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Giving SOAP a REST

Many developers will be surprised to learn that SOAP isn't the only game in town for Web services interfacing. REST offers a perfectly good solution for the majority of implementations, with greater flexibility and lower overhead. Developers need to stop reaching immediately for SOAP and start choosing the right technology for the application.


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or the past two years, the hype surrounding the Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) has barely waned, although its opponents have gradually risen in number. While some critics are simply tired of hearing about Web services, a small handful of Internet architects have come up with a surprisingly good argument for pushing SOAP aside: there's a better method for building Web services in the form of Representational State Transfer (REST).

REST is more an old philosophy than a new technology. Whereas SOAP looks to jump-start the next phase of Internet development with a host of new specifications, the REST philosophy espouses that the existing principles and protocols of the Web are enough to create robust Web services. This means that developers who understand HTTP and XML can start building Web services right away, without needing any toolkits beyond what they normally use for Internet application development.

Interface Flexibility
The key to the REST methodology is to write Web services using an interface that is already well known and widely used: the URI. For example, exposing a stock quote service, in which a user enters a stock quote symbol to return a real-time price, could be as simple as making a script accessible on a Web server via the following URI: http://www.somebrokerage.com/quote?symbol=QQQ.



Any client or server application with HTTP support could easily call that service with an HTTP GET command. Depending on how the service provider wrote the script, the resulting HTTP response might be as simple as some standard headers and a text string containing the current price for the given ticker symbol. Or, it might be an XML document.

This interface method has significant benefits over SOAP-based services. Any developer can figure out how to create and modify a URI to access different Web resources. SOAP, on the other hand, requires specific knowledge of a new XML specification, and most developers will need a SOAP toolkit to form requests and parse the results.

Lighter on Bandwidth
Another benefit of the RESTful interface is that requests and responses can be short. SOAP requires an XML wrapper around every request and response. Once namespaces and typing are declared, a four- or five-digit stock quote in a SOAP response could require more than 10 times as many bytes as would the same response in REST.

SOAP proponents argue that strong typing is a necessary feature for distributed applications. In practice, though, both the requesting application and the service know the data types ahead of time; thus, transferring that information in the requests and responses is gratuitous.

How does one know the data types—and their locations in the response—ahead of time? Like SOAP, REST still needs a corresponding document that outlines input parameters and output data. The good part is that REST is flexible enough that developers could write WSDL files for their services if such a formal declaration was necessary. Otherwise, the declaration could be as simple as a human-readable Web page that says, "Give this service an input of some stock ticker symbol, in the format q=symbol, and it will return the current price of one share of stock as a text string."

Security Safeguards
Probably the most interesting aspect of the REST vs. SOAP debate is the security angle. Although the SOAP camp insists that sending remote procedure calls through standard HTTP ports is a good way to ensure Web services support across organizational boundaries, REST followers argue that the practice is a major design flaw that compromises network safety. REST calls also go over HTTP or HTTPS, but with REST the administrator (or firewall) can discern the intent of each message by analyzing the HTTP command used in the request. For example, a GET request can always be considered safe because it can't, by definition, modify any data. It can only query data.

A typical SOAP request, on the other hand, will use POST to communicate with a given service. And without looking into the SOAP envelope—a task that is both resource-consuming and not built into most firewalls—there's no way to know whether that request simply wants to query data or delete entire tables from the database.

As for authentication and authorization, SOAP places the burden in the hands of the application developer. The REST methodology instead takes into account the fact that Web servers already have support for these tasks. Through the use of industry-standard certificates and a common identity management system, such as an LDAP server, developers can make the network layer do all the heavy lifting.

This is not only helpful to developers, but it eases the burden on administrators, who can use something as simple as ACL files to manage their Web services the same way they would any other URI.

Not For Everything
To be fair, REST isn't the best solution for every Web service. Data that needs to be secure should not be sent as parameters in URIs. And large amounts of data, like that in detailed purchase orders, can quickly become cumbersome or even out of bounds within a URI. In these cases, SOAP is indeed a solid solution. But it's important to try REST first and resort to SOAP only when necessary. This helps keep application development simple and accessible.

Fortunately, the REST philosophy is catching on with developers of Web services. The latest version of the SOAP specification now allows certain types services to be exposed through URIs (although the response is still a SOAP message). Similarly, users of Microsoft .NET platform can publish services so that they use GET requests. All this signifies a shift in thinking about how best to interface Web services.

Developers need to understand that sending and receiving a SOAP message isn't always the best way for applications to communicate. Sometimes a simple REST interface and a plain text response does the trick—and saves time and resources in the process.



   
Amit Asaravala is an independent journalist based in San Francisco. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of Web Techniques magazine and founding editor of New Architect magazine. Reach him at amit@asaravala.com.
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