Designing REST API's

A process oriented approach

Who am I?

  • Lars de Ridder
  • Head of Tech at Paylogic
  • Designed a few REST API's
  • Also do other things

Show of hands

  • Who used a REST API?
  • Who knows what REST stands for?
  • Who recently built an internal RESTful API?
  • Who recently built a public-facing RESTful API?

Table of contents

  • Goals of REST
  • Process vs data oriented API design
  • Media types for API's
  • Documentation and Discoverability
  • Best practices / lessons learned

What will you take away from this talk?

  • Change the way you think about designing REST API's
  • Designing REST API's isn't easy
  • Process is more important than data
  • Media types can make my life as an API developer easier

Goals of REST

  • Loose coupling of client and server
  • Scalable
  • Use existing web infrastructure

The web seems to work well enough, let's design API's the same way

REST API design

But isn't REST just exposing my DB tables as resources?

How to design your REST API

Step 1 - Design your process

Step 2 - Design your process!

Step 3 - Design your process!!

Data oriented design



  • Expose DB tables / ORM models als resources
  • Use relations between entities as link relations
  • Use HTTP verbs for CRUD

Or use

Example case

The data


/coffeetypes            GET
/cupsofcoffee           GET, POST
/baristas               GET
/orders                 GET, POST


GET /coffeetypes

GET /baristas

POST /cupsofcoffee { coffee_type: ... }
  <- { self: /cupsofcoffee/xyz }

POST /orders { cupsofcoffee: [ xyz ], barista: ... }

What's missing?

Really the right approach?



  • Easy to design and build
  • Flexible clients


  • Hard to build clients
  • Logic in clients (DRY?)
  • Easy to run into inefficient interactions
  • Tight coupling between API design and DB design

When data-oriented design?

  • Internal API's
  • HTML ORM's
  • Flexibility of clients is essential
  • You're lazy pressed for time

Process oriented design


  • Design API for a purpose
  • Limit flexibility for ease of use and efficiency
  • Focus on relations (and process), not on resources (and data)


  • Model your process as seen from the end-user
  • Determine which steps in this process your client supports
  • For every step: "Invent" resource
  • For every resource: Determine relations
  • Finally: Consider which data is involved for each resource

Model your process as seen from the end-user

State diagram, flow chart, use case, BPMN, words, whatever

Coffee process

Determine which steps in this process your client supports

For every step: "Invent" resource

  • Resource has to be a noun
  • Verbs come from HTTP
  • Avoid /orders/create or /barista/order

Base design decisions on what the API user wants to achieve

Coffee resources

Operations: Choose coffee type, order with barista, and pay

/coffeetypes            GET
/quote                  GET
/orders (or /payments)  GET, POST

Maybe /baristas?        GET

For every resource: Determine relations

This is essential

  • The API should guide the client
  • Use link relations, never rely on URL's
  • Use standard link relations where possible (
  • Properly and extensively document your own relations

The coffee must flow

GET /coffeetypes

GET /quote?coffeetype=xyz&quantity=2
<- { _links: { place_order: /orders }, ... }

POST /orders { coffee: [ /coffeetypes/xyz: 2 ] }

Example relations

Finally: consider which data is involved for every resource

Don't be afraid to manipulate multiple (or no!) DB tables for one resource


  • Logic on server
  • Building clients is easy
  • Interactions are efficient (as designed)
  • No coupling between DB models and API interaction


  • Less flexible clients (but can be built into design)
  • Initial design is difficult

Media types for API's

Can't we just use HTML?

What is an API media type

Standard on how to format your (JSON) response, containing conventions to combat bike-shedding

Why consider API media types?

  • Docs and tooling already written
  • Conventions for many concepts
  • Why reinvent the wheel?

What do they define?

  • Link relations (and deprecation)
  • Collections
  • Error messages
  • Resource embedding
  • POST schemas

Some media types


  • Minimalistic -> Embrace HTTP standards
  • Process-oriented

    "_links": {
        "self": { "href": "/orders" },
        "next": { "href": "/orders?page=2" }
    "currentlyProcessing": 14,
    "shippedToday": 20,
    "_embedded": {
        "order": [{
            "_links": {
                "self": { "href": "/orders/123" },
                "basket": { "href": "/baskets/98712" },
                "customer": { "href": "/customers/7809" }
            "total": 30.00,
            "currency": "USD",
            "status": "shipped"


  • CRUD oriented
  • "Batteries included"

  "links": {
    "self": "",
    "next": "[offset]=2",
  "data": [{
    "type": "posts",
    "id": "1",
    "attributes": {
      "title": "JSON API paints my bikeshed!"
    "links": {
      "self": "",
      "author": {
        "self": "",
        "related": "",
        "linkage": { "type": "people", "id": "9" }
  "included": [{
    "type": "people",
    "id": "9",
    "attributes": {
      "first-name": "Dan",
      "last-name": "Gebhardt",	
      "twitter": "dgeb"
    "links": {
      "self": ""

  • Like HAL, but with actiions

  "ID": 1,
  "Title": "Program crashes when pressing ctrl-p",
  "Severity": 5,
  "@links": {
    "self": {
      "href": ""
    "up": {
      "href": "",
      "title": "Containing project"
  "@actions": {
    "project-create": {
        "type": "json",
        "href": "",
        "title": "Create new project",
        "schemaUrl": ""

JSON Patch

The original document:
  "baz": "qux",
  "foo": "bar"
The patch:
  { "op": "replace", "path": "/baz", "value": "boo" },
  { "op": "add", "path": "/hello", "value": ["world"] },
  { "op": "remove", "path": "/foo"}
The result:
   "baz": "boo",
   "hello": ["world"]

JSON Schema
  • Describe data format

	"title": "Example Schema",
	"type": "object",
	"properties": {
		"firstName": {
			"type": "string"
		"lastName": {
			"type": "string"
		"age": {
			"description": "Age in years",
			"type": "integer",
			"minimum": 0
	"required": ["firstName", "lastName"]


    "logref": "42",
    "message": "A payment method is needed for the creation of an
        order. Please retrieve a bill for the selected products to
        see which payment methods are available.",
    "type": "BAD_REQUEST",
    "_links": {
        "help": {
            "href": "",
            "type": "text/html"

Documentation and Discoverability

I don't need to write any documentation. My API is discoverable.

What is discoverability?

  • Allow client to "discover" what he can do
  • Links and actions only appear when relevant
  • The flow through the API is clear in every state
  • The server "owns" the process and is explicit about it

Why is discoverability relevant?

  • Not for run-time discovery: Clients are not that advanced
  • Rather: Loose coupling between client and process + URI structure
  • So: Development-time discovery


  • Discoverability is no replacement for documentation
  • Document response formats, best practices, schemas, etc in text/HTML
  • Write documentation from process-perspective: What does the client developer want to achieve?

Best practices / lessons learned

Learn HTTP

  • Figure out what the verbs really mean, and why they exist
  • Learn about link relations, curies, etc
  • Use HTTP response codes instead of custom solutions

Always show as much as you safely can

  • All entities
  • All attributes (with sensible empty defaults)

If needed, allow client to filter them out (via header or query parameter)

Spend time on the unhappy paths

Design ALL error messages your API can generate and document them!

When implementing change: Leave your options open

  • What are my options?
  • Which changes are coming up?
  • For each choice: Does it close off other interesting flows / extensions / alternatives?

Push for clients using link relations

And build in a mechanism for link deprecation

That's it!

Reading material
  • REST in Practice - Jim Webber et al
  • RESTful Web Services Cookbook - Subbu Allamaraju
  • Google groups: api-craft, hal-discuss

Want to work on a cool API? See