Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thoughts on SOAP vs. REST

REST is now an increasingly popular architectural style for building web services. The question for developers is: should REST always be the preferred mechanism for building web services or is SOAP still relevant for certain use cases?

In my opinion, REST is usually a no-brainer when you are exposing a public API over the internet and all you need is basic CRUD operations on your data. However, when designing a truly RESTful web services interface (as opposed to some HTTP API), care must be taken to adhere to key principles:

  • Everything is a URI addressable resource
  • Representations (media types such as XHTML, JSON, RDF, and Atom) describe resources and use links to describe the relationships between those resources
  • These links drive changes in application state (hence Representational State Transfer or REST)
  • The only type that is significant for clients is the representation media type
  • URI templates as opposed to fixed or hard coded resource names
  • Generic HTTP methods (no RPC-style overloaded POST)
  • Statelessness (the server keeps no state information)
  • Cacheability.

Adherence to these principles is what enables massive scalability. One good place to start is the AtomPub protocol which embodies these principles. In the Java space, the recently approved Java API for RESTful Web Services (JAX-RS) specification greatly simplifies REST development with simple annotated POJOs.

Within the enterprise and in B2B scenarios, SOAP (and its WS-* family of specifications) is still very attractive. This is not to say that REST is not enterprise ready. In fact, there are known successful RESTful implementations in mission critical applications such as banking. However, enterprise applications can have specific requirements in the areas of security, reliable messaging, business process execution, and transactions for which SOAP, the WS-* specifications, and supporting tools provide solutions.

These specifications include:

  • WS-Addressing
  • WS-Policy
  • WS-ReliableMessaging
  • WS-SecureConversation
  • WS-Security
  • WS-SecurityPolicy
  • WS-Trust
  • WS-AtomicTransaction
  • WS-BPEL (Business Process Execution Language)

RESTafarians will tell you that REST can handle these requirements as well. For example, RESTful transactions can be implemented by treating the transactions themselves as URI addressable REST resources. This approach can work, but is certainly not trivial to implement. In fact, it is often difficult to support some of these requirements without resorting to overloaded POST, which works more like SOAP and is a clear departure from a pure REST architectural style.

One characteristic of enterprise SOA is the need to expose pieces of application logic (as opposed to data) as web services and this can be more amenable to a SOAP-based approach. Existing SOAP web services toolkits such as Apache CXF provide support for WS-* specifications. More importantly, they greatly simplify the development process by providing various tools such as the ability to create new services with a contract-first approach where JAX-WS annotated services and server stubs can be automatically generated from an existing WSDL.

Furthermore, during the last ten years, organizations have made significant investments in SOAP-based infrastructure such as Enterprise Service Buses (ESBs) and Business Process Management (BPM) software based on WS-BPEL. The Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) specification which is currently being developed by OASIS specifies protocol bindings for both SOAP and AtomPub. The SOAP binding will allow organizations to leverage those investments in building interoperable content repositories.

Architecting an SOA solution is a balancing act. It's important not to dismiss any particular approach too soon. Both SOAP and REST should carefully be considered for new web services projects.

1 comment:

Joel Amoussou said...

Some progress on the RESTful transactions front: http://www.innoq.com/blog/st/2009/06/restful_transactions_with_retr.html