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Visual Studio SP1 and The Metification of REST

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Metification – verb

  1. The act of adding metadata to a web service in order to facilitate tooling and discovery.
  2. The act of adding complexity to a web service in order to achieve tight coupling.

Pick one.

Service Pack 1 for Visual Studio 2008 has just arrived with new features, including version 1.0 of ADO.NET Data Services (a.k.a Astoria). From the description (highlighting is mine):

ADO.NET Data Services … consists of a combination of patterns and libraries that enables any data store to be exposed as a flexible data service, naturally integrating with the Web, that can be consumed by Web clients within a corporate network or across the Internet. ADO.NET Data Services uses URIs to point to pieces of data and simple, well-known formats to represent that data, such as JSON and ATOM/APP. This results in data being exposed to Web clients as a REST-style resource collection, addressable with URIs that agents can interact with using standard HTTP verbs such as GET, POST, or DELETE.

Compared to the traditional SOAP approach, the REST-style is a different model for exposing functionality over a web service. Instead of defining messages and exposing operations that act on those messages, you expose resources and act on the resources using common HTTP verbs. I’ve lately been thinking of SOAP based web services as “verb oriented” (exposing GetOrder and UpdateCustomer), while REST style web services are “noun oriented” (exposing Orders and Customers). Both models have advantages and disadvantages, but I’ve felt that REST partners well with rich, Internet applications that need to retrieve a variety of resources  using the same filtering and paging parameters. Creating a heap of GetThisByThat operations is tedious. 

Noun and verbs aren’t the only difference between REST and SOAP. One of the primary strengths of REST is its inherent simplicity. The simplicity not only facilitates broad interoperability, but encourages an acceptance of REST from many who feel overwhelmed by the complexities of WS-*. There are no tools required for REST - all you need is the ability to send an HTTP request and read the response. WS-*, on the other hand, is great when you need a digitally signed message including double-secret user credentials routed through an asynchronous and distributed, two-phase commit transaction with an extended buyer protection. Not everyone needs that flexibility, but you still pay the price for the flexibility when using the tooling and the API, and when configuring the service.

Although we could continue talking about differences in REST and SOAP, I wanted to talk about metadata, and Astoria.


REST proponents, as a rule of thumb, shun metadata – but not all forms of metadata. Metadata in prose or written documentation is fine. Metadata in a self-describing response format is fine. However, metadata for tooling is seen by many as pure evil. Part of the complexity in WS-* is in the quirky and convoluted folds of metadata formats like WSDL and XML Schema. REST has seen some attempts at standardized metadata (WADL, WSDL 2.0, XSD), but still resists all attempts for the most part. 

I like metadata. Maybe I’ve been in the .NET ecosystem for so long that I expect tooling, but I still remember the first time I tried to write a program for the Flickr web service (which is technically just POX). I was shocked when I coudn’t find a WSDL file. Then I was surprised at how easy it was to craft the correct URL for an HTTP request, and shred apart the XML response to find photographs. It was so easy that ... well, it was just too easy. It reminded me of writing data access code from scratch. Data access code is so predictable and repetitive that we have tools, frameworks, and code generators to take care of the job. But those tools, frameworks, and code generators rely on metadata defined by a database schema, so their job is relatively straightforward. REST is a bit different, unless you are working with Astoria on the server and a CLR client.

Let’s say you have some DTOs for employees, orders, and other objects you want to send over the wire. You’ll need to decorate them with enough information for the service to understand the primary key.

public class Employee

public int ID { get; set; }
public string Name { get; set; }

public class Order
{ // …

Next, define a class with public IQueryable<T> properties for each “entity set” (Employees and Orders). IQueryable<T> is easy to conjure up, and the class below represents a read-only data source with some fake in-memory data. If you need create, update, and delete functionality the class will need to implement IUpdateable, too. Sean Wildermuth has a three series blog post about IUpdateable that he wrote when implementing IUpdateable for the NHibernate LINQ project.

public class AcmeData 
IQueryable<Employee> Employees
{ return new List<Employee>
new Employee() /* ... */,
new Employee() /* ... */,
new Employee() /* ... */
// ...

IQueryable<Order> Orders
// ...
// ...

Then you need an .svc file…

<%@ ServiceHost Language="C#" 
Version=, Culture=neutral,
Service="AcmeDataService" %>

… and you’ll also need a code-behind file for the .svc (which is all setup for you using an ADO.NET data service template, you just add some configuration):

public class AcmeDataService : DataService<AcmeData>
public static void InitializeService(IDataServiceConfiguration config)
config.SetEntitySetAccessRule("Employees", EntitySetRights.AllRead);
// ... more rules

At this point you can start testing the service using a web browser and looking at, for example, http://localhost/AcmeDataService.svc/Employees. What is more interesting is looking at http://localhost/AcmeDataService.svc/$metadata, because there you’ll find service metadata, which is where the magic starts.

To consume the service, right-click on a project in Visual Studio and select “Add Service Reference…”. Yes – the same “Add Service Reference” command you might have seen in the hit motion picture “SOAP and WSDL – an XML Love Story”. This feature blurs the lines between REST and WS-*. Enter the root URL to the service and Visual Studio will generate a proxy – but not the type of proxy you receive when using SOAP based web services. This proxy will derive from DataServiceContext class and you can use it like so:

var employees = new AcmeData(serviceRoot)
.Where(e => e.Name == "Scott")
.OrderBy(e => e.Name)

DataServiceContext does a little bit of magic to turn the LINQ query into the following HTTP request. It’s LINQ to REST:

GET /AcmeDataService.svc/Employees()
?$filter=Name%20eq%20'Scott'&$orderby=Name&$skip=2&$top=2 HTTP/1.1
User-Agent: Microsoft ADO.NET Data Services
Accept: application/atom+xml,application/xml

The data service will respond with some XML that the data context uses to create objects that look just like the server side DTOs.

I’m sure some are horrified at this metification of REST, but for scenarios when you need to talk between two CLR appdomains (think ASP.NET and Silverlight), this approach gives you the advantages of thinking about nouns in a RESTful model without writing all the glue code to wire up an endpoints and parse XML. Beauty!