I read a blog entry yesterday from Ganesh musing on whether RESTful web services need versioning. In his posting, Ganesh suggests putting some kind of version number into the body of a request. He suggests that this be done even for a GET or DELETE.
While I suppose this could work, it feels awkward. Putting a version number into an entity body for a GET, which would typically not have an entity body, is awkward and a fair bit of work. Things get even more complicated in the case of a PUT or POST where the entity body is some binary format like an image format. In this case, the Content-Type can't just be image/jpeg (for example) since your putting some kind of version information before the image data.
Even in the case of textual data such as XML, putting version information into the entity body requires that our XML format support a version number somewhere (probably as an attribute of the top-level element in the entity body?). This may be feasible, but it may not be feasible if we are trying to use a data format that is already defined. We could start hacking and just throw a line at the beginning of the entity body that indicates the version with the understanding that the 'normal' payload starts after this line. But this is hackish, and makes our Content-Type delcarations wrong (we aren't adhering to the content type definition since we've thrown that version information at the front).
After reading Ganesh's entry, I thought about versioning for a while and it seemed to me that the right way to handle versioning is via media types (using, for example, the Accept and Content-Type headers). This works well because the first version of our service can be delivered when no media-type headers are specified. Then, if a client wants to take advantage of a newer, incompatible version of our service, they simply specify this using media types in the Accept and Content-Type headers.
I could spend a fair bit of time describing this in more detail, but I did some googling and found a great blog entry (written back in May of 2008) by Peter Williams where he describes things concisely and clearly. It's short and sweet and well worth a read.
Back from reading his posting? There are two issues I thought of which Peter didn't directly address. One is specific to versioning, and one is a more general issue that can arise. The versioning related issue is this:
What if your service model changes to much that the set of resources you expose has to remove one of the resources in your original version of the service?
In this case, you make operations to that URI path with an Accept header and/or Content-Type header for later versions of your service return 404 (or similar error code) since that type of resource doesn't exist with that version of the service. While Peter didn't talk specifically about this, this approach meshes well with his description and I suspect it is the same answer he would give if asked.
A related but more general problem can occur if your service receives a request with both an Accept and a Content-Type header and the values are incompatible. I'll address that in my next entry.
[Updated 2010-06-15 11:25 a.m.]
I should mention that you shouldn't create new media types unless you have to. If your service deals with ATOM or RSS, use the version number for those to distinguish different versions of your service if at all possible. In his thesis, Roy Fielding states that creating new media types is not RESTful. And that is true in the sense that custom media types reduce the likelihood that clients will know how to interpret your representations. But there is a tension here between accurately representing incompatible versions of a service and using a pre-existing media type. There's no perfect answer, just a continuum with different trade-offs for different kinds of applications.