Friday, May 03, 2013

"What Are The Drawbacks Of REST?"

It seems the season for me to post comments in response to provocative topics on LinkedIn. 

A few days ago, Pradeep Bhat posed the question, "What Are The Drawbacks Of REST?" on the REST Architects LinkedIn Group. As before, I had an opinion on this too, which I reproduce below:

"I wouldn't say REST has "drawbacks" as such. It does what it says on the tin, and does that very well. But remember that the only implementation of the REST architecture uses the HTTP protocol. We can surely think of a future RESTian implementation that uses another transport protocol, and that is where some improvements could be made. 

1. HTTP is a synchronous, request/response protocol. This means the protocol does not inherently support server-initiated notifications (peer-to-peer), which are often required. That's why callbacks in RESTian applications require the use of application-level design patterns like Webhooks. Now that we have a bidirectional transport protocol in the form of WebSockets, perhaps the industry should be looking at layering a new application protocol on top of it that follows RESTian principles. 

2. The much-reviled WS-* suite of protocols has at least one very elegant feature. These are all end-to-end protocols layered on top of the core SOAP+WS-Addressing "messaging" capability. They resemble the TCP stack in that the basic protocol is IP, which only knows how to route packets. SOAP messages with WS-Addressing headers are analogous to IP packets. In the TCP world, end-to-end reliability is implemented through TCP over IP, and the SOAP world's analogy is WS-ReliableMessaging headers in SOAP messages. In the TCP stack, IPSec is the end-to-end security protocol (not TLS, which is point-to-point). The SOAP equivalent is WS-SecureConversation. Such Qualities of Service (QoS - reliability, security, transactions) can be specified by policy declaration (WS-PolicyFramework) and SOAP endpoints can apply them like an "aspect" to regular SOAP traffic. 

The REST world has nothing like this. Yes, an argument could be made that idempotence at the application level is a better form of reliability than automated timeouts and retries at the transport level. Similarly, we could argue that an application-level Try-Confirm/Cancel pattern is better than distributed transactions. But what remains is security. WS-SecureConversation with WS-Security is routable, unlike SSL/TLS, which is the only security mechanism in REST. With WS-Sec*, messages can also be partially encrypted, leaving some content in the clear to aid in content-based routing or switching. This is something REST does not have an elegant equivalent for. SSL is point-to-point, cannot be inspected by proxies and violates RESTian principles. It is just tolerated. 

The reason behind REST's inability to support such QoS in general is that all of these require *conversation state* to be maintained. Statefulness has known drawbacks (i.e., impacts to scalability and failure recovery), but with the advent of NoSQL datastores like Redis that claim constant-time, i.e., O(1), performance, it may be possible to delegate conversation state from memory to this datastore and thereby support shared sessions for multiple nodes for the purposes of QoS alone. I don't mean to use this for application-level session objects like shopping carts. If nodes can routinely use shared NoSQL datastores to maintain sessions, then the argument against statefulness weakens, and Qualities of Service can be more readily supported *as part of the protocol*. In RESTian terms, we can have a "uniform interface" for QoS.

3. While REST postulates a "limited" set of verbs, HTTP's verbs are too few! 

POST (add to a resource collection), PUT (replace in toto), PATCH (partially update), DELETE (remove from accessibility) and GET. These are actually not sufficient and they are frequently overloaded, resulting in ambiguity. 

I would postulate a more finely-defined set of verbs if defining a RESTian application protocol over a new peer-to-peer transport: 

INCLUDE (add to a resource collection and return a server-determined URI), PLACE (add to a resource collection with client-specified URI), REPLACE (in toto), FORCE (PLACE or REPLACE), AMEND (partial update, a container verb specifying one or more other verbs to specify operations on a resource subset), MERGE (populate parts of the resource with the supplied representation), RETIRE (a better word than DELETE) and SOLICIT (a GET replacement that is also a container verb, to tell the responding peer what to do to the initiator's own resource(s), because this is a peer-to-peer world now). Think of GET as a SOLICIT-POST to understand the peer-to-peer model. We also need a verb of last resort, a catch-all verb, APPLY, which caters to conditions not covered by any of the others. 

4. HTTP combines application-level and transport-level status codes (e.g., 304 Not Modified and 400 Bad Request vs 407 Proxy Authentication Required and 502 Bad Gateway). The next implementation of REST on another transport should design for a cleaner separation between the application protocol and the transport protocol. HTTP does double-duty and the results are often a trifle inelegant. 

So that's what I think could be done as an improvement to REST-over-HTTP. Apply the principles (which are very good) to a more capable peer-to-peer transport protocol, and design the combination more elegantly."

I'm in the process of writing an Internet Draft for a new application protocol that can be bound to any transport (Pub/Sub, Asynchronous Point-to-Point or Synchronous Request/Response). The protocol is part of a new distributed computing architecture that I call ROMA (Resource/Representation-Oriented Messaging Architecture) and covers not just the data model and message API but also higher levels (QoS, description and process coordination). It's been 5 years in the making and has reached 170 pages so far. It may take another couple of months to get to a reviewable state. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

rektide said...

HTTP Signatures is less than a reliability transport, but is a means of getting some QoS out of ReST.