SYS-CON MEDIA Authors: Pat Romanski, Sean Houghton, Glenn Rossman, Ignacio M. Llorente, Xenia von Wedel

Related Topics: Cloud Expo, Java, SOA & WOA, Security, Big Data Journal, SDN Journal

Cloud Expo: Article

Bringing Intelligence to REST

The API Economy has nearly run its course.

Whether you're a Cloud Computing aficionado, an enterprise integration specialist, or an IT executive, it's hard to have a conversation today without mention of REST. Representational State Transfer, or REST to the cognoscenti, is an architectural style that treats distributed computing problems as though they were Web problems. On the Web you have browsers chatting via HTTP to Web servers, and those servers can work whatever magic they need to in order to serve up the full wealth we've all come to expect from the World Wide Web. Take those basic Web patterns, extend them to general distributed computing problems (including Cloud and legacy integration), and voila! You have REST.

However, while REST has achieved substantial success in simplifying software interfaces and thus facilitating many forms of integration, it is still inherently inflexible. What works well for humans using browsers often doesn't apply to arbitrary software clients. And most fundamentally, REST does not address the most difficult distributed computing challenge of all: how to deal with dynamic business context.

Freeing Ourselves from REST's Four Constraints
The majority of RESTafarians, as the aforementioned cognoscenti have so eloquently dubbed themselves, treat REST as an Application Programming Interface (API) style. After all, REST does call for a uniform interface, a requirement that in one fell swoop addresses many of the knottier problems of Web Services and other, more tightly coupled API styles that came before. Compared to the complexities of Web Service operations or object-oriented remote method calls, REST's uniform interface is the essence of simplicity. Furthermore, there's no question that REST's uniform interface requirement is at the heart of what analysts like to refer to as the API Economy.

But there is more to REST than a uniform interface. In fact, REST isn't an API style at all. It's an architectural style. As an architectural style, REST consists of a set of constraints on software architecture. In other words, feel free to follow what architectural rules you like, but if you want to follow REST you must comply with the following RESTful constraints:

  1. Separation of resources from representations
  2. Manipulation of resources by representations
  3. Self-descriptive messages
  4. Hypermedia as the engine of application state, or HATEOAS

Let's take a quick tour of these constraints to put them in plain language. In so doing, we'll also why REST fails to adequately address the problem of dynamic business context.

The first constraint is essentially the encapsulation requirement. Resources are abstractions of capabilities on a server, while the representations are what the resources provide to the client. For example, a resource might be a php script running on a Web server, and the representation might be an HTML file it returns when a browser makes a GET request of it. But the browser never, ever gets the php itself; it only sees the HTML. The php is forever hidden from view.

The second constraint calls for the uniform interface. The only way that clients are able to interact with resources is by following hyperlinks in representations - in other words, making GET, POST, PUT, or DELETE requests to the URI of the resource, assuming we're using HTTP as our transport protocol, which we usually are.

The third, self-descriptive message constraint is actually quite straightforward: all the data as well as all the metadata the resource needs to process a request must be contained in that request, and correspondingly, the resource must send all necessary metadata in the representation response to the client that the client will need to understand the representation. In other words, REST requires that there be no out-of-band metadata: information pertinent to the interaction that doesn't actually appear in the interaction. Furthermore, the interaction must be stateless: the resource isn't expected to keep track of any information pertinent to any particular client.

The problem with this third constraint, of course, is that out-of-band metadata is very handy in many situations. Take security-related metadata, for example. REST calls for all such metadata to be in every request, which led to the development of the OAuth (Open Authorization) standard. Yes, OAuth is quite powerful and Web friendly. Yes, OAuth is making inroads into the enterprise. But do you really want to restrict the security protocols for all of your interactions to OAuth and nothing but OAuth? Probably not.

If you have a more complex interaction than a simple request, then the ban on out-of-band metadata becomes increasingly impractical. For example, let's say you're trying to support a complex business process by building a composite application. You're trying to follow REST so you're composing resources. But then you find you need to somehow deal with a range of policies, business rules, or other out-of-band metadata that impact the behavior of your composite application for certain users but not others. REST alone simply doesn't deal well with such complexities.

And then there's the fourth constraint: the dreaded HATEOAS. REST separates state information into two types: resource state and application state. Resource state is shared or persisted state information on the server, while application state is specific to the individual client, who negotiates the application (think abstracted Web site) by following hyperlinks. The HATEOAS constraint hammers home the fact that the point of REST is building distributed hypermedia systems, where the client is responsible for running hypermedia-based applications. In other words, the hypermedia contain the business context for the interactions between client and server.

Hypermedia drive the Web, of course, but once you start breaking down REST's notions of client and server, however, then the power of hypermedia starts to wane. After all, enterprises often want to build or leverage business applications that offer more than a simple Web site, especially when there's a shared business context across nodes, where those nodes are more than just clients and servers. Hypermedia - and REST - simply weren't built for such complex, dynamic situations.

The Devil in the Details
There's a very good reason why REST eschews out-of-band metadata and shared business context beyond the scope of hypermedia: both of these requirements are inherently dynamic, and furthermore, depend upon multiple actors - actors who may change over time. By constraining the architecture to avoid such complexities, REST provides a useful set of simplifications that have provided unquestionable value throughout the API economy.

The challenges in the section above, however, go well beyond REST. The problems we're discussing have plagued software interfaces in general, from the earliest screen-scraping programs to object-oriented APIs to Web Services to today's RESTful APIs. The entire notion of a software interface is an agreement between the people building the software provider and consumer endpoints that the interface behaves a particular way. Loose coupling, after all, relies upon an interface contract that fixes the behavior of the API so that the parties involved can make various decisions about their software under the covers without breaking the interaction. But woe to those who dare to change the contract, or who want to consider metadata the contract knows nothing about!

Out-of-band metadata and business context outside hypermedia applications are by definition exterior to the contract, and thus aren't amenable to any distributed computing architectural style that relies too heavily on static APIs. Therein lies the essential challenge of the API. To those analysts trumpeting the API Economy I say: the API Economy has nearly run its course. We've solved as many problems as we're going to solve with contracted software interfaces. But the business stakeholders still aren't happy. After all, it's their context - the business context - that APIs (whether RESTful or not) are so woefully unable to deal with. It's time for another approach.

The EnterpriseWeb Take
I'm not saying that we don't need APIs, of course, or that REST doesn't serve a useful purpose. I am declaring, however, that something critically important is missing from this picture. APIs are far too static to address issues of dynamic business context. We tried to address these issues with the SOA intermediary (typically an ESB), where the intermediary executed policy-based routing and transformation rules to abstract a set of inflexible Service interfaces, thus providing the illusion of flexibility, much as a flip deck provides the illusion of motion. But even the most successful implementers of SOA were still unable to deal with most out-of-band metadata - and dynamic business context? That nut no one has been able to crack.

What we really need is an entirely different kind of intermediary. A smarter intermediary that knows how to deal with all types of metadata and furthermore, can resolve the more difficult challenge of business context - in real time, where the business lives. In the next issue of Loosely-Coupled I'll discuss how such a smarter intermediary might actually work. And naturally, if you want to see one in action, drop us a line.

Image credit: lin440315

More Stories By Jason Bloomberg

Jason Bloomberg is the leading expert on architecting agility for the enterprise. As president of Intellyx, Mr. Bloomberg brings his years of thought leadership in the areas of Cloud Computing, Enterprise Architecture, and Service-Oriented Architecture to a global clientele of business executives, architects, software vendors, and Cloud service providers looking to achieve technology-enabled business agility across their organizations and for their customers. His latest book, The Agile Architecture Revolution (John Wiley & Sons, 2013), sets the stage for Mr. Bloomberg’s groundbreaking Agile Architecture vision.

Mr. Bloomberg is perhaps best known for his twelve years at ZapThink, where he created and delivered the Licensed ZapThink Architect (LZA) SOA course and associated credential, certifying over 1,700 professionals worldwide. He is one of the original Managing Partners of ZapThink LLC, the leading SOA advisory and analysis firm, which was acquired by Dovel Technologies in 2011. He now runs the successor to the LZA program, the Bloomberg Agile Architecture Course, around the world.

Mr. Bloomberg is a frequent conference speaker and prolific writer. He has published over 500 articles, spoken at over 300 conferences, Webinars, and other events, and has been quoted in the press over 1,400 times as the leading expert on agile approaches to architecture in the enterprise.

Mr. Bloomberg’s previous book, Service Orient or Be Doomed! How Service Orientation Will Change Your Business (John Wiley & Sons, 2006, coauthored with Ron Schmelzer), is recognized as the leading business book on Service Orientation. He also co-authored the books XML and Web Services Unleashed (SAMS Publishing, 2002), and Web Page Scripting Techniques (Hayden Books, 1996).

Prior to ZapThink, Mr. Bloomberg built a diverse background in eBusiness technology management and industry analysis, including serving as a senior analyst in IDC’s eBusiness Advisory group, as well as holding eBusiness management positions at USWeb/CKS (later marchFIRST) and WaveBend Solutions (now Hitachi Consulting).

Latest Stories
The BPM world is going through some evolution or changes where traditional business process management solutions really have nowhere to go in terms of development of the road map. In this demo at 15th Cloud Expo, Kyle Hansen, Director of Professional Services at AgilePoint, shows AgilePoint’s unique approach to dealing with this market circumstance by developing a rapid application composition or development framework.
“We help people build clusters, in the classical sense of the cluster. We help people put a full stack on top of every single one of those machines. We do the full bare metal install," explained Greg Bruno, Vice President of Engineering and co-founder of StackIQ, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 15th Cloud Expo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
AppZero has announced that its award-winning application migration software is now fully qualified within the Microsoft Azure Certified program. AppZero has undergone extensive technical evaluation with Microsoft Corp., earning its designation as Microsoft Azure Certified. As a result of AppZero's work with Microsoft, customers are able to easily find, purchase and deploy AppZero from the Azure Marketplace. With just a few clicks, users have an Azure-based solution for moving applications to the...
SYS-CON Events announced today Isomorphic Software, the global leader in high-end, web-based business applications, will exhibit at SYS-CON's DevOps Summit 2015 New York, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Isomorphic Software is the global leader in high-end, web-based business applications. We develop, market, and support the SmartClient & Smart GWT HTML5/Ajax platform, combining the productivity and performance of traditional desktop software ...
The cloud is becoming the de-facto way for enterprises to leverage common infrastructure while innovating and one of the biggest obstacles facing public cloud computing is security. In his session at 15th Cloud Expo, Jeff Aliber, a global marketing executive at Verizon, discussed how the best place for web security is in the cloud. Benefits include: Functions as the first layer of defense Easy operation –CNAME change Implement an integrated solution Best architecture for addressing network-l...
“In the past year we've seen a lot of stabilization of WebRTC. You can now use it in production with a far greater degree of certainty. A lot of the real developments in the past year have been in things like the data channel, which will enable a whole new type of application," explained Peter Dunkley, Technical Director at Acision, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
The major cloud platforms defy a simple, side-by-side analysis. Each of the major IaaS public-cloud platforms offers their own unique strengths and functionality. Options for on-site private cloud are diverse as well, and must be designed and deployed while taking existing legacy architecture and infrastructure into account. Then the reality is that most enterprises are embarking on a hybrid cloud strategy and programs. In this Power Panel at 15th Cloud Expo (http://www.CloudComputingExpo.com...
"BSQUARE is in the business of selling software solutions for smart connected devices. It's obvious that IoT has moved from being a technology to being a fundamental part of business, and in the last 18 months people have said let's figure out how to do it and let's put some focus on it, " explained Dave Wagstaff, VP & Chief Architect, at BSQUARE Corporation, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held Nov 4-6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
The move in recent years to cloud computing services and architectures has added significant pace to the application development and deployment environment. When enterprise IT can spin up large computing instances in just minutes, developers can also design and deploy in small time frames that were unimaginable a few years ago. The consequent move toward lean, agile, and fast development leads to the need for the development and operations sides to work very closely together. Thus, DevOps become...
SYS-CON Media announced today that Aruna Ravichandran, VP of Marketing, Application Performance Management and DevOps at CA Technologies, has joined DevOps Journal’s authors. DevOps Journal is focused on this critical enterprise IT topic in the world of cloud computing. DevOps Journal brings valuable information to DevOps professionals who are transforming the way enterprise IT is done. Aruna's inaugural article "Four Essential Cultural Hacks for DevOps Newbies" discusses how to demonstrate the...
"Our premise is Docker is not enough. That's not a bad thing - we actually love Docker. At ActiveState all our products are based on open source technology and Docker is an up-and-coming piece of open source technology," explained Bart Copeland, President & CEO of ActiveState Software, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at DevOps Summit at Cloud Expo®, held Nov 4-6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Verizon Enterprise Solutions is simplifying the cloud-purchasing experience for its clients, with the launch of Verizon Cloud Marketplace, a key foundational component of the company's robust ecosystem of enterprise-class technologies. The online storefront will initially feature pre-built cloud-based services from AppDynamics, Hitachi Data Systems, Juniper Networks, PfSense and Tervela. Available globally to enterprises using Verizon Cloud, Verizon Cloud Marketplace provides a one-stop shop fo...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Windstream, a leading provider of advanced network and cloud communications, has been named “Silver Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9–11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York, NY. Windstream (Nasdaq: WIN), a FORTUNE 500 and S&P 500 company, is a leading provider of advanced network communications, including cloud computing and managed services, to businesses nationwide. The company also offers broadband, p...
The Internet of Things is not new. Historically, smart businesses have used its basic concept of leveraging data to drive better decision making and have capitalized on those insights to realize additional revenue opportunities. So, what has changed to make the Internet of Things one of the hottest topics in tech? In his session at @ThingsExpo, Chris Gray, Director, Embedded and Internet of Things, discussed the underlying factors that are driving the economics of intelligent systems. Discover ...

ARMONK, N.Y., Nov. 20, 2014 /PRNewswire/ --  IBM (NYSE: IBM) today announced that it is bringing a greater level of control, security and flexibility to cloud-based application development and delivery with a single-tenant version of Bluemix, IBM's