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RESTful routes are still quite powerful

Are RESTful routes still a useful abstraction when we have other options?

Are RESTful routes still a useful abstraction when we have other options?

TL;DR: Even though it may seem obvious, RESTful API design can still be an incredibly versatile and flexible architecture. It merits remembering that controllers conforming to this design are capable of responding with multiple types of representations for a given resource request, allowing us to maintain parsimonious mental models for organizing business logic.

How do I RESTfully download?

I was recently chatting with my friend Christian about Ruby on Rails and how I’ve been enjoying its maturity and stability. I mentioned that one aspect I’ve been particularly enjoying is using REST as a guiding priniciple to write my APIs.

Christian mentioned to me that it seems like a lot of JS frameworks are moving away from writing RESTful APIs, replacing them with other options like graphQL or gRPC. One explanation for reaching for these alternatives may be that some requests, like sign_in, don’t cleanly map to a given CRUD action for a resource. I hesitantly agreed with Christian, though seeing a sign_in action modeled as a new Session conceptually has made sense to me ever since I first encountered that pattern.

Still, with Christian’s words echoing through my head, I sat down today to write a bit of code and was almost stumped while trying to design a RESTful Rails endpoint for downloading a resource.

In vanilla Rails, I’ve gotten used to thinking about our controllers being responsible for only serving either the resource’s HTML (i.e., a partial) or a JSON, or if you’ve hotwired your app, perhaps a Turbo Stream. So…what happens if my controllers are already set up to serve partials but I also want to download a resource as, perhaps, a YAML file?

MIME-types to the rescue

As I mentioned above, Rails controllers let us respond to different MIME-types like html, json, or turbo_streams. I realized that the act of downloading a course is just like requesting that resource, only this time in a different format than one of the existing MIME-types that I’m used to (e.g. html or json).

What this means is that rather than needing to define a custom action and route, I should be able to send a GET request to an existing controller with a different content-type.

Since I want to download a YAML file, I’ll need to set the content-type to text/yaml.

To get this to work, I’ll need to do a few things — First, the MIME-type needs to be registered with Rails:

# config/initializers/mime_types.rb

Mime::Type.register "text/yaml", :yaml

In my case, I was requesting a Course.

So, in my courses/show.html.erb page, I could simply add a new link_to url helper:

# app/views/courses/show.html.erb

<%= link_to t("download"), course_path(@course, format: :yaml) %>

Finally, in my controller, I’m able to leverage the Rails ActionController#send_data1 method to efficiently stream this request from my CourseController#show action:

# app/controllers/courses_controller.rb

class CoursesController < ApplicationController
  before_action :set_course, only: [:show, :edit, :update, :destroy]
  def show
    respond_to do |format|
      format.yaml { send_data @course.to_yaml_file, type: "text/yaml", disposition: "attachment" }

So what?

I know this blog post isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. Frankly, this approach feels quite obvious to me in retrospect. I imagine that graphQL, gRPC, and other approaches may still have significant benefits that perhaps I’m not fully appreciating. That said, remembering the purpose behind RESTful API design and trying to return to first principles gave me a renewed appreciation for how powerful an abstraction it remains to this day.


  1. I chose to dynamically generate the yaml file by defining an instance method on my Course model. However, if the resource you are trying to represent already exists as a file, you can use the ActionController#send_file method to send it instead.

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