Saturday 8 December 2012

5 levels of media type

[Level C4HTTP spec defines use of media type in the value of serveral headers including content-type and Accept. Server and client can engage in the process of content negotiation to decide on the best suitable media type.

With the rising popularity of the REST systems and adoption of pure HTTP APIs, we are using media type not only for delivering content formatting information but also metadata for domain level application data. Advanced use of the media type and its controversies has been discussed before.

IANA is responsible for registering internet media types. RFC 4288 defines the process of media type registration through IANA.

As can be seen below, registration of media types increased by 2000 dot-com boom and then declined. This trend was reversed again by the REST awareness and resurgence of web 2.0 around 2006. Recently, we see a slight decline in the registrations - partly explained by the use of private media types.

Source: IANA -
While there will always be a need for registering new formats, media type has been used to described not only the format but also the schema and domain level description of the application data. Use of media type for versioning resources is a controversial yet fairly popular trend.

The problem with creating new media types for describing anything other than format is that you you will be requiring the clients to understand the new media type - hence the client burden of the media type. Such clients could be very well capable of handling the format (and all they need might be to use understand the format) but unable to comprehend the media type. For example an XmlSerializer is capable of handling the XML format and that is all it cares about.

One such attempt to conserve the formatting information of the media types yet provide higher level constructs is the use of + in the second part of the media types such as application/rss+xml which combines formatting with schema (see below). But as I explained before many systems use a dictionary-based media type processing and cannot separate format and schema information and also this is rather a convention and not a canonical implementation.

I will review the logical levels of media type and then propose a solution for the current issues we are experiencing in the industry.

5 levels of media type

Media type deals with different levels of information. Any solution needs to take into account backward-compatibility, interoperability and extensibility. Media type can provide information at different levels. As the level goes up, the number of clients able to comprehend and interact with that level diminishes.

Lowest level of information is whether the content is human-readable. This was initially envisaged in the text/* media type but there again, it was mixing human-readability with the formatting. As we know text/xml and text/javascript later were converted to application/xml and application/javascript.

Next level is formatting, i.e. how a parser/processor can read and understand the media type. This is the most important aspect of a media type. Examples are application/xml, image/* and video/*.

Schema is a common superset of the formatting. Here we define different schema commonly within the same  format. Examples of this are application/rss+xml, application/atom+xml and application/collection+json.

Domain level is where we have a lot of new interest. Many companies are using private and public APIs for exposing their data and services. As such, a recent trend is to take the schema to the next level where it defines a domain object model. As we have described before here, domain model is part of the server's public domain and could be in the format of command or query messages.

Including version information for a domain object model is the highest level of a media type. This is useful by only a subset of the clients capable of version coherence and version content negotiation.

In fact clients each can use the media type at a particular level:
So forcing he higher levels of media type upon clients will reduce interoperability.


I propose using additional properties for preserving the interoperability and backward-compatibility yet allowing rich higher level information. Currently HTTP 1.1 allows for custom additional parameters to be defined.

For example, if I am using application/atom+xml for passing customer domain object model in a CRM API, I can keep the format in the value of the content-type header and include the rest of the information (Note: we have to replace / with _ since it is not allowed in the parameter value according to HTTP spec):
content-type: application%2fxml;schema=application%2fatom+xml;is-text=true;domain-model=MyDomain.Customer;version=
Or alternatively use the schema level information as the main value:
content-type: application%2fatom+xml;format=application%2fxml;is-text=true;domain-model=MyDomain.Customer;version=
Please note the values of parameters need to be UrlEncoded.

Compared to single-token approach, this will preserve the interoperability and backward-compatibility while allowing for extensibility.
Difference of single-token vs. 5LMT. Please note the the values need to be UrlEncoded so application/xml will appear as application%2fxml


Registering media types should be done mainly for new formats. The problem with using a single token is that by setting the token at a any level, lower levels need to be inferred - as such client needs to understand the exact media type.

5-level media type compared to the single token approach provides a more robust solution for extensibility and interoperability of clients and servers in private and public APIs.