Sunday, November 28, 2010

Status Code 200 vs 303

The public LOD has been dominated by discussions on using 303 in response to a GET request for distinguishing between the requested resource identifier, and a description document identifier.

Some resources can be represented completely on the Web. For these resources, any of their URLs can be used to identify them. This blog page, for example, can be identified by the URL in a browser's address bar. However, some resources cannot be completely viewed on the Web - they can only be described on the Web.

The W3C recommends responding with a 200 status code for GET requests of a URL that identifies a resource which can be completely represented on the Web (an information resource). They also recommend responding with a 303 for GET requests of a URL that identifies a resource that cannot be completely represented on the Web.

Popular Web servers today don't have much support for resources that can't be represented on the Web. This creates a problem for deploying (non-document) resource servers as it can be very difficult to set-up resources for 303 responses. The public LOD mailing list has been discussing an alternative of using the more common 200 response for any resource.

The problem with always responding to a GET request with a 200 is the risk of using the same URL to identify both a resource and a document describing it. This breaks a fundamental Web constraint that says URIs identify a single resource, and causes URI collisions.

It is impossible to be completely free of all ambiguity when it comes to URI allocation. However, any ambiguity can impose a cost in communication due to the effort required to resolve it. Therefore, within reason, we should strive to avoid it. This is particularly true for Web recommendation standards.

URI collision is perhaps the most common ambiguity in URI allocation. Consider a URL that refers to the movie The Sting and also identifies a description document about the movie. This collision creates confusion about what the URL identifies. If one wanted to talk about the creator of the resource identified by the URL, it would be unclear whether this meant "the creator of the movie" or "the editor of the description." Such ambiguity can be avoided using a 303 for a movie URL to redirect to a 200 of the description URL.

As Tim Berners-Lee points out in an email, even including a Content-Location in a 200 response (to indicate a description of the requested resource) "leaves the web not working", because such techniques are already used to associate different representations (and different URLs) to the same resource, and not the other way around.

Using any other 200 status code for representations that merely describe a resource (and don't completely represent it) causes ambiguity because Web browsers today interpret all 200 series responses (from a GET request) as containing an complete representation of the resource identified in the request URL.

Every day, people bookmark and send links of documents they are viewing in a Web browser. It is essential that any document viewed in a Web browser has a URL identifier in the browser's address bar. Web browsers today don't look at the Content-Location header to get the document URL (nor should they). For Linked Data to work with today's Web, it must keep requests for resources separate from requests for description documents.

The community has voiced common concerns about the complexity of URI allocation and the use of 303s using today's software. The LOD community jumped in with a few alternatives, however, we must consider how the Web works today and be realistic on further Web client expectations. The established 303 technique works today using today's Web browsers. 303 redirect may be complicated to setup in a document server, but let's give Linked Data servers a chance to mature.

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