On Hypertext and Hypotext
15 March 2016

TLDR: Many readers reacted to our earlier post, Rescuing REST From the API Winter, by insisting that JSON serves their API needs just fine and that HTML is unrealistic as an API technology. The thing is, we completely agree.

This is a guest post by Justin T. Sampson.

Defining Our Terms

I really don’t want to get sidetracked by debating whether HATEOAS is necessary for an API to be “truly” RESTful, although Roy Fielding has been quite clear on the matter. Go ahead and use “REST” to describe your API if it suits you and if your API consumers understand what you mean by it. But there’s a very interesting distinction that needs to be teased out of the terminology. To Fielding, the opposite of REST is “RPC”, which he defines thusly:

“What distinguishes RPC from other forms of network-based application communication is the notion of invoking a procedure on the remote machine, wherein the protocol identifies the procedure and passes it a fixed set of parameters, and then waits for the answer to be supplied within a return message using the same interface.” (emphasis mine)

In other words, RPC (by Fielding’s definition) is any time a client constructs a request, and interprets the response, based on the programmer’s implementation-time knowledge of the server’s interface. That obviously includes cases where the client constructs a SOAP or JSON request body and POSTs it to a fixed URI. However, it also includes cases where the client constructs a hierarchical URI and then GETs or PUTs or PATCHes it. The client is depending on implementation-time knowledge of the server’s URI structure and of the methods supported by each URI, so that’s a perfect example of the RPC architectural style, not REST (by Fielding’s definition).

To get away from the acronymic purity battlefield, perhaps I must choose my own terms carefully for the rest of this essay. “REST” may be too loaded at this point, but hypertext seems relatively unsullied by fashion so I will stick with it for now. And what of the contrasting idea, which Fielding calls “RPC”? Well, everybody loves a good semiotics pun now and again, so for the purpose of this discussion I will use the term hypotext.

“Hypo-“ means under or before, so hypotext naturally refers to interactions in which the conduct of the interaction requires some underlying knowledge before initial contact with the server. And “hyper-“ means over or after, so hypertext naturally refers to interactions in which the conduct of the interaction relies on metadata overlaid on content by the server after initial contact.

Surely such a silly word as “hypotext” is not going to be subject to semantic diffusion, right? Right?

Hypertext Favors Smart Clients

One of the biggest challenges of hypertext is that it seems to put heavy demands on the intelligence of the client. Hypertext allows the server to send semantically-rich content, describing the available actions in a variety of ways (links, forms, etc.). The server can produce ad hoc responses – “Sorry, I can’t do what you just asked, but here are three related actions you can try…” – and the client has to decide what action to take in a goal-driven manner.

As long as there’s a human being on the client side driving all further interactions, you get such intelligence for free. That’s exactly what’s going on with HTML: The browser merely renders the hypertext content so that the human can consume it and decide what to do next.

But if the client is another program that just wants to follow a predetermined sequence of actions, with nothing more than simple programmatic logic connecting one action to the next, hypertext breaks down. Such a client can be written to deal with basic kinds of error handling, but it can’t adapt to meaningful changes in the available actions the way a human can.

The upshots of this line of reasoning are that hypertext tends to be more useful when a human will be directly involved and that hypotext tends to be more useful in other scenarios. Building the primary interface for expert users of your application? You probably want to consider leveraging hypertext. Integrating your app with a legacy mainframe back-end system? You probably want to stick with hypotext. Dreaming up a slick mobile front-end on top of an existing enterprise app? Well, that falls somewhere in the middle.

It’s About Coupling

The beauty of hypertext is that it achieves a very unique decoupling of client from server. All you need to determine ahead of time is the definition of media types supported by both sides of the interaction. All knowledge of available resources and actions comes later. The server tells the client what’s available; the client doesn’t assume anything. The client is thereby decoupled from any changes in the resources and actions supported by the server.

HTML just happens to be the most widely-deployed and efficiently-implemented hypertext media type on the ‘Net these days. Every single human being with a networked device already has an HTML-aware client installed. It’s called a Web browser! So if you’ve bought into the power of hypertext and desire the radical decoupling that it achieves, serving up good ol’ HTML is worth serious consideration. You don’t even have to implement a client, because it’s out there already.

Of course, you’re more than welcome to move away from HTML if it doesn’t serve your needs. Just beware the creeping coupling as you do so.

For example, serving up a linked data format such as JSON-LD keeps the possibility of hypertext alive, and ensures that clients are, at the very least, decoupled from the specific syntax and layout of your JSON responses. However, if the client depends on a particular resource existing on the server, or assumes that a resource will have certain properties, then the interaction is straying into hypotext, the client has become coupled to the server’s data model, and the server is therefore less evolvable than it would be by sticking to hypertext interactions.

Decoupling Despite Hypotext

The kind of decoupling offered by hypertext means that you’re free to expose more of your data model without worrying that you’re committing to keep that data model stable. If you decide to move your company’s mailing address from the “About” page to a new “Contact Us” page, returning visitors might be briefly confused but their Web browsers won’t break. I’ve already stipulated that more programmatic clients tend to necessitate hypotext interactions, though, so we have to grapple with the very practical challenge of mitigating the resulting coupling in order to retain some inkling of evolvability.

Of course, mitigating coupling is what design patterns are all about. The “backend for frontend” (BFF) pattern that has been getting some recent attention happens to deal with this kind of coupling. The client is tightly coupled to its BFF, but the BFF itself acts as a buffer between the client and the server’s core data model and services. The core data model can evolve without breaking clients as long as each BFF is kept working, and a BFF can evolve to better serve its own clients without interfering with other clients. Each BFF is narrowly focused, establishing a separation of concerns that is unrivaled by any attempt to provide a single public API for all clients to use.

BFF is not a crazy new idea, either. Eric Evans and the domain-driven design (DDD) community have talked about “open-host services” for a decade, which are much the same thing. Another relevant idea from DDD is the “anticorruption layer,” which serves the same purpose from the other direction, implemented closer to the client side in order to shield itself from changes to the server’s interfaces. You can even combine them together or use a BFF in a strangler pattern to retrofit evolvability into established legacy systems.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget “hexagonal architecture,” a.k.a. the “ports and adapters” pattern, which Alistair Cockburn has been talking about for two decades: “A port identifies a purposeful conversation. There will typically be multiple adapters for any one port, for various technologies that may plug into that port.” Thinking in hexagonal terms reassures us that we needn’t be afraid of adding adapters (that is, BFFs!) as needed – doing so actually helps us to isolate the core domain logic of our services from external coupling.

It Ain’t All or Nothing

All of these patterns may be overwhelming, but on the bright side, gee whiz do we have a lot of options for mitigating coupling! There’s simply no need to build One True API for all clients. Don’t forget about hypertext, but don’t shy away from hypotext either, when it’s the best tool for the job. We can build our systems with multiple different interfaces, and different kinds of interfaces, as long as coupling is under control. And building multiple interfaces helps to keep coupling under control. We can build HTML interfaces for desktop users, JSON interfaces for mobile apps, and (gasp) SOAP interfaces for enterprise integrations as needed and still sleep well at night, as long as we design each of them to avoid entangling the external system directly with our core data model in a way that would cripple its evolvability.

Go ahead. Decouple your code. Sleep well.

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