HAL - Hypertext Application Language

A lean hypermedia type

Summary

HAL is a simple format that gives a consistent and easy way to hyperlink between resources in your API.

Adopting HAL will make your API explorable, and its documentation easily disocverable from within the API itself. In short, it will make your API easier to work with and therefore more attractive to client developers.

APIs that adopt HAL can be easily served and consumed using open source libraries available for most major programming languages. It's also simple enough that you can just deal with it as you would any other JSON.

About The Author

Mike Kelly is a software engineer from the UK. He runs an API consultancy helping companies design and build beautiful APIs that developers love.

Quick links

General Description

HAL provides a set of conventions for expressing hyperlinks in either JSON or XML.

The rest of a HAL document is just plain old JSON or XML.

Instead of using ad-hoc structures, or spending valuable time designing your own format; you can adopt HAL's conventions and focus on building and documenting the data and transitions that make up your API.

HAL is a little bit like HTML for machines, in that it is generic and designed to drive many different types of application via hyperlinks. The difference is that HTML has features for helping 'human actors' move through a web application to achieve their goals, whereas HAL is intended for helping 'automated actors' move through a web API to achieve their goals.

Having said that, HAL is actually very human-friendly too. Its conventions make the documentation for an API discoverable from the API messages themselves. This makes it possible for developers to jump straight into a HAL-based API and explore its capabilities, without the cognitive overhead of having to map some out-of-band documentation onto their journey.

Examples

The example below is how you might represent a collection of orders with hal+json. Things to look for:

application/hal+json

{
    "_links": {
        "self": { "href": "/orders" },
        "curies": [{ "name": "ea", "href": "http://example.com/docs/rels/{rel}", "templated": true }],
        "next": { "href": "/orders?page=2" },
        "ea:find": {
            "href": "/orders{?id}",
            "templated": true
        },
        "ea:admin": [{
            "href": "/admins/2",
            "title": "Fred"
        }, {
            "href": "/admins/5",
            "title": "Kate"
        }]
    },
    "currentlyProcessing": 14,
    "shippedToday": 20,
    "_embedded": {
        "ea:order": [{
            "_links": {
                "self": { "href": "/orders/123" },
                "ea:basket": { "href": "/baskets/98712" },
                "ea:customer": { "href": "/customers/7809" }
            },
            "total": 30.00,
            "currency": "USD",
            "status": "shipped"
        }, {
            "_links": {
                "self": { "href": "/orders/124" },
                "ea:basket": { "href": "/baskets/97213" },
                "ea:customer": { "href": "/customers/12369" }
            },
            "total": 20.00,
            "currency": "USD",
            "status": "processing"
        }]
    }
}

The HAL Model

The HAL conventions revolve around representing two simple concepts: Resources and Links.

Resources

Resources have:

Links

Links have:

Below is an image that roughly illustrates how a HAL representation is structured:

The HAL Information model

How HAL is used in APIs

HAL is designed for building APIs in which clients navigate around the resources by following links.

Links are identfied by link realtions. Link realtions are the lifeblood of a hypermedia API: they are how you tell client developers about what resources are available and how they can be interacted with, and they are how the code they write will select which link to traverse.

Link relations are not just an identifying string in HAL, though. They are actually URLs, which developers can follow in order to read the documentation for a given link. This is what is known as "discoverability". The idea is that a developer can enter into your API, read through documentation for the available links, and then follow-their-nose through the API.

HAL encourages the use of link relations to:

How to serve HAL

HAL has a media type for both the JSON and XML variants, whos names are application/hal+json and application/hal+xml respectively.

When serving HAL over HTTP, the Content-Type of the response should contain the relevant media type name.

The structure of a HAL document

Minimum valid document

A HAL document must at least contain an empty resource.

An empty JSON object:

{}

Resources

In most cases, resources should have a self URI

Represened via a 'self' link:

{
    "_links": {
        "self": { "href": "/example_resource" }
    }
}

Links

Links must be contained directly within a resource:

Links are represented as JSON object contained within a _links hash that must be a direct property of a resource object:

{
    "_links": {
        "next": { "href": "/page=2" }
    }
}

Link Relations

Links have a relation (aka. 'rel'). This indicates the semantic - the meaning - of a particular link.

Link rels are the main way of distinguishing between a resource's links.

It's basically just a key within the _links hash, associating the link meaning (the 'rel') with the link object that contains data like the actual 'href' value:

{
    "_links": {
        "next": { "href": "/page=2" }
    }
}

API Discoverability

Link rels should be URLs which reveal documentation about the given link, making them "discoverable". URLs are generally quite long and a bit nasty for use as keys. To get around this, HAL provides "CURIEs" which are basically named tokens that you can define in the document and use to express link relation URIs in a friendlier, more compact fashion i.e. ex:widget instead of http://example.com/rels/widget. The details are available in the section on CURIEs a bit further down.

Representing Multiple Links With The Same Relation

A resource may have multiple links that share the same link relation.

For link relations that may have multiple links, we use an array of links.

{
    "_links": {
      "items": [{
          "href": "/first_item"
      },{
          "href": "/second_item"
      }]
    }
}

Note: If you're unsure whether the link should be singular, assume it will be multiple. If you pick singular and find you need to change it, you will need to create a new link relation or face breaking existing clients.

CURIEs

"CURIE"s help providing links to resource documentation.

HAL gives you a reserved link relation 'curies' which you can use to hint at the location of resource documentation.

"_links": {
  "curies": [
    {
      "name": "doc",
      "href": "http://haltalk.herokuapp.com/docs/{rel}",
      "templated": true
    }
  ],

  "doc:latest-posts": {
    "href": "/posts/latest"
  }
}

There can be multiple links in the 'curies' section. They come with a 'name' and a templated 'href' which must contain the {rel} placeholder.

Links in turn can then prefix their 'rel' with a CURIE name. Associating the latest-posts link with the doc documentation CURIE results in a link 'rel' set to doc:latest-posts.

To retrieve documentation about the latest-posts resource, the client will expand the associated CURIE link with the actual link's 'rel'. This would result in a URL http://haltalk.herokuapp.com/docs/latest-posts which is expected to return documentation about this resource.

To be continued...

This relatively informal specification of HAL is incomplete and still in progress. For now, if you would like to have a full understanding please read the formal specification.

RFC

The JSON variant of HAL (application/hal+json) has now been published as an internet draft: draft-kelly-json-hal.

Acknowledgements

Thanks for the help :)

Notes/todo