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REST, SOAP, Religion, and the Reformation

Having grown up in Ireland, I learned early on that it's not a good idea to get into religious arguments. But, it also means that I know a religious argument when I see one. Surely the world of APIs is immune from religious schisms? Well, no. Recently Mike Schinkel has put his finger on something that I've often felt: that "the concept of RESTfulness in Web APIs has a religious tenor that is beyond what I’ve observed elsewhere". Mike goes on to explain the religious parallels, including a revered founder, and a sacred text subject to exegesis.

I'd take it a step further. If you look at the history of APIs, you see that we had the initial growth of heavyweight, complex "Top-down" SOA in the early 2000s. This is what is sometimes called "Big SOA", imposed on developers by a CIO or architectural committee. As well as SOAP itself, there was a raft of complex standards - the notorious WS-* specifications.

Then - boom! - we had the REST revolution. REST advocates ("RESTifarians") railed against the bloat and excess of SOAP and WS-*. They favored a more puritan "back to basics" approach, and revered a core text: Roy Fielding's PhD thesis.

Now, you don't have to have grown up in late 20th Century Ireland to see the clear religious parallel here. Roy Fielding with his "back to basics" text is Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door. The new REST converts railing against the bloat and excess of SOA echoes the early Protestants railing against the Catholic church. All of the bloated WS-* specs are like the "man-made" Catholic liturgies which the Reformation rebels rejected, preferring instead to focus on one "Good Book" (as Mike Schinkel says "The Torah, the Bible and the Koran, for example, they are all written works that prescribe correct and incorrect behavior among their faithful").

We see the fervent zeal of the new movement. Living in Boston now, I can't help but think of the Puritans, who railed against anyone who didn't follow their "back to basics" ethos, even hanging Quakers on Boston Common. Mike mentions the tendency to slam people on REST mailing lists by saying that they "Just don't get it". Now, being slammed on a mailing list is clearly not as bad as being hanged on Boston Common, but perhaps there is a common theme there.

So what is the answer? I think it involves stepping back and seeing the good in each approach. We are seeing now a new look at how SOAP and REST can work together. I've talked about how an API Gateway provides the "API Mullet" pattern, linking together SOAP and REST. And if we have our differences over REST and SOAP? Well, that would be an ecumenical matter

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More Stories By Mark O'Neill

Mark O'Neill is VP Innovation at Axway - API and Identity. Previously he was CTO and co-founder at Vordel, which was acquired by Axway. A regular speaker at industry conferences and a contributor to SOA World Magazine and Cloud Computing Journal, Mark holds a degree in mathematics and psychology from Trinity College Dublin and graduate qualifications in neural network programming from Oxford University.