REST Messages And Data Transfer Objects

In Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture, Martin Fowler defines a Data Transfer Object (DTO) as

An object that carries data between processes in order to reduce the number of method calls.

Note that a Data Transfer Object is not the same as a Data Access Object (DAO), although they have some similarities. A Data Access Object is used to hide details from the underlying persistence layer.

REST Messages Are Serialized DTOs

message-transferIn a RESTful architecture, the messages sent across the wire are serializations of DTOs.

This means all the best practices around DTOs are important to follow when building RESTful systems.

For instance, Fowler writes

…encapsulate the serialization mechanism for transferring data over the wire. By encapsulating the serialization like this, the DTOs keep this logic out of the rest of the code and also provide a clear point to change serialization should you wish.

In other words, you should follow the DRY principle and have exactly one place where you convert your internal DTO to a message that is sent over the wire.

In JAX-RS, that one place should be in an entity provider. In Spring, the mechanism to use is the message converter. Note that both frameworks have support for several often-used serialization formats.

Following this advice not only makes it easier to change media types (e.g. from plain JSON or HAL to a more mature media type like Siren, Mason, or UBER). It also makes it easy to support multiple media types.

mediaThis in turn enables you to switch media types without breaking clients.

You can continue to serve old clients with the old media type, while new clients can take advantage of the new media type.

Introducing new media types is one way to evolve your REST API when you must make backwards incompatible changes.

DTOs Are Not Domain Objects

Domain objects implement the ubiquitous language used by subject matter experts and thus are discovered. DTOs, on the other hand, are designed to meet certain non-functional characteristics, like performance, and are subject to trade-offs.

This means the two have very different reasons to change and, following the Single Responsibility Principle, should be separate objects. Blindly serializing domain objects should thus be considered an anti-pattern.

That doesn’t mean you must blindly add DTOs, either. It’s perfectly fine to start with exposing domain objects, e.g. using Spring Data REST, and introducing DTOs as needed. As always, premature optimization is the root of all evil, and you should decide based on measurements.

The point is to keep the difference in mind. Don’t change your domain objects to get better performance, but rather introduce DTOs.

DTOs Have No Behavior

big-dataA DTO should not have any behavior; it’s purpose in life is to transfer data between remote systems.

This is very different from domain objects.

There are two basic approaches for dealing with the data in a DTO.

The first is to make them immutable objects, where all the input is provided in the constructor and the data can only be read.

This doesn’t work well for large objects, and doesn’t play nice with serialization frameworks.

The better approach is to make all the properties writable. Since a DTO must not have logic, this is one of the few occasions where you can safely make the fields public and omit the getters and setters.

Of course, that means some other part of the code is responsible for filling the DTO with combinations of properties that together make sense.

Conversely, you should validate DTOs that come back in from the client.

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How To Return Error Details From REST APIs

errorThe HTTP protocol uses status codes to return error information. This facility, while extremely useful, is too limited for many use cases. So how do we return more detailed information?

There are basically two approaches we can take:

  1. Use a dedicated media type that contains the error details
  2. Include the error details in the used media type

Dedicated Error Media Types

There are at least two candidates in this space:

  1. Problem Details for HTTP APIs is an IETF draft that we’ve used in some of our APIs to good effect. It treats both problem types and instances as URIs and is extensible. This media type is available in both JSON and XML flavors.
  2. application/vnd.error+json is for JSON media types only. It also feels less complete and mature to me.

A media type dedicated to error reporting has the advantage of being reusable in many REST APIs. Any existing libraries for handling them could save us some effort. We also don’t have to think about how to structure the error details, as someone else has done all that hard work for us.

However, putting error details in a dedicated media type also increases the burden on clients, since they now have to handle an additional media type.

Another disadvantage has to do with the Accept header. It’s highly unlikely that clients will specify the error media type in Accept. In general, we should either return 406 or ignore the Accept header when we can’t honor it. The first option is not acceptable (pun intended), the second is not very elegant.

Including Error Details In Regular Media Type

We could also design our media types such that they allow specifying error details. In this post, I’m going to stick with three mature media types: Mason, Siren, and UBER.

Mason uses the @error property:

{
  "@error": {
    "@id": "b2613385-a3b2-47b7-b336-a85ac405bc66",
    "@message": "There was a problem with one or more input values.",
    "@code": "INVALIDINPUT"
  }
}

The existing error properties are compatible with Problem Details for HTTP APIs, and they can be extended.

Siren doesn’t have a specific structure for errors, but we can easily model errors with the existing structures:

{
  "class": [
    "error"
  ],
  "properties": {
    "id": "b2613385-a3b2-47b7-b336-a85ac405bc66",
    "message": "There was a problem with one or more input values.",
    "code": "INVALIDINPUT"
  }
}

We can even go a step further and use entities to add detailed sub-errors. This would be very useful for validation errors, for instance, where you can report all errors to the client at once. We could also use the existing actions property to include a retry action. And we could use the error properties from Problem Details for HTTP APIs.

UBER has an explicit error structure:

{
  "uber": {
    "version": "1.0",
    "error": {
      "data": [
        { "name": "id", "value": "b2613385-a3b2-47b7-b336-a85ac405bc66" },
        { "name": "message", "value": "There was a problem with one or more input values." },
        { "name": "code", "value": "INVALIDINPUT" }
      ]
    }
  }
}

Again, we could reuse the error properties from Problem Details for HTTP APIs.

Conclusion

My advice would be to use the error structure of your existing media type and use the extensibility features to steal all the good ideas from Problem Details for HTTP APIs.

HyperRosetta

rosetta-stoneThe Rosetta stone is a rock with the same text inscribed in three different languages. This allowed us to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.

In this post I’ll introduce a similar “stone” for hypermedia formats, using the RESTBucks example.

I think that seeing concrete hypermedia messages in different formats will make the similarities and differences clearly visible, which will hopefully make it easier to choose the right format for your API.

The text that I’ll use for HyperRosetta, the hypermedia Rosetta stone, is Example 5.6 of the REST in Practice book. For those hypermedia formats that can include templates, I’ll use the payment link with the representation in Example 5.7 of the book.

These are the media types available on HyperRosetta:

If you’d like to see another media type added to this list, please add a comment to this post.

application/vnd.restbucks+xml

This is the representation used in the book:

<order xmlns="http://schemas.restbucks.com/" 
    xmlns:dap="http://schemas.restbucks.com/dap">
  <dap:link mediaType="application/vnd.restbucks.com"
      uri="http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      rel"http://relations.restbucks.com/cancel"/>
  <dap:link mediaType="application/vnd.restbucks.com"
      uri="http://restbucks.com/payment/1234"
      rel"http://relations.restbucks.com/payment"/>
  <dap:link mediaType="application/vnd.restbucks.com"
      uri="http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      rel"http://relations.restbucks.com/update"/>
  <dap:link mediaType="application/vnd.restbucks.com"
      uri="http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      rel"self"/>
  <item>
    <milk>semi</milk>
    <size>large</size>
    <drink>cappuccino</drink>
  </item>
  <location>takeAway</location>
  <cost>2.0</cost>
  <status>unpaid</status
</order>

This is an example of a domain-specific media type, so I will not be able to re-use existing client libraries to parse it. Since this format is based on XML, I can use an existing XML parser, but it won’t be able to recognize links in this representation.

This media type doesn’t tell me in the message what HTTP methods to use to dereference the link URIs. So the client has to be programmed with the knowledge that it has to use PUT on the update link, for instance. If the service should ever change that to PATCH, the client will break.

The message does tell me the media type to expect in the response, making it easier for the client to decide whether it should follow a link.

The RESTBucks media type is a fiat standard that isn’t registered with IANA.

application/atom+xml

<entry xmlns="http://www.w3.org/2005/Atom">
  <author>
    <name>RESTBucks</name>
  </author>
  <content type="application/vnd.restbucks+xml">
    <order xmlns="http://schemas.restbucks.com/">
      <item>
        <milk>semi</milk>
        <size>large</size>
        <drink>cappuccino</drink>
      </item>
      <location>takeAway</location>
      <cost>2.0</cost>
      <status>unpaid</status
    </order>
  </content>
  <link type="application/vnd.restbucks.com"
      href="http://restbucks.com/payment/1234"
      rel"http://relations.restbucks.com/payment"/>
  <link type="application/vnd.restbucks.com"
      href="http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      rel"edit"/>
  <link type="application/vnd.restbucks.com"
      href="http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      rel"self"/>
</entry>

Atom is a domain-general media type that implements the collection pattern. Since it is not specific to a single service, I can use an Atom library to parse the message and it will be able to find links. It will also know that the edit link will allow me to update and delete the order (using PUT and DELETE respectively).

The Atom library won’t help me with parsing the content, but I can still use an XML library for that. As with the domain-specific media type, I will need to embed knowledge of the HTTP method used for paying into my client.

A disadvantage of this particular domain-general media type is the overhead of things like author that don’t particularly make sense for RESTBucks.

application/xml

<order xmlns="http://schemas.restbucks.com/">
  <link href="http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      rel"http://relations.restbucks.com/cancel"/>
  <link href="http://restbucks.com/payment/1234"
      rel"http://relations.restbucks.com/payment"/>
  <link href="http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      rel"http://relations.restbucks.com/update"/>
  <link href="http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      rel"self"/>
  <item>
    <milk>semi</milk>
    <size>large</size>
    <drink>cappuccino</drink>
  </item>
  <location>takeAway</location>
  <cost>2.0</cost>
  <status>unpaid</status
</order>

XML is a domain-agnostic format, which means it can be used for anything. The downside is that you won’t know anything about the content until you look at it.

Formally, this means I can’t dispatch on the media type alone anymore, but need to look at the namespace inside the message. In practice people dispatch on the media type anyway. This can lead to parsing problems when the expectation isn’t met, e.g. when an error document is sent instead of an order.

Worse, XML isn’t even a hypermedia type, since it doesn’t describe links. There is the XLInk standard for that, but I haven’t seen that used in APIs.

application/json

{ "order": {
  "_links": {
    "http://relations.restbucks.com/cancel": { 
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
    },
    "http://relations.restbucks.com/payment": {
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/payment/1234"
    }
    "http://relations.restbucks.com/update": { 
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
    },
    "self": { 
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
    },
    "item": {
      "milk": "semi",
      "size": "large",
      "drink": "cappuccino"
    }
    "location": "takeAway",
    "cost": 2.0,
    "status": "unpaid"
  }
}

JSON is a another domain-agnostic format without linking capabilities, so the same caveats apply as for XML. Despite these significant drawbacks, this is what high-profile projects like Spring use.

application/hal+json

{ "_links": {
    "self": { 
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
    },
    "curies": [{
      "name": "relations",
      "href": "http://relations.restbucks.com/"
    }],
    "relations:cancel": { 
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
    },
    "relations:payment": {
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/payment/1234"
    }
    "relations:update": { 
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
    }
  },
  "_embedded": {
    "item": [{
      "milk": "semi",
      "size": "large",
      "drink": "cappuccino"
    }]
  },
  "location": "takeAway",
  "cost": 2.0,
  "status": "unpaid"
}

HAL is a another domain-agnostic format, so the same caveats apply as for JSON.

However, HAL is a real hypermedia type, since it standardizes how to find links (using the _links property). In addition, it also defines how to find embedded objects (using the _embedded property).

HAL uses curies to make the representation a bit more compact. This is nice for humans, but another thing to program into your clients.

HAL is currently an Internet-Draft. There is also an XML version of HAL registered.

application/collection+json

{  "collection": {
    "version" : "1.0",
    "href" : "http://restbucks.com/orders",
    "items" : [{
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234",
      "data": [
        { "name": "item1.milk", "value": "semi" }, 
        { "name": "item1.size", "value": "large" }, 
        { "name": "item1.drink", "value": "cappuccino" }, 
        { "name": "location", "value": "takeAway" }, 
        { "name": "cost", "value": 2.0 }, 
        { "name": "status", "value": "unpaid" }
      ],
      "links" : [{ 
        "rel" : "http://relations.restbucks.com/cancel", 
        "href" : "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      }, { 
        "rel" : "http://relations.restbucks.com/payment", 
        "href" : "http://restbucks.com/payment/1234"
      }, { 
        "rel" : "http://relations.restbucks.com/update", 
        "href" : "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      }, { 
        "rel" : "self", 
        "href" : "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
      }]
    }]
  }
}

Collection+JSON (Cj) is the translation of Atom into JSON. Like Atom, it’s a domain-general format for collections.

In Cj, properties are single values only, so I had to cheat and use the item1. prefix to keep the item data in the message. A better solution would probably be to extract the order items into its own collection, but I didn’t want to change the granularity of the messages.

Cj provides a template property that specifies how to add an item to the collection or update an existing one. Unfortunately, that mechanism is specific to collection actions, so we can’t use it to specify how to add a payment, for example. I don’t show the template in this example because it suffers from the same problem as the data property in that it can’t embed objects.

application/vnd.mason+json

{ "@namespaces": {
    "relations": {
      "name": "http://relations.restbucks.com/"
    }
  },
  "item": [{
    "milk": "semi",
    "size": "large",
    "drink": "cappuccino"
  }],
  "location": "takeAway",
  "cost": 2.0,
  "status": "unpaid",
  "@links": {
    "self": { 
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
    }
  },
  "@actions": {
    "relations:cancel": { 
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234",
      "type": "void",
      "method": "DELETE"
    },
    "relations:payment": {
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/payment/1234",
      "title": "Pay the order",
      "type": "any",
      "method": "PUT",
      "template": {
        "payment": {
          "amount": 2.0,
          "cardholderName": "",
          "cardNumber": "",
          "expiryMonth": "",
          "expiryYear": ""
        }
      }
    },
    "relations:update": { 
      "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234",
      "type": "any",
      "method": "PUT",
      "template": {
        "item": [{
          "milk": "semi",
          "size": "large",
          "drink": "cappuccino"
        }],
        "location": "takeAway",
        "cost": 2.0,
        "status": "unpaid"
      }
    }
  }
}

Mason is a superset of HAL. It adds actions and errors (not shown in this example), which turns it into a full hypermedia type (level 3b). Mason also supports curies.

A peculiarity of the actions is the type property, which can be void, json, json-files, or any. I’d expected a media type there.

application/vnd.siren+json

{ "class": [ "order" ],
  "properties": [{
    "location": "takeAway",
    "cost": 2.0,
    "status": "unpaid"
  },
  "entities": [{
    "class": [ "item" ],
    "rel": [ "http://relations.restbucks.com/item" ],
    "properties": {
      "milk": "semi",
      "size": "large",
      "drink": "cappuccino"
    }
  }],
  "actions": [{
    "name": "http://relations.restbucks.com/cancel",
    "title": "Cancel the order",
    "method": "DELETE",
    "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
  }, {
    "name": "http://relations.restbucks.com/payment",
    "title": "Pay the order",
    "href": "http://restbucks.com/payment/1234",
    "type": "application/vnd.siren+json",
    "method": "PUT",
    "fields": [{
      "name": "amount",
      "type": "number",
      "value": 2.0
    }, {
      "name": "cardholderName",
      "type": "text"
    }, {
      "name": "cardNumber",
      "type": "text"
    }, {
      "name": "expiryMonth",
      "type": "number"
    }, {
      "name": "expiryYear",
      "type": "number"
    }],
  }, {
    "name": "http://relations.restbucks.com/update",
    "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234",
    "method": "PUT",
    "type": "application/vnd.siren.json"
  }],
  "links": [{ 
    "rel": "self",
    "href": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
  }]
}

Siren is a full hypermedia type that includes the HTTP methods and media types to use. It also allows specifying the application semantics using the class, rel, and name properties. This makes it suitable for level 4 APIs.

Siren specifies the type for fields, so that clients can render appropriate UIs.

application/vnd.uber+json

{ "uber": {
  "version": "1.0",
  "data": [{
    "rel": [ "self" ],
    "url": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234"
  }, {
    "id": "order",
    "data": [{
      "name": "item",
      "data": [{
        "name": "milk",
        "value": "semi"
      }, {
        "name": "size", 
        "value": "large",
      }, {
        "name": "drink",
        "value": "cappuccino"
      }]
    }, {
      "name": "location",
      "value": "takeAway"
    }, {
      "name": "cost",
      "value": 2.0
    }, {
      "name": "status",
      "value": "unpaid"
    }]
  }, {
    "rel": "http://relations.restbucks.com/cancel",
    "url": "http://restbucks.com/payment/1234",
    "action": "remove"
  }, {
    "rel": "http://relations.restbucks.com/payment",
    "url": "http://restbucks.com/payment/1234",
    "sending": "application/vnd.uber+json",
    "action": "replace",
    "data": [{
      "name": "amount",
      "value": 2.0
    }, {
      "name": "cardholderName",
    }, {
      "name": "cardNumber",
    }, {
      "name": "expiryMonth",
    }, {
      "name": "expiryYear",
    }],
  }, {
    "rel": "http://relations.restbucks.com/update",
    "url": "http://restbucks.com/order/1234",
    "action": "replace",
    "sending": "application/vnd.uber.json"
  }]
}

UBER is a full hypermedia format with a lean message structure. It combines in the data property what other media types separate out in e.g. links, actions, and properties, which makes it a bit hard to read for humans.

UBER allows specifying application semantics using the name and rel properties, making it a level 4 capable media type.

There is also an XML variant of UBER.

RESTBucks Evolved

restbucksThe book REST in Practice: Hypermedia and Systems Architecture uses an imaginary StarBucks-like company as its running example.

I think this is a great example, since most people are familiar with the domain.

The design is also simple enough to follow, yet complex enough to be interesting.

Problem Domain

RESTbucks is about ordering and paying for coffee (or tea) and food. Here is the state diagram for the client:
restbucks-states

  1. Create the order
  2. Update the order
  3. Cancel the order
  4. Pay for the order
  5. Wait for the order to be prepared
  6. Take the order

Book Design

The hypermedia design in the book for the service is as follows:

  1. The client POSTs an order to the well-known RESTBucks URI. This returns the order URI in the Location header. The client then GETs the order URI
  2. The client POSTs an updated order to the order URI
  3. The client DELETEs the order URI
  4. The client PUTs a payment to the URI found by looking up a link with relation http://relations.restbucks.com/payment
  5. The client GETs the order URI until the state changes
  6. The client DELETEs the URI found by looking up a link with relation http://relations.restbucks.com/receipt

The book uses the specialized media type application/vnd.restbucks.order+xml for all messages exchanged.

Design Problems

Here are some of the problems that I have with the above approach:

  1. I think the well-known URI for the service (what Mike Amundsen calls the billboard URI) should respond to a GET, so that clients can safely explore it.
    This adds an extra message, but it also makes it possible to expand the service with additional functionality. For instance, when menus are added in a later chapter of the book, a second well-known URI is introduced. With a proper home document-like resource in front of the order service, this could have been limited to a new link relation.
  2. I’d rather use PUT for updating an order, since that is an idempotent method. The book states that the representation returned by GET contains links and argues that this implies that (1) PUT messages should also contain those links and (2) that that would be strange since those links are under control of the server.
    I disagree with both statements. A server doesn’t necessarily have to make the formats for GET and PUT exactly the same. Even if it did, some parts, like the links, could be optional. Furthermore, there is no reason the server couldn’t accept and ignore the links.
  3. The DELETE is fine.
    An alternative is to use PUT with a status of canceled, since we already have a status property anyway. That opens up some more possibilities, like re-instating a canceled order, but also introduces issues like garbage collection.
  4. I don’t think PUT is the correct method. Can the service really guarantee under all circumstances that my credit card won’t get charged twice if I repeat the payment?
    More importantly, this design assumes that payments are always for the whole order. That may seem logical at first, but once the book introduces vouchers that logic evaporates. If I have a voucher for a free coffee, then I still have to pay for anything to eat or for a second coffee.
    I’d create a collection of payments that the client should POST to. I’d also use the standard payment link relation defined in RFC 5988.
  5. This is fine.
  6. This makes no sense to me: taking the order is not the same as deleting the receipt. I need the receipt when I’m on a business trip, so I can get reimbursed!
    I’d rather PUT a new order with status taken.

Service Evolution

Suppose you’ve implemented your own service based on the design in the book.

evolutionFurther suppose that after reading the above, you want to change your service.

How can you do that without breaking any clients that may be out there?

After all, isn’t that what proponents tout as one of the advantages of a RESTful approach?

Well, yes and no. The media type defined in the book is at level 3a, and so will allow you to change URIs. However, the use of HTTP methods is defined out-of-band and you can’t easily change that.

Now imagine that the book would have used a full hypermedia type (level 3b) instead. In that case, the HTTP method used would be part of the message. The client would have to discover it, and the server could easily change it without fear of breaking clients.

Of course, this comes at the cost of having to build more logic into the client. That’s why I think it’s a good idea to use an existing full hypermedia type like Mason, Siren, or UBER. Such generic media types are much more likely to come with libraries that will handle this sort of work for the client.

REST Maturity

rest-maturity2In 2008, Leonard Richardson published his Maturity Heuristic that classified web services into three levels based on their use of URI, HTTP, and hypermedia.

Back then, most web services were stuck at either level 1 or 2. Unfortunately, not a whole lot has improved since then in that respect: so-called pragmatic REST is still the norm.

BTW, I really dislike the term “pragmatic REST”. It’s a cheap rhetoric trick to put opponents (“dogmatists”) on the defensive.

More importantly, it creates semantic diffusion: pragmatic REST is not actually REST according to the definition, so please don’t call it that way or else we’re going to have a hard time understanding each other. The term REST hardly means anything anymore these days.

Anyway, there is some light at the end of the tunnel: more services are now at level 3, where they serve hypermedia. A good example by a big name is Amazon’s AppStream API.

The difference between plain media types, like image/jpeg, and hypermedia types, like text/html, is of course the “hyper” part. Links allow a client to discover functionality without being coupled to the server’s URI structure.

JSONBTW, application/json is not a hypermedia type, since JSON doesn’t define links.

We can, of course, use a convention on top of JSON, for instance that there should be a links property with a certain structure to describes the links, like Spring HATEOAS does.

The problem with conventions is that they are out-of-band communication, and a client has no way of knowing for sure whether that convention is followed when it sees a Content-Type of application/json. It’s therefore much better to use a media type that turns the convention into a rule, like HAL does.

Speaking of out-of-band communication, the amount of it steadily decreases as we move up the levels. This is a very good thing, as it reduces the amount of coupling between clients and servers.

Level 3 isn’t really the end station, however. Even with a hypermedia format like HAL there is still a lot of out-of-band communication.

HALHAL doesn’t tell you which HTTP method to use on a particular link, for instance.

The client can only know because a human has programmed it with that knowledge, based on some human-readable description that was published somewhere.

Imagine that the human Web would work this way. We wouldn’t be able to use the same browser to shop at Amazon and read up at Wikipedia and do all those other things we take for granted. Instead, we would need an Amazon Browser, a Wikipedia Browser, etc. This is what we do with APIs today!

Moving further into the direction of less out-of-band communication requires more than just links. Links only specify the URI part and we also need the HTTP and media type parts inside our representations. We might call this level 3b, Full Hypermedia.

Siren gives you this. Uber even goes a step further and also abstracts the protocol, so that you can use it with, say, CoAP rather than HTTP.

These newer hypermedia types allow for the use of a generic client that can handle any REST API that serves that hypermedia type, just like a web browser can be used against anything that serves HTML. An example of such an effort is the HAL browser (even though HAL is stuck at level 3a).

However, even with the inclusion of protocol, media type, and method in the representation, we still need some out-of-band communication.

The HAL browser can navigate any API that serves HAL, but it doesn’t understand the responses it gets. Therefore it can’t navigate links on its own to reach a certain goal. For true machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, we still need more.

ALPSIf we ever get the whole semantic web sorted out, this might one day be the final answer, but I’m not holding my breath.

In the meantime we’ll have to settle for partial answers.

One piece of the puzzle could be to define application semantics using profiles, for instance in the ALPS format. We might call this level 4, Semantic Profile.

We’d still need a human to read out-of-band communication and build a special-purpose client for M2M scenarios. But this client could handle all services in the application domain it is programmed to understand, not just one.

Also, the human could be helped a lot by a generic API browser that fetches ALPS profiles to explain the API.

All this is currently far from a reality. But we can all work towards this vision by choosing generic, full-featured hypermedia types like Siren or Uber for our APIs and by documenting our application semantics using profiles in ALPS.

If you need more convincing then please read RESTful Web APIs, which Leonard Richardson co-wrote with Uber and ALPS creator Mike Amundsen. This is easily the best book on REST on the market today.