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What Is a REST API? Bridging the Gap Between Software

Written By April Bohnert | September 6, 2023

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In the world of software, application programming interfaces (APIs) act as the critical connective tissue, enabling different software systems to communicate and share data and functionalities. Take the example of a weather app on your phone. When you check the weather for your location, the app is likely making an API call to a remote weather service, pulling current conditions, forecasts, and other data right into the interface you see. That’s APIs at work.

But there are a number of different ways to approach building APIs, and each of these protocols follow a unique set of rules and standards. Among the most common API protocols employed today is REST.

Built on the foundational principles of HTTP, REST APIs have become a go-to choice primarily for their simplicity and adaptability. They are easy to understand, making the learning curve for developers relatively short. They are also highly scalable, an attribute that makes them perfect for both startups and large enterprises alike. Plus, because they are built upon HTTP, they integrate effortlessly with existing web infrastructure.

So, whether you’re a hiring manager assessing the essential REST API skills for your upcoming project, or a tech professional keen to master this widespread technology, this guide is your comprehensive resource. We’ll explore what a REST API is, how it operates, its fundamental design principles, and best practices. Additionally, we’ll delve into the key skills and tools developers need to work effectively with REST APIs.

What is a REST API?

In the early 2000s, a computer scientist named Roy Fielding introduced a term in his doctoral dissertation that would become foundational in modern web services: REST, or Representational State Transfer. From this concept arose what we now commonly refer to as RESTful APIs, which have become the de facto standard for building web services.

At its core, a REST API is a set of conventions and protocols for building and interacting with web services. It’s not a standard or a protocol by itself but rather an architectural style. Think of it as a set of guidelines for creating a smooth highway of communication between two different software applications.

The key components that define this architectural style are:

  • Resources: Everything in a RESTful system is treated as a resource. It could be a user profile, a product in a store, or even a tweet on a platform. These resources are identified by URLs, just like how a web page has its unique address.
  • Statelessness: This is one of the hallmarks of a REST API. Each request from a client to a server must contain all the information needed to understand and process the request. The server shouldn’t retain any client context between requests. This ensures scalability and simplicity.
  • CRUD Operations: The essential operations one can perform on any data are create, read, update, and delete, often abbreviated as CRUD. In REST, these map to HTTP methods: POST (Create), GET (Read), PUT (Update), and DELETE (Delete).

For instance, let’s say you’re building an online bookstore. If you want to fetch details about a specific book, you’d make a `GET` request to a URL like `https://bookstore.com/api/books/123`. In this case, `/books/123` is the resource identifier for the book with an ID of 123.

While there are many types of APIs out there, such as SOAP or GraphQL, RESTful APIs have gained immense popularity due to their simplicity, scalability, and alignment with the way the web fundamentally operates.

How Does a REST API Work?

When we discuss the mechanics of REST APIs, the foundational element to grasp is the client-server architecture. Consider the workings of a restaurant. You (the client) make a request by placing an order, and the kitchen (the server) processes this order and delivers the dish to you. The interaction is clear, specific, and each party knows its role. Similarly, in the digital realm, a client (say, a mobile app) sends a request to a server, which processes the information and sends back a response, often in the form of data.

Let’s delve deeper into the mechanics of a REST API:

  • Statelessness: We touched upon this earlier, but it’s crucial enough to reiterate. Statelessness means every request is an isolated transaction, independent of any previous requests. This principle is akin to having a fresh conversation each time you interact, without relying on past interactions. If a client needs data, it asks for it explicitly. And the server? It processes and returns just that, without “remembering” anything about the client.
  • CRUD and HTTP Methods: At the base of REST API interactions are the CRUD operations. When you want to fetch (read) data, you use a `GET` request. When you want to add (create) new data, you use a `POST` request. Updates are done with `PUT` or `PATCH` requests, and deletions, as you might’ve guessed, use the `DELETE` method. Each of these corresponds to an action on the server-side. 
  • Responses and Status Codes: After the server receives a request, it doesn’t leave the client hanging; it responds. Often, this response includes relevant data in formats like JSON or XML. Accompanying this data are HTTP status codes: short three-digit numbers indicating the result. For instance, `200` means “OK” (request successful), while `404` denotes “Not Found” (the resource doesn’t exist). These codes offer a quick way for clients to understand the outcome of their requests.

In essence, a REST API operates as a well-orchestrated dance. The client leads by making requests, and the server gracefully responds, ensuring data flows harmoniously between different software entities.

Key Features and Design Principles of REST API

The beauty of REST lies not just in its functionality but also in its guiding principles. While many of these principles are technical, think of them as a set of best practices that ensure REST APIs are standardized, efficient, and easy to use. Let’s dissect some of these core principles.

  • Uniform Interface: This is the cornerstone of any RESTful web service. The idea is to have a consistent interface, ensuring interactions are uniform across different parts of an application. For example, if you’re fetching book data, the endpoint might be `https://bookstore.com/api/books`. If you’re retrieving author data, it could be `https://bookstore.com/api/authors`. Notice the consistency?
  • Stateless Operations: As emphasized before, each request from client to server must contain all the info necessary to understand and process that request. Imagine going to a coffee shop and ordering a latte. If, on your next visit, you just said “the usual,” but the barista had no memory of you, you’d need to specify your order again. That’s statelessness in action.
  • Client-Server Architecture: By segregating the user interface from the data storage and processing, we ensure that each can evolve independently. It’s like having a separate kitchen and dining area in a restaurant. Diners don’t need to know the kitchen’s operations, and chefs don’t dictate where diners sit.
  • Cacheable Data: Caching is the practice of storing data in a cache so that future requests for that data can be served faster. In REST, responses from the server can be labeled as cacheable or non-cacheable. When data is cacheable, clients can reuse earlier responses to improve performance and reduce server load. It’s akin to keeping your favorite snacks at hand rather than fetching them from the store every time you’re hungry.
  • Layered System: This principle stipulates that a client cannot, and should not, distinguish whether it’s directly connected to the end server or an intermediary. This abstraction allows for load balancing, shared caches, and more, all leading to optimized performance.
  • Code on Demand (optional): While not always used, this principle allows servers to extend a client’s functionality by transferring executable code. Imagine if, along with your restaurant dish, you received a mini recipe card, allowing you to recreate that dish at home!

Adhering to these principles doesn’t just make an API RESTful; it ensures that the API is robust, flexible, and primed for the challenges of modern web applications.

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Best Practices for Designing REST APIs

Designing a REST API isn’t just about ensuring it functions; it’s about crafting an experience for developers. Just as a master chef ensures both taste and presentation, an effective REST API should be both functional and intuitive. Here are some golden rules and best practices to keep in mind:

  • Use Meaningful HTTP Verbs: The HTTP protocol offers verbs like `GET`, `POST`, `PUT`, and `DELETE` that map perfectly to CRUD operations. Ensure these verbs are used appropriately. For example, a `GET` request should only retrieve data and never modify it.
  • Consistent Naming Conventions: Choose a convention and stick to it. If you’re using `camelCase` for one endpoint, don’t switch to `snake_case` for another. Also, aim for intuitive names. `/getAllUsers` is more self-explanatory than `/gAU`.
  • Version Your API: As your API evolves, changes can break applications that depend on it. By versioning your API, for example, using a structure like `/v1/users`, you ensure older versions still function while allowing for enhancements.
  • Graceful Error Handling: When something goes wrong, offer clear feedback. Instead of a vague `400 Bad Request`, provide details like `Missing field ‘username’ in the request body.`
  • Prioritize Security: Always use HTTPS for encrypted connections. Implement authentication and authorization methods like OAuth to ensure only authorized users can access and modify data.
  • Support Pagination, Filtering, and Sorting: For APIs that can return a large amount of data, these features are essential. Instead of overwhelming a client with 10,000 book entries, offer them in pages of 50, with the ability to sort by title or filter by genre.
  • Maintain Good Documentation: An API is only as good as its documentation. Tools like Swagger or Redoc can help generate interactive docs, making life easier for developers trying to integrate with your API.
  • Avoid Exposing Database IDs: Instead of directly exposing database primary keys, consider using UUIDs or slugs. This makes the API cleaner and abstracts away direct database references, adding a layer of security.
  • Rate Limiting: Especially for public APIs, setting limits on how many requests a user or IP can make in a certain time frame can help protect your system from abuse or overuse.
  • Caching Mechanisms: Speed up frequent and repeated requests by implementing caching mechanisms like ETag headers or tools like Redis.

Key REST API Development Skills and Tools

Skills

  • Understanding of HTTP Protocol: Before diving into APIs, get a solid grasp of HTTP — how requests and responses work, status codes, headers, methods, and so forth.
  • Proficiency in a Programming Language: Whether it’s Python, Ruby, Java, or JavaScript, you’ll need to be comfortable in at least one programming language. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario; the language often depends on the specific requirements of your project.
  • Data Handling Skills: JSON or XML are commonly used data formats in REST APIs. Knowing how to parse these formats or convert them into usable forms in your chosen programming language is crucial.
  • Authentication and Authorization: Master the basics of securing APIs through methods like JWT (JSON Web Tokens), OAuth, or API keys.
  • Database Knowledge: You don’t need to be a database admin, but understanding how databases interact with your API, be it SQL or NoSQL, can give you a significant edge.

Tools

  • Postman: From testing endpoints to automated testing, Postman has features that simplify the API development process.
  • Swagger: An excellent tool for API documentation, it also allows for endpoint testing directly from the documentation, enhancing developer experience.
  • Git: Version control is an essential part of any development process, and REST API development is no exception. Git enables collaboration and version tracking.
  • Docker: For containerizing your API and ensuring it runs the same way across different computing environments, Docker is invaluable.
  • API Gateways: Tools like Kong or AWS API Gateway help manage your API by handling authentication, rate limiting, analytics, and more.
  • Monitoring Tools: Implementing real-time monitoring through tools like Grafana or Datadog can help you track how your API is used and alert you to any issues that need attention.

Key Takeaways

By now, you should have a well-rounded understanding of what REST APIs are, how they function, the principles that guide their design, the best practices for crafting a great API, and the essential skills and tools that can make your REST API journey a resounding success.

Whether you’re a hiring manager looking to make informed decisions, or a developer eager to dip your toes into the world of APIs, a strong grasp of REST can only be an asset. These APIs are the engines behind much of the digital transformation we’re witnessing today. They’re empowering businesses to integrate, innovate, and scale like never before.

This article was written with the help of AI. Can you tell which parts?

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