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REST in Practice by Savas Parastatidis, Jim Webber, Ian Robinson

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Chapter 1. The Web As a Platform for Building Distributed Systems

THE WEB HAS RADICALLY TRANSFORMED THE WAY we produce and share information. Its international ecosystem of applications and services allows us to search, aggregate, combine, transform, replicate, cache, and archive the information that underpins today’s digital society. Successful despite its chaotic growth, it is the largest, least formal integration project ever attempted—all of this, despite having barely entered its teenage years.

Today’s Web is in large part the human Web: human users are the direct consumers of the services offered by the majority of today’s web applications. Given its success in managing our digital needs at such phenomenal scale, we’re now starting to ask how we might apply the Web’s underlying architectural principles to building other kinds of distributed systems, particularly the kinds of distributed systems typically implemented by “enterprise application” developers.

Why is the Web such a successful application platform? What are its guiding principles, and how should we apply them when building distributed systems? What technologies can and should we use? Why does the Web model feel familiar, but still different from previous platforms? Conversely, is the Web always the solution to the challenges we face as enterprise application developers?

These are the questions we’ll answer in the rest of this book. Our goal throughout is to describe how to build distributed systems based on the Web’s architecture. We show how to implement systems that use the Web’s predominant application protocol, HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and which leverage REST’s architectural tenets. We explain the Web’s fundamental principles in simple terms and discuss their relevance in developing robust distributed applications. And we illustrate all this with challenging examples drawn from representative enterprise scenarios and solutions implemented using Java and .NET.

The remainder of this chapter takes a first, high-level look at the Web’s architecture. Here we discuss some key building blocks, touch briefly on the REpresentational State Transfer (REST) architectural style, and explain why the Web can readily be used as a platform for connecting services at global scale. Subsequent chapters dive deeper into the Web’s principles and discuss the technologies available for connecting systems in a web-friendly manner.

Architecture of the Web

Tim Berners-Lee designed and built the foundations of the World Wide Web while a research fellow at CERN in the early 1990s. His motivation was to create an easy-to-use, distributed, loosely coupled system for sharing documents. Rather than starting from traditional distributed application middleware stacks, he opted for a small set of technologies and architectural principles. His approach made it simple to implement applications and author content. At the same time, it enabled the nascent Web to scale and evolve globally. Within a few years of the Web’s birth, academic and research websites had emerged all over the Internet. Shortly thereafter, the business world started establishing a web presence and extracting web-scale profits from its use. Today the Web is a heady mix of business, research, government, social, and individual interests.

This diverse constituency makes the Web a chaotic place—the only consistency being the consistent variety of the interests represented there; the only unifying factor the seemingly never-ending thread of connections that lead from gaming to commerce, to dating to enterprise administration, as we see in Figure 1-1.

Despite the emergent chaos at global scale, the Web is remarkably simple to understand and easy to use at local scale. As documented by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in its “Architecture of the World Wide Web,” the anarchic architecture of today’s Web is the culmination of thousands of simple, small-scale interactions between agents and resources that use the founding technologies of HTTP and the URI.[1]

The Web

Figure 1-1. The Web

The Web’s architecture, as portrayed in Figure 1-1, shows URIs and resources playing a leading role, supported by web caches for scalability. Behind the scenes, service boundaries support isolation and independent evolution of functionality, thereby encouraging loose coupling. In the enterprise, the same architectural principles and technology can be applied.

Traditionally we’ve used middleware to build distributed systems. Despite the amount of research and development that has gone into such platforms, none of them has managed to become as pervasive as the Web is today. Traditional middleware technologies have always focused on the computer science aspects of distributed systems: components, type systems, objects, remote procedure calls, and so on.

The Web’s middleware is a set of widely deployed and commoditized servers. From the obvious—web servers that host resources (and the data and computation that back them)—to the hidden: proxies, caches, and content delivery networks, which manage traffic flow. Together, these elements support the deployment of a planetary-scale network of systems without resorting to intricate object models or complex middleware solutions.

This low-ceremony middleware environment has allowed the Web’s focus to shift to information and document sharing using hypermedia. While hypermedia itself was not a new idea, its application at Internet scale took a radical turn with the decision to allow broken links. Although we’re now nonplussed (though sometimes annoyed) at the classic “404 Page Not Found” error when we use the Web, this modest status code set a new and radical direction for distributed computing: it explicitly acknowledged that we can’t be in control of the whole system all the time.

Compared to classic distributed systems thinking, the Web’s seeming ambivalence to dangling pointers is heresy. But it is precisely this shift toward a web-centric way of building computer systems that is the focus of this book.

[1] “Architecture of the World Wide Web, Volume One,” http://www.w3.org/TR/webarch/.

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