Implementing HTTP’s uniform interface as discussed in the previous posts has a surprisingly good architectural side effect. If it is Implemented as specified in the REST specifications (HTTP specification – RFC 2616), you get two useful properties namely Idempotency and Safety .

Safety is the ability to invoke an operation without any side effects arising out of the client invoking that operation. It means that the client can invoke an operation with the explicit knowledge that it is not going to change the state of the resource on the server.However it does not mean that the server should return the same response every time.The server can also perform addtional actions when these methods are invoked such as logging calls or incrementing counters etc but these should not change the state of the resource being acted upon. Generally read only methods are safe methods. GET, HEAD and OPTIONS are safe methods.

Idempotency means that the effect of doing something multiple times will be the same as the effect of doing it only once. A simple example from maths  would be the effect of multiplying any number by One. In math the number 1 is an idempotent of multiplication. e.g. 5 x 1 = 5 which is the same as 5 x 1 x 1 = 5.Similarly an API operation that sets a user’s name is a typically idempotent operation. Whether it is called once or multiple times, the effect of the operation is that the user’s name will be set to the target value. Deleting a resource is an example of this distinction; the first time you invoke the delete, the object is deleted. The second time you attempt to delete it, there is no change in the state of the system, but the object remains deleted as requested. An idempotent operation generates no side effects.

Idempotency results in improved reliability, concurrency, prevents data loss and provides the ability to automatically retry /recover from failures. It improves reliability by providing the ability to safely retry requests that may or may not have been processed. This helps tide over network glitches and load spikes by replaying requests. Load balancers like HAProxy can retry requests when the server disconnects abruptly providing automatic recovery from failures. Since API calls are idempotent multiple API calls can be run concurrently without locks and mutexes to synchronize operations on data. This increases concurrency and system throughput resulting in better performance.

Safety and Idempotency let a client make reliable HTTP requests over an unreliable network. If you make a GET request and never get a response, just make another one. It’s safe even if your earlier request was fulfilled since it didn’t have any real effect on the state of the resource server. If you make a PUT request and never get a response, just make another one. If your earlier request got through, your second request will have no additional effect since PUT is idempotent and the operation can be repeated.

The following table lists shows you which HTTP method is safe and which is idempotent

HTTP Method Safe Idempotent
 GET  Yes  Yes
 POST  No  No
 PUT No  Yes
 DELETE No  Yes
 HEAD Yes  Yes
 OPTIONS Yes  Yes

GET, HEAD, OPTIONS, PUT and DELETE requests are idempotent. If you DELETE a resource, it’s gone. If you DELETE it again, it’s still gone.The response codes in the above two requests can differ to indicate that the resource representation being deleted is gone. Two simultaneous Delete requests may result in the first request getting a 200 (OK) and the second request getting a 204 (NO CONTENT).If you create a new resource with PUT, and then resend the PUT request, the resource is still there and it has the same properties you gave it when you created it. Making an absolute update to a resource’s state or deleting it outright has the same outcome whether the operation is attempted once or many times.Again a PUT request can have differing return codes based on the validation done. It can be a 200 (OK) for a successful PUT or a 409 (Conflict) for a PUT where the server resource state is different from the one referenced by the client. A GET or HEAD request should be safe: a client that makes a GET or HEAD request is not requesting any changes to server state. Making any number of GET requests to a certain URI should have the same practical effect as making no requests at all. The safe methods, GET and HEAD, are automatically idempotent as well.POST is neither safe nor idempotent. Making two identical POST requests will probably result in two subordinate resources containing the same information.

Developing API’s requires us to adhere to the REST semantics which specifies the safety and idempotency requirements for the various verbs as shown in the table above. API consumers will and should expect GET to be safe and idempotent. Similarly API consumers will incorporate logic to manage additional factors since POST is neither safe nor idempotent.