and others, and to be able to reference and structure the information stored by others so that it would not be necessary for everyone to keep and maintain local copies.

The intended end-users of this system were located around the world, at various university and government high-energy physics research labs connected via the Internet. Their machines were a heterogeneous collection of terminals, workstations, servers and supercomputers, requiring a hodge podge of operating system software and file formats. The information ranged from personal research notes to organizational phone listings. The challenge was to build a system that would provide a universally consistent interface to this structured information, available on as many platforms as possible, and incrementally deployable as new people and organizations joined the project.


In late 1993, it became clear that more than just researchers would be interested in the Web. Adoption had occurred first in small research groups, spread to on-campus dorms, clubs, and personal home pages, and later to the institutional departments for campus information. When individuals began publishing their personal collections of information, on whatever topics they might feel fanatic about, the social network-effect launched an exponential growth of websites that continues today. Commercial interest in the Web was just beginning, but it was clear by then that the ability to publish on an international scale would be irresistible to businesses.

We see that the web's original goal was to be an informational space that fostered communication regardless of where the people using it were located. On top of that, Fielding considered it important that people be able to "store and structure their own information," and "reference and structure the information stored by others so that it would not be necessary for everyone to keep and maintain local copies." In the last paragraph, he describes how the growing popularity of the web raised new technical challenges to achieving these goals; when everyone is trying to use the system, its design needs to take that into account so that it won't get overloaded or lose the flexibility to support new people and ideas. To support these goals, he suggested using the following constraints.

The basic interaction of the web is a client making a request to a server and the server sending a response

The web uses a client-server architecture. The client (often a browser) is responsible for presenting the user interface, and may include processing components. The server is responsible for durable data storage and may also include processing components. The client and server programs should be able to evolve independently--servers should not work only with one specific type of client or vice-versa.

Servers don't keep track of clients

A server should not have to keep track of its "conversation" with a given client in order to successfully respond to a request. For instance, a client may send a request like "please send me the fifth page of results for this search," but it may not send a request like "please send me the next page of results for this search," because the latter would require the server to keep track of the conversation with that specific client in order to know which page it meant by "next."[1]

Responses can specify if they're reusable

Responses can include information about whether they should be re-used if the same request comes in again. For instance, imagine I use my phone to share my location with you. If it drains my battery to use GPS to determine my exact location, then when you request my location, my phone should be able to send a response that says "here is my current location; if any other requests come in within the next 60 seconds, please send them this response instead of asking again." This constraint allows different parts of the network to "help out" the source of a piece of information by protecting it from getting overloaded. Some responses will indicate that they should not be reused--for instance, a response that gives the current time.

Some things about the request-response interaction should be consistent no matter which client is talking to which server

There are four things that should always be true about an interaction no matter what client or server is being used: the URI should refer to a specific resource[2]; the resource should be represented by something (or a set of things) that can travel between the client and the server[3]; the message should have certain characteristics that tell the receiver how to handle it[4]; and the contents of a response should include enough information to interact sensibly with the resource referred to by the requested URI[5].

The client and origin server might be separated by helpers; that's ok.

It should be possible to introduce intermediaries between the client and server to help out with different aspects of communication. One example of this was mentioned in #3 above, where if an intermediate server gets a request it has already seen, instead of asking the end server for a new response, it may sometimes use the response from the last time something made that request. Another example would be that, when you look up a web site, your computer is likely talking to your home router, which is relaying the conversation between you and the web site. REST requires that clients and servers should not assume that they are talking to each other directly, and must instead assume that intermediaries may be present[6].

The server is allowed to send code to the client to help it interact with the resource

The server is allowed to send a program (like JavaScript) to the client. Running that program should facilitate some specialized interaction with the resource not already built in to the browser. This is the only constraint that Fielding describes as "optional", reasoning "An optional constraint allows us to design an architecture that supports the desired behavior in the general case, but with the understanding that it may be disabled within some contexts."

These six constraints represent the entire set of requirements that Fielding says will enable a distributed hypermedia system (the web) to achieve the goal he defined (be a shared information space through which ridiculous numbers of people and machines can communicate). He also identifies specific nice things that these rules help to balance within the system, including performance, scalability, simplicity, modifiability, portability, and reliability.

If you ask a group of engineers what REST is, you're likely to start an argument. That's unfortunate, because the argument usually focuses on the precise interpretation of Fielding's constraints, and whether specific technical decisions do or do not satisfy them. A more productive conversation starts with the motivations for each constraint and places them next to the requirements of the system to be built. It is only with that perspective that the spirit of the REST architectural style can be fulfilled.

In a way, this post brings us up to the present--the REST architectural style is still a popular one with system designers today. But this isn't going to be the last post in the series--there are many other histories to consider, and there are even (as Fielding himself stated clearly) other dimensions of system design on which REST does not comment.

  1. This requirement can make it challenging to design security elements like a "login session," in a way that follows the REST architectural style. Thankfully, good engineers are able to articulate various sensible conclusions about it. ↩︎

  2. Another way to look at the requirement that "a URI should refer to a specific resource" is to say that the correct link to get to something should only depend on what it is, not anything else like who is making the request. For instance, it would contradict the REST architectural style to use different URIs for a mobile-phone version of a page vs the desktop version of the same page, because if you want to make a link to the page, you need to pick a URI without knowing what the person who follows the link might be using. ↩︎

  3. Earlier, Fielding makes an eyebrow-raising claim about Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs): "Any information that can be named can be a resource: a document or image, a temporal service (e.g. "today's weather in Los Angeles"), a collection of other resources, a non-virtual object (e.g. a person), and so on. In other words, any concept that might be the target of an author's hypertext reference must fit within the definition of a resource." That earlier claim is the lens through which we should see the constraint that REST requires the "manipulation of resources through representations." Because a URI can refer to anything, from "the set of search results for the term 'philosophy'" to "the person who is Raphael Luckom," we can't expect that the resource itself will be something that can be sent over the internet. Instead, Fielding distinguishes between the resource itself, and some representation of the resource that can be expressed over the internet. It is the system designer's job to pick a representation of a resource that enables the application to perform its function. ↩︎

  4. Specific pieces of information that Fielding says should be required on every request include:

    1. the name of the host (domain name) the message is for;
    2. the encoding of the message (like how and whether the content has been compressed (zipped) to take up less space);
    3. a consistent structure so that the receiver can distinguish the different parts of the message even without necessarily being able to understand them (like how I could ask you to find the table of contents in a book, and you could generally do it even if you didn't understand the language the book was written in);
    4. specific signals that distinguish the phases of communication (like how, when you're talking on a radio, you're supposed to say "over" at the end of your statement so that the person on the other end knows that you're done talking and didn't get cut off);
    5. information about the size of a message that a server can process (at least, a specific error that says "that was too long");
    6. details about whether a response can be stored and reused, as discussed previously; and
    7. information about the content type of resource representation that a client can accept (such as HTML or JSON).
  5. Fielding calls the idea that the resource representation should include details of how to interact with the resource, "hypermedia as the engine of application state," leading to the lovely acronym HATEOAS. Fielding does not consider there to be much distinction between "hypertext" and "hypermedia":

    When I say hypertext, I mean the simultaneous presentation of information and controls such that the information becomes the affordance through which the user (or automaton) obtains choices and selects actions. Hypermedia is just an expansion on what text means to include temporal anchors within a media stream; most researchers have dropped the distinction.

    Hypertext does not need to be HTML on a browser. Machines can follow links when they understand the data format and relationship types."

    Edit: I added an answer to the following question two weeks later, in another post

    If anyone has time to teach me something, I would like to question how important it really is that automated clients specifically discover the URIs for individual resource types starting with a single URI on the server, as opposed to providing those URIs to the clients at deployment time.

    An application to look up a word in an online dictionary, takes two requests if you need to ask the server "where are you keeping words these days?" or one if you trust a value supplied by the deployment system. In return for 100% extra requests, you get an assurance that if the server decides to move words to a different path and does not also move to a different domain entirely, you won't suffer a service degradation. This seems like a poor tradeoff except in very large, somewhat pokey, very rapidly fluctuating environments. And yet, some guidance on out-of-band information is that

    "Any effort spent describing what methods to use on what URIs of interest should be entirely defined within the scope of the processing rules for a media type (and, in most cases, already defined by existing media types). [Failure here implies that out-of-band information is driving interaction instead of hypertext.]"

    If I interpret this to mean that I'm allowed to include in my client a URI for the word resource like{word}, but that the API's documentation should otherwise focus on the representation of a word in which that API traffics, then I get it. But if the argument is that there is something to be gained, in general, by requiring an automated system that looks up a word to make a request to, be handed a structure like {"words": { "GET': "{word}"}}, know that it needs the value in the words key, and how to parse a URI template, and that the search term from its input corresponds to the term {word} in that template, then construct the URI based on the template and make the request--if that's what is meant by

    allow servers to instruct clients on how to construct appropriate URIs, such as is done in HTML forms and URI templates, by defining those instructions within media types and link relations.

    then it seems like an expensive choice to suggest always making. ↩︎

  6. This requirement is not the same as assuming that an adversary may insert itself between server and client--that's a security concern for a different context, though it has some similar features. The REST architectural style is specifically concerned with enabling optimizations via intermediaries as a feature the system is capable of supporting, without denying that there are also cases where it's important to guard against hostile or misbehaving intermediaries. ↩︎