Updated: Dec 27, 2020
REST versus SOAP. It’s been an issue for a while now. And really, they’re just two answers to the same question: how to access web services. But deciding one over the other can be surprisingly difficult.
SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) is a standards-based web services access protocol that has been around for a long time. Originally developed by Microsoft, SOAP isn’t as simple as the acronym would suggest.
REST (Representational State Transfer) is another standard, made in response to SOAP’s shortcomings. It seeks to fix the problems with SOAP and provide a simpler method of accessing web services.
While SOAP and REST share similarities over the HTTP protocol, SOAP is a more rigid set of messaging patterns than REST. The rules in SOAP are important because we can’t achieve any level of standardization without them. REST is an architecture style that does not require processing and is naturally more flexible. Both SOAP and REST rely on well-established rules that everyone has agreed to abide by in the interest of exchanging information.
A Quick Overview of SOAP
SOAP relies exclusively on XML to provide messaging services. Microsoft originally developed SOAP to take the place of older technologies that don’t work well on the internet such as the Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM) and Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA). These technologies fail because they rely on binary messaging. The XML messaging that SOAP employs works better over the internet.
After an initial release, Microsoft submitted SOAP to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) where it was standardized. SOAP is designed to support expansion, so it has all sorts of other acronyms and abbreviations associated with it, such as WS-Addressing, WS-Policy, WS-Security, WS-Federation, WS-ReliableMessaging, WS-Coordination, WS-AtomicTransaction, and WS-RemotePortlets. In fact, you can find a whole laundry list of these standards on Web Services Standards.
The point is that SOAP is highly extensible, but you only use the pieces you need for a particular task. For example, when using a public web service that’s freely available to everyone, you really don’t have much need for WS-Security.
Difficulty Depends on Programming Language The XML used to make requests and receive responses in SOAP can become extremely complex. In some programming languages, you need to build those requests manually, which becomes problematic because SOAP is intolerant of errors. However, other languages can use shortcuts that SOAP provides. They can help you reduce the effort required to create the request and to parse the response. In fact, when working with .NET languages, you never even see the XML.
Part of the magic is the Web Services Description Language (WSDL). This is another file that’s associated with SOAP. It provides a definition of how the web service works so that when you create a reference to it, the IDE can completely automate the process. So, the difficulty of using SOAP depends to a large degree in the language you use.
A Quick Overview of REST
Instead of using XML to make a request, REST (usually) relies on a simple URL. In some situations, you must provide additional information, but most web services using REST rely exclusively on using the URL approach. REST can use four different HTTP 1.1 verbs (GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE) to perform tasks.
Deciding Between SOAP and REST
Unless you plan to create your own web service, the decision of which protocol to use may already be made for you. Extremely few web services, such as Amazon, support both. The focus of your decision often centers on which web service best meets your needs, rather than which protocol to use.
Soap Advantages SOAP provides the following advantages when compared to REST:
Language, platform, and transport-independent (REST requires the use of HTTP)
Works well in distributed enterprise environments (REST assumes direct point-to-point communication)
Provides significant pre-build extensibility in the form of the WS* standards
Built-in error handling
Automation when used with certain language products
REST Advantages REST is easier to use for the most part and is more flexible. It has the following advantages over SOAP:
No expensive tools required to interact with the web service
Smaller learning curve
Efficient (SOAP uses XML for all messages, REST can use smaller message formats)
Fast (no extensive processing required)
Closer to other web technologies in design philosophy