Looking Beyond OAS 3 (Part 1)

After reviewing the history of the OAI and API specifications last year, I wanted to take a look at the future of the OpenAPI Initiative (OAI) and outline my calculated, plausible evolution paths for the project moving forward.

State of the OAI

Over the past year, we’ve hit several milestones. We have released the OpenAPI Specification (OAS) version 3.0, a major revision achieved by the long and intense work of the technical community with the support from the steering committee (TSC). AOI is now 30+ members strong and, we keep gaining new members. We are also ramping up our marketing efforts as highlighted by the transition of the API Strategy & Practice conference RedHat/3Scale to the OAI, under the Linux Foundation umbrella.

These are impressive achievements to attain in a short amount of time and we need to build on this momentum as the support of OAS 3.0 by various API tools is quickly expanding this year. Now, what are the next opportunities in front of us, where should we collectively focus our energy, so we can enable the Open API ecosystem to strive and expand?

Based on some recent discussions around the potential evolution of the OAS scope and our mission to help describe REST APIs, there are several compelling opportunities from which one should carefully choose. We’ll cover these options in a series of blog posts over the next few weeks, but this first post will focus on the opportunities around web API styles.

Web API styles

a) Enhanced support for Resource-driven APIs

With the active involvement of the creators of RAML and API Blueprint within the OAI, version 3 of OAS has added many enhancements including better examples, modularity and reuse. These capabilities are essential -especially when collectively designing a large set of API contracts – and helped reduce the functional gap with alternative specifications. We could continue to look at ways to close this gap even more so now that OAS eventually becomes a full replacement for RAML and API Blueprint in the future.

I grouped these three API specifications in a Resource-driven category because the notion of a Resource, identified by a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) and manipulated via a standard set of HTTP methods (Uniform Interface), is central to the REST architecture style that they get inspiration from.

It is worth mentioning additional specs in this category such as the JSON-API that propose conventions to define resource fetching (sorting, pagination, filtering, linking, errors, etc.) and can help improve consistency of REST APIs. With OAS 3 capabilities, it should be possible to capture those conventions in a base OAS file reusable by several concrete API contract files (see the $ref mechanism). It’s feasible to see the OAI supporting the JSON-API spec as an additional project next to the core OAS project one day in the future.

Projects like HALJSON-LD and ALPS can help experienced API designers implement long-lasting APIs by reducing the coupling between clients and servers by better supporting the hypermedia principle in REST, at the media type level. They are rather complementary with OAS and could also be candidate as additional OAI projects to increase its support for Resource-driven APIs.

Support for streaming APIs based on the Server-Sent Event (SSE) media type, compatible with REST, are also becoming more and more frequent and could be better described in OAS with potentially limited changes.

The way OAS describes web APIs couple clients and servers at the resource level, isolating the clients from the lower level server implementation details such as the more complicated underlying microservices or databases, covering a very broad range of use cases that made it widely adopted in our industry.

However, there are situations where a web API is essentially a Function-driven API or a Data-driven API as illustrated below. Let’s now explore what that means and how the OAI could help describe those APIs in a standardized way.

b) Support for Function-driven APIs

For function-driven APIs (aka RPC APIs), a set of functions (aka methods or procedures) with their custom name, input and output parameters constitute the central API piece that is described in the contract. They also tend to rely on HTTP as a simple transport protocol, ignoring its application-level capabilities to offer more direct binding to programming languages that are in the majority function-driven as well.

While W3C SOAP was the most widely deployed variant due to its popularity 10 years ago as part of the SOA (Services Oriented Architecture) and WS-* bandwagon, it was quite complicated technically and resulted in low performance and limited support outside the major two programming environments (Java and .Net).

Because of its shortcomings, many RPC alternatives were developed such as XML-RPC, JSON-RPC that were already simpler than SOAP. However, the latest trend replaces textual data serialization format by more efficient binary formats such as Apache Avro or Apache Thrift.

Today, the leading RPC project is gRPC, that was created by Google and donated to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), also part of Linux Foundation. It is successful in high-performance microservices projects due to its optimized data format based on Protocol Buffers also created by Google and its reliance on the high-performance HTTP/2.0 protocol. It would be an interesting development if the gRPC project became part of the OAI or at least if OAS was supporting the description of such APIs (aka gRPC service definitions).

If you are interested in this idea, there is already a related OAS request for enhancement.

c) Support for Data-driven APIs

Finally, there is a category of web APIs where a data model (or data schema) is the central piece that can be almost directly exposed. In this case, the API can be generated, offering rich data access capabilities including filtering, sorting, pagination and relationship retrieval.

Microsoft was the first to develop this idea more than ten years ago, with Google pursing and then retiring a similar project called GData. OData is based on either Atom/XML or JSON formats and is now a mature project supported in many business tools like Excel, Tableau or SAP. It also exposes the data schema as metadata about the OData service at runtime, facilitating the tool discovery. It can be compared to standards like JDBC and ODBC but more web-native.

Recently, alternatives to OData have emerged, first from Netflix with its Falcor project which lets JavaScript clients manipulate a data model expressed as a JSON graph. Facebook has also released GraphQL in 2016 and received a very good level of interest and adoption in the API developers’ community.

Interestingly, OData automatically exposes a resource-driven API and a function-based API at the same time, offering a hybrid API style. GraphQL also supports exposing custom functions in a function-based manner but doesn’t have resource-based capabilities, instead reimplementing its own mechanisms such as caching.

There is a need for this style of APIs in the ecosystem and OAI could support the description of API contracts based on data models compatible with GraphQL and OData for example (see this OAS issue for more discussion) and potentially even host such a project if there was a joint interest.

Wrapping up

Beyond the incremental updates that the community will naturally add to the OAS 3 specification (see the list of candidates here and please contribute!), I believe that the original scope of OAS could be extended to support additional web API styles. In the second part of this blogpost series, I will explore the common API lifecycle activities and how OAS could be extended to improve its support for them.

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