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Designing An Efficient REST API

How to write beautiful and efficient REST APIs

🕒 19 min read

Category: Code

Tags: javascript, code, api, http, rest, express, json, web

TL;DR: see the bottom.

Most of the time, the only purpose of an API is to give clients (a mobile application, a web site, a software program, a web browser, etc) access to a remote database (thus a server), for storing data (or making complex calculations sometimes). The scheme is very simple: the server waits for incoming requests and responds accordingly. On the other hand, clients occasionally send requests, either to perform an action (saving, updating or deleting data), or to retrieve data.

When it comes to designing and implementing an (REST) API, you might be seeking a standard to follow (some people are trying to create a standard) or some best practices to apply. You might also wonder which language and which framework to use (don't reinvent the wheel dude!). Actually, there are plenty of them. From the "do it from scratch in Java" to the "use this all-in-one Javascript framework", you have a lot of choices.

I've experienced real API development with two languages so far, Javascript and Scala. With the former, I used the well-known Express framework. With the latter, I used the equally well known Play Framework in its version 2.
I also used PHP and Java without any framework.

But that's not our purpose in this article. Let's move on to the big question, "How to design an efficient REST API". Then, we'll have a quick look at Express, a famous Javascript framework and one of the best for APIs, in my opinion.

In this article, I'll try to follow what someone once wrote beautifully, in order to introduce REST APIs, and gradually explain how to improve them. I assume you - the reader - have some knowledge of the HTTP protocol.

It goes without saying that you must use HTTPS to ensure privacy. This way, everything will be encrypted and anyone sniffing the network won't be able to see the content of your requests or responses. Let's dive into REST APIs now!

You said "REST"?

In "REST API", "REST" stands for "Representational State Transfer", which is the software architectural style of the web. Basically, this means that any REST API relies on the HTTP protocol (and by extension HTTPS). As a consequence, the first step is to understand all the strengths and weaknesses of HTTP in order to use everything it has to offer. I will only be referring to HTTP version 1.1 in this article, since version 2 is still hardly used overall, and quite badly supported.

It's all about resources

URLs (Uniform Resource Locator) represent resources. When designing an API, think about it as resource containers. Every end-point should represent either a resource or a list of resources. Following this, there must be two-end points per resource, the resource collection, and an individual resource within the collection:


If our API is hosted at https://my-api.com, then we've just created the end-points https://my-api.com/myresource and https://my-api.com/myresource/{id}. But let's try to avoid abstraction and use real examples.

We are developing a website where registered users can upload pictures. So, we need two end-points for our two entities:


Those two end-points will then allow us to get the list of either all the users, or all the pictures. Now, what if we want to know the categories of the pictures? We also need to access individual resources. Let's create other end-points:


The important thing here, is to understand that {id} is a resource's unique identifier. For users, we retrieved these unique identifiers thanks to the /users end-point (which had given us the list of users). So, /users/{id} will give us all the details about ONE resource, the targeted user. The same rule applies for any other collection of resources.

Also, /pictures/categories represent a list of resources, in our case a list of categories. But this list belongs to a "bigger" resource, a container, /pictures. It's a hierarchy. This way, we are going to get all the possible categories for any picture.

Now, let's add a feature: users can send messages to each other. How do we get all the messages sent by a specific user? And a specific message sent by a specific user? Like this:


Naming convention

To remain consistent, try to use the plural form of every word used for your end-points, it will make things easier. camelCase is also a good practice, when necessary (but we always try to use simple single words).

Methods (also called verbs)

One of the biggest strengths of HTTP is its verbs. The most popular are GET and POST. The latter is mostly used for asynchronous calls (AJAX) or forms in web pages, whereas the former is used every time a page is accessed or reloaded from a browser.

So, what are the equivalent verbs for our old friend called CRUD (Create, Read, Update and Delete)? PUT, GET, POST and DELETE. Consequently, any well designed REST API must make use of at least these four verbs. And yes, HTTP has more than four verbs.

For example, this is how to create, get, update and delete a specific user:

POST   /users      # Create
PUT    /users/{id} # Create
GET    /users/{id} # Get
PUT    /users/{id} # Update
DELETE /users/{id} # Delete

Here, the important thing is that PUT is used to create a specific resource (a user), whose identifier has been chosen by the client. Then, the second PUT updates the newly created resource. POST is only dedicated to creating resources, unlike PUT that will mostly be used to update, but can also be used to create. When you want to create a resource without specifying its identifier, use POST, like in the first line, where a user is signing up (then the API will create an identifier for this user). Logging in would be achieved like this:

POST /users/login

More information about verbs.

Understanding HTTP

At this point, I need to add some explanation about the HTTP protocol. Every HTTP transaction (request or response) is made of three main parts:

For requests, the initial line is made of a verb, a URL and the HTTP version used. For instance:

GET /users HTTP/1.1

On the other hand, for responses, it's a bit different: the HTTP version, a response status code and an English reason phrase describing the status code, like in the following example:

HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found

A typical simple request would look like this:

POST /users/123 HTTP/1.1
Host: my-api.com
Content-Type: application/x-www-form-urlencoded


And a (non-related) response (I chose a random header):

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Expires: Thu, 24 Sep 2015 19:36:25 GMT

Hello world

That said, let’s get back to APIs.

In the previous sections we learned the correct use of the HTTP verbs, so now let's talk about the body and the status code. Headers will come later.

Transmitting data

How can a client update a user on the server? What if someone wants to update their biography for example? Or wants to mention their age? Likewise, how does the server respond and send data back to clients? Here come the status codes and the body.

Basically, clients need to send one type of information in the body: data to be put into the remote database, via a PUT or POST request. It can be either to create a new resource or to update it (it depends on the HTTP verb used).

On the other hand, the server can send different types of information:

As you can see, the body is only dedicated to the requested resources(s). That's all. All other useful information must be transmitted via the HTTP status code or headers.

The status code

Want to tell the client the resource has been created? Use the code 201. Want to say something went wrong? 500. Forbidden? 403. Resource not found? 404. Choose the right one.

Here are the most used status codes for an API:

Status code Used in response to
200 OK GET
201 Created PUT (when creating a resource), POST
202 Accepted PUT, POST
204 No Content PUT, DELETE
301 Moved Permanently GET, PUT, POST
400 Bad request Any
401 Unauthorized Any
403 Forbidden Any
404 Not Found GET, PUT (when updating), DELETE
500 Internal Server Error Any

The HTTP protocol is very flexible, allowing us to use any non existing code if needed and relevant, when none of them fits our needs. For example, the range 550-599 can be used freely, the way you want.

Need help in choosing the correct status code?

The body

Sending parameters, from HTML forms, is pretty easy, it's a key-value thing, where parameters are separated by "&", like this:


Here, there's no recommended convention. I used camelCase (as shown above) without any particular reason. Choose one and be consistent.

However, out of the context of HTML forms, how to format the body? Well, one could say we could use the same key-value format, but actually, it's not a good idea. Let's see what options we have.

A historic battle: XML vs. JSON or SOAP vs. REST

You have two main options: XML or JSON. Nowadays, a lot of people use JSON. I won't try to defend JSON here, please read this comparison or the official description.

To briefly sum it up, JSON brings efficiency, lightness and high-readability in a single format. Additionally, it's extremely easy to parse with any language, thanks to a great integration and a lot of support. It’s definitely the most popular format when dealing with APIs. You can easily create a single object or an array of objects.

Just keep in mind that JSON is probably your best ally.

A particular header

Earlier on, we saw that the second part of every HTTP request is the headers section. Let me introduce one of them, probably the most important one: Content-Type.

Its only purpose is to specify what kind of data we are sending. Consequently, in our case, this header should be like:

Content-Type: application/json

Basically, its value is just a MIME type.

Real world example

A POST request sent by the client:

POST /users HTTP/1.1
Host: my-api.com
Content-Type: application/json

    "name": "Jon Snow",
    "bad_guys_killed": 200,
            {"name": "Warrior"},
            {"name": "Member of the Night's Watch"}
    "is_a_badass": true

Basically, its value is just a MIME type. To such a request, the response the server would send back:

HTTP/1.1 201 Created
Content-Type: application/json

    "id": 123

We can see that the server created the resource (thanks to the status code). It also gives us its ID, JSON-formatted. Then, we can do:

GET /users/123 HTTP/1.1
Host: my-api.com

We would get:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: application/json

    "id": 123,
    "name": "Jon Snow",
    "bad_guys_killed": 200,
            {"name": "Warrior"},
            {"name": "Member of the Night's Watch"}
    "is_a_badass": true,
    "created_at": "2015-09-02T17:05:22.996Z",
    "updated_at": "2015-09-02T17:05:22.996Z"

At this point, our API is able to do the four basic operations we needed (CRUD, remember?), on any kind of entity, easily, thanks to a pretty format, JSON. End-points are semantic and hierarchically ordered. Everything is perfect.

A gif showing a unicorn

But... (there's always a but).

We don't take advantage of all the strengths of HTTP. Headers, you remember? And what if we want to apply some filters to our GET requests? Sorting? What about pagination? Getting your 1M users in a single response body isn't a good idea, trust me.

More importantly, what about security? Authentication? But first, let's talk about HATEOAS...

HATEOAS, the Holy Grail

Most of the time, to access a specific resource, you need to:

  1. Get the list of resources, e.g. GET /users
  2. Find the unique identifier of the targeted resource in this list
  3. Construct its URL, often https://<domain>/<list-of-resources>/<id>, e.g. https://my-api.com/users/123
  4. Finally, do GET /users/123

Another approach would be providing directly every resource's URL in the list (among other links if necessary), like this:

        "id": 123,
        name: "Jon Snow",
                    "rel": "self",
                    "href": "https://my-api.com/users/123"
                    "ref": "list",
                    "href": "https://my-api.com/users"
        "bad_guys_killed": 200,
        "id": 124,

Instead of providing the full URL, you might as well only provide the path name:

            "rel": "self",
            "href": "/users/123"

I'm not a huge fan of HATEOAS. I believe that an API should be consistent in its manner of accessing resources. I like to assume that, as soon as I know a resource's unique identifier, I can access it by constructing its URL, as I explained above. So, I don't need the links, I can construct them by myself.

But I'm wrong. This is definitely the best way to do. It adds a layer of abstraction. If one day you change the way to access a resource (not with a unique identifier anymore, but with a token, or an email address, or anything), if you always provided the link for each resource, the change would be transparent for your users.

Headers are metadata

A great thing to consider is that the body must only contain the requested resource(s). Any other piece of information must go to the headers. Furthermore, you can create any header you want.


There are two major concepts under the name of authentication.

User management can be be achieved with cookies. This way, you can restrict some end-points to logged in users only.

In parallel, you might want to restrict the entire API to specific clients. One could say "Use basic authentication", but that doesn't really fit our need since it's not the original purpose of basic auth.

What you can do instead is quite easy: create as many HTTP headers as you want and send (secret) keys on every request. For example, let's create a key to make sure we're accessing the right app, and another one to define the access level granted:

POST /users HTTP/1.1
Host: my-api.com
Content-Type: application/json
Security-APP-ID: 123456
Security-Access-Level: 3

    "name": "Jon Snow"

Obviously, as I said in the beginning of this article, all of this doesn't make sense at all if you don't use HTTPS (and force it!). You really don't want to expose such keys to anyone on the network.

More information about authentication and about security in general.


Another useful header is Location. A good practice is to use it after creating a resource with POST, to give back the location of the resource newly created. This way, no body is needed and your API can respond with a status code 201 Created, without a body. For example, after creating the user Jon Snow, we would get:

HTTP/1.1 201 Created
Location: https://my-api.com/users/123

The protocol and domain are optional, we could just send /users/123.

Other useful piece of information

Basically, you can create as many custom headers as you want. A good practice with end-points returning a list of resources, is to give the total number of records in the database when relevant, via a header. You may wonder why, since we can programmatically count the number of results. But, as I will explain it in the next section, you are never going to return the full list of results in a single response.

So, this is an example of a header specifying the number of rows. The request:

GET /users HTTP/1.1
Host: my-api.com

The response:

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Type: application/json
Total-Rows: 7897

        id: 1,


When returning a list of resources, above a certain number or results, you should split your response in pages. It's a good practice for reducing waiting time and the weight of responses. Moreover, you might not need the whole list at once. Depending on the amount of details provided for each resource, a general rule would be returning between 100 and 1000 results per request as a maximum.

Requesting a page is as simple as providing a query parameter:

GET /users?page=3

On the server side, you would just skip the <number-of-results-per-page>*<number-of-page> first users. Pages start at 0.

For instance, if you return 100 users per request, with page 0 you would skip no one and simply returns the first 100 users (from 0 to 99). On page 1, you skip the first 100 users from your database and return the users from 100 to 199, and so on.

But there's a problem...

Let's say you have 10 users in your database. Every GET /users returns 3 users at most, sorted by age.

In SQL, this would be something like:

SELECT id, name, age FROM users ORDER BY AGE LIMIT 3 OFFSET x;
/* where x equals 3*<number of page> */

You'll then have 3 pages.

Page 0 Page 1 Page 2
45, Jon, 20 55, Alice, 30 99, Pete, 37
87, Laura, 23 9, Bob, 33 1, Cindy, 39
3, Jean, 25 2, Helen, 36 78, Max, 40

Here is a scenario:

  1. GET /users?page=0: fine, you get results from Jon (id 45) to Jean (id 3).
  2. A new user (Mary) signs up on your website/mobile application, aged of 24.
  3. GET /users?page=1: you get results from Jean to Bob. You got the same person twice (Jean), this is a problem.

What happened?

As Mary is 24 and the API returns results sorted by age, Mary would be returned on page 0, which shifts Jean to page 1.

A good way to solve this problem is to create a pagination based on an entity (here, a user). Instead of requesting a particular page, you would say to the API "give me results after this user" or "before this user". Let me explain it by replaying our scenario:

  1. GET /users: no pagination specified, fine, you get results from Jon (id 45) to Jean (id 3)
  2. A new user (Mary) signs up on your website/mobile application, aged of 24.
  3. GET /users?pageAfter=3: since the last person of our previous results had an id of 3, we request the users after that ID. This way, we make sure we won't get duplicated results.

To achieve this, you can either write a more complex SQL query of simply do the pagination programmatically.

The only problem that still remains is that, by doing this, we have no way to retrieve Mary, except if we request page 0 again, by doing this, for example:

GET /users?pageBefore=3

Two last things:

More information about pagination.

Filtering and sorting

Every end-point that returns a list of resource should allow filtering on fields, as well as sorting. The following request should be possible:

GET /users?country=US&age=21&sortBy=name

We request all the users from the US, aged of 21, sorted by name. The inner mechanism is up to the developers.

We're done! Now, you know how to build efficient and robust APIs.

Building an efficient API involves many aspects to consider, and most of all, requires a good knowledge of HTTP. It's time-consuming at first sight, but once you know what you're doing, what your needs are in terms of features, it's pretty straightforward. Considering all aspects right at the beginning, like security or the database architecture and how you would like to expose it, is key. That's what is called designing an architecture, and one should pay heed to it. When properly and carefully done, the API implementation job is fairly easy.

What are the next steps?

Add a documentation for other developers who use your API

Going further: create a CLI

Make you API public! Create a documentation and a NPM package to ease the work for developers. Read how Clever Cloud did it.


Quick example with Express.js

Express ease the process of developing APIs with Javascript so much! You should definitely give it a try!

npm init
npm install -g express # Globally, to be able to use the CLI of express
npm install -S express # Locally, added as a dependency

Here is how to define a little API with Express (I only wrote the most important lines). Every controller defines many functions to handle the end-points (storing data into the database, etc.).

In this example, the access to all the end-points is restricted, with a middleware called auth. The clients need to provide specific headers in order to perfom actions with the API.

var express = require('express');

// Controllers
var usersController       = require('cloud/controllers/users.js'),
    categoriesController  = require('cloud/controllers/category.js');

// Configuration
var app  = express(),
    auth = require('cloud/functions/security');

app.use(express.methodOverride()); // Allow PUT and DELETE

/*** API ***/
// Users
app.get('/users',             auth.users, usersController.all);
app.get('/users/:id',         auth.users, usersController.get);
app.post('/users',            auth.users, usersController.signup);
app.post('/users/login',      auth.users, usersController.login);
app.put('/users/:id',         auth.users, usersController.edit);
app._delete('/users/:id',     auth.users, usersController._delete);

// In case of failure
app.use(function(err, req, res, next) {
    // Some logging
    res.status(err.code).json({error: err.message});

// Let it beee

That's it! With only a few lines, you can easily get a working API.

This is now the end of this article, hope it will help you! Any feedback appreciated ;)


Here is a little recap of everything above:

Going further