It seems like a good portion of the posts zinging my radar over at UA these days are people asking how to deal with a) web service calls in general, and b) JSON.  As usual, I get tired of writing the same replies for generic answers, and wind up writing a blog post.

So… here’s a general rundown on how to deal with Web Services (aka Web APIs, aka Service, aka API) from within VBA (along with some background theory, as most questioners don’t tend to have the underlying knowledge of how the web really works).

The Theory!!!

Requests & Responses, Headers & Content

Web service work is typically done over the HTTP protocol.  This consists of two primary components: the Request and the Response. The Request is what we send to the remote api, and the response is what we get back.

A Request and Response have two primary components themselves: headers and the body (the body is often called the Content). The headers are not readily visible by non-developers, but the Body often is, in terms of regular webpages. Headers are key/value pairs. Each request or response usually has multiple headers, and they provide information such as the format of the data, authentication, originators and other meta-style information. Some header keys (and values) are standardized, though any custom key/values could be added as well. Often times, a service will require specific headers to be set.

The body can have content stuffed in it. This could be a simple data string, a bunch of XML, even encoded files (for uploading documents)… the body is basically just one big empty canvas where you can throw whatever.

When we make a Request, we specify and Endpoint (e.g., where it’s going: the URL of the web service), we supply the required headers, body content if applicable, and we send the request and receive a response.

Likewise, when we receive the response, it has however many headers that we may be interested in, and perhaps some body content, but most importantly it’s going to have an HTTP Status Code. The HTTP Status Codes are returned by the server indicating whether the request was handled properly. In general, a 200-based code means OK, a 300 code means the request was redirected, a 400 code means that the resource wasn’t found, and a 500 code means that there was some internal server error. In any case, google the list of HTTP Status Codes and familiarize yourself with a few of the common ones. (also note: just because the server returns a 200: Ok, doesn’t necessarily mean that your request was processed the way you intended… it might just mean that the server was able receive the request completely, but the actual results of your request might be stuffed into a header or the body… it all depends on the service setup).

RESTful vs SOAP

Ok… REST and SOAP. Don’t bother googling, it’s hard to actually find out what’s what if you’re not already in the know.

SOAP is older and is based on a (relatively complex) XML schema that forms the core of your request. This XML is typically submitted through the body of the request, and an XML-based SOAP response is returned, likewise a (relatively complex) XML schema stating the results of your request. SOAP is still used, but most people have gone the RESTful way in recent years.

REST, on the other hand, isn’t a specification (like XML’s SOAP wrappers) but more a method of doing things. As you’ll see in the next section, the HTTP protocol uses a small number of verbs as request methods (POST, GET, PUT, DELETE, etc). REST basically says “let’s use the HTTP verbs instead of trying to stuff everything into XML all the time for SOAP!” (ok, it comes with a number of other guidelines as well, more on the end of the web service developer, but this definition is fine for our purposes).

So, if you see a SOAP API, you’re likely to be working with some eyesore XML. If you see a REST API, you’re likely to be working with verbs, content/body and often JSON (which has also become very popular in recent years – more on that after the Verbs section).

Verbs

HTTP has a number of verbs that can stated as a method for a request. The most common (and default) of these is GET, but there’s also POST, PUT and DELETE (as well as a few others that aren’t very relevant to us right now).

A GET request is primarily URL based. This means that aside from the base endpoing (www.example.com/api/v1/someresource, for example), you’re also going to be putting request parameters as part of the querystring at the end of the URL, so you might have: http://example.com/api/v1/someresource?min_id=12&max-id=24&order=desc

(a querystring is the ? at the end of a base url, with further parameters delimited by ampersands – google for more info)

Which parameters are acceptable in a GET request is up to the developer of the API.

A POST request, on the other hand, tends to stuff its data into the body of the request. You have a base endpoint (url) and maybe a querystring as well (but not typically), then you fill up the content/body of the request with whatever data you’re posting to the server.

POST requests are most often realized by submitting HTML forms. In the vast majority of cases, when you fill out some online form and hit Submit, the page is wrapping all that form data up into a POST request to the server. This makes sense, considering that there could potentially be LOTS of data (max amounts restricted by web server configuration), whereas a URL (for a GET request querystring) is somewhat fixed in length (dependent upon browser).

When working with web APIs, you’ll run into both GET and POST fairly often. It’s hard to lean towards “usually” in this case, but I guess I will anyway: usually (ehem) you’ll be using a GET request to request some information, such as “get me a list of orders”, and POST requests to submit information.

DELETE is actually rarely used (for now, anyway). Usually a delete request would be done via GET or POST with authentication and a URL specifying, e.g.: http://www.example.com/api/v1/orders/delete/15 (to delete an order with ID 15… this is usually considered a “RESTful” URL, as it’s “Representative” of what we’re asking it to do…)

Web API servers can check the incoming request type and handle accordingly, so if you’re not using the required request method, your request may not be handled the way you need/expect. If it’s expecting/requiring a POST request to example.com/someendpoint and you submit a GET request to example.com/someendpoint, you might receive an error even though the URL is the same.

XML and JSON

Let’s talk data for a minute. There’s three types of standard data transfer formats: XML, JSON and url-formencoded (ok, and mime transfers which is for files). We really only need be concerned with the first two though. formencoded tends to deal with HTML forms, which we’re not likely to be using for web service work, and mime types are… if you need mime types you’re probably past this blog post anyway.

XML and JSON on the other hand are very relevant to our discussion. XML of course we’re all very familiar with. JSON is a very similar structured data, but a bit more compact, and also tends a bit harder to read. JSON popularity has grown enormously in the past five years or so, to the point where XML is often considered “old news” and irrelevant. This is actually not the case, yet our industry’s versions of hipsters and trendsters will be happy to tell you otherwise. Each have pros and cons, yet at the core remain very similar and both are very capable. However, we as application developers cannot usually make a choice of one or the other: many newer web APIs support only JSON, meaning that we have to adopt it whether we like it or not (and hence all these posts asking about how, and hence this blog post…)

XML you’ll recognize. JSON, which stands for JavaScript Object Notation you might, or might not. It’s a format of basically key/value pairs, curly braces for nested entities. Here’s an idea:

(now imagine that with all the whitespace and linebreaks removed… not very readable. Find yourself a good JSON prettifier)

In VBA, we have reasonable good support/tools for working with XML, but not so much for JSON. However, there’s a savior… we’ll touch base on this later in the “practical” portion.

Web Services are NOT Created Equal

Perhaps one of the most frustrating/irritating/annoying things about working with various web APIs is that everyone tends to do it differently. Different authentication models, different uses of headers and content, non-standard uses of any of the previously discussed components, piss-poor documentation (spare me!), half-assed implementations… when working with any web API, you’re really at the mercy of how well the api is designed and documented. USPS (United States Postal Service for my foreign friends) has a decent documentation and fairly straightforward API – FedEx? not so much (sometimes I seriously consider that documentation for some APIs are deliberately designed to fuck with your head just so you have to… call support I guess? I don’t know, but…)

A good, well designed, easy to use well documented web API is a blessing.

Luckily, the general acceptance of REST APIs seem to be somewhat standardizing things. If you try to google what REST is, your head will be spinning within minutes (few topics get so many objective opinionation on the web… design patterns for OOP are another, with so little of it being actually useful), but once you work with it a few times (often without even really knowing it) and have some experience with the other side, you’ll realize that it actually is pretty nice and relatively easy to follow (not unlike semantic naming conventions, which I believe I may have written about once before…)

Authentication

Authentication for Web APIs comes in a few flavors.  The most basic (and least used) is HTTP Authentication, which is the only one that’s actually part of the HTTP protocol and as such is implemented the same for any service that implements it.  This is done by setting a specific authorization header with a username/password string.  The only real trick to this is that the string must be encoded appropriately: a task we’ll touch base on in the next portion.  Simple as it is, HTTP authentication is not very robust and does not tend to be used often.

More commonly used is some sort of custom-implemented API key or sets of keys provided by a service owner to the developer or application.  The major shipping carrier UPS, for example, requires that the developer (or company creating the software) sign up for their developer platform, at which point the developer is given an API key.  The API key is then submitted with each request (usually as a request header or less often but sometimes through a querystring, or perhaps even in the XML or JSON data being submitted itself).

Management of such keys varies greatly… some service owners put time restrictions on a token which may last only for 30 minutes (or 30 days) before it expires.  Obtaining a new key or token requires an initial “pre-request” or sorts where you send a request to the server specifically asking for a new key or token so you can proceed with whatever you need to do.  These types of setups can make for some complex client logic (e.g., the VBA code) which must then assume that for every request made, we might get a bounce backing requiring an updated authentication token.

OAuth

Yet another increasingly common method of API authentication is OAuth.  OAuth is a complex protocol that allows credentials from one person’s account elsewhere to be used to access a separate resource.  If you’ve ever signed into some “lesser” website using your Facebook or Google account, this is an example of OAuth.  The OAuth provider (facebook or google or whatever), states yes, he’s who he says, here’s a key for him to carry for a bit as proof.

Facebook and Google aren’t often used for business-context APIs, but the same OAuth technique is often implemented with smaller providers.  Clio, for example (an industry-popular cloud based legal management software) requires OAuth authorization to use their API.  The setup assumes a standard user/UI account and a separate API portion.  To fire up the API, the developer registers their application with the UI account.  Then the person in charge of the UI account authorizes that application to use the API, in turn receiving what’s called a Bearer Token.  Subsequently, each API call to the Clio API must supply this Bearer token along with the request.  In this specific example of Clio, the bearer token expires only when explicitly revoked by the UI account manager (or in cases where a bill goes unpaid, presumably), but OAuth tokens in general can be set for any expiration time… it’s not uncommon for an OAuth token to be good only for 30 minutes or so before needing refreshment.

Bearer tokens with OAuth are only one means of many authentication models that OAuth supports, though they tend to be the most common, particularly in business-context APIs.

 

Rate Limiting & Throttling

The last particular point of note on consuming Web APIs is that there is next-door-to-always some sort of rate limiting and throttling imposed on the amount of requests that can be placed (or resources requested) within a given time period.  We won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say that you’re bound to run into situations (more often than not) where your application will be allowed to only make X amount of requests per every 2 seconds, and only X amount of orders can be obtained within a single request.  This keeps the server from overloading if a ridiculous (or more often, malicious) request is made, and you’ll very often have to work something into your application than accounts for it.  Failure to adhere to the rate limits results in what’s termed as throttling, where the web service cuts back on the response times, refuses the requests, or other actions.

Some APIs implement flat rate limits such as 100 requests per second or 1000 per hour or whatever the rule is.  Others use algorithms such as the “Leaky Bucket” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leaky_bucket) which is actually fairly nice for consumers: it’s still based on only X amount of requests being processed at once, yet as it allows for “bursts” of requests to be made, so long as the “burst” isn’t so heavy that it “fills the bucket.”

In any case, an application with any resemblance of volume data will have to deal with this in the code making those requests, and timeout/wait/retry periods will typically have to be defined (this is a particular downfall in VBA as it has no async support: consider delegating the request processing to a secondary helper application (e.g.: Async Processing in Access) or perhaps a .NET COM Interop library (e.g.: .NET COM Interop Starter’s Guide)

Pagination

A secondary consideration and often seen concept in terms of resource caps is pagination.  This is the technique of a web service indicating that they will only supply X amount of some resource for any given request.  For example, if you request all orders since 2003 from your eCommerce API, there’s a highly slim chance it’s going to send you back all of that information at once – it’d just be too much data to send in a single response, so instead it gets broken up into multiple request/response pairs (this also allows the server a chance to load balance the requests and look for rate limit/throttling).

In these cases, the response typically comes back with some sort of “next ID” or “offset” number, which you then include in your next request.  For example, a GET request to your eCommerce store might look like this: http://api.mystore.com/orders?startDate=20030101

Let’s say that’s going to yield 1,000 orders, but the resource limit for this particular service is 100 orders per request.  In this case, you send the request and receive a response with an Offset of 0.  This means that you’ve received order indexes 0-99.  Subsequently, you make the exact same request again, but this time with an Offset of 100 specified, so the response comes back with orders 100-199 and a return offset of 200.  Make another identical request except use a new offset of 200, so on and so forth until all of your orders are received (these scenarios are where the leaky bucket algorithm of rate limiting really shine).

… and the practice

(this is forthcoming, I have to pull out various examples of how to do all this stuff from various sources… check back in a week or so)