Alex Scordellis has a good blog post about how to handle partial PUT in REST. It starts by explaining why partial PUT is needed in the first place. And then (including in the comments) it runs into the issues this brings and proposes some solutions.
I have bad news. There are many more issues.
Let’s pick a simple example. What does it mean if an element is not present in a partial update? Is it an explicit omission, intended to represent the need to remove this element in the representation? Or does it mean “don’t change its current value”. If the latter, then how do I do removal? Do I need partial DELETE like I have partial PUT? Hopefully not, but then I have to have a mechanism to remove elements as part of a PUT. Empty value? That doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as an absent element. Nil value? And how do I handle this with JSON?
And how do you deal with repeating elements? If you PUT an element of that type, is it an addition or a replacement? If replacement, which one(s) are you replacing? Or do you force me to PUT the entire list? No matter how long it is? Even if it increases the risk of concurrency issues?
Lots of similar issues. These two are just off the top of my head, memories from hours locked in a room with my HP, IBM, Intel and Microsoft accomplices.
You know what you end up with? You end up with this. Partial Put in WS-RT. I can hear you scream from here.
I am the ghost of dead partial update mechanisms, coming back to haunt you…
As much as WS-* was criticized for re-inventing HTTP, what we see here is HTTP people re-inventing partial resource update mechanisms like those in WSDM, WS-Management and WS-ResourceTransfer. Which is fine, I am in no way advocating that they should re-use these specs.
But let’s realize that while a lot of the complexity in WS-* was unnecessary, some of it actually was a reflection of the complexity of the task at hand. And that complexity doesn’t go away because you get rid of a SOAP envelope and of stupid WS-Addressing headers.
The good news is that we’ve made a lot of the mistakes already and we’ve learned some lessons (see this technical rant, this post-mortem or this experiment). The bad news is that there are plenty of new mistakes waiting to be made.
Good luck. I mean it sincerely.