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Sun, 2007-Nov-18

"Four Verbs Should be Enough for Anyone"

The classic four verbs of REST are GET, PUT, POST and DELETE. Whenever the verbs come up it is inevitable that someone will say that it is "obvious" that four verbs aren't enough. I use four basic request verbs, but I don't use POST. It isn't idempotent, so makes efficient reliable messaging difficult or non-scalable. I'm actually not even that big a fan of DELETE, which I see as simply an idiomatic "PUT null".

The point of any messaging in a distributed environment is to transfer information from one place to another. In a high-level design document we can draw flows of data from one place to another without worrying about the details. When it comes time for the detailed implementation a few additional questions need answering:

  1. Which side should contain the configuration information relating to the data flow? This information is held on the client side, and it is the responsibility of the client to ensure the transfer is successful.
  2. Which side is the data being transferred to (Where)?
  3. Which side knows when the data needs to be transferred (When)?
  4. Is the data null?

The correct method to use can be extracted from the following table

Where When Is null Method
Client Client * GET
Server Client No PUT
Server Client Yes DELETE
Client Server * SUBSCRIBE
Server Server * None - Swap Client/Server

SUBSCRIBE is sadly missing from popular specification an implementation at this stage. It is a hard problem with some delicate balancing acts, and a real-time focus. Getting it to work where events are being generated at a rate faster than the network can process them is unsolved in public implementations and specifications.

Other request methods and variations on these methods exist for a number of reasons. Some are for greater efficiency (HEAD, GET if-not-modified, etc). Others are there to deal with non-REST legacy requests or requests that take information not in the request into account (MOVE, COPY, etc).

Two other things are needed after you establish which method you want to use. You need to pick the document type you are transferring, and the URL the client interacts with. The media type should be the simplest, most standard type that conveys the necessary semantics. The fewer semantics you transfer the better, as coupling is reduced. Shared semantics are both the fundamental requirement of machine to machine communication, and its downfall. The less any particular machine knows about the information passing through it, the better. If you can get away with plain text, or a bit of HTML you are laughing.

Picking the right URL is still something of an art, but bear in mind the basic principle: Whichever method you use should make sense for the URL you define. The URL should "name" a some state on the server side that can be sampled or updated as an atomic transaction.