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AJAX+REST as the latest architectural mirage

Thanks to William Vambenepe's blog for this story

If the Web wasn’t tragically amnesic, I could show you 15-year old articles explaining how XSLT was about to revolutionize Web applications. In that vision, your Web server would return an XML file with all the data; and alongside that XML, an XSLT (which describes how to transform the XML into HTML). The browser would run it on the XML data and display the resulting HTML. Voila! This was going to bring all kinds of benefits over the old server-spits-out-HTML model. The XML could be easily consumed by other applications (not just humans) and different XSLTs could be used to adapt to the various client platforms.

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This hasn’t panned out. At least not in that form. Enters AJAX. The XML doc is still there, though it usually wants to be called JSON. The XSLT is now a big pile of JavaScript. That model has many advantages over the XSLT model, the first one being that you don’t have to use XSLT (and I’m talking as someone who actually enjoys XPath). It’s a lot more flexible, you can do small updates and partial page refresh, etc. But does it also maintain the architectural cleanliness of having a data API separated from the rendering logic?

Sometimes. Lori MacVittie describes that model. That’s how the cool kids do it and they make sure to repeat in every sentence that their Web app uses the same API as 3rd party apps. The Twitter web app, for example, is in this category, as Mike Loukides describes. As is Apache Orion (the diagram below comes from the Orion architecture)

That’s one model, and it is conceptually very elegant. One API, many consumers. The Web site of the service provider is just another consumer. Easy versioning. An application management dream (one API to manage, a well-defined set of operations and flows to test, trace and diagnose). From a security perspective, it offers the smallest possible attack surface. Easy interoperability between different applications consuming the same API. All goodies.

And not just theoretical goodies, there are situations where it is the right model.

And yet I am still dubious that it’s going to be the dominant model. Clients of the same service support different interaction models and it’s hard for a single API to work well for all without sprawling out of control (to the point where calling it “one API” becomes a fig leaf). But if you want to keep the API surface small, you might end up with chatty apps. Not to mention the temptation for service providers to give their software special access over those of their partners/competitors (e.g. other Twitter clients).

Take Google+. As of this writing, the web site is up and obviously very AJAX-driven. And yet the API is not available. There maybe non-technical reasons for it, but if the Google+ web site was just another consumer of the API then wouldn’t, by definition, the API already be up?

The decision of whether to expose the interface consumed by your AJAX app as an open API also has ramifications in the implementation strategy. Such an approach pretty much rules out using frameworks that integrate server-side and browser-side development and pushes you towards writing them separately (and thus controlling all the details of how they interact so that you can make sure it happens in a way that’s consumable by 3rd parties). Though the reverse is not true. You may decide that you don’t want that API exposed to 3rd parties and yet still manually define it and keep your server-side and browser-side code at arms length.

If you decide to go the “one REST API for all” route and forgo frameworks that integrate browser code and server code, how much are you leaving on the table? After all, preeminent developers love to sneer at such frameworks. But that’s a short-sighted view.

Some tennis players think of their racket as one tool. Others, who own a stringing machine, think of the frame and the string as two tools, that they expertly combine. Similarly, not all Web developers want to think of their client framework and their server framework as two tools. Using them as one, pre-assembled, tool may not provide the most optimal code, but may still be the optimal use of your development resources.

There’s a bit of Ricardian angle to this. Even if you can produce better JavaScript (by “better” I mean better suited to your need) than the framework, you have a higher Comparative Advantage in developing business logic than JavaScript so you should focus your efforts there and “import” the JavaScript from the framework (which is utterly incompetent in creating business logic).

Just like, in Ricardo’s famous example, Portugal is better off importing its cloth from England (and focusing on producing wine) even though it is, in absolute term, more able to produce cloth than England is.

Which contradicts Matt Raible’s statement that “the only people that like Ajax integrated into their web frameworks are programmers scared of JavaScript (who probably shouldn’t be developing your UI).” His characterization is sometimes correct, but not absolute as he asserts.

I wouldn’t write Google+ with ADF, but it provides benefits to large class of applications, especially internal applications. Where you’re willing to give away some design control for the benefit of faster development and better-tested JavaScript.

Then there is the orthogonal question of whether AJAX technologies are well-suited to a RESTful architecture. You may think it’s obvious, since both are natively designed for the Web. But a wine glass and a steering wheel are both natively designed for the human hand; that doesn’t make them a good pair. Here’s one way to plant doubt in your mind: if AJAX was a natural fit for REST, would we need the atrocity known as the hashbang? Would AJAX applications need to be made crawlable? Reuven Cohen asserts that “AJAX is quite possibly the worst way to consume a RESTful API”, but unfortunately he doesn’t develop the demonstration. Maybe a topic for a future post.

“Because that’s the way it’s done now” was a bad reason to transform perfectly-functional XML-RPC into “message-oriented” SOAP. It also is a bad reason for assuming that your Web application needs to be AJAX-on-REST.

I’ll leave the last word to Stefan Tilkov: “Don’t confuse integration architecture with application architecture.” His talk doesn’t focus on how to build Web UIs, but the main lesson applies. Here’s the video and here are the slides (warning: Flash and PDF, respectively, which is sadly ironic for such a good presentation about Web technology).

Read the entire article at its source

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