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One-Sided Idempotence

jbowes profile image James Bowes Originally published at repl.ca ・4 min read

In the last post, we discussed the idempotency-key header, and how this header can be used to add idempotence to otherwise non-idempotent HTTP methods (like POST) in REST APIs. We also touched on how many HTTP methods are inherently idempotent, like DELETE. But just how idempotent is it, in practice?

To recap, DELETE is an idempotent HTTP method because after the first request to delete a resource, a client can make any number of subsequent duplicate DELETE requests, and the resource will stay deleted. The end state on the server side stays the same, no matter how many DELETE requests it sees. Idempotent requests like DELETE have another interesting property: After that first request, failures, errors, and malformed or misinterpreted requests maintain the same state on the server side. Side note: If you've ever seen a bug that caused a resource to be re-created on a failed delete, let me know on twitter. I'd love to hear about it.

"server side" is important here. Discussion of idempotence usually focuses on the server (or whoever holds the canonical state), glossing over its impact on the client; it's a one-sided view. The client is important too, particularly in distributed systems, where "the client" might be one of many hops between the server and a user.

Idempotence, when paired with retries, provides resilience against failures in the network, etc. If a wire is tripped over when the server is responding 2XX to a DELETE, but before the client reads that response (and the client eventually times out), then at some point, the client will retry the request. How the server responds to that second request will impact the complexity of the client's logic for handling replies, and may ultimately end up impacting what an end user sees.

For a real-world example of how responses from idempotent requests can impact clients, let's look at an example using Stripe. Stripe's API makes ample use of idempotence, and is typical in how it handles DELETE requests. First, assume we have the following product defined:

GET /v1/products/prod_JEbKPQJxRVglrR HTTP/1.1
Host: api.stripe.com
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HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Length: 430
Content-Type: application/json

{
  "id": "prod_JEbKPQJxRVglrR",
  "object": "product",
  "active": true,
  "attributes": [

  ],
  "created": 1617451149,
  "description": "A premium hobby-grade cat bonnet.",
  "images": [

  ],
  "livemode": false,
  "metadata": {
  },
  "name": "Cat Bonnet",
  "package_dimensions": null,
  "shippable": null,
  "statement_descriptor": null,
  "type": "service",
  "unit_label": null,
  "updated": 1617451217,
  "url": null
}
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This product is a hobby-grade cat bonnet for sale in our online cat bonnet marketplace, listed by an independent cat bonnet artisan. Imagine the artisan decides to stop selling this particular cat bonnet. Their pressing of a delete button in the UI triggers the following call in the cat bonnet marketplace:

DELETE /v1/products/prod_JEbKPQJxRVglrR HTTP/1.1
Host: api.stripe.com
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HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Content-Length: 76
Content-Type: application/json

{
  "id": "prod_JEbKPQJxRVglrR",
  "object": "product",
  "deleted": true
}
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The 200 response indicates success, and the response is a sparse representation of the deleted product. Note that while the Stripe docs on products say the product is returned, the only data we get is values we could infer from the request itself.

Now, imagine if the backend server never saw that 200 response, and retried its request to delete. This is the response it would get:

DELETE /v1/products/prod_JEbKPQJxRVglrR HTTP/1.1
Host: api.stripe.com
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HTTP/1.1 404 Not Found
Content-Length: 236
Content-Type: application/json

{
  "error": {
    "code": "resource_missing",
    "doc_url": "https://stripe.com/docs/error-codes/resource-missing",
    "message": "No such product: 'prod_JEbKPQJxRVglrR'",
    "param": "id",
    "type": "invalid_request_error"
  }
}
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A 404, indicating (since it's a 4XX series response) that the client made a mistake, and this resource doesn't exist. The end result from Stripe's perspective is still that the product is deleted, but now, unless the cat bonnet marketplace backend accounts for a 404 response status, and the difference in the response bodies, the end user may see an error message instead of success.

In the case of Stripe, the API is responding to to the requested change and not responding to the desired state (this is similar to [edge vs level triggering edgevlevel). If the API treats a DELETE as "ensure this resource does not exist" instead of "delete this existing resource", then so long as the resource does not exist at the end of a DELETE request, the server can respond with a 200 OK, the client will know that the resource doesn't exist (as it desired), and the client doesn't require any additional logic for treating 404 responses as successes.

Back to Stripe's original 200 response: It's documented as returning the deleted object, but only returns the object type and id (both of which are included in the DELETE request). Many APIs do return the full deleted object. Be careful with this when designing APIs; you'd make extra work for yourself trying to return the deleted object for multiple delete requests.

Sometimes, it matters to the client if the resource being deleted actually was deleted by them or not. In those cases, you could either encourage the client to GET the resource first, and see if it exists (ignoring a possible race condition), or include an additional response header or field on the body indicating if that request caused a delete.

Designing APIs requires balancing tradeoffs, predicting common usage patterns, and aiming for simplicity. Next time you implement DELETE, consider if always returning 200 may be best. But be careful to not introduce inconsistencies with other DELETE endpoints in an existing API.

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