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RESTful API Design: tips for handling exceptional behavior

Brian Mulloy
Jan 14, 2012

In the last post in this series, I talked about the top level domain (the stuff on the other side of the URL) and in this RESTful API design series so far, I've dealt with baseline, standard behaviors.

This time I'll explore some of the exceptions that can happen - when clients of Web APIs can't handle all the things we've discussed.

For example, sometimes clients intercept HTTP error codes, or support limited HTTP methods.

What are ways to handle these situations and work within the limitations of a specific client?

Client intercepts HTTP error code

One common thing in some versions of Adobe Flash - if you send an HTTP response that is anything other than HTTP 200 OK, the Flash container intercepts that response and puts the error code in front of the end user of the app.

Therefore, the app developer doesn't have an opportunity to intercept the error code. App developers need the API to support this in some way.

Twitter does an excellent job of handling this.

They have an optional  parameter suppress_response_codes. If set to true, the HTTP response is always 200.

/public_timelines.json?
suppress_response_codes=true
HTTP status code: 200{"error" : "Could not authenticate you."}

Notice that this parameter is a big verbose response code. (They could have used something like src, but they opted to be verbose.)

This is important because when you look at the URL, you need to see that the response codes are being suppressed as it has huge implications about how apps are going to respond to it.

Overall recommendations:

1 - Use suppress_response_codes = true

2 - The HTTP code is no longer just for the code

Our rules from earlier (what about errors?) change. In this context, the HTTP code is no longer just for the code - the program - it's now to be ignored. Client apps are never going to be checking the HTTP status code as it is always the same.

3 - Push any response code that we would have put in the HTTP response down into the response message

In my example below, the response code is 401 - see it in the response message.
Also include additional error codes and verbose information in that message.

Always return OK
/dogs?suppress_response_codes = true 

Code for  ignoring
200 - OK 

Message for people & code
{response_code" : "401", "message" : "Verbose, plain language description of the problem with hints about how to fix it."
"more_info" : "http://dev.tecachdogrest.com/errors/12345", "code" : 12345}

Client supports limited HTTP methods

It is common to see support for GET and POST and not PUT and DELETE.

To maintain the integrity of the four HTTP methods, I suggest you use the following methodology commonly used by Ruby on Rails developers:

Make the method an optional parameter in the URL.

Then the HTTP verb is always a GET but the developer can express rich HTTP verbs and still maintain a RESTful clean API.

Create
/dogs?method=post

Read
/dogs

Update
/dogs/1234?method=put&location=park

Delete
/dogs/1234?method=delete

WARNING:

It can be very dangerous to provide post or delete capabailities using a GET method because if the URL is in a web page then a web crawler like the Googlebot can create or destroy lots of content inadvertently. Be sure you understand the implications of supporting this approach for your applications' context.

Next time: authentication

PS: One of our astute readers adds to the warning above with the following comment: Overriding HTTP methods in this way is dangerous (as noted in the article), but can also be technically impossible/difficult, as body data in GET requests is disregarded. The correct (generally industry standard) way to do this is to use the "X-HTTP-Method-Override" header.

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