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Mockoon's API guide part 2: REST(ful) APIs

Learn more about REST(ful) APIs, their constraints and what requests and responses between a client and a server contains

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Definition of a REST (or RESTful) API

As we saw in the previous part of this guide, there are many types of web APIs. What interests us most is one of the most popular implementations, the REST, or RESTful, API. REST stands for REpresentational State Transfer. It's a software architectural style that defines a set of constraints used to create standardized APIs. Web APIs adhering to the REST architectural constraints are called RESTful APIs.

RESTful APIs must follow six constraints: client-server architecture, statelessness, cacheability, layered system, code on demand, and uniform interface. We will see four of them, perhaps the most important.

Client-server architecture

REST APIs are designed with a client-server architecture in mind, thus enforcing the principle of separation of concerns: separating the user interface from the data storage. It has various benefits, but one of the most prominent is the portability of both the UI and the server. Many UI can be implemented for one server (or consume one API), and the server can scale and evolve independently from the UI.

Uniform interface

The uniform interface constraint aims at simplifying and decoupling the architecture to enable each part to evolve independently. This concept includes four principles:

  • Resource identification in requests: The request should identify each resource. For RESTful web services, URIs are usually responsible for identifying resources.
  • Resource manipulation through representations: The client should have enough information regarding the resource to be able to modify or delete it.
  • Self-descriptive messages: Each message should include enough information to describe how to process it.
  • Hypermedia as the engine of application state (HATEOAS): A REST client should be able to use server-provided links to discover all the available and related resources. The client shouldn't need to have a hard-coded structure of the resources.

Statelessness

Statelessness means that the server or the API should retain no session information. Each transaction between the client and the server will contain the necessary data to be understood in isolation without the context from previous communications. The best example is the necessity to be authenticated to perform any change in the API or the data storage: each communication will contain the necessary credentials to authenticate the consumer.

Cacheability

To improve the API server scalability and performance, it must inform the client if the resource or data is cacheable or not. It prevents the client from using stale data, but it also allows it to reuse existing data again if it is still up-to-date, thus reducing the volume transferred.

Overview of a REST API call

We learned that a REST API follows a set of architectural constraints, but let's have a look at the anatomy of a REST API call between a client and a server. An API call is always composed of a request and a response.

  • The request is sent by the client and received by the server.
  • The response will be sent back to the client by the server after it has processed the request.

REST APIs communicate over HTTP/HTTPS the same as web browsers do. API calls look very similar to navigating web pages, which are, in the end, only GET requests on specific URLs.

API call schema with a request and a response

The request

An API request contains the following components:

  • a base URL, or resource path
  • an HTTP method or verb (GET, POST, etc.)
  • [headers]
  • [a payload or body]

An HTTP API request or message is formatted like this:

POST /api/v2/users HTTP/1.1 Accept: application/json Content-Type: application/json { "name": "Peter" }

Or, in other words:

METHOD URL HTTP_VERSION HEADER_KEY_1: HEADER_VALUE_1 HEADER_KEY_2: HEADER_VALUE_2 BLANK_LINE BODY

As we will see in the third part of this guide, the method and URL are always present and mandatory. They identify the target endpoint requested by the client on the API server. On the contrary, the headers and body are optional. However, it's rare to have a request (or a response) without headers.

The response

After processing the request, the API server will send back a response to the client. It will contain the following information:

  • a status code
  • [headers]
  • [a payload or body]
HTTP/1.1 201 Created Content-Type: application/json { "id": 123456 }

Or, in other words:

HTTP_VERSION STATUS_CODE STATUS_NAME HEADER_KEY: HEADER_VALUE BLANK_LINE BODY

The only mandatory part is the status code. As for the request, a response may or may not contain headers and a body. Again, you probably won't see a response without headers anytime soon.

You probably already noticed some differences between requests and responses. Some components are present in both, like the headers and the body. In the last part of our guide, we will detail all these components: the request's method and URL, the response's status code, the headers, and the body, present in both the request and the response.