Rails Intro To Rest

What is REST?

In 2000, Roy Thomas Fielding was frustrated by the haphazard ways in which web applications were using the HTTP standard. Specifically he was frustrated with how URLs and their corresponding HTTP verbs were used differently for every single application. So, in his PhD dissertation, he came up with REST (REpresentational State Transfer) as a standard way web apps should structure their URLs. His paper suggested a few other things, but we focus mostly on how it changed URLs. Fielding also noticed the rise in web applications communicating with each other. Using this standard way of forming URLs to access resources, Fielding hoped that inter-application communication would get much easier.

If you have been building applications for a while, there is a good chance that you have already worked with RESTful APIs. Integrating a Facebook login, having something in your application post to Twitter, pulling in a feed of images from Instagram, or even calling a list of locations from Google Maps are all examples of using a RESTful API to communicate between applications.

Example REST Workflow

For a real world case study, let us pretend that you have a newsletter application. The following is a high-level view of how REST works in your app:

  1. You fill out the form on the 'New Newsletter' page and click submit.

  2. Data concerning you, your newsletter content, and any additional information such as media items is sent to the application server.

  3. The server interprets the information, recognizes that the request is for a new newsletter, generates the new record in the database, and performs myriad background tasks (updating the newsletter counter, possibly sending notification emails, etc).

  4. Next, the server sends a response back to the client. This does not necessarily mean that the newsletter was posted. The response could be that there was an error posting or something like that. However, in this case we will say that the newsletter post went through properly, so the server sends a success message and tells the browser which page to go to and render.

  5. Lastly, the browser receives the server information and gives the user feedback. In this case, it shows the user a message saying that their newsletter was successfully posted.

RESTful Conventions in Rails

Rails has RESTful principles built into its core, so, whether you are utilizing the built-in view rendering system or using the application purely as an API, you will have the tools necessary to follow standardized routing procedures.

Let's take a look at a practical example of how this works. If we want to build out a newsletter feature, we would need the system to have four key actions – Create, Read, Update, and Destroy – commonly known as 'CRUD' actions. In addition to the CRUD actions, we will also need an index page that lists out all of our newsletters – that's our fifth route. Since our users will need to have a visual interface for creating and updating records (a form for creating and another form for updating), we will need two more routes. Putting all of that together, you will see that we end up needing seven different routes. The GET routes are all routes that usually render some erb content to a web browser. These are the routes that our users will work with everyday. The POST and PATCH are the url in the form action, and the DELETE is a new type of verb.

Here is a mapping of all of the different route helpers, HTTP verbs, paths, and controller action mappings for our newsletter feature.

Method Action Description
GET /newsletters Show all newsletters
POST /newsletters Create a new newsletter
GET /newsletters/new Render the form for creating a new newsletter
GET /newsletters/:id/edit Render the form for editing a newsletter
GET /newsletters/:id Show a single newsletter
PATCH /newsletters/:id Update a newsletter
DELETE /newsletters/:id Delete a newsletter

Thankfully, Rails maps these specific things to specific methods or "actions" as they are called in Rails. If we had a controller called NewsletterController, we would define these seven methods and Rails will call them automatically based on the correct route. Below is a breakdown of each of the controller actions and what it represents. Notice the direct correlation between the route mapping above and the controller methods:

Method Description
index Show all newsletters
create Create a new newsletter
new Render the form for creating a new newsletter
edit Render the form for editing a newsletter
show Show a single newsletter
update Update a newsletter
destroy Delete a newsletter

Rails does a great job of integrating RESTful routes into its system. If you can understand routes in Rails, you can understand REST in general. You should recognize all of the potential CRUD actions in the above table, from querying all of the records to deleting a single item from the database. All of the actions are wired up using RESTful routing nomenclature.

Here is a diagram that shows how the views, controller actions, routes, and HTTP verbs are all mapped together:

REST Diagram

In analyzing the diagram, you can see the flow of data as follows:

  1. The HTTP request contains an HTTP verb and hits a specific URL path.

  2. The router in the application processes the request and 'routes' the request data to the proper controller action.

  3. The controller action either performs a task, such as creating, updating, or deleting a record in the database, or it runs a database query and renders a view to the client.

Definition of HTTP Verbs

So what do GET, POST, et al. represent? Those are HTTP verbs that each give the HTTP request unique behavior. Below is an explanation of each verb:

  • GET - The GET method retrieves whatever information is identified by the Request URI. This means if you go to /posts, you will get all of the posts that the application wants your application to have.

  • POST - The POST method is used to send data enclosed in the request to the server. The server is expected to use this data to create some new resource.

  • PATCH/PUT - The PUT/PATCH methods both represent the HTTP verbs that are used to update existing resources. So if you sent a PUT request to /posts/1 with a new post name, the post with an id of 1 would be updated.

  • DELETE - The DELETE method requests that the server delete the resource identified by the Request URI. This means… that it deletes the record. It's nice and explicit.

A Note on REST and Routing with Reference to Sinatra

If you've worked with Sinatra, you've seen how it's possible to declare an action's route(s) within the controller. Rails eschews this method of routing in favor of moving routes to a config file and treating them as RESTful by default. That's not to say that Sinatra applications cannot serve resources in a RESTful fashion — of course they can! — but Rails goes the additional step of making it difficult to do anything else.

You can (and should!) read more about Rails routing here.


Below are a few keys to remember when thinking about REST:

  • REST is an architectural design pattern, not a framework or code in itself. Many other web frameworks utilize RESTful design principles in some form or another. By using RESTful principles, Rails apps are able to have a clear and standardized naming structure for routes and actions.

  • RESTful routes have a clear mapping between the URL resource and the corresponding controller actions.

  • There are seven potential RESTful route options available.

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