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Fundamentals of REST API

Cássio Cappellari
software engineer driven by makes the world a better place through technology
Updated on ・9 min read

🔶 Introduction

We live in a modern and ultra-connected world that shares a huge amount of data every second through browsers, servers, softwares and applications. For all these systems to communicate with each other, we have a tool that is the key player to integrate all this complexity: the APIs.

In this article I share my knowledge, experience and studies about this technology, with the goal to provide a basic understanding of the main fundamentals of API, REST and HTTP Protocol.

🔶 1 API Concept

API means Application Programming Interface and, like any other interface, allows interactions. In the case of an API, it allows interactions between systems by following a set of standards and protocols in order to share features, information and data. In other words, it provides developers the opportunity to build and design products and services that will communicate with other products and services.

API Concept

We can have different architectural styles of APIs and, nowadays, the main one that is a key part of our Internet world it’s called REST, an acronym for REpresentational State Transfer.

🔶 2 REST Fundamentals

REST is an architecture style to develop web services, which uses the HTTP protocol as a communication interface in order to transfer data through HTTP methods. In other words, it allows performing basic data manipulation within an application with efficiency, such as creating, retrieving, updating and deleting information.

REST API

REST was born and created in 2000 by Roy Fielding in his PhD dissertation and, according to him:

“The name “Representational State Transfer” is intended to evoke an image of how a well-designed Web application behaves: a network of web pages (a virtual state-machine), where the user progresses through the application by selecting links (state transitions), resulting in the next page (representing the next state of the application) being transferred to the user and rendered for their use.”

So, as Roy Fielding defines, in order to build a well-designed web application, we can use REST principles that help us to develop services that are more scalable, reliable and flexible. To achieve this goal, the REST architecture has six constraints and an API that is driven by that can be called RESTful.

🔸 2.1 Client-Server

The main principle of the Client-Server web architecture is the Separation of Concerns, which means that the Client that sends the request it’s completely independent from the Server that returns the response.

Client-Server Constraint

🔸 2.2 Stateless

All the information (state) that is required in a request must be sended by the Client. Therefore, the Server must not store any data during a Client-Server communication, which means that every request is a standalone request.

🔸 2.3 Cache

Cache is a computational storage structure focused on keeping stored data that is frequently accessed, improving performance and network efficiency. Therefore, through caching, it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate the need for the Client to send requests to the Server (who must inform if the request can be cacheable or not).

🔸 2.4 Interface Uniform

Means how Client and Server will share information by defining an interface that must be followed in every request. In other words, it’s a contract between the Client and the Server that determines the standards for their communication.

Here, we have four additional constraints that is part of Uniform Interface:

2.4.1 Identification of Resources

REST is based on resources, and a resource is an information that can be named. It’s used in a request to identify what the Client wants to access in the Server.

For example, to retrieve a list of products, the resource must be setted in the URL: http://api.example.com/products

2.4.2 Manipulation of Resources Through Representation

The Client must be sure that the request to the Server has enough information to manipulate (create, retrieve, update, delete) the informed resource, which can be represented by multiple formats, such as JSON, XML, HTML etc. In other words, the Client can specify the desired representation of a resource in every request to a Server.

For example: a Client can specify in a request to retrieve a resource in JSON format.

2.4.3 Self-descriptive Messages

A self-descriptive message ensures a uniform interface in the communication by containing all the information that a Client or a Server needs to understand the request and the response just by checking the semantics of the message.

2.4.4 HATEOAS (Hypertext As The Engine Of Application State)

HATEOAS means that a response sent from the Server should contain information about what the Client can do in further requests. In other words, the Server indicates what actions the Client can do next. In REST standards, Servers must send only hypermedia (links) to Clients.

🔸 2.5 Layered system

Layered system relates to the fact that there can be more components and subsystems between a Client and a Server. In other words, the client can’t assume that it is communicating directly to the Server, and don’t know about the complexity to process the request and return the response.

For example: a Client sends a request to a Server, but first it passes by a proxy layer for security check.

Layered System Constraint

🔸 2.6 Code On Demand

Code On Demand is the only optional constraint, and means that a Server can send an executable code as a response to the Client. In other words, it’s what happens when a browser, for example, receives a response from the Server with a HTML tag <script> so, when the HTML document is loaded, the script can be executed.

🔶 3 Request Anatomy

Basically, a Client request has 4 main elements that compose all the information that is needed to interact with the Server.

🔸 3.1 URL

URL means Uniform Resource Locator, which is the address to not just identify a resource, but also to specify how to access it. In an API, the URL can be named as Base URL, which means that is the base address that will be used in every request.

For example: http://api.example.com

🔸 3.2 URI

URI means Uniform Resource Identifier, which is used in the URL to specify which resource the Client would like to access in a request.

For example: http://api.example.com/products

URL: http://api.example.com/
URI: /products

Therefore, every URL is an URI, but not all URIs are URLs.

🔸 3.3 Parameters

Parameters are information that can be sended in a request by the Client in order to influence the response by the Server. REST has 4 types of parameters, and its use will depend on the type of action that the request demands.

🔸 3.4 Body Params

The Body, like the name says, it’s the body of the request which contains all the data that the Server needs to successfully process the request. Therefore, it’s only used in requests that must send information, such as create or update.

Example of a request body in JSON format:

{
    “name”: “Laptop”,
    “price”: 1000
    “available”: true
}
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🔸 3.5 Route Params

Route params are parameters inserted in the URL with the information to identify a specific resource in order to take an action, such as: retrieve, edit, update or delete.

For example: http://api.example.com/products/1

In this given example, the route param with value 1 identifies the resource that will be manipulated in the request.

🔸 3.6 Query Params

Query params are also parameters inserted in the URL, but with the main difference that it’s use cases are related to filter and search information about a resource, or even paginate and ordinate the results.

For example:

http://api.example.com/products?name=laptop&available=true

In this given example, the Client communicates to the Server that the request is to retrieve products with name equals laptop, and available equals true.

🔸 3.7 Headers

Headers allows sending extra information in a request, such as authentication tokens and content types.

For example:

Authorization: Bearer token
Accept: application/json
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In this given example, the Client is sending extra data informing not just it's credentials to access a resource, but also a desired response format.

🔶 4 HTTP PROTOCOL

Alright, now that we have a basic understanding of REST fundamentals and it’s constraints, let’s talk about the communication standard that rules the Internet world by defining the interaction patterns between Clients and Servers: the HTTP Protocol (HyperText Transfer Protocol).

The HTTP Protocol determines not just the methods that are allowed in a REST API, which means the action types that the Client can demand in a request, but also the status codes that the Server returns as a response in order to have a good communication flow.

HTTP Protocol

🔸 4.1 HTTP Methods

There are 5 main methods that a Client can use in a request in order to manipulate an API resource, which are related with the 5 basic data manipulation types in a database, such: Create, Retrieve, Update and Delete.

4.1.1 GET

This method is used to retrieve data from a Server by indicating the resource in the URL. For example, to request a list of products of an API, the Client might send:

GET http://api.example.com/products

4.1.2 POST

This method is used to create a new resource in the Server by indicating it in the URL and sending the resource data in the request body.

For example:

POST http://api.example.com/products

Request body in JSON format:

{
    “name”: “Laptop II”,
    “price”: 1000
    “available”: true
}
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In this given example, a new product will be created in the database with this provided information.

4.1.3 PUT

This method is used to update a resource data in the Server by identifying it in the URL, and sending the information that will be updated in the request body.

PUT http://api.example.com/products/1

Request body in JSON format:

{
    “name”: “Laptop”,
    “price”: 5000,
    “available”: false
}
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In this given example, the product with ID 1 will be updated.

4.1.4 PATCH

This method is also used to update a resource data in the Server by identifying it in the URL, but with the main difference of updating just a specific information.

PATCH http://api.example.com/products/1

Request body in JSON format:

{
    “available”: true
}
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In this given example, just the available property of the product with ID 1 will be updated.

4.1.5 DELETE

This method is used to delete a resource in the Server by identifying it in the URL.

For example:

DELETE http://api.example.com/products/1

In this given example, the product with ID 1 will be deleted.

🔸 4.2 HTTP Status Code

The HTTP Status Codes are codes returned by the Server in order to indicate the type of response in a Client’s request, facilitating the understanding just by its group and number.

The most commonly used groups and numbers of status code are:

4.2.1 Group 2

Status group that indicates a successful request.

Code 200 (Ok) 201 (Created) 204 (No Content)
Description Request succeeded Request succeeded and created resource Request succeeded and no additional content in response body

4.2.2 Group 3

Status group that indicates redirect responses, which are used to inform the Client that the Server needed to perform a redirect to a new URL.

Code 301 (Moved Permanently) 304 (Not Modified) 307 (Temporary redirect)
Description Requested resource has changed permanently and a new URL is provided in the response Requested resource wasn’t modified and the same cached version can be used Requested resource has been temporarily redirected to another URL

4.2.3 Group 4

Status group that indicates an error in the Client side, which means that the request was incorrectly builded.

Code 400 (Bad Request) 401 (Unauthorized) 403 (Forbidden) 404 (Not Found)
Description Request couldn’t be understanded by the Server Client is not authenticated to access the resource Client is not authorized to access the resource Requested resource couldn’t be found by the Server

4.2.4 Group 5

Status group that indicates an error in the Server side, which means that the request was sent correctly by the Client, but an error occurred while processing it.

Code 500 (Internal Server Error) 503 (Service Unavailable)
Description Indicates that the Server faced an unexpected error, and couldn't return the request response Indicates that the Server isn’t able to process the request because it’s unavailable, overloaded or under maintenance

🔶 Conclusion

I hope that this article helped you to have a basic theoretical approach about REST fundamentals, which is an essential knowledge to every programmer that develops web services.

And, now that you have this core understanding, I invite you to read my other article that provides the basic concepts of an incredible technology for building REST APIs just by clicking on the link below.

Basic Concepts of Node.js

Written with 💙 by Cássio Cappellari!

Discussion (15)

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peter279k profile image
peter279k • Edited

The common client HTTP status code error is missed on 4.2.3 Group 4 section.

It should have the 405 status code and it means the Method not Allowed status message.

When client sends HTTP request with wrong HTTP method, the API server should respond with above status code.

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Cássio Cappellari Author

Thanks a lot for your feedback and for your contribution to my article!

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Nathaniel David

I really appreciate your content, thank you.

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Cássio Cappellari Author

You're welcome, thanks a lot for your words and for reading my article!

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Mike Lockhart

I appreciated the concise and simple distinction between URL and URI, thank you.

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Cássio Cappellari Author

You're welcome, thanks for reading my article!

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Jubril Olamide

Thank you for making the wonderful and comprehensive content. It was very helpful.

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Cássio Cappellari Author

You're welcome! Thanks a lot for your feedback, I'm really glad that this article was helpful to you!

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Gilmara

Very helpful!

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Cássio Cappellari Author

Thanks, Gilmara! I'm glad to read that!

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Tatiana Fischer

Excelent!!

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Cássio Cappellari Author

Thank you, I'm really glad that you liked my article! 💚

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Faddal Ibrahim

Whoooooosh! This was so comprehensive. Thanks for putting together such valuable content

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Cássio Cappellari Author

Thanks a lot for your feedback, Faddal!

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