Representational state transfer (REST) is a software architectural style that was created to guide the design and development of the architecture for the World Wide Web. REST defines a set of constraints for how the architecture of an Internet-scale distributed hypermedia system, such as the Web, should behave. The REST architectural style emphasises the scalability of interactions between components, uniform interfaces, independent deployment of components, and the creation of a layered architecture to facilitate caching components to reduce user-perceived latency, enforce security, and encapsulate legacy systems.
REST has been employed throughout the software industry and is a widely accepted set of guidelines for creating stateless, reliable web APIs. A web API that obeys the REST constraints is informally described as RESTful. RESTful web APIs are typically loosely based on HTTP methods to access resources via URL-encoded parameters and the use of JSON or XML to transmit data.
“Web resources” were first defined on the World Wide Web as documents or files identified by their URLs. Today, the definition is much more generic and abstract, and includes every thing, entity, or action that can be identified, named, addressed, handled, or performed in any way on the Web. In a RESTful Web service, requests made to a resource’s URI elicit a response with a payload formatted in HTML, XML, JSON, or some other format. For example, the response can confirm that the resource state has been changed. The response can also include hypertext links to related resources. The most common protocol for these requests and responses is HTTP. It provides operations (HTTP methods) such as GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE. By using a stateless protocol and standard operations, RESTful systems aim for fast performance, reliability, and the ability to grow by reusing components that can be managed and updated without affecting the system as a whole, even while it is running.
The goal of REST is to increase performance, scalability, simplicity, modifiability, visibility, portability, and reliability. This is achieved through following REST principles such as a client–server architecture, statelessness, cacheability, use of a layered system, support for code on demand, and using a uniform interface. These principles must be followed for the system to be classified as REST.
A REST API (also known as RESTful API) is an application programming interface (API or web API) that conforms to the constraints of REST architectural style and allows for interaction with RESTful web services. REST stands for representational state transfer and was created by computer scientist Roy Fielding.
An API is a set of definitions and protocols for building and integrating application software. It’s sometimes referred to as a contract between an information provider and an information user—establishing the content required from the consumer (the call) and the content required by the producer (the response). For example, the API design for a weather service could specify that the user supply a zip code and that the producer reply with a 2-part answer, the first being the high temperature, and the second being the low.
In other words, if you want to interact with a computer or system to retrieve information or perform a function, an API helps you communicate what you want to that system so it can understand and fulfill the request.
You can think of an API as a mediator between the users or clients and the resources or web services they want to get. It’s also a way for an organization to share resources and information while maintaining security, control, and authentication—determining who gets access to what.
Another advantage of an API is that you don’t have to know the specifics of caching—how your resource is retrieved or where it comes from.
REST is a set of architectural constraints, not a protocol or a standard. API developers can implement REST in a variety of ways.
Something else to keep in mind: Headers and parameters are also important in the HTTP methods of a RESTful API HTTP request, as they contain important identifier information as to the request’s metadata, authorization, uniform resource identifier (URI), caching, cookies, and more. There are request headers and response headers, each with their own HTTP connection information and status codes.
In order for an API to be considered RESTful, it has to conform to these criteria:
- A client-server architecture made up of clients, servers, and resources, with requests managed through HTTP.
- Stateless client-server communication, meaning no client information is stored between get requests and each request is separate and unconnected.
- Cacheable data that streamlines client-server interactions.
- A uniform interface between components so that information is transferred in a standard form. This requires that:
- resources requested are identifiable and separate from the representations sent to the client.
- resources can be manipulated by the client via the representation they receive because the representation contains enough information to do so.
- self-descriptive messages returned to the client have enough information to describe how the client should process it.
- hypertext/hypermedia is available, meaning that after accessing a resource the client should be able to use hyperlinks to find all other currently available actions they can take.
- A layered system that organizes each type of server (those responsible for security, load-balancing, etc.) involved the retrieval of requested information into hierarchies, invisible to the client.
- Code-on-demand (optional): the ability to send executable code from the server to the client when requested, extending client functionality.
Though the REST API has these criteria to conform to, it is still considered easier to use than a prescribed protocol like SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), which has specific requirements like XML messaging, and built-in security and transaction compliance that make it slower and heavier.
In contrast, REST is a set of guidelines that can be implemented as needed, making REST APIs faster and more lightweight, with increased scalablity—perfect for Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile app development.