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SOA, Web Services, and RESTful Systems

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Eric is a consultant and contributing editor for Dr. Dobb's Journal. He can be contacted at

Service-oriented architecture (SOA) and development is a paradigm where software components are created with concise interfaces, and each component performs a discrete set of related functions. With its well-defined interface and contract for usage, each component, provides a service to other software components. This is analogous to an accountant who provides a service to a business, even though that service consists of many related functions—bookkeeping, tax filing, investment management, and so on.

There are no technology requirements or restrictions with SOA. You can build a service in any language with standards such as CORBA, remote procedure calls (RPC), or XML. Although SOA has been around as a concept for years, its vague definition makes it difficult to identify. The client/server development model of the early '90s was a simple example of an SOA-based approach to software development.

A web service is an example of an SOA with a well-defined set of implementation choices. In general, the technology choices are SOAP and the Web Service Definition Language (WSDL); both XML-based. WSDL describes the interface (the "contract"), while SOAP describes the data that is transferred. Because of the platform-neutral nature of XML, SOAP, and WSDL, Java is a popular choice for web-service implementation due to its OS-neutrality.

Web-service systems are an improvement of client/server systems, and proprietary object models such as CORBA or COM, because they're standardized and free of many platform constraints. Additionally, the standards, languages, and protocols typically used to implement web services helps systems built around them to scale better.

Representational State Transfer (REST)

However, there exists an even less restrictive form of SOA than a web service—representational state transfer (REST). Described by Roy Fielding in his doctoral dissertation, REST is a collection of principals that are technology independent, except for the requirement that it be based on HTTP.

A system that conforms to the following set of principals is said to be "RESTful":

  • All components of the system communicate through interfaces with clearly defined methods and dynamic code.
  • Each component is uniquely identified through a hypermedia link (URL).
  • A client/server architecture is followed (web browser and web server).
  • All communication is stateless.
  • The architecture is tiered, and data can be cached at any layer.

These principals map directly to those used in the development of the Web, and according to Fielding, account for much of the Web's success. HTTP protocol, its interface of methods (GET, POST, HEAD, and so on), the use of URLs, HTML, and JavaScript, as well as the clear distinction between what is a web server and web browser, all map directly to the first four principals. The final principal (involving tiers) allows for the common network technology found in most website implementations: load balancers, in-memory caches, firewalls, routers, and so on. These devices are acceptable because they don't affect the interfaces between the components; they merely enhance their performance and communication.

The Web is the premier example of a RESTful system, which makes sense since much of the Web's architecture preceded the definition of REST. What the Web makes clear, however, is that complex remote procedure call protocols are not needed to create successful, scalable, understandable, and reliable distributed software systems. Instead, the principals of REST are all you need.

Overall, REST can be described as a technology and platform-independent architecture where loosely coupled components communicate via interfaces over standard web protocols. Software, hardware, and data-centric designs maximize system efficiency, scalability, and network throughput. The underlying principal is simplicity.

REST differs from other software architecture in that it marries the concepts common to software architecture (interfaces, components, connectors, patterns, and so on) with those of network architecture (portability, bandwidth management, throughput measurement, protocol latencies, and so on). This combination makes REST ideal for distributed software systems where scalability, in terms of both processing power and communication efficiency, are critical.

Figure 1 illustrates the REST architecture, combining both logical software architecture and physical network elements. Communication is performed over HTTP, clients contain optional server caches for efficiency, services employ caches to backend databases, there are no restrictions on maximum clients, or maximum services per client, services can call services, load-balancing hardware is used for scalability, and firewalls can be used for security.

Figure 1: This architectural diagram provides a visual overview of the REST principals.

There are some interesting points on data caching that need to be made. First, data must be marked, either implicitly or explicitly, as cacheable, or noncacheable. Second, although specialized caches may be used (custom, in-memory data structures), general-purpose caches, such as web browser caches or third-party web caches (such as Akamai), can also be used.

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