Don't rape HTTP: If-(None-)Match & the 412 HTTP status code

HTTP has a problem: it gets raped everyday.

Seriously, every single day.

That’s because we don’t leverage the power of our architectures using the simple tools and mechanisms that HTTP gave us since the late 80s.

A bit about the Etag

The Etag header is, generally, a string that represents our resource in the HTTP headers.

It’s, banally, a code which identifies our resource, eventually used to check if the resource the client has ( in cache or wherever ) corresponds to the server’s one.

Roughly speaking, if I request the resource Alessandro Nadalin to a website now and in 2012, the response Etag will surely be different, at least because of the age of Alessandro.

If-Match

If-Match it’s a preconditional HTTP header.

That means that the server should verify a precondition before completing the request’s processing mechanism and giving a response.

In this case, when you send an If-Match header, usually containing the Etag of the resource representation you want to manipulate, the server compares the one you sent with the one of the current resource: if they match, the whole request can be processed.

Consider this request (with a YAML body):

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PUT /people/alessandro-nadalin HTTP/1.1 
If-Match: yuf8ew98ehf9h9h
Host: italianpeople.com

person:
  name:     Alessandro
  surname: Nadalin
  company: DNSEE

If the Etag of the resource /people/alessandro-nadalin is the same of the server’s one, the PUT updates the user.

But if they don’t match, the server responds with a 412 Precondition Failed status code, which means that the resource is out of date.

Like SVN, for God’s sake!

If-None-Match, here comes the cache

If-None-Match acts in the reverse way: it’s still a preconditional header, but it tells the server to process a whole response only if the Etag ( again, contained in the If-None-Match header ) is different from the one sent by the client.

Why this?

Because it let’s you save bandwidth and CPU: you don’t always have to generate a whole response if the Etag matches, but how?

Let’s see a request similar to the one above:

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GET /people/alessandro-nadalin HTTP/1.1 
If-None-Match: yuf8ew98ehf9h9h
Host: italianpeople.com

If the Etag don’t match, the server should recalculate the whole response and send it again to the client, but when they match it should only send back a 304 Not Modified status code.

The 304 status code tells the client to use the resource it has in cache, because it hasn’t changed.

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