Revenge of HATEOAS: Meditations on Discovery

November 29, 2020

A few posts ago, I questioned the value of one of the central tenets of the REST architectural style. I'm very glad I did that, because when I found the answer, it turned out to be quite a powerful tool. This post is going to be pretty technical.

The part of REST that I've never understood is Hypertext as the Engine of Application State, abbreviated HATEOAS. The standard fast explanation--the one you get from a programmer who internalized the idea a long time ago and hasn't had to think consciously about it since--goes like this:

The natural pattern of using a web application is to go to one place, (for instance, the landing page of a website) and from there to follow links to get to wherever you want to go. To take advantage of that natural pattern, we should make APIs discoverable by including endpoints that describe the API surface.

Once you know what you're looking for, this definition works. In fact, maybe we'll come back to it at the end and see how that's true. But it's also ambiguous about some very important things. For instance, that's the definition of HATEOAS I had in mind when I asked why HATEOAS is useful. My objection can be boiled down to the following:

Once I've gone to an airport website one time, and found the departures page, I want to be able to bookmark that page. I should not be required to go through the landing page (though I can if I prefer). If I later want to write an automated script that gets me the departure times, why would that script ever find it useful to discover the departures page by following links? At best, that would leave the risk to application stability constant; at worst, it could add risk.[1]

The objection points to one of the ambiguities in the fast definition of HATEOAS--it doesn't describe when "The natural pattern of using a web application is to go to one place, and from there to follow links to get to wherever you want to go." Let's look at a very common REST experience[2]--editing Wikipedia using a modern web browser.

The first part of making an edit to Wikipedia is to find the thing you want to edit. If you're making a new page, you need to figure out that the page doesn't exist yet. If you're editing or deleting an existing page, you find that page. You do either by following links--including searches--until you arrive at your destination. For the sake of simplicity, we'll assume the task is editing an existing page. Once on the page, there is a link to switch to edit mode. When you click that link, you arrive at a page with a text editor and a further set of links to save or discard your edit. Throughout this process, you have never had to construct a url to get to the next thing that you want to do. Instead, Wikipedia embeds hyperlinks in each new resource that your browser displays. These hyperlinks are context-aware--the "switch to edit mode" link does not appear once you're already in edit mode--but at each step they provide many possible options, not just the ones that are most relevant to the immediate task.

This example shows how HATEOAS is meant to work--not just that the service provides links to available actions, but that those links are the primary way that the user identifies the available choices. If we return to the example from my objection--a script to list airport departures--we see that there are no choices being made. The basic premise of the script is that the list of departures exists at a location and we want to get it. There is no discovery of resources, only (potentially) discovery of location. Discovery of location is only a very small part of what REST cares about, and it's not relevant to every use case.

Fortunately, we can modify the example a tiny bit to change it into an example of resource discovery rather than merely location discovery. Imagine that the airport website treats departures as first-class resources--instead of one endpoint that sends you all the departure objects in a list, the list endpoint simply sends a list of the IDs (perhaps a universal resource ID) referring to currently-scheduled departures. In this scenario, the script first gets the list of current departures, and then it uses that information to make further choices about what to do--it can use the provided links to resolve each departure, or it can look to see if a specific one exists, or it can simply show the user the links it retrieved. Now the script is making navigational choices based on information that it received from the API. If this is a REST application, that information must include complete links to the resources, not merely IDs[3]. This pattern gives us a benefit when it comes to the stability of the application without adding more requests--if the response from the "list departures" endpoint contains complete links to each departure, then the script doesn't need to make any assumptions about how to construct those links. Without adding any new requests, we have freed the server to modify its method of storing departure resources without breaking the client. Any client that uses this discovery pattern will automatically be able to take advantage of whatever the current naming scheme happens to be, regardless of whether that scheme has changed since the client was written.

Now we can look back at the fast definition from the beginning of the post and see how it's true. We want the API to provide everything the client needs to know to interact with it. To take advantage of the fact that the API itself is always going to reflect its publisher's most recent architectural choices, we should rely on the API for wayfinding--even automated wayfinding--that will be more robust than hardcoding specific URI pattern assumptions into our client applications.

Looking carefully at discovery this way--recognizing the difference between discovering the location of something that we already knew existed compared to discovering the existence of something and thereby understanding how to interact with it further--also throws light on another corner of REST that can be confusing--the nature of a URI. When we look at the latter type of discovery, the URI of a resource behaves exactly as much like an identifier as it does like an address. The debate between whether to call a thing a Universal Resource Identifier (URI) or a Universal Resource Locator (URL) ultimately comes down to the question of whether you want to highlight the id-nature of the thing (like you would in the context of REST architecture and discoverability) or the address-nature of the thing (like you might if you were talking about the entry point to something specific, like a URL for a company).

This question has been kicking around in my head since I wrote the earlier post two weeks ago. I'm really glad that I took the time to write it down so that I could come back to it productively. It felt risky to publish a blog post containing that question. Even when I wrote it, I had a very strong feeling that I was misunderstanding something about REST rather than discovering a flaw that generations of smart people had somehow missed. I was worried that people who understood better might try to correct me in a way that made me feel stupid for having that confusion. But because I was able to think it through in public, others who have the same confusion may find the same answer. And, since I'm undoubtedly still misunderstanding different parts of this complicated domain, well-intentioned people can use these posts to help me learn new things without making me feel dumb.

  1. The risk mitigated by HATEOAS is that unless an API can give you a "point-and click" set of actions to choose, you're in danger of defining the semantics on the wrong side of the interface-- requiring the clients (of which there will be many) to each contain its own understanding of what the API does. But by providing hyperlinks to actions within the api itself, you can send semantically-aware suggestions for what someone might want to do next from a given point. If you can give these suggestions in a useful way, the actions taken by disparate clients are more likely to reflect a mutually-consistent understanding of the API's resources.

    The example of discovering the airport departures endpoint presents no opportunity to provide any useful suggestions. If the client is required to discover the endpoint, it needs to be told how to discover it. That part of the interface is as likely to change as a direct link is to break. The important semantics are what a departure is, and the example assumes that the client and server agree on that already. In isolation, this is not a case where the REST approach would be distinguishable from others. ↩︎

  2. It's much easier to find convincingly "RESTful" interaction patterns when you look at the interfaces used by humans--these can hardly help but be RESTful, while JSON APIs rarely are. ↩︎

  3. It's ok for any given endpoint to return a list of IDs, as long as the API also somewhere provides a URI template explaining how to turn those IDs into URIs. The combination of URI template (or any scheme legibly explaining how to construct a URI) and the variables needed to use the scheme to construct a valid URI is one of the things I would describe as a "complete link." But if the URI template is not present on the API (for instance, if it's only provided in the documentation), that's not something I'd consider a complete link. ↩︎