Bookmarks and URI based versioning

Threads about how to version hypermedia (or REST) APIs are multitude. I certainly have made my opinion known in the past. That being said, the most common approach being used in the wild is putting a version number in the URI of the resources which are part of the API. For example,

That approach has the advantage of being simple and easy to understand. Its main downside is that it makes it difficult for existing clients to switch to a newer version of the if one becomes available. The difficultly arises because most existing clients will have bookmarked certain resources that are needed to accomplish their goals. Such bookmarks complicate the upgrade quite significantly. Clients who want to use an upgraded API must choose to rewrite those bookmarks based on some out of band knowledge, support both the old and new version of the API, or force the user to start over from scratch.

None of these are good options. The simplest, most attractive approach is the first. However, forcing clients to mangle saved URIs reduces the freedom of the server to evolve. The translation between the two versions of the API will have to be obvious and simple. That means you are going to have to preserve key parts of the URI into the new structure. You cannot switch from a numeric surrogate key to a slug to improve your SEO. Likewise, cannot move from a slug to a numeric surrogate key to prevent name collisions. You never know when the upgrade script will be executed. It could be years from now so you will also need to maintain those URIs forever. Some clients have probably bookmarked some resources that you do not think of as entry points, you will need to be this careful for every resource in your system.

The second option, forcing clients to support both versions of the API, is even worse that the first. This means that once a particular instance of a client has used the API it is permanently locked into that version of that API. This is horrible because it means that early users cannot take advantage of new functionality in the API. It is also means that deprecated versions of the API must be maintained much longer than would otherwise be necessary.

The third option, forcing users to start over from scratch, is what client writers must do if they want to use functionality which is not available in the obsolete version when there is no clear upgrade path between API versions. This is not much work for the client or server implementers but it seriously sucks for the users. Any configuration, and maybe even previous work, is lost and they are forced to recreate it.

A way forward

Given that this style of versioning is the most common we need a solution. The link header provides one possible solution. We can introduce a link to relate the old and new versions of logically equivalent resources. When introducing a breaking API change the server bumps the API version and changes the URIs in any way it likes, eg the new URI might be In the old version of the API a link header is added to responses to indicated the equivalent resource in the new API, eg

GET /v1/orders/42 HTTP/1.1

HTTP/1.1 200 OK
link: <>; rel="alternate"

Older clients will happily ignore this addition and continue to work correctly. Newer clients will check every response involving a stored URI for the presences of such a link and will treat it as a redirect. That is, they will follow the link and use the most modern variant they support.

If you are really bad at API design you can stack these links. For example, the v1 variants might have links to both the v2 and v3 variants. Chaining might also work but it would require clients to, at least, be aware that any intermediate version upgrade link relations so that they could follow that chain to the version they prefer.

You could also add links to the obsolescent variant’s body. This would be almost equivalent except that it requires clients to be able to parse older responses enough to search for the presence of such a link. Using the HTTP link header field nicely removes that requirement by moving the link from the arbitrarily formatted body to the HTTP header which will be supported by all reasonable HTTP clients.

Using URIs to version APIs may not be the cleanest way to implement versioning but the power of hypermedia allows us to work around its most obvious deficiencies. This is good given the prevalence of that approach to versioning.