Toward HyperDrupal

Back in September I had the privilege of attending a web development conference in my new hometown, Greenville, SC. The occasion was REST Fest, which was primarily a barcamp format gathering of REST API developers and thought leaders from around the world.

I got to meet several local web developers along with encouraging and helpful out of towners like Mike Amundsen (author of Building Hypermedia APIs with HTML5 & Node, highly recommended) and Sam Ramji (erstwhile champion of open source at Microsoft, now with Apigee). I also got a second chance to meet David Zuelke, who I somehow missed at DrupalCon Munich where he presented on RESTful Web Services. (In addition to REST, he and I geeked out over the BMW Performance Track, which I enjoyed the day before thanks to demo day at The Iron Yard, our local startup accelerator and host to REST Fest and other tech events.)

The event was quite the eye opener, an opportunity for me to be out of my element with nary a Drupal developer in sight. However, the topics covered and examples shared were incredibly practical for me, as we were in the middle of researching and implementing RESTful Drupal Commerce at Commerce Guys for a client project and for a Commerce Kickstart mobile app developed with the help of Sumit Kataria.

Fast forward now three months and I'm finally circling back around to pump up the Commerce Services module to turn any Drupal Commerce site into a REST API server. My focus thus far has been on improving GET requests to support a variety of query parameters offering:

  • Response format specification (i.e. a subset of an entity's properties / fields when you don't need the entire entity)
  • Filtering by property names, field names, and multi-column field column names
  • Sorting by those same parameters
  • Paging through the result set via limit and offset parameters
  • The ability to include referenced entities in the response
  • The ability to flatten field value arrays to the current language and from arrays to scalars for single value, mono-column fields

As a best practices guide, I've been using an incredibly helpful eBook from Apigee called Web API Design: Creating Interfaces that Developers Love. The idea here is to follow standard patterns for all of our entity resources that allow API clients to easily browse the API.

Additionally, my goal is for Drupal Commerce API servers to actually be RESTful, not simply RESTish. If you aren't familiar, a great articule to bookmark and read when you need it is A Brief Introduction to REST by Stefan Tilkov. As we build out the Commerce Services module and deploy projects from client sites to mobile apps, we'll also publish developer documentation that defines and demonstrates best practices use of the system.

My end goal here is to keep pushing forward to a holy grail of sorts - HyperDrupal. By simply creating powerful resources that respect HTTP methods (and other headers) as defined, we're two thirds of the way there. The final step (as identified by the Richardson Maturity Model) is to format our responses using a "hypermedia type" - a media type that includes the hypermedia controls we're used to in HTML like links (a), forms (forms that POST), query templates (forms that GET), and the like. See Mike Amundsen's book (referenced above) for more detail.

The media type I'll be focusing on first is Mike's Collection+JSON media type. Even as I do my testing with Commerce Services, I'm using the beginnings of what I hope will become the Collection+JSON response formatter for Services based REST servers. The "big idea" here is that an API client like a mobile app could browse your API like a user would browse your website.

For example, the app would start at the "front page" of your API where it might find the link to your product list. When the customer chooses which product to view, in addition to the product information, the GET response includes a form with the necessary parameters to submit a POST request to add the product to the cart. If built to consume this information properly, the client never actually need to know how your URLs are constructed, whether or not you've recently changed API responses, or when you've added new features to the site. That information would all be communicated through API request responses.

This process has been awkwardly acronymized as "HATEOS" (pronounced had-ee-us) - Hypermedia as the Engine of Application State - and is further described in Haters Gonna HATEOS by Steve Klabnik, proprietor of the living eBook Designing Hypermedia APIs. It may sound a bit "pie in the sky", but the advantages of Drupal / Drupal Commerce offering this level of API functionality out of the box are too good not to pursue.

The good news is that Drupal 8 is well on its way toward beefing up our REST cred. Larry Garfield, Klaus Purer, Lin Clark and others have been hard at work laying the groundwork for solid REST in core through the "Web Services and Context in Core" D8 initiative. I don't believe hypermedia is on the menu for D8 release, but they were just granted a reprieve in the form of the D8 feature completion phase to ensure solid core support for levels 1 and 2 in the Richardson Maturity Model of REST APIs.

Being able to focus specifically on Drupal Commerce helps me research and iterate quickly to implement and use hypermedia with Commerce Services, but it does keep me a bit downstream of all that's going on in core (and for D7 in modules like Services, RESTws, and others). What I can say from here is that the future looks bright, and more members of the community are engaging around and communicating about proper REST API design. Together, I'm confident we'll see a successful push toward HyperDrupal in the very near future. Cool