Hypermedia opinions

Through the Gowalla API, and now the Sifter API, I’ve worked with a couple systems one could reasonably call a hypermedia API. Since smart people are talking about them today, I feel compelled to throw in my two cents.

A URL-based API alone won’t prevent breakage, as many point out. It won’t even prevent people from figuring out how to extract IDs and continue to bang URL strings together. I don’t know why creating URL strings is the security blanket of many API client developers, but it seems you can’t take it away from a few of them.

That said, a URL-based API does make life easier for good actors. Client developers, especially the ones that can’t upgrade their deployed applications quickly, can sleep better knowing that the upstream API could change and their code won’t break. Service developers can rest easy knowing it’s not easy, but it is possible to change their URL structure if they need to.

A hypermedia API means you can’t skip on documentation. In fact, it means you probably need better documentation. You’ll need to explain what each link in the API responses means (is photos_url the URL for my photos, or my friends’ photos?) and what kind of data they can expect that URL to return (a photo object? a collection of photo objects? a user?) As I mentioned before, a lot of client developers don’t have their minds wired for hypermedia yet, so you’ll need a lot of examples for how they should build their clients.

In my opinion, abstract container formats aren’t useful. Squeezing your application’s data into someone else’s data model is not a great place to live. That said, I do think specifying your own custom MIME types is a promising idea. You specify each of the content types in your API, RFC-style, and then provide examples of that data. Should you need to change your response formats, you update your RFC-style specification, adding a new field as a “MAY provide” type feature.

The rub of this approach is that you can end up with an explosion of response-type handling code in your application. Again, it’s not that hypermedia principles make it easy, they just make it possible.

I’ve seen some hypermedia APIs expressed as hypertext, using HTML and cleverness. I don’t see the benefit of this. Just use JSON, and maybe specify your own response types.

The shortcoming in much of the hypermedia content out there is they focus on clients reading data and hand-wave over clients that need to create or update data. I can see why; I think that machine discoverable parameters are a tarpit. Trying to tell a client what fields the server will accept, what types are accepted, and then handle all the possible error flows is verbose and riddled with edge-cases. The way I’m solving this is to specify, in the documentation, which URLs clients can expect to POST/PUT/etc. data to and what content-type those URLs expect to receive. I’m pretty much doing the least hypermedia-ish thing possible, but I think that’s the correct choice right now.

The great thing about the principles of hypermedia APIs and its discourse if a focus on workflows. The biggest mistake I’ve made in building APIs is in exposing a database instead of a service. No one cares what your table structure or domain model looks like. They want to fetch some data, preferably indexed in a way that is immediately useful to them, and maybe write some data back. When you look through this lens, API design starts to look a lot like UI design. It’s fun!

You should read about hypermedia APIs, if only to challenge your thinking. It helped me a lot to do just that. Check out Steve Klabnik’s Designing Hypermedia APIs; it’s not perfect, but it makes a lot of these things easier to grasp.

In the end, I think designing, building, and supporting a hypermedia API is hard. You may be better off with an RPC-over-HTTP, or ID-based REST design. The good news is you can benefit from an incremental application of the principles of hypermedia APIs; you don’t have to go all in before you get something out of it.

Adam Keys @therealadam