December 14th, 2012

Three Common Web Architecture Styles

Three Common Architecture StylesWhen talking to clients about the architectural details of an implementation, one of the first questions I ask is: “What architectural style is appropriate for this Web solution?” It turns out this question stumps most of my audience. Not many system architects and developers think about it. Instead, they implement solutions using whatever components and frameworks are on hand.

Each technology, service or coding framework exhibits its own “style” for solving a problem. Sometimes we select a system component because it’s familiar (“We use SQL databases because that’s what we’ve always used”). Sometimes we include one because it’s unfamiliar (“We’ve never used Node.js before, let’s try it on this project”). And sometimes we select components based on skill set (“Our team doesn’t have any experience with WebSockets, so let’s just use HTTP instead”). It’s important to step back and get a big picture view when selecting components for a production system that will (hopefully) serve your needs for an extended period of time. And that’s where architectural styles come into play.

Architectural styles set the tone for how components in a system interact, govern the implementation details and establish lines of responsibility and maintenance over time. Setting the style early on and communicating it to the team ahead of time goes a long way toward creating a stable and successful implementation. To help clients get a handle on this topic, I commonly identify three widely varying-styles for Web solutions that people can easily recognize: Tunneling, Objects and Hypermedia.

The Tunneling style is best illustrated by SOAP-based implementations where all requests are “tunneled” through a limited set of components (user management, product services etc.) exposed on the Web. The Object style is one that uses the HTTP CRUD pattern (create-read-update-delete) where domain objects (users, products etc.) are exposed and basic read/write operations are supported for those objects. The Hypermedia style relies on a shared understanding through a message format (media type) that defines both the data elements (users, products etc.) and the possible actions (read, write, filter, report etc.) on those data elements. Each of these styles can be used to implement a solution and each of them has associated benefits and challenges.

This comes up so often that we’ve created a short API Academy video introducing the subject of architectural styles for the Web. Take a look and see if it gives you some ideas for how you can answer this question the next time you are about to embark on a major system implementation: “What architectural style is appropriate for this Web solution?”

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