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Preliminary Proceedings

The Secret Life of Schema in Web Protocols, API's and Software Type Systems

David Lee


Nexstra, Inc.

Balisage: The Markup Conference 2017
August 1 - 4, 2017

Copyright © David A. Lee, 2017

How to cite this paper

Lee, David. “The Secret Life of Schema in Web Protocols, API's and Software Type Systems.” Presented at Balisage: The Markup Conference 2017, Washington, DC, August 1 - 4, 2017. In Proceedings of Balisage: The Markup Conference 2017. Balisage Series on Markup Technologies, vol. 19 (2017). doi:10.4242/BalisageVol19.Lee01.


In this publication, I describe some of the results of several years’ research and experimentation in the field of Web API Protocols (JSON/XML/Media over HTTP) and Software APIs tracing the migration of ‘Schema’ into software class definitions, annotations, formal and semi-formal markup document types describing their structure and usefulness. Using a specific use case as a representative example, I demonstrate the rationale, steps and results of an experimental proof of concept. The proof of concept utilizes a wide variety of easily available techniques and tools rarely used together in a work-flow to reverse engineer a REST API from its behavior. It involves coupled transformations of data, schema, and software, through multiple representations utilizing tools from otherwise disparate domains to produce a largely auto-generated application to aid in a real world business problems.

Table of Contents

Human imposed limitations of computation
The fallacy of the obvious
The Presentation Layer view of the Data Model
A Software Buffet. Pivotal download center.
The Process and Data Model from the fulfillment perspective
The secret API
Implementation Details
Reverse Engineering a data model
Exploration Tool Example
Analysis and Data Modeling
The Hidden life of Schema.
OpenAPI the “New WSDL”
Reverse Engineering an Open API Document
Refactoring JSON Schema via Java Class Representation
Refactoring by API Composition
End Application
Reverse Engineering, Refactoring, Schema and Data Model Transformation Cycle.

Human imposed limitations of computation

The modern 'General Purpose Computer', the global internet, and the "Word Wide Web" have enabled almost all aspects of society, and domains of practice and theory, to directly express and automate the processing of pre-existing and newly-invented ideas, processes, methodologies, and communications both abstract and physical. The physical barriers to the communication of ideas and practice across geography and conceptional domains have been largely eliminated. However the conceptual barriers between domains often remain intact. It’s simply not obvious how concepts in one domain may relate to concepts in another domain. The specialization of domain specific languages and terminology can exacerbate this both by sharing common terms that have different meanings, and by using different terms for concepts with similar meaning. So while the ability to communicate ones ideas to others, and by implication the benefit of tools enabled by them, is ubiquitous; understanding, and hence application is limited by the degree to which one can recognize the similarity and applicability across domains. To demonstrate by example the practical consequences of this limitation, and the tangible benefits of recognizing and breaking down these barriers, what follows is a narrative that describes a real problem and the path taken to solve it.

The fallacy of the obvious

The process of creating distribution media is fairly complex but well known and largely automated. The majority of the effort is describing the process details in a form that the both the people and the machines can replicate consistently. Physical digital media production (CDs, DVDs etc.) is similar to digital printing, sharing the same underlying technology and process. They also share the same problems. Unlike mechanical or photographic replication, the prototype to be replicated is not physical and may have never had a physical representation. The conceptualization is that the result is a copy or replication of some pre-existing object. But when there was never an original tangible object to compare, determining if the replication is accurate is subjective. For print, either books on paper or the color label on a CD, the relevant attributes of the production is tangible and largely objectively described and measured. For the digital content, the relevant attributes extend well beyond physical representation. It’s well known how to compare the contents of one CD to another, validate the physical process worked as intended. It’s not always obvious whether the intent is accurately fulfilled -- i.e.. the set of files included, the directory structure and naming, spanning content across multiple CDs, usability in the intended environment.

The assumption that the representation of intent is obvious and objective is so common that it’s often inconceivable that may not be. In this case the intent is to produce media for a customer that contains the product that they purchased. It may be surprising that defining that intent in sufficient detail is not only difficult but the fact that it requires defining can be overlooked when the parties involved all individually have a clear but different understanding of what that means.

Nexstra, which provides digital fulfillment services for software companies, was hired by a software company who had acquired another company's inventory to produce and ship physical media for the customers who requested it. The people responsible were in the sales, and support department of the organization. The business concept of a "Product", while sharing the same term, has a completely different meaning and model then used by engineering including completely unrelated computer systems, software and models for managing, organizing, cataloging, supporting and selling “Products”. The only place the two models intersected was in the presentation layer. The website hosting the download center. Since that was the one and only one visible representation of the entire product catalog, the illusion that the web site was a presentation of an integrated data model rather than it being the only authoritative source of the data model itself was quite good. And for the most part didn’t matter because distribution was largely 'self serve'. After buying a "Product" a customer would then login and download the files they wanted, directed by textual clues and restricted by an entitlement mechanism. This didn’t require the ability to directly map the business concept of "product" to the specific list of files as long as the end result was that the customer could then use the product they bought. The process is a 'pull' mechanism and implicitly relied on out of band shared understanding, human judgement. Mistakes were resolved simply by logging in and trying again until you had successfully acquired the components needed.

For this scenario, a formal schema and logical data model of products is not a business requirement, it’s a major artificial constraint. Analogous to a Buffet Restaurant where the product sold and the pricing model is quite simple, but not formal or logical. All you can eat, selected from any item, for a fixed price. A more complex product definition can be useful, but not a more formal one. For example “one main course item, two sides and a dessert”. If there is a common agreement of intent, this works quite well.

Until you’re asked to deliver “dinner” to someone else. A ‘push’ distribution model that simply cannot satisfy the intent without a great deal more information.

It’s ‘obvious’ to a production vendor that in order to produce something the supplier needs to tell you exactly what it is. It’s equally obvious to the supplier that the fact that customers have for years successfully been able to easily login and download the files for a product that simply putting those onto a CD is purely a process of labor and hardware. The fact that they are both correct, and communicate with each other this shared understanding, simply makes it even more difficult to recognize the existence of hidden assumptions so obvious they were not considered.

In this case, that is exactly what happened. The extent this was problematic not recognized for quite some time.

The Presentation Layer view of the Data Model

The Pivotal Download center is a publicly accessible web application that allows browsing and downloading components of the product catalog.

A Software Buffet. Pivotal download center.

This is the presentation model the customer and the company see when browsing the product catalog before purchase as well as downloading entitled artifacts after purchase. You are shown all products to some level of detail whether or not you are entitled to them.

Figure 1: Pivotal Download Center

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-001.png

The visible entities are Product Lines, Product Families, Product Groups and Product Suites. They are identified by the brand name, title, or description. These may vary over time and language.

Figure 2: Product Detail

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-002.png

A specific version, usually 'the latest', is pre-selected. For simple products the list of contained files is shown with description and links to download. Other include non-software files and components are shown on the sidebar at the right.

Figure 3: Product Version List

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-003.png

Other versions may be selected, changing the available components.

The Process and Data Model from the fulfillment perspective

A long process of meetings, calls, email exchanges, ‘poking around’ the website, guesswork, notes from conversations, etc. ultimately produced, in combination, a repeatable, largely manual, process that generally worked. Since there was no way to validate the results beyond ‘seems to be right’ and waiting for customer feedback about missing, wrong, or unrecognizable files and disks, it took a few months to get the process down.

But it was a very painful and tedious process. Since there was no automated notification of product releases, we didn’t know which products had been updated or if the same product ID and Version had changed what files it contained or the contents of the files. This meant every order required manually searching through the web site, subjectively determining what the “Latest” version for the customers entitlement, manually accepting the EULA, downloading the files, organizing and renaming them when there were conflicts, validating the checksums and sizes, partitioning to fit on the fewest CDs but not spilling over just 1 small README.txt to a CD on itself. That was pre-publication work and was significantly more than expected such that it cost significantly more in labor to produce per item then anticipated. The profit margin was near zero. We simply didn’t account for the amount of manual effort to translate an order into the set of artifacts, nor the time required to correct errors due to ill-defined and missing information.

The secret API

There had to be a better way. I set out to see if I could do something, even very crude like screen scraping and simulating mouse clicks to reduce the effort and inevitable mistakes.

In the course of random exploration of the web site, to get a rough idea of the effort, we discovered that a REST API existed with the same catalog information publicly available but unknown by the people in the department with which we were working. It looked like such a well-designed and documented API that not only should we be able to automate most of the process but also learn something from it to use for future work. It also contained some information not displayed in the web site. This caused us to suspect that it might be a direct interface to the underlying data. That could solve the problem of having to guess to fill in missing data. It was one of the better REST API’s I’ve encountered ‘in the wild’: a true hidden treasure.

Figure 4: Example page from the Pivotal API online documentation.

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-004.png

This shows a representative page from the public pivotal API[1] documentation. Note the detail in resource paths, response codes and HTTP HTTP Headers. An example JSON JSON format output is shown. Note also the absence of any description whatsoever of the semantics of the request URI or the result. No indication of structure type, allowed values, optional fields, key values, enumerations, variant structure. The presumption is that the single sample is sufficiently self-destructing. I.e. it’s "obvious".

Implementation Details

Soon into the process of writing what I expected to be a very simple application to query the product list, resolve the files, and download, them I discovered a fundamental problem that I have since found to be nearly universal. The HTTP layer of the API was very detailed. It described both the structure and semantics of the required headers and HTTP methods, and the semantics of HTTP response codes. It even included sample code (in curl, not shown). That allowed one to quickly test an example and validate it was working as expected. The structure and meaning of the requests and response body were documented by example only. For each API there was a short statement of its purpose, an example of a request and response, and nothing else. Absolutely no description, documentation, schema, structure or semantics of any kind. Since the API followed a consistent REST inspired pattern, the domain, data and naming conventions used were simple terms with assumed common meaning it was not at all obvious what was missing or the extent that it was problematic. But when used in a real program with real (not sample) data, the task of reliably constructing the right queries, interpreting the responses and validating that the results required comparing the results to the web site, separately for each query. The examples were good, but were they representative? Did they contain all of the optional fields ? What was the set of allowed values for each field and what did they mean exactly, and was there relationships between fields ? Relationships between resources was even more ambiguous. The fields consistently used common, generic terminology such as “_links”, “self” , “href” but frequently led nowhere - to a “404 Not Found”, an empty page or an anonymous empty object with a link to itself. The distinction between containment and reference was not explicit so there was no way to know if a referenced object was to be considered an included sub-resource, a shared reference to node in a multi-rooted tree or a structurally insignificant reference.

A few randomly chosen examples started to show a pattern indicating a kind of ‘hidden structure’ that could not be easily inferred accurately by a few examples. There was no way to be sure the interpretation was correct short of comparing every query against the web portal. Which was precisely the problem I was attempting to avoid. Even with that, there was no conceptual model to assume that the next new product could interpreted the same as the previous. Fortunately it was known that the set of products was small and had previously been given an estimate of the size of the total number of files. Assuming for the moment that nothing changed, we could simply download the entire data set, model it, and run an exhaustive search. The product line was mature enough that it’s likely all-important permeations were covered by existing data. Enough that the errors should be much less than the manual process produced.

It’s an interesting problem that’s related to a more general concept I’ve been working on for a few years – that a form of “schema” is implicitly contained in the structure of class definitions in statically typed programming language API's. That the implicit schema can be usefully extracted and used to model the API in general and leveraged to dynamically construct instances of class declarations suitable for existing data mapping tools and support type safe invocation of dynamically loaded API's in static languages from purely data oriented representation provided at runtime. In this case, the API has no programming language binding to begin with, meaning the process would need to start with data and end with a static API and schema. The result should would demonstrate a reversible transformation was equally viable.

Reverse Engineering a data model

The Pivotal API is a good candidate for a simple brute force approach at reverse engineering. It’s known that there is a manageable bounded set of data and it’s presumed that the API is idempotent and doesn’t itself produced new information. The examples show what appears to be a graph model with nodes and links. It is not known if the API is complete - if it exposes access to all the data available or needed, or if it’s discoverable – that all nodes in the graph can be reached from the set of known root nodes. The topology of the graph is not known, nor if the links are bidirectional. There are practical constraints that make exploration more difficult but also make it easier to reach a halting state.


  • Invoking the API is slow compared to the number of expected requests such that it is impractical to use it directly for exploration without optimizing redundant queries.

  • The provided vendor account has access to only a subset of total products. The list of entitled products were identified by name not id or URI. This implies that we cannot distinguish between nodes that are inaccessible in the data model and nodes that are inaccessible only due to intermediate nodes being inaccessible.

  • We have authorization and a business need to use the API, but not to abuse it. The usage pattern of a simplistic exhaustive search has similar characteristics as a denial of service or penetration attack.

  • There is internal state associated with the account. Access to some resources require a one-time ‘acceptance’ of the End User License Agreement (EULA). Since there is only indirect access to this state it’s difficult to know until after attempting a request if it required a prior acceptance. The EULA acceptance procedure is intended primarily for interactive use, but it can be achieved programatically (with a bit of reverse engineering).

  • Early failure detection. It’s pragmatic to determine as early as possible if either theory or implementation is obviously wrong.

With these constraints and a limited time allocated for ‘experimentation’ I built a fairly simple framework with tools at hand and minimal effort. A consequence demonstrating that this type of approach can be easily implemented with commonly available tools and minimal domain expertise, i.e. that there is no part that could not be done in many other ways using other tools and much better by someone else.


  • A simple HTML browser based interface for interactive exploration

  • Tools for invoking basic HTTP requests including access to ‘low level’ HTTP meta-data (headers, cookies etc). Something that could perform any of the needed REST calls and extract the results.

  • Tools for query, creation, and transformation of the results into other formats.

  • A ‘database’ capable of storing and accessing efficiently the original and transformed documents.

The ability to store and transform between multiple data formats is a significant enabling feature allowing use of tools that only operate on a specific format to be used in combination. Different formats and tools have evolved largely independently such that there are entirely independent sets of functionalities easily available for different data formats, markup and programming languages. This is precisely the problem that markup languages attempt to address, but are only successful to the extent that proliferation of markup and programming languages is constrained. Constraining invention has historically been demonstrated to be both impossible and undesirable for equally compelling reasons.

A common approach to overcoming interoperability in markup languages is data transformation. Analogous approaches in programming language data structures and API's is data mapping. I assert and intend to demonstrate that markup and transformation, data and software, are interchangeable in both a theoretical and practical sense.

The resultant tool demonstrates part of this as a side effect of being useful for exploration of the space exposed by an API.

For this API the direct formats used are Resource Paths (Uri’s constructed form composite strings), JSON, HTML and HTTP headers (name/value string pairs with predefined semantics). API request are composed of a Resource Path and HTTP Headers. The results are HTTP Headers and JSON documents for successful responses, and HTTP Headers and JSON or HTML documents for unsuccessful or indirect responses. The exploration tool stores these requests and responses directly as well as transformations to HTML, XML, and RDF. The database is used for both caching of responses and for query of individual documents and across documents.

Exploration Tool Example

Example of the a single API call to the root endpoint of the “products” API.

As much as practical the transformations are direct with no domain knowledge applied to specialize them. The intent being to enable exploration of the API itself in order to discover without prior-knowledge the underlying model. This took a few iterations to learn enough of the structure so that it could be displayed in a readable format but without losing information when encountering unexpected results.

For each representation the domain knowledge and assumptions are indicated.

Figure 5: JSON

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-005.png

The ‘raw’ result in the original JSON format transformed with a simple ‘pretty print’ for easier reading.

Figure 6: HTML

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-006.png

JSON to HTML transformed by the following rules

  • Fields containing objects produce a new table with 2 columns [field , body] and a row for each child field.

  • Fields containing arrays produce a new table with the same format as object but with the only the first row containing the parent field name.

  • The “__links” field is handled specially collapsing the nested “href” into the same row as the parent and converting it an <a> tag displaying the original value but linking back to the application passing the href as an encoded uri query parameter.

    • An indication of whether the link has been attempted to be indirected and cached along with its HTTP response code.

Figure 7: XML

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-007.png

XML is produced with the marklogic json:transform-to-json() function, which implements a simple bidirectional transformation similar to other independently implemented algorithms such as JXON, JSONx, JXML etc. An open source compatible function is available in xmlsh 2.0.

Figure 8: HTTP Headers

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-008.png

The request and response HTTP headers in XML format, unchanged from the output of the MarkLogic xdmp:http-get() and nested in a wrapping element so it can be stored as a properties document for convenience. This is used by the caching implementation as well as to debug problems with requests.

Figure 9: RDF

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-009.png

A very simplistic production of RDF by applying a few basic rules to the JSON data.

Note: there are some known errors in the implementation that omit triples in some relations.

  • Top level field names produce the triple [ Subject , #is , #blank-node ]

  • Arrays produce a ‘#has’ relation with the triple [ parent#blank-node , #has , entry#blank-node ]

  • Fields containing atomic values produce the triple [ #blank-node , #field-name , value ]


With the API Exploration tool, interactive browsing and database queries were possible. Interactive browser allowed for quick visual comparison of the data from the API compared to the download center web site. Since there was no documentation of data content, simply guessing based on the field names only somewhat successful. For example, was “product__files” a list of the files in the product? Surprisingly, not always. How about “file__groups”, should the link be dereferenced to get a list of groups of files ? What was the set of valid “release__type” values and was that relevant to determining if a release should be distributed ? For example “Beta Release” seems like something you wouldn’t ship to customers. More surprising than validating that guesses of the semantics were not always right was discovering that the presence of links had no relevance to if the resource it referred to existed.

For example, the following appears to indicate that there are resources associated with the properties self, eula__acceptance,product__files,file__groups,__user_groups.

Resolving the references led to surprising variants of “doesn’t exist”. Note that these endpoints were all explicitly listed as links in a successful response body.

eula_acceptance: HTTP Status 404

Resource does not exist at all

    "status": 404,
    "message": "no API endpoint matches 'products/dyadic-ekm-service-broker/releases/4186/eula_acceptance"

file_groups: HTTP Status 200

The resource ‘exists’ as a REST resource (a “file group” with no entries) and correctly links back to itself.

"file_groups": [],
 "_links": {
 "self": {

user_groups: HTTP Status 403

Resource is not viewable. The account has the rights to view all resources in this product, unknown if the resource exists.

      "status": 403,
       "message": "user cannot view user groups for this release '4186

Without a larger sample, it’s not obvious if these cases are constant or depend on some property of the resource. Since the presence and syntax of a uri was clearly insufficient to determine its validity, every resource would require checking of every link to see if it was valid and used.

Another example is apparent overloading of the term “Release”. In the following, is the Release “Native Client 9.0.7” a different product or newer version of “9.0.4” ?

Which is represented in the API similarly.

  "releases": [
      "id": 5376,
      "version": "9.0.4",
      "release_type": "Maintenance Release",
      "release_date": "2017-05-09",
      "id": 5917,
      "version": "Native Client 9.0.7",
      "release_type": "Maintenance Release",
      "release_date": "2017-06-22",

To make sense of this, a larger sample set was needed. The solution was like a basic ‘Web Crawler’ incorporating caching and network loop detection so it wouldn’t run forever or spawn too many threads. The resulting dataset could then be directly queried and used a meta-data cache. The binary resources (file downloads) were not downloaded at this point.

Analysis and Data Modeling

With the complete (accessible) data set in a database instead of a REST interface, queries could be done across the corpus efficiently. There was no intent at this point to use the database in production, rather for forensics and exploration to help determine the scope of the problem, basic ‘shape’ of the resources, and determine constant and variable feature. The source of the data could change at any time with no reliable notification mechanism so queries were inherently a point-in-time query with about a day lifespan at most.

Modeling the topology of the network (resource links) was needed to clarify what relationships were extensions or components of a single entity, what was containment of possibly shared entities and what were casual relationships. Simple statistics of unique attribute name and value distributions exposed where the same name was used in different types of entities, Co-occurrence queries validated which attributes were unique identifiers in what domain, which were optional, the complete set of attributes for each entity. The structure of the markup was regular and self consistent. It look like several commonly used REST and hypermedia conventions, but it wasn’t identical. It would have been useful to know which convention or framework was used for the implementation. An example is the JSON API specification (JSONAPI) which a very similar link and attribute convention but required attributes that did not exist such as ‘type’ Other similar examples include, JSON-LD. JSON-LD , JSON Hypertext Application Language (HAL) HAL Siren Siren Collection+JSON Collection+JSON . The answer to why many of the same names were used in different resources but with subsets of attributes was consistent with the “Expanded Resource” convention. Identifying those made the abstract model much simpler and allowed one to ‘see through’ the window of the API calls to the underlying model.

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-010.png

Note: that except for “self” there is no markup, naming convention, type or other indication to determine if a link refers to another entity, a separate contained entity or an expanded entity. The intent of this structure is to model one specific user interaction and presentation, one single instance of the class of Web Browser HTML Applications. Comparing individual REST requests to the equivalent HTML page shows an exact correlation. Tracking of the JavaScript HTTP request show the same.

From the perspective of a document or markup view, the API's present a data centric structured view, but from the perspective of the underlying resources the API's expose a presentation view. There are very good practical reasons for this design and it’s a common concept to have a summary and detail interface. But without some kind of Schema there is little clue that what your looking at is a page layout resource that aggregates, divides and overlays the entity resource making it quite obscure how to query, extract and navigate the dataset as entities. The REST API provides another method to address and query the resources once you have their unique id by exposing several other top level API's corresponding to the sub-resources. However, it’s the same endpoints (URI's) as in the links and the only way to get the ids is by querying the parent resource.

In theory , denormalizing or refactoring the data structure into a resource or document model should produce a much better abstraction for resource centric queries and document creation largely independent of the REST abstraction or the database, query or programming language and tool-set.

It should be a simple matter of extracting the schema from the REST model, then refactoring that into a document or object schema. In order to make use of the new model, instances of the source model need to be transformed into instances of the data model using an equivalent transformation as the schema. Separately these are common tasks solved by existing tools in many different domains, markup and programming languages. Unfortunately, the REST and JSON domain doesn’t have a proliferation of compatible tools, standards, libraries, or conventions for schema and data transformations. XML Tools can do much of this easily but lack good support for schema refactoring and little support for automation of the creation of transformations. Modern programming languages, libraries and IDE's have very good support for class and type refactoring including binding to software refactoring, code generation from schema, schema generation from code and data mapping to a variety of markup languages. There is enough overlap in functionality and formats that combining the tools from multiple domains has more then enough functionality. In theory. With the right theory, it should be practical and useful yet I have not yet discovered implementation, proposals, designs, or even discussion about how to do it, why it’s easy or difficult or that the problem or solution exists.

I assert that terminology, domain specialization, and disjoint conceptual abstractions obscure the existence of a common design ­­ a model that could be put to good use if recognized.

The Hidden life of Schema.

I am as guilty as any of assuming that my understanding of terminology is the only one. Reluctant to use the term “Schema” because it has such a specific meaning in many domains but lacking a better word I resorted to actually looking up the word in a few dictionaries. WD

  1. a diagrammatic presentation; broadly : a structured framework or plan : outline

  2. a mental codification of experience that includes a particular organized way of perceiving cognitively and responding to a complex situation or set of stimuli

Oxford Dictionary: OD

  1. technical. A representation of a plan or theory in the form of an outline or model.

  2. ‘a schema of scientific reasoning’

  3. (in Kantian philosophy) a conception of what is common to all members of a class; a general or essential type or form.

With these concepts in mind, looking for “schema” and “schema transformations” in other domains, particularly object oriented programming languages and IDE's finds schema everywhere under different names and forms, some explicit and some implicit. Starting with the core abstraction of object oriented programming – the Class.

A Concrete Class combines the abstract description of the static data model, the static interface for behavior, and the concrete implementation of both. This supplies the framework for both Schema and Transformation within that language.

Annotations provide for Meta-data that ‘cross-cut’ class systems and frameworks such that you can overlay multiple independent or inconsistent views on types, classes and methods.

Serialization, Data Mapping and Transformation frameworks make heavy use of a combination of the implicit schema in static class declarations and annotations to provide customization and generation of unique transformations with minimal or no change to the class itself.

Multiple domains of programming language, markup and data definition languages have followed a similar path starting from a purely declarative document centric concept of Schema to ‘Code First’ programming language centric model and eventually introducing some form of annotation that augments the data model schema or the transformation. The ability to directly associate meta-data representing semantics to targeted locations and fragments of implementation allows for general purpose IDE's , static refactoring, dynamic generation and transformation tools to preserve the semantics and relationships between schema, transformation as a ‘free ride’, agnostic to specialized domain knowledge.

I set out to validate that this was not only a viable theory but that it would work in practice, using commonly available tools and general knowledge.

OpenAPI the “New WSDL”

REST based Web Services and JSON grew from a strong “No Schema” philosophy. A reaction and rejection of the complexity of the then-current XML based service API's. The XML Service frameworks (WSDL, SOAP, JAXB, JAXP,J2EE [2] ) had themselves started humbly as a simplification of the previous generation’s binary protocols. XMLRPC [3], the grandfather of SOAP is a very similar to REST in may respects. The schema for XMLRPC defines the same basic object model primates, integers, floats, strings, lists, maps with no concept of derived or custom types. XMLRPC, as the name implies, models Remote Procedure Calls while REST, as originally defined reststyle, models Resources and representations. XMLRPC is a concrete specification of the behavior and data format. REST, on the other hand, is an Architectural Style, “RESTful” or “RESTful-style”, a set of design principals and concepts - without a concrete specification. So while an implementation of an XMLRPC service and a RESTful service may be equivalent in function, complexity , data model and use, they are entirely different abstract concepts. XMLRPC evolved along a single path into SOAP and branching into a collection of well defined albeit highly complex interoperable standards. “REST”, the Architectural Style, has inspired implementations and specifications but is as ephemeral now as it ever was. As the current predominate style of web services, nearly universally with the term “REST” applied to an implementation, there is little consensus as to what that specifically means and much debate as to whether a given API is really “RESTful” or not. Attempts to define standards and specifications for “REST” is oxymoronic leading to the current state of affairs expressed well by the phrase The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose [4] So while the eternal competing forces of constraints vs freedom play on, the stronger forces of usability, interoperability and adoption led a path of rediscovery and reinvention.

The Open API Initiative was formed and agreed on a specification for RESTful API's that is quietly and quickly gaining adoption. The Open API specification is explicitly markup and implementation language agnostic. It is not vendor or implementation based, rather it’s derived from a collection of open source projects based on the “Swagger” SG01 specification. A compelling indicator of mind-share adoption is the number of “competing” implementations, vendors and specifications that support import and export to Open API format but not each other. While Open API has the major components of a mature API specification – schema, declarative, language agnostic, implementation independent – its documentation centric focus and proliferation of compatible tools in dozens of languages attracts a wide audience even those opposed to the idea of standards and specifications, schema and constraints. OpenAPI is more of an interchange format then normative specification. Implementations can freely produce or consume OpenAPI documents and the API's they describe without having themselves to be based on OpenAPI.

Figure 10: The OpenAPI Ecosystem

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-011.png

The OpenAPI Specification is the formal document describing only the OpenAPI document format itself. The ecosystem of tools and features are not part of the specification nor is their functionality.

The agility to enter or leave this ecosystem at will allows one to combine with other systems to create work-flows and processing pipelines otherwise impractical. The Java ecosystem has very good support for data mapping, particularly JSON to Object mapping, manipulation of Java artifacts as source and dynamically via reflection and bytecode generation at runtime. The JSON ecosystem has started to enter the realm of schema processing, typically JSON Schema [5]JSCH1. Not nearly the extent of XML tools, there are very few implementations that make direct use of JSON schema, but there are many tools that can produce JSON Schema from JSON Documents, produce sample JSON Documents from JSON Schema, and most interesting in this context produce Java Classes from JSON Schema and JSON Schema from Java Classes.

Combined together, along with some manual intervention to fill in the gaps and add human judgment, a processing path that spans software languages, markup and data formats, behavior, along with the meta-data and schema that describe them. Nowhere close to frictionless, lossless or easy – but it’s becoming possible. If it’s shown to be useful as well then perhaps motivation for filling the remaining holes and smoothing the cracks will inspire people to explore the possibilities.

Standard OpenAPI Tools

Figure 11: Swagger Editor

image ../../../vol19/graphics/Lee01/Lee01-012.png

Swagger Editor with the standard "Pet Store" API.

The left pane contains the editable content, the OpenAPI document in YAML format. As you edit the right pane adjusts to a real-time documentation view composed solely from the current document content. Note the native support for XML and JSON bodies. The sample shown is generated from the schema alone although it can be augmented with sample content, an optional element of the specification for any type description.

Included in the editor is the "Try it out" feature which will invoke the API as currently defined in the editor returning the results.

Code generation in several dozen software languages for client and server code is included as part of the open source "Swagger Coden" libraries and directly accessible from the editor. This ranges from simple stub code, Documentation in multiple formats and a few novel implementations that provide fully functional client and server code dynamically generating representative requests and responses based on the OpenAPI document alone.

Figure 12: Swagger UI

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The Swagger UI tool provides no editing capability rather it is intended for live documentation and exploration of an API. A REST endpoint that supplies a definition of its API in OpenAPI Format can be opened, viewed and invoked interactively from this tool. There is no requirement that the API be implemented in any way using OpenAPI tools, the document could simply be a hand made static resource describing any API implemenation that can be described, even partially, by an OpenAPI document. Both Swagger Editor and Swagger IO provide both sample and semantic representations of the model.

Figure 13: Restlet Studio

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Restlet Studio [6] is a proprietary application from Restlet with a free version. It uses its own proprietery formats not based on OpenAPI, but provides import and export to OpenAPI with a good but not perfect fidelity. Restlet Studio was used during the early schema refactoring due to its support for editing the data model in a more visual fashion.

A powerful refactoring feature is the ability to extract nested anonymous JSON Schema types into named top level types. This facilitated a very quick first pass at extracting common types from multiple resources.

Having named top level types instead of anonymous sub types translated into Java Classes cleanly.

Reverse Engineering an Open API Document

It would have been very convenient if the pivotal API exposed an OpenAPI interface, the tool-kits used most likely have the capability, or a OpenAPI document manually created. This would have provided generation of documentation for the API including the complete schema for the data model as well as enabling creation of client API's in nearly any language by the consumer.

Instead, I attempted an experiment to see how difficult it is to reverse engineer an open API document from the behavior of the API. From that, the remaining tasks would be fairly simple.

To construct an Open API document requires a few essential components.

Declaration of the HTTP endpoint, methods, resource URI pattern and HTTP response.

These were all documented to sufficient detail to easily transcribe into OpenAPI format.

  • A JSON Schema representation of the object model for each endpoint. The specifications allow this to be omitted by simply using ANY.

    But the usefulness of ANY is None.

  • A shared ‘definition’ schema to allow for reuse of schema definition within a single endpoint and across endpoints.

The representation of JSON Schema in OpenAPI is a subset of the full JSON Schema plus a few optional extensions. Otherwise it can literally be copy and pasted into a standalone JSON Schema document, or you can reference an external JSON Schema. There are several good OpenAPI compatible authoring and design tools available, open source and commercial. These can be used for authoring JSON Schema directly.

The Open API Document format itself is fully supported in both JSON and YAML formats. This allows you to choose which format you dislike least. The transformation from JSON to YAML is fully reversible, since JSON is a subset of YAML and OpenAPI only utilize JSON expressible markup. Available tools do a fairly good job of this, with the exception of YAML comments and multi-line strings. The former have no JSON representing so are lost and the later have to many representations so get mangled. That can be worked around by adding comments later or by a little human intervention.

To validate that there was no hidden dependence on specific implementation and that it didn’t require a great deal of software installation or expert knowledge, I picked a variety of tools for the purpose ad-hoc and generally used web sites that had online browser based implementations.

The Pivotal api has several useful top level endpoints exposing different paths to the same data. To reuse the schema across endpoints and to reduce redundancy within an endpoint, the definitions feature of OpenAPI was used. This required assigning type names to every refactored schema component. Since JSON document instances have no type name information in them, every extracted type would need to be named. Using the OpenAPI editors, some amount of refactoring was possible, producing automatically generated names of dubious value since there is no constraint that the schema for one fields value is the same as another filed of the same name. Identifying where these duplicate schema components could be combined into one and where they were semantically different was aided by the prior analysis of the data set.

I made use of several API IDE’s that were not OpenAPI native but did provide import and export of Open API. There was some issue with these where the import or export was not fully implemented. For example the extend type annotations in OpenAPI were unrecognized by the tools and either discarded or required changing to the basic JSON Schema types or their proprietary types. Enumerations and typed strings were the most problematic. I have since communicated with the vendors and some improvements been made. I expect this to be less of an issue over time.

The availability of tools that can convert between JSON Schema and Java Classes allows for the use of Java IDE’s to refactor JSON Schema indirectly.

Of course all the representations of data, schema, java source and API Specifications were in plain text, which any text editor accommodated.

The result was an interactive process of exploration and convenience switching between different editing environments fairly easy. Use of scripting and work-flow automation would have improved the experience, but was not necessary.


There are multiple OpenAPI Validation implementations. There is no specification of validation itself in OpenAPI which lead to differences in results. Difference in indication of the exact cause and location varied greatly. Some tools support semantic validation as well as schema and syntax validation.

The ability to directly execute the API from some tools is a major feature that allowed iterative testing during editing and refactoring.

Code Generation

Code generation of client side API invocation in multiple languages provided a much better validation due to the data mapping involved. An incorrect schema would usually result in an exception parsing the response into the generated object model instances. Scripting invocation of the generated application code allowed testing across a large sample set then easily done interactively.

Particularly useful was the ability to serialize the resulting object back to JSON using the generated data model. The output JSON could then be compared against the raw response to validate the fidelity of the model in practice. It’s not necessary or always useful for the results to match exactly. For example renaming of field names, collapsing redundant structure, removal of unneeded elements can be the main reason for using the tools. I found it easier to first produce and validate a correct implementation before modifying it to the desired model, especially since I didn’t yet know what data was going to be needed.

Refactoring JSON Schema via Java Class Representation

Tools to convert between JSON Schema and Java Classes are easily available. Typically used for Data Mapping and Serializing Java to and from JSON, they work quite well as a schema language conversion.

A Java Class derived from JSON Schema preserves most of the features of JSON Schema directly as Java constructs. The specific mapping is implementation dependant, but the concept is ubiquitous. Once in a Java Class representaiton common refactoring functionality present in modern Java IDE's such as Eclipse are trivial. For example the result of extracting anonymous types into named types in Restlet Studio resulted in a large number of synthetic class names such as "links_href_00023". Renaming a class to something more appropriate could be done in a few seconds including updating all of the references to it. Duplicate classes of different names can be easily consolidated by a similar method. Type constraints can be applied by modifying the primitive types. For example where enumerated values are present but the JSON to JSON Schema conversion did not recognize them, the fields were left as 'string' values. These could be replaced by Java Enum classes. Fields can be reordered or removed if unneeded.

Overlapping types can sometimes be refactored into a class hierarchy or encapsulation to reduce duplication and model the intended semantics. Mistakes are immediately caught as compile errors.

Since the IDE itself is not aware that the source of the classes was from JSON Schema it will not prevent you from making changes that have an ill-defined or non-existent JSON Schemea representaiton, or one that the conversion tool does not handle well. Several iterations may be necessary to produce the desired output.

Converting back from Java classes to JSON Schema preserves these changes allowing one to merge the results back into the OpenAPI document.

Refactoring by API Composition

No amount of schema refactoring and code generation could account for the expanded entities that spanned API calls. The Open API document has no native provision for composition or transformation at runtime. That required traditional programming.

Once I had a working and reasonable OpenAPI document model and validated it across a large sample set, I then took exited the OpenAPI ecosystem and proceeded to some simple program enhancements. The REST API was now represented as an Object model, with an API object with methods for each REST endpoint. From this basis it was simple to refactor by composition. For example to expand a partially exposed resource into the complete form required either extracting the resource id and invoke a call in its respective endpoint method, or in dereferencing its ‘self’ link. The later actually being more difficult because the semantics of the link was not part of the data model. The resource ID was not explicitly typed either but the generated methods to retrieve a resource of a given type were modeled and provided static type validation in the form of argument arty and return type.

This is a major difference from using a REST API in a web browser. The architecture and style impose a resource model and implementation that is not only presentation oriented but also browser navigation and user interaction specific. This is explicitly stated as a fundamental architectural feature highlighting the advantage of media type negation for user experience.

End Application

To complete the application I added a simple command line parser and serialize. This completed the experiment and validated that the process is viable and useful. This also marked the beginning. I could invoke the API, retrieve the data in multiple formats reliably, optimize and compose queries in a language of choice and rely on the results.

Figure 14: A simple command line application

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I could now begin to ask the question I started with. What are the transitive set of digital artifacts of the latest version of a software product?

Left as an exercise for the reader.

Reverse Engineering, Refactoring, Schema and Data Model Transformation Cycle.

Figure 15: A Continuous Cyclical Transformation Workflow

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A flow diagram of the process described. Wherever the path indicates a possible loop implies that an iterative process can be used. The entire work-flow itself is iterable as well.

Since the work-flow is continuously connected including the ability to generate a client or server API, any step in the process can be an entry or exit point. This implies that not only can you start at any point and complete, but that any subset of the process can be used to enable transformations between the respective representations of the entry and end nodes in isolation.

  • REST API to JSON Document

    Invoke REST API producing a JSON Document

  • API ‘Crawling’

    Automated exhaustive search of API resources over hypermedia links.

    Producing a representative sample set of JSON Documents

  • JSON to JSON Schema

    JSON samples to JSON Schema automated generation.

  • JSON Schema to Open API Documents

    Enrich JSON Schema with REST semantics to create an Open API Document.

    ( JSON or YAML)

  • Open API IDE

    Cleanup and refactoring in Open API IDE's.

  • Open API to JSON Schema

    Extract refactored JSON Schema from Open API

  • JSON Schema to Java Class

    JSON Schema to Java Class automated generation.

    Produces self standing Java source code.

  • Java IDE

    Java IDE with rich class and source refactoring ability.

    Refactor Java Class structure using standard techniques.

    Enrich with Annotations

    Produces refined and simplified Java Classes

  • Java Source to JSON Schema

    Automated conversion of Java source to JSON Schema

  • Merge new JSON Schema to Open API

    Merge Refactored JSON Schema back into Open API Document (JSON or YAML)

  • Open API IDE

    Cleanup and refactoring in Open API IDE's.

  • Open API to JSON Schema

    Extract JSON Schema from Open API

    Iterate 6-11 as needed

  • Code Generation

    Open API code generation tools to source code.

    Optional customization of code generation templates to apply reusable data mapping annotations

  • Documentation Generation

    Open API to complete documentation, any format.

  • Generated Code to Application

    Enrich and refactor generated code with Data Mapping annotation to produce custom data model preserving the REST interface.

    Augment with business logic to produce custom application based on underlying data model directly.

  • Custom Application

    Application operates on custom data model directly; data mapping converts between data models and generated code invokes REST API.

  • Output multiple markup formats

    Side effect of open API tools and Data Mapping framework automate serialization to multiple formats. (JSON, XML, CSV)

  • Application to Open API

    Generated code includes automated output of OpenAPI document at runtime, incorporating any changes applied during enrichment.



[HAL] JSON Hypertext Application Language (HAL).,

[Siren] Siren.

[Collection+JSON] Collection+JSON.


[reststyle] "REST" Representation State Transfer.

[JSON] JSON: The JavaScript Object Notation. The JSON Data Interchange Format

[XML] XML: Extensible Markup Language.

[HTTP] HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocool.,,

[xmlsh] xmlsh: A polygot scripting scripting language.

[WD] Marriam-Webster Dictionary.

[OD] Oxford Dictionary.

[JSCH1] JSON Schema.

[XML-RPC] XMLRPC or XML-RPC: a specification for remote procedure calls over HTTP.

[OAS] OpenAPI: A specification from the OpenAPI Initiative., donated from Swagger SG01

[SG01] Swagger: A specification for APIs and the open source organziation of the same name., donated to OpenAPI Initiative OAS

[1] API: Application Programming Interface

[2] WSDL, SOAP, JAXB, JAXP, J2EE are part of a large collection of related specifications loosely comprising the industry standard for web services predominant in the 2000-2010 era.

[3] XMLRPC: An early HTTP remote procedure call specification using an XML body. XML-RPC

[4] Andrew Stuart Tanenbaum, disputed

[5] JSON Schema is A set of releated specifications for describing a schema JSON objects and schema-related uses.

[6] Restlet Studio: is part of the suite of software availbable from Restlet

David Lee


Nexstra, Inc.

David Lee has over 30 years' experience in the software industry responsible for major projects at companies of all sizes and cross-industry and the developer of "xmlsh", a widely used open source scripting language. Examples include telephony automation, embedded systems, real-time video streaming (IBM), CRM systems (Sun, Centura Software), Security and infrastructure (Centura Software, RightPoint, MarkLogic), Software development frameworks (Centura, WebGain), Clinical information work-flows, mass mobile device information distribution (Epocrates), Core 'NoSQL'/'XML' Database development, Cloud computing, Global secure telemetry distribution (MarkLogic), Digital publishing (internet and physical media), eCommerce and custom messaging systems (Nexstra). He has a long history of independent research in effective data processing and markup use in industry and has been involved in multiple W3C working groups. He currently serves an advisory role as CTO of Nexstra, a digital publication and services company he co-founded over 10 years ago.