HTTP Guidelines

The HTTP RFC is a quite large specification. The HTTP 1.1 specification RFC 2616 clocks in at 175 pages. Published in 1999 it assumes a certain use of the HTTP protocol in the web browser / server framework. The idea for the use of HTTP as a more generic API layer only emerged a year after the publication of HTTP 1.1 in Chapter 5 of Roy Fieldings PhD thesis and was not widely adopted until many years later.

It’s important to realize that concepts and constructs that we want to manipulate in any given system will not be a perfect match with the concepts and constraints of HTTP. These mismatches can indicate a clearly wrong usage of HTTP, a special case to meet requirements, or an opportunity to improve an existing design. Any recommendation about using HTTP should come with substantial explanation about why that’s the best approach that we can determine at the time. This provides the justification for the decision in the present, and bread crumbs in the future if that justification no longer holds.

HTTP defines a set of standard headers, content negotiation with mime types, well defined status codes, a url structure, and methods on such urls.

If something is not covered by this document, or seems ambiguous after looking at these guidelines, implementers are encouraged to start a mailing list thread (with references to what they believe are relevant RFC sections) to clarify and to help make these guidelines more clear in the future. However, like legal code, an RFC is only a starting point. Precedents and common usage shape what an active standard really means.

Note: in recent years RFC 2616 was split into a multipart document in RFC 7230, RFC 7231, RFC 7232, RFC 7233, RFC 7234, and RFC 7235. No major functional changes are in these documents, but they are just reorganized for readability, and small clarifying corrections were made.