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About nine months ago, we started to investigate the implementation of Financial Supply Chain Management in our ECC system in order to streamline our Accounts Receivables process. One of several changes we had in mind was the provision of account self-service capabilities for the several tens of thousands of business customers who maintained a charge account with the company.

 

We initially looked to customizing SAP’s standard Biller Direct solution, but soon discovered that a significant re-write of the standard solution would be needed to meet our branding and accessibility requirements. We thus proceeded with “Plan B” – to build from scratch a modern, Java-based web application which would be both visually appealing and performant enough to handle thousands of concurrent sessions. We also decided that this application should not have its own data store but rely exclusively on ECC for all of its data.

 

After some deliberation, we decided to apply REST principles to the design of the API used by this web application to interact with ECC. Since a user’s interaction with the application would consist of a number of naturally connected tasks, REST’s reliance on hyperlinks (“HATEOAS”) was of great benefit as it eliminated the need for the Java web app to have a hard-coded sequence of SOAP operations to invoke. So the hypertext in the REST API would roughly match a user’s progression from a view of open invoices, to making a payment against some line items, followed by raising disputes, modifying address details, etc.

 

After piloting an early and feature-limited version of the application with a few customers, we are now only a couple of weeks from launching the final version and beginning to transition larger numbers of customers across. With development all done, and testing almost complete, now is probably as good a time as any to reflect on the many things I have learned during the process of designing the REST API connecting the Java web application to the ECC backend.

 

Mistakes are after all the best way to truly learn, and I have learnt a tremendous amount. Any mistakes are also all mine – the team who built the API has been fantastic in their attitude and execution from the beginning, and have been crucial to the success of this approach. If it had been left to me alone, we would now have an API implemented on a whiteboard and a couple of text files in Notepad!

 

So, here’s my list (so far), and in no particular order. I hope to be able to add many more points in the future, as this would mean I will have learnt more!

 

 

 

Solve Security Early!

Security is about much more than authenticating the party making the HTTP request. In most cases, you will want to authenticate both the application interacting with your API, as well as the actual human user, and those are very different things. A number of options exist which may be suitable, including three-legged OAuth, but you probably don’t want to implement OAuth 2.0 from scratch. API Management tools (e.g. Apigee, Layer7, Vordel) can help tremendously, but not thinking about this up-front can cause a lot of rework in later iterations. Which leads me to my next point:

 

 

 

Make Some Design Decisions Upfront

These days, no hip developer or architect wants to be accused of doing BDUF (Big Design Up-Front, generally considered to be A Bad Thing). However, postponing some decisions with potentially far-reaching consequences can cause technical or design debt to amassed, and then hit you in a later iteration when you don’t expect it – like the security example above.

We initially implemented a hack using a custom HTTP header in an early iteration, but then didn't have the time to fix this. As a result, this header has to be present (and contain appropriate values) in order for the API to provide any success responses. Developers using the API should of course read the documentation which says as much, but that’s out-of band information which is also generally A Bad Thing in REST.

 

 

 

Read The Fine Standards

Read any applicable standards properly. I skimmed some stuff, and as a result designed an API which violates a recommendation in RFC5988 to use URLs for custom link rel names.

 

So instead of:

<a href=”...” rel=”http://api.acme.org/rels/coolapi/v1/foobar”/>

we now have

<a href=”...” rel=”foobar”/>

 

It seems like a small thing, but “foobar” is not part of the IANA link relations registry (yet?), so API clients won’t know what to do with it. If I had used an URL, then at least a client developer can punch that into a browser and hope to get some documentation. Another example of how to reduce out-of-band information and have a self-documenting API! It also still bugs me every time I look at it (ain’t hindsight great!), and would be very high on the list of changes for v2 of the API.

 

 

 

API Versioning

While not properly puritanical*, version IDs are useful to avoid postpone refactoring and rework caused by non-backwards compatible changes. The Apigee Best Practices guide recommends something simple like “v1” at the root of the API’s URL space, which to me seems pleasant enough.

 

* URLs identify resources. Resources are conceptual – they don’t have versions in the same way that the concept of a dog doesn’t have a version. The representation of a dog however can have many different versions. For example, one version of an image/jpg representation of a dog could be a dusty scan of an old photo, while another version could be an improved high-res digital image.

 

 

 

Lay the Foundations for Caching

Most importantly for the foundation is some “version” indicator. A timestamp on the server should be hashed into a UUID. Raw DateTime stamps are better than nothing, but UUIDs are better as they are less ambiguous.

 

(UUIDs look like an opaque string, so nobody’s going to be tempted to parse them. Version IDs which happen to look like a dateTime are still version IDs and parsing them as dates will just end in tears for someone at some point. The same goes for integers – at some point someone is going to try to increment them in the client and then wonder why things break).

 

If you don’t have a version ID, it’s probably best to somehow add one into the backend system’s data model if you think you might ever want to cache or edit those representations.

 

 

 

Caching Properly is Hard!

It is remotely possible that in a moment of weakness and youthful ignorance, I might once have implied that caching was free. Well, I exaggerated for presentation impact, but TINSTAAFL still applies. The tools and infrastructure might be open-source, mature, rock-solid and widely implemented, but it costs time to properly design and build a cacheable API. 

 

Once you have version IDs, you’ll want to use them in the ETag HTTP header. An ETag is HTTP’s way of expressing version IDs in a HTTP header regardless of what format the payload is in, and they should be unique for a domain, so having decided on UUIDs earlier is starting to pay off already ;-)

 

HTTP supports a whole raft of conditional requests to optimize the performance of GET requests and maximize the cache hit ratios. Without this, the internet would probably not have been able to be scaled to what we have today!

 

This is what a conditional GET could look like:

 

>>> GET order/12345 HTTP/1.1

>>> If-None-Match: 82b6bc44-0914-c012-97b9-9b4bca641a5d

 

<<< HTTP/1.1 304 Not Modified

(hooray, we’ve saved some bandwidth and hopefully also response time!)

 

or alternatively:

 

<<< HTTP/1.1 200 OK

<<< Etag: 550e8400-e29b-41d4-a716-446655440000

<<< … insert payload here

 

(i.e. the server’s representation of that order has changed, here’s new one and its ETag)

 

To further complicate things, there are other conditional headers which can be combined for tricky stuff. “Vary” for example, but I won’t go into details here or this blog will never end.

 

Luckily we don’t have to solve all of this up front. With HTTP, the server is in charge of the interaction with the client, so if it gets a conditional request which it doesn’t understand, it has options like the following:

 

<<< HTTP/1.1 412 Precondition Failed

<<< Content-Type: text/plain

<<< Sorry, this has not been implemented yet.

 

 

 

Be Careful when Editing!

Of course version IDs and conditional requests are not restricted to GET operations either. If your API supports editing of any kind, then I would consider it essential to use conditional PUT requests to push updates onto the server. The ETag the client got from its initial GET would be used in an “If-Match” header just like in the example above. This solves two problems at once:

 

 

Changing outdated representations

Thanks to Murphy’s Law, it’s often safe to assume that at some point, a client will try to perform an update using a stale representation retrieved from the cache. Of course the client has no way of knowing whether it was served directly from the backend or any intermediate caches such as the ICM cache, reverse proxies and the like. Such scenarios could result in inconsistent data if the server does not have version IDs available to compare between the incoming request and the version in its persistent store. Conditional requests using the version ID held by the client as a requisite condition, are an effective way of preventing these problems.

 

 

Preventing Race Conditions

This is really just a variation on the first problem, in that the second edit PUT request is being performed against an outdated version from the server’s point of view. Since it’s basically certain that a race condition will occur at some point in an application used by more than one person, this is a great side-effect of having thought about version IDs up-front even if the initial version of the API only supports data retrieval through GET.

 

 

 

Don’t Partially Update

Tempting as it might be to increase efficiency, reduce network traffic and the like by performing partial updates, don’t do it! It’s just a bad idea. Apart from violating the idempotency constraint of the HTTP PUT verb, it creates far more problems than it solves: dealing with concurrent access becomes difficult and messy; processing requests in sequence becomes critical; we need code to handle duplicate requests, and that’s before we even started to consider how to design JSON or XML structures which allow us to express the difference between “null” and “delete” – is a data element in the request absent because it’s meant to be deleted, or because it’s been omitted for brevity?  In a word – messy.

 

 

 

Versions, Versions, Versions

Let me repeat because I think this is really quite important: REST APIs are nice partly because they scale much better than SOAP ever could. The web is essentially a subset of REST with humans as API consumers, so it’s fair to say that REST APIs can be truly web-scale. Having Version IDs on representations enables patterns such as optimistic locking and effective caching, and thus minimize the risk of inconsistent data while also exhibiting improved performance.

 

 

 

Synthetic Resources

Don't be afraid to create 'synthetic' resources to represent temporary collections of otherwise independent resources, and perform operations on all of them together. This is the first step beyond seeing REST as simply performing CRUD operations on database rows or business objects, and taking an outside-in, resource-oriented view of the problem domain. And this is A Good Thing.

 

For example, one way of requesting many documents (each identified by its own URL of course) as a single ZIP file is to POST the document URLs to a handler resource. The server then creates a synthetic collection resource and returns a URL to it as a pointer. The client can poll that URL for its result, like this:

 

>>> POST http://api.acme.com/v1/documentCollection HTTP/1.1

>>> Content-Type: application/json

>>> Accept: application/zip

>>> [“http://acme.com/docs/q8h2”, “http://acme.com/docs/sdo8y”, “http://acme.com/docs/ok23a”, “http://acme.com/docs/1kma6”]

 

<<< HTTP/1.1 201 Created

<<< Location: http://api.acme.com/collections/d0f84d8a

 

(the client can now poll this location for the result…)

 

>>> GET http://api.acme.com/collections/d0f84d8a HTTP/1.1

 

<<< HTTP/1.1 204 No Content

 

…and when the server is done generating the content:

 

<<< HTTP/1.1 200 OK

<<< Content-Type: application/zip

<<< Etag: f1dbe2f4-830d-49c6-a4a5-9891230e8182

<<< ...insert payload here

 

This is just a simple example of this pattern; there are of course other implementation options, including some which make use of existing standard formats such as OpenSearch or HTML forms.

 

One downside of this pattern is the increased chattiness and thus increased network traffic and latencies. It also prioritises the server's need for workload management over the client's need for timeliness – if creating the collection is computationally expensive, such as rendering PDF documents, then the server can take its time doing this and is not restricted by the client’s HTTP timeout in a simple synchronous exchange. It’s of course no silver bullet, but a design choice which can be appropriate for some cases.

 

 

 

Consider the Alternative Dispatcher Layer

Frameworks can greatly simplify things when building RESTful APIs from. SAP’s own NetWeaver Gateway is such a framework, as is the Alternative Dispatcher Layer (aka ADL) managed by DJ Adams on the SCN CodeExchange. Frameworks differ in their scope and complexity, and need to be chosen carefully lest they intrude too much into the design, forcing developers to ‘fight’ them. Gateway is arguably one which places quite a lot of restrictions and limitations onto the implementation team, whereas the ADL is designed to be light-weight and flexible. Conversely, it requires developers to write more code than a more fully-featured framework like Gateway. Again, no silver bullet but a design choice.

 

We did consider an early version of Gateway but ultimately decided against it as it lacked support for crucial features of our API – among them support for representations other than OData and server-driven content negotiation. We probably would have picked ADL had it been publicly available at the start of the project (BDUF!), and retrofitting a framework halfway through was not something any of us wanted to do. There’s always the next API though!

 

 

 

Developers, Developers, Developers!

Of course, it would not have been possible for me to actually learn any of the above had it not been for a bunch of great developers who turned some of my – sometimes whacky – ideas into specs and working code. Many thanks to Andre Olivier, Custodio de Oliveira, Brad Pokroy and others; lessons learnt from this implementation were entirely due to faults in my design rather than their implementation of it.

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