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Thinking in Resources

Resources are the fundamental building blocks of web-based systems, to the extent that the Web is often referred to as being “resource-oriented.” A resource is anything we expose to the Web, from a document or video clip to a business process or device. From a consumer’s point of view, a resource is anything with which that consumer interacts while progressing toward some goal. Many real-world resources might at first appear impossible to project onto the Web. However, their appearance on the Web is a result of our abstracting out their useful information aspects and presenting these aspects to the digital world. A flesh-and-blood or bricks-and-mortar resource becomes a web resource by the simple act of making the information associated with it accessible on the Web. The generality of the resource concept makes for a heterogeneous community. Almost anything can be modeled as a resource and then made available for manipulation over the network: “Roy’s dissertation,” “the movie Star Wars,” “the invoice for the books Jane just bought,” “Paul’s poker bot,” and “the HR process for dealing with new hires” all happily coexist as resources on the Web.

Resources and Identifiers

To use a resource we need both to be able to identify it on the network and to have some means of manipulating it. The Web provides the Uniform Resource Identifier, or URI, for just these purposes. A URI uniquely identifies a web resource, and at the same time makes it addressable, or capable of being manipulated using an application protocol such as HTTP (which is the predominant protocol on the Web). A resource’s URI distinguishes it from any other resource, and it’s through its URI that interactions with that resource take place.

The relationship between URIs and resources is many-to-one. A URI identifies only one resource, but a resource can have more than one URI. That is, a resource can be identified in more than one way, much as humans can have multiple email addresses or telephone numbers. This fits well with our frequent need to identify real-world resources in more than one way.

There’s no limit on the number of URIs that can refer to a resource, and it is in fact quite common for a resource to be identified by numerous URIs, as shown in Figure 1-2. A resource’s URIs may provide different information about the location of the resource, or the protocol that can be used to manipulate it. For example, the Google home page (which is, of course, a resource) can be accessed via both and URIs.

Multiple URIs for a resource

Figure 1-2. Multiple URIs for a resource


Although several URIs can identify the same resource, the Web doesn’t provide any way to compute whether two different URIs actually refer to the same resource. As developers, we should never assume that two URIs refer to different resources based merely on their syntactic differences. Where such comparisons are important, we should draw on Semantic Web technologies, which offer vocabularies for declaring resource identity sameness. We will discuss some useful techniques from semantic computing later in the book.

A URI takes the form <scheme>:<scheme-specific-structure>. The scheme defines how the rest of the identifier is to be interpreted. For example, the http part of a URI such as tells us that the rest of the URI must be interpreted according to the HTTP scheme. Under this scheme, the URI identifies a resource at a machine that is identified by the hostname using DNS lookup. It’s the responsibility of the machine “listening” at to map the remainder of the URI, reports/book.tar, to the actual resource. Any authorized software agent that understands the HTTP scheme can interact with this resource by following the rules set out by the HTTP specification (RFC 2616).


Although we’re mostly familiar with HTTP URIs from browsing the Web, other forms are supported too. For example, the well-known FTP scheme[2] suggests that a URI such as should be interpreted in the following way: is the Domain Name System (DNS) name of the computer that knows File Transfer Protocol (FTP), reports is interpreted as the argument to the CWD (Change Working Directory) command, and book.txt is a filename that can be manipulated through FTP commands, such as RETR for retrieving the identified file from the FTP server. Similarly, the mailto URI scheme is used to identify email addresses: .

The mechanism we can use to interact with a resource cannot always be inferred as easily as the HTTP case suggests; the URN scheme, for example, is not associated with a particular interaction protocol.

In addition to URI, several other terms are used to refer to web resource identifiers. Table 1-1 presents a few of the more common terms, including URN and URL, which are specific forms of URIs, and IRI, which supports international character sets.

Table 1-1. Terms used on the Web to refer to identifiers



URI (Uniform Resource Identifier)

This is often incorrectly referred to as a “Universal” or “Unique” Resource Identifier; “Uniform” is the correct expansion.

IRI (International Resource Identifier)

This is an update to the definition of URI to allow the use of international characters.

URN (Uniform Resource Name)

This is a URI with “urn” as the scheme, used to convey unique names in a particular “namespace.” The namespace is defined as part of the URN’s structure. For example, a book’s ISBN can be captured as a unique name: urn:isbn:0131401602.

URL (Uniform Resource Locator)

This is a URI used to convey information about the way in which one interacts with the identified resource. For example, identifies a resource on the Web with which communication is possible through HTTP. This term is now obsolete, since not all URIs need to convey interaction-protocol-specific information. However, the term is part of the Web’s history and is still widely in use.


Many think of resources as having “addresses” on the Web and, as a result, refer to their identifiers as such.

Resource Representations

The Web is so pervasive that the HTTP URI scheme is today a common synonym for both identity and address. In the web-based solutions presented in this book, we’ll use HTTP URIs exclusively to identify resources, and we’ll often refer to these URIs using the shorthand term address.

Resources must have at least one identifier to be addressable on the Web, and each identifier is associated with one or more representations. A representation is a transformation or a view of a resource’s state at an instant in time. This view is encoded in one or more transferable formats, such as XHTML, Atom, XML, JSON, plain text, comma-separated values, MP3, or JPEG.

For real-world resources, such as goods in a warehouse, we can distinguish between the actual object and the logical “information” resource encapsulated by an application or service. It’s the information resource that is made available to interested parties through projecting its representations onto the Web. By distinguishing between the “real” and the “information” resource, we recognize that objects in the real world can have properties that are not captured in any of their representations. In this book, we’re primarily interested in representations of information resources, and where we talk of a resource or “underlying resource,” it’s the information resource to which we’re referring.

Access to a resource is always mediated by way of its representations. That is, web components exchange representations; they never access the underlying resource directly—the Web does not support pointers! URIs relate, connect, and associate representations with their resources on the Web. This separation between a resource and its representations promotes loose coupling between backend systems and consuming applications. It also helps with scalability, since a representation can be cached and replicated.


The terms resource representation and resource are often used interchangeably. It is important to understand, though, that there is a difference, and that there exists a one-to-many relationship between a resource and its representations.

There are other reasons we wouldn’t want to directly expose the state of a resource. For example, we may want to serve different views of a resource’s state depending on which user or application interacts with it, or we may want to consider different quality-of-service characteristics for individual consumers. Perhaps a legacy application written for a mainframe requires access to invoices in plain text, while a more modern application can cope with an XML or JSON representation of the same information. Each representation is a view onto the same underlying resource, with transfer formats negotiated at runtime through the Web’s content negotiation mechanism.

The Web doesn’t prescribe any particular structure or format for resource representations; representations can just as well take the form of a photograph or a video as they can a text file or an XML or JSON document. Given the range of options for resource representations, it might seem that the Web is far too chaotic a choice for integrating computer systems, which traditionally prefer fewer, more structured formats. However, by carefully choosing a set of appropriate representation formats, we can constrain the Web’s chaos so that it supports computer-to-computer interactions.

Resource representation formats serve the needs of service consumers. This consumer friendliness, however, does not extend to allowing consumers to control how resources are identified, evolved, modified, and managed. Instead, services control their resources and how their states are represented to the outside world. This encapsulation is one of the key aspects of the Web’s loose coupling.

The success of the Web is linked with the proliferation and wide acceptance of common representation formats. This ecosystem of formats (which includes HTML for structured documents, PNG and JPEG for images, MPEG for videos, and XML and JSON for data), combined with the large installed base of software capable of processing them, has been a catalyst in the Web’s success. After all, if your web browser couldn’t decode JPEG images or HTML documents, the human Web would have been stunted from the start, despite the benefits of a widespread transfer protocol such as HTTP.

To illustrate the importance of representation formats, in Figure 1-3 we’ve modeled the menu of a new coffee store called Restbucks (which will provide the domain for examples and explanations throughout this book). We have associated this menu with an HTTP URI. The publication of the URI surfaces the resource to the Web, allowing software agents to access the resource’s representation(s).

Example of a resource and its representations

Figure 1-3. Example of a resource and its representations

In this example, we have decided to make only XHTML and text-only representations of the resource available. Many more representations of the same announcement could be served using formats such as PDF, JPEG, MPEG video, and so on, but we have made a pragmatic decision to limit our formats to those that are both human- and machine-friendly.

Typically, resource representations such as those in Figure 1-3 are meant for human consumption via a web browser. Browsers are the most common computer agents on the Web today. They understand protocols such as HTTP and FTP, and they know how to render formats such as (X)HTML and JPEG for human consumption. Yet, as we move toward an era of computer systems that span the Web, there is no reason to think of the web browser as the only important software agent, or to think that humans will be the only active consumers of those resources. Take Figure 1-4 as an example. An order resource is exposed on the Web through a URI. Another software agent consumes the XML representation of the order as part of a business-to-business process. Computers interact with one another over the Web, using HTTP, URIs, and representation formats to drive the process forward just as readily as humans.

Computer-to-computer communication using the Web

Figure 1-4. Computer-to-computer communication using the Web

Representation Formats and URIs

There is a misconception that different resource representations should each have their own URI—a notion that has been popularized by the Rails framework. With this approach, consumers of a resource terminate URIs with .xml or .json to indicate a preferred format, requesting or as they see fit. While such URIs convey intent explicitly, the Web has a means of negotiating representation formats that is a little more sophisticated.


URIs should be opaque to consumers. Only the issuer of the URI knows how to interpret and map it to a resource. Using extensions such as .xml, .html, or .json is a historical convention that stems from the time when web servers simply mapped URIs directly to files.

In the example in Figure 1-3, we hinted at the availability of two representation formats: XHTML and plain text. But we didn’t specify two separate URIs for the representations. This is because there is a one-to-many association between a URI and its possible resource representations, as Figure 1-5 illustrates.

Multiple resource representations addressed by a single URI

Figure 1-5. Multiple resource representations addressed by a single URI

Using content negotiation, consumers can negotiate for specific representation formats from a service. They do so by populating the HTTP Accept request header with a list of media types they’re prepared to process. However, it is ultimately up to the owner of a resource to decide what constitutes a good representation of that resource in the context of the current interaction, and hence which format should be returned.

The Art of Communication

It’s time to bring some threads together to see how resources, representation formats, and URIs help us build systems. On the Web, resources provide the subjects and objects with which we want to interact, but how do we act on them? The answer is that we need verbs, and on the Web these verbs are provided by HTTP methods.[4]

The term uniform interface is used to describe how a (small) number of verbs with well-defined and widely accepted semantics are sufficient to meet the requirements of most distributed applications. A collection of verbs is used for communication between systems.


In theory, HTTP is just one of the many interaction protocols that can be used to support a web of resources and actions, but given its pervasiveness we will assume that HTTP is the protocol of the Web.

In contemporary distributed systems thinking, it’s a popular idea that the set of verbs supported by HTTP—GET, POST, PUT, DELETE, OPTIONS, HEAD, TRACE, CONNECT, and PATCH—forms a sufficiently general-purpose protocol to support a wide range of solutions.


In reality, these verbs are used with differing frequencies on the Web, suggesting that an even smaller subset is usually enough to satisfy the requirements of many distributed applications.

In addition to verbs, HTTP also defines a collection of response codes, such as 200 OK, 201 Created, and 404 Not Found, that coordinate the interactions instigated by the use of the verbs. Taken together, verbs and status codes provide a general framework for operating on resources over the network.

Resources, identifiers, and actions are all we need to interact with resources hosted on the Web. For example, Figure 1-6 shows how the XML representation of an order might be requested and then delivered using HTTP, with the overall orchestration of the process governed by HTTP response codes. We’ll see much more of all this in later chapters.

Using HTTP to “GET” the representation of a resource

Figure 1-6. Using HTTP to “GET” the representation of a resource

[2] RFC 1738, Uniform Resource Locators (URLs):

[4] Commonly, the term verb is used to describe HTTP actions, but in the HTTP specification the term method is used instead. We’ll stick with verb in this book because method suggests object-oriented thinking, whereas we tend to think in terms of resources.

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