What happens when you DELETE a resource?

Posted by Ilija Eftimov on October 29, 2016

What happens when you DELETE a resource?

Have you ever found yourself publishing an API, either an internal or a public one? Have your ever heard from the consumers of those same APIs back? Are they happy about the functionality of your APIs and their design? You already know, there is no perfect design, but API design has to be taken very seriously. Why? Because evolving and changing APIS is hard and time consuming.

Imagine you are on a team in a company, that has set off to design a company-wide API guideline and a blueprint. As you could imagine, a feat like this one takes time - first you have to put in a draft, then let it settle like a fine French wine, then review it and apply any needed changes. And repeat over, until you have a team wide consensus on the design.

In situations like this, I have found interesting how your API should behave when a resource is DELETEd? Of course, aside from the obvious, that the record will be deleted.

Let’s look at couple of points that might be a good food for thought in these occasions.


We have all heard about idempotency and we have heard that all calls to a REST API should be idempotent, except the POST requests. But, what does this mean?

Crickets sound on

From Wikipedia:

Idempotence is the property of certain operations in mathematics and computer science, that can be applied multiple times without changing the result beyond the initial application.

Crickets sound off

Simply put, a call to an idempotent endpoint with a given set of parmeters, should always have the same effect. For example, if you have a User resource, everytime you call PUT /users/1 should have the same effect on the resource. Also, a GET /users/1 is a safe method (or nullipotent), because it does not have any effect on the state of the resource.

But, is DELETE idempotent? According to the HTTP specification DELETE should be idempotent.

   | Method  | Safe | Idempotent |
   | CONNECT | no   | no         |
   | DELETE  | no   | yes        |
   | GET     | yes  | yes        |
   | HEAD    | yes  | yes        |
   | OPTIONS | yes  | yes        |
   | POST    | no   | no         |
   | PUT     | no   | yes        |
   | TRACE   | yes  | yes        |

This means that whenever a DELETE request is sent, the state of the system after fulfilling the request will always be the same, although the server might implement non-idempotent effects under the hood.

So, knowing that a DELETE request will always be idempotent, what should a response of that request be? Let’s start from the basics, the status code.

HTTP status codes

We usually take HTTP status codes as an ever-present thing slapped onto a HTTP request. Especially if you are a beginner, understanding how useful status codes are and how much context they can provide for free, can be hard.

After executing any HTTP request, the HTTP code that will be returned is always contextual, which means, it should be based on the effect (and hence the result) of the request. Keeping in mind that a DELETE request is idempotent, what would be an appropriate status code?

Let’s look at some status codes that make sense as a response for a DELETE request:

HTTP 204 - No content:

The server has successfully fulfilled the request and that there is no additional content to send in the response payload body.

HTTP 204 would work - the server has accepted your DELETE request and it has fulfilled it. The server will not return a payload in the response, hence 204 No content.

HTTP 202 - Accepted:

The request has been accepted for processing, but the processing has not been completed. The request might or might not eventually be acted upon, as it might be disallowed when processing actually takes place.

You tell the server to destroy the resource that the URI points to, but since it’s a long procedure (maybe a background job) to delete the resource, it returns a HTTP 202 Accepted. This means that the server basically says “Cool, I understand, I am on it!”. But, it does not mean that the resource is deleted as part of the request/response cycle.

HTTP 200 OK:

The request has succeeded.

The server received your request and responds with 200 OK - which means that it understood your request and deletes the resource described by the URI.

You can notice that all of the status codes are closely tied to the response that the API call will return. So, let’s talk about the HTTP status codes in combination with some response payloads.

Sending a meaningful response

You send a DELETE and the server complies. It executes the logic related to the endpoint and the HTTP verb and deletes the record that you wanted gone. So, how does it respond back?

First scenario would be - no response body with HTTP 204. Makes sense. But what would this actually mean? Well let’s say you have a Rails API that returns hypermedia controls in the JSON API spec format. When it returns a resource it will also return the URIs of the associated resources. When you delete a record, it will perish from the database - but if you have a dependent: :destroy in your model, it would remove associated records as well. In this occasion, your client would not know if anything else got removed in the same request-response lifecycle.

Another option would be a HTTP 200 OK - but as we saw earlier, 200 OK states that you must return a body in the response. In the HTTP spec, we can see the following:

The 200 (OK) status code indicates that the request has succeeded. The payload sent in a 200 response depends on the request method. For the methods defined by this specification, the intended meaning of the payload can be summarized as:

  • PUT, DELETE a representation of the status of the action

This means that, according to the HTTP spec the response body has to be a representation of the status of the action. In other words, it needs to send back the representation of the resource that has been deleted as a result of the request. But, if we do that, we will add an additional load on the endpoint, because it will need to serialize the deleted resource, and as we all know serialization is expensive.

A third option would be HTTP 204 - Accepted. But as we saw earlier, Accepted as a status code is very contextual on the action under the hood. It can only be returned if the request has been accepted, but the action has not been put into effect yet.

Whoa, okay, so where now?

Are we overthinking it?

Just like in most of the cases where computer science and engineering is involved - it depends. You could say that it’s easy to keep all of this simple, but often we have to be careful. After all, we don’t want to be lazy and oversimplify our APIs.

Let’s take a tiny example - an API for a blog CMS. We will look at a resource, namely the /authors resource. This means that, we will have the following endpoints available:

GET /authors        # returns a collection of authors
GET /authors/:id    # returns an author with the ID of :id
POST /authors       # create an author
PUT /authors/:id    # create/update an author
DELETE /authors/:id # destroy an author

So, we are interested in the behaviour of the last endpoint, DELETE /authors/:id. When a request is succesfully fulfilled on this endpoint, the record which was identified by the :id param is destroyed. Since the request is idempotent, it means that you can freely request to delete a resource multiple times, but the effect on the system will be the same - the resource will not be present.

In most of the cases, the REST APIs that we use are level 3. This means that usually we have couple of options on how to respond to this request, HTTP 204, or HTTP 200, which we already discussed at the begining of this article. But, what happens if you are building a level 4 REST API?

Handling the state in the client

If you have a hypermedia API, things can get a little bit more complex. For those of you that don’t know what hypermedia APIs, I recommend reading my previous article about REST APIs - “Sprinkle some HATEOAS on your Rails APIs”. It covers all of Fielding’s REST levels and explains them thoroughly. After you get a grasp of hypermedia APIs, you can come back to this to more easily understand the issue at hand.

Hypermedia clients usually have to be a little bit smarter, due to the fact that the APIs they use are smarter. This means that when we update the state of the hypermedia API’s system, the client should be aware of the state change. In more concrete wording - when we delete a resource, the client must know that the resource does not exist anymore on the server side.

What does that mean for our API? Well, remember the DELETE /authors/:id endpoint? If a request to that endpoint returns an HTTP 204 (which explicitly states that the reponse body is empty), then our clients need to know that the nested resources might be deleted because there might bea cascading delete.

For example, if the DELETE /authors/:id request also removes all of the posts that were written by an author, the client might still think that the posts are available. This means that the client will allow a request to GET /authors/:id/posts/, and the API needs to know to respond with an appropriate response and HTTP status. But, will any of the aforementioned statuses cut it in this case? You might think that even HTTP 404 would do it, but is it semantically correct?

Sure, HTTP 404 states that the resource is not found, but in cases like this we actually want to inform the consumer that there was something there before, but not anymore. This means that the best HTTP status code in these cases is HTTP 410:

HTTP 410 GONE The target resource is no longer available at the origin server and that this condition is likely to be permanent.

HTTP 410 will inform the consumer and the client that there was something there before, but not it’s gone (hence the status code). This will be semantically much more correct, but it will add implementation implications to the API itself. It means that the API will have to know that a resource has existed in a certain place. This means that records might have to be flagged as deleted, but not actually deleted and so on.

As you can see, the complexity that hypermedia APIs add to the client can be big, and both the client and the API have to be very smartly built to allow proper usage and leverage of hypermedia.

In closing

As we some in our tiny examples, although things can most often look trivial, if we want to have semantically correct APIs, we need to be very careful of every aspect of our API. HTTP statuses, although oftern perceived as trivial, if applied correctly add a lot of power to our APIs and the clients. very powerful addition.

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