REST Vs SOAP Web Services : Which one to use ?

There are currently two schools of thought in developing web services: the traditional, standards-based approach SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) and conceptually simpler and the trendier REST (REpresentational State Transfer).

The decision between the two will be your first choice in designing a web service, so it is important to understand the pros and cons of the two. It is also important, in the sometimes heated debate between the two philosophies, to separate reality from rhetoric.

REST fundamentals

  • Everything in REST is considered as a resource.
  • Every resource is identified by an URI.
  • Uses uniform interfaces. Resources are handled uing POST, GET, PUT, DELETE operations which are similar to Create, Read, update and Delete(CRUD) operations.
  • Be stateless. Every request is an independent request. Each request from client to server must contain all the information necessary to understand the request.
  • Communications are done via representations. E.g. XML, JSON RESTful Web Services A RESTFul web services are based on HTTP methods and the concept of REST. A RESTFul web service typically defines the base URI for the services, the supported MIME-types (XML, text, JSON, user-defined, ...) and the set of operations (POST, GET, PUT, DELETE) which are supported.

SOAP fundamentals

  • WSDL defines contract between client and service and is static by its nature.
  • SOAP builds an XML based protocol on top of HTTP or sometimes TCP/IP.
  • SOAP describes functions, and types of data.
  • SOAP is a successor of XML-RPC and is very similar, but describes a standard way to communicate.
  • Several programming languages have native support for SOAP, you typically feed it a web service URL and you can call its web service functions without the need of specific code.
  • Binary data that is sent must be encoded first into a format such as base64 encoded.
  • Has several protocols and technologies relating to it: WSDL, XSDs, SOAP, WS-Addressing.

SOAP vs REST?

One of the major benefits of SOAP is that you have a WSDL service description. You can pretty much discover the service automatically and generate a useable client proxy from that service description (generate the service calls, the necessary data types for the methods and so forth). Note that with version 2.0, WSDL supports all HTTP verbs and can be used to document RESTful services as well, but there is a less verbose alternative in WADL (Web Application Description Language) for that purpose.

With RESTful services, message security is provided by the transport protocol (HTTPS), and is point-to-point only. It doesn’t have a standard messaging system and expects clients to deal with communication failures by retrying. SOAP has successful/retry logic built in and provides end-to-end reliability even through SOAP intermediaries.

One of the major benefits of RESTful API is that it is flexible for data representation, for example you could serialize your data in either XML or JSON format. RESTful APIs are cleaner or easier to understand because they add an element of using standardised URIs and gives importance to HTTP verb used (i.e. GET, POST, PUT and DELETE).

RESTful services are also lightweight, that is they don’t have a lot of extra xml markup. To invoke RESTful API all you need is a browser or HTTP stack and pretty much every device or machine connected to a network has that.

Advantages of REST

  • Since REST uses standard HTTP it is much simpler in just about ever way. Creating clients, developing APIs, the documentation is much easier to understand and there aren’t very many things that REST doesn’t do easier/better than SOAP.
  • REST permits many different data formats where as SOAP only permits XML. While this may seem like it adds complexity to REST because you need to handle multiple formats, in my experience it has actually been quite beneficial. JSON usually is a better fit for data and parses much faster. REST allows better support for browser clients due to it’s support for JSON.
  • REST has better performance and scalability. REST reads can be cached, SOAP based reads cannot be cached.
  • No expensive tools require to interact with the Web service
  • Smaller learning curve
  • Efficient (SOAP uses XML for all messages, REST can use smaller message formats)
  • Fast (no extensive processing required)
  • Closer to other Web technologies in design philosophy

Advantages of SOAP

  • WS-Security : While SOAP supports SSL (just like REST) it also supports WS-Security which adds some enterprise security features. Supports identity through intermediaries, not just point to point (SSL). It also provides a standard implementation of data integrity and data privacy. Calling it “Enterprise” isn’t to say it’s more secure, it simply supports some security tools that typical internet services have no need for, in fact they are really only needed in a few “enterprise” scenarios.
  • WS-AtomicTransaction : Need ACID Transactions over a service, you’re going to need SOAP. While REST supports transactions, it isn’t as comprehensive and isn’t ACID compliant. Fortunately ACID transactions almost never make sense over the internet. REST is limited by HTTP itself which can’t provide two-phase commit across distributed transactional resources, but SOAP can. Internet apps generally don’t need this level of transactional reliability, enterprise apps sometimes do.
  • WS-ReliableMessaging : Rest doesn’t have a standard messaging system and expects clients to deal with communication failures by retrying. SOAP has successful/retry logic built in and provides end-to-end reliability even through SOAP intermediaries.
  • Language, platform, and transport independent (REST requires use of HTTP)
  • Works well in distributed enterprise environments (REST assumes direct point-to-point communication)
  • Standardized
  • Provides significant pre-build extensibility in the form of the WS standards
  • Built-in error handling
  • Automation when used with certain language products

Where to use REST

areas where REST works really well for are:
  • Limited bandwidth and resources: remember the return structure is really in any format (developer defined). Plus, any browser can be used because the REST approach uses the standard GET, PUT, POST, and DELETE verbs. Again, remember that REST can also use the XMLHttpRequest object that most modern browsers support today, which adds an extra bonus of AJAX.
  • Totally stateless operations: if an operation needs to be continued, then REST is not the best approach and SOAP may fit it better. However, if you need stateless CRUD (Create, Read, Update, and Delete) operations, then REST is it.
  • Caching situations: if the information can be cached because of the totally stateless operation of the REST approach, this is perfect.

Where to use SOAP

areas where SOAP works as a great solutionare:
  • Asynchronous processing and invocation: if your application needs a guaranteed level of reliability and security then SOAP 1.2 offers additional standards to ensure this type of operation. Things like WSRM – WS-Reliable Messaging.
  • Formal contracts: if both sides (provider and consumer) have to agree on the exchange format then SOAP 1.2 gives the rigid specifications for this type of interaction.
  • Stateful operations: if the application needs contextual information and conversational state management then SOAP 1.2 has the additional specification in the WS structure to support those things (Security, Transactions, Coordination, etc). Comparatively, the REST approach would make the developers build this custom plumbing.

Conclusion

Some people try to say that one protocol is better than the other, but this statement is incorrect. Each protocol has definite advantages and equally problematic disadvantages. You need to select between SOAP and REST based on the programming language you use, the environment in which you use it, and the requirements of the application. Sometimes SOAP is a better choice and other times REST is a better choice. In order to avoid problems later, you really do need to chart the advantages and disadvantages of a particular solution in your specific situation.

As shown above, each technology approach has their uses. They both have underlying issues around security, transport layers, and the like, but they both can get the job done and in many cases, they each bring something to the web. So for this argument, the best rule, is the rule of flexibility, because no matter what the problem at least in today’s web development world, web developers have great solutions using either of these protocols.
REST Vs SOAP Web Services Which one to use

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