RESTful -and- fast: Representational State Notification

Adding lightweight state change notifications to the REST architecture style can alleviate some of its performance limitations, without violating its principles. It also obviates the temptation to revert from a RESTful, domain- centric resource oriented architecture to an RPC-style, function-centric microservice architecture.

If you care mostly about the solution, feel free to skip to the section about Routemaster. The beginning of the article presents the concepts and rationale.

The many-requests problem

Let’s take a classical performance problem in a resource-oriented architecture.

We’re building a façade application that serves mobile apps, transforming aggregate calls (as a mobile app must limit the number of HTTP requests it makes) into an number of RESTful calls. It’s backed by 3 RESTful applications: a search engine, an photo repository, and a products repository.

                                ┌─>│ products   │
                                │  └────────────┘
┌────────────┐   ┌────────────┐ │  ┌────────────┐
│ mobile app │──>│ façade app │─┼─>│ search     │
└────────────┘   └────────────┘ │  └────────────┘
                                │  ┌────────────┐
                                └─>│ photos     │

When a user performs a search on the native app, it makes 1 request to the façade to get a page of search results (20 entries). The façade must make one call to the search engine; follow the hypermedia links to make 20 calls for the 20 products; follow their links to make 20 requests for 20 photos.

This results in a conservative 41 HTTP requests (in 3 sequential batches) to serve a simple user query; the use case is simplified, so the real situation is actually worse.

Without parallelism, the best case scenario is a 2s latency for users (assuming 50ms response time for each application), which is unacceptable.

Even when introducing 10x request concurrency and server-side caching on each application, this theoretical problem would yield a minimum 250ms latency, which isn’t fantastic (and has a high processing cost).

In more complex scenarios, with tens of applications and several layers, this problem can explode.

REST promises and shortcomings

RESTful distributed architectures, especially when combined with Domain-driven design and patterns like CQRS, can help a software system to reach for holy grails of web engineering:

  • Granular software scalability: parts of the system can be scaled up or out according to demand, thus both permitting scale and limiting costs
  • Team scalability: a component system with well-defined, standardised boundaries can be upgraded piecemeal. It becomes realistic to have multiple groups of engineers maintaining, improving, or otherwise changing components locally, without the need for release engineering bottlenecks.

This type of approach is in its infancy, underlined by typical organisational failures (see for instance Failing microservices) and a higher requirement for strong guidelines.

It’s also made difficult by the lack of mature tools a libraries, unlike the strong support for SOA architectures that has existed since the mid-90s; and the confusion between the two approaches.


I’d like to briefly shed some light on what seems to be a common confusion in the web engineering community: in my opinion, there is no such thing as a RESTful SOA (service-oriented architecture). At least, not if the SOA in question does anything like remote procedure calls.

REST was introduced in the context of the Web and Hypermedia, and supports ROA (Resource-Oriented Architectures). Conversely, SOA emerged to design sunk systems (backends), and while their external (consumer-facing) interface may be RESTful, services usually communicate using RPC-style semantics (possibly over HTTP, e.g. using JSON-RPC, which adds to the confusion).

Martin Fowler’s reference article on Microservices seems to suggest to express, and split the domain in terms of functions, not concepts. Each service is responsible for a “data transformation” (he mentions “dumb” pipes) and “decentralizing decisions about conceptual models”. He actually uses the term “RESTish”, not “RESTful” to describe the communication between services: they can still use HTTP as a transport, but they’re about verbs (functions), not nouns (concepts/resources).

We think that SOA is incompatible with Domain-driven design, REST as an architecture style, and therefore ROA.

This is not to say that SOA is “bad” — others have followed a “microservices” SOA approach and implemented very successful and impressive RabbitMQ-based, function-centric approaches to distributed Web systems. (albeit at the cost of introducing of an extra interoperation protocol). One of the tenets of REST is that HTTP is “enough”.

In our opinion, any domains can be expressed in terms of CRUD operations on resources — although that does require surfacing some actions (“services”) as resources. For instance, the canonical example of a “friendship service” in the service layer of an application can be surfaced as a “friendship” resource in an API, rather than as a “add a friend” remote call to a “friendship lifecycle” service.

Fallacies of REST

Any distributed system has known pitfalls and caveats. This applies to SOA, ROA, and of course to the REST architecture style specifically.

Some are known as the fallacies of distributed computing (which hold true, two decades in); in particular, the implicit assumption that:

  • Latency is zero
  • Bandwidth is infinite

While we don’t offer to tackle the design difficulties of eventual consistency in typical distributed systems, we believe the latency issue (which has a user experience cost) can be mitigated at the expense of bandwidth (which “only” costs money).

REST mandates caching, as a key component of the architecture, through the standard HTTP mechanism (Cache-Control headers for client-side caching, ETag headers for server-side caching).

Unfortunately, this leaves ROA designers with two options:

  • Using Etag: low client memory, low bandwidth, high consistency, high latency.
  • Using Cache-Control: high client memory, low bandwidth, low consistency, low latency.

Heroku has a good intro on caching with HTTP. It’s basically a game of: high consistency, low latency, pick one.

Representational state notification

Event buses are a common tool to implement the reactor pattern or the pub-sub pattern. For instance, Ruby engineers will be familiar with asynchronous buses like Celluloid, or the defunct EventMachine; or synchronous buses like wisper.

We believe these patterns to be valuable at the inter-application level. And indeed, numerous services (e.g. Pusher), web technologies (Server-sent events), even databases (Redis pub-sub) have a take on supporting these patterns.

However, there is architectural mismatch between those options and a RESTful, hypermedia, resource-oriented architecture.

Introducing Routemaster

To close this gap, we’ve built Routemaster, an opinionated event bus over HTTP, supporting event-driven / representational state notification architectures.

Routemaster is designed on purpose to not support RPC-style architectures, for instance by severely limiting payload contents: the only events that the bus supports are notifications of CRUD operations on resources (in other words, events about a change in their representations). The only information an event carries are the type of event, the name of the domain concept, and the authoritative URI of the resource.

Don’t call us, we’ll call you: events are received and delivered over HTTP so that the bus itself can scale to easily process a higher or lower, inbound or outbound throughput of events with consistent latency.

Routemaster aims to dispatch events with a median latency in the 50-100ms range, with no practical upper limit on throughput. Importantly, it’s “just” another application itself, which means that its capacity can be managed and scaled just like any other application in our federation of apps.

Fixing the many-calls problem

Fixing this problem without changing the structure of our application federation (as presented in the first section) or the architecture style (REST, Hypermedia) can seem straightforward: we need to not make this many calls. This means that the consumer application (the “façade” in our example) needs to have closer access to resource representations; in other words, it needs an application-local cache… which needs to be fresh, for fear of making the eventual consistency problem unmanageable.

Routemaster provides us with an elegant solution: it can notify a consumer application every single time a resource is modified (or created, or destroyed).

Resource providers can now forego client-side caching headers (Cache-Control) and notify the bus whenever representations change.

Resource consumers can subscribe to the bus, and invalidate their cache whenever notified; between invalidations, they’re free to cache representations forever.

We provide the routemaster-client library to emit events and set up subscriptions, and routemaster-drain to receive events and automate caching and cache invalidation.

The bandwidth efficiency of this approach can be tuned — from purely on-demand caching to full preemptive caching on state change notifications. On the far end of the scale, it entirely solves the latency issue, bringing us back to a performance comparable to monolithic approaches, without the drawbacks.

In other words (and probably being dangerously pretentious about it):

There are two hard things in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.

Time will tell, but we think we’ve driven a nail into the coffin of the first one.

Tell us what you think!

photo of Julien Letessier

Software Engineer
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