Dear Cloud API, your fault line is showing

Most APIs are like hospital gowns. They seem to provide good coverage, until you turn around.

I am talking about the dreadful state of fault reporting in remote APIs, from Twitter to Cloud interfaces. They are badly described in the interface documentation and the implementations often don’t even conform to what little is documented.

If, when reading a specification, you get the impression that the “normal” part of the specification is the result of hours of whiteboard debate but that the section that describes the faults is a stream-of-consciousness late-night dump that no-one reviewed, well… you’re most likely right. And this is not only the case for standard-by-committee kind of specifications. Even when the specification is written to match the behavior of an existing implementation, error handling is often incorrectly and incompletely described. In part because developers may not even know what their application returns in all error conditions.

After learning the lessons of SOAP-RPC, programmers are now more willing to acknowledge and understand the on-the-wire messages received and produced. But when it comes to faults, there is still a tendency to throw their hands in the air, write to the application log and then let the stack do whatever it does when an unhandled exception occurs, on-the-wire compliance be damned. If that means sending an HTML error message in response to a request for a JSON payload, so be it. After all, it’s just a fault.

But even if fault messages may only represent 0.001% of the messages your application sends, they still represent 85% of those that the client-side developers will look at.

Client developers can’t even reverse-engineer the fault behavior by hitting a reference implementation (whether official or de-facto) the way they do with regular messages. That’s because while you can generate response messages for any successful request, you don’t know what error conditions to simulate. You can’t tell your Cloud provider “please bring down your user account database for five minutes so I can see what faults you really send me when that happens”. Also, when testing against a live application you may get a different fault behavior depending on the time of day. A late-night coder (or a daytime coder in another time zone) might never see the various faults emitted when the application (like Twitter) is over capacity. And yet these will be quite common at peak time (when the coder is busy with his day job… or sleeping).

All these reasons make it even more important to carefully (and accurately) document fault behavior.

The move to REST makes matters even worse, in part because it removes SOAP faults. There’s nothing magical about SOAP faults, but at least they force you to think about providing an information payload inside your fault message. Many REST APIs replace that with HTTP error codes, often accompanied by a one-line description with a sometimes unclear relationship with the semantics of the application. Either it’s a standard error code, which by definition is very generic or it’s an application-defined code at which point it most likely overlaps with one or more standard codes and you don’t know when you should expect one or the other. Either way, there is too much faith put in the HTTP code versus the payload of the error. Let’s be realistic. There are very few things most applications can do automatically in response to a fault. Mainly:

  • Ask the user to re-enter credentials (if it’s an authentication/permission issue)
  • Retry (immediately or after some time)
  • Report a problem and fail

So make sure that your HTTP errors support this simple decision tree. Beyond that point, listing a panoply of application-specific error codes looks like an attempt to look “RESTful” by overdoing it. In most cases, application-specific error codes are too detailed for most automated processing and not detailed enough to help the developer understand and correct the issue. I am not against using them but what matters most is the payload data that comes along.

On that aspect, implementations generally fail in one of two extremes. Some of them tell you nothing. For example the payload is a string that just repeats what the documentation says about the error code. Others dump the kitchen sink on you and you get a full stack trace of where the error occurred in the server implementation. The former is justified as a security precaution. The latter as a way to help you debug. More likely, they both just reflect laziness.

In the ideal world, you’d get a detailed error payload telling you exactly which of the input parameters the application choked on and why. Not just vague words like “invalid”. Is parameter “foo” invalid for syntactical reasons? Is it invalid because inconsistent with another parameter value in the request? Is it invalid because it doesn’t match the state on the server side? Realistically, implementations often can’t spend too many CPU cycles analyzing errors and generating such detailed reports. That’s fine, but then they can include a link to a wiki a knowledge base where more details are available about the error, its common causes and the workarounds.

Your API should document all messages accurately and comprehensively. Faults are messages too.


Filed under API, Application Mgmt, Automation, Cloud Computing, Everything, Mgmt integration, Protocols, REST, SOAP, Specs, Standards, Tech, Testing, Twitter, Utility computing

9 Responses to Dear Cloud API, your fault line is showing

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