Formatters And Content Negotiation In ASP.NET Web API 2

Introduction

As the title suggests, this article will focus on the practical aspects of the formatters and the content negotiation in ASP.NET Web API. This article will explain what content negotiation is and why it is necessary, and how to achieve and get it working in ASP.NET Web API. The article will focus more on the implementation part of the content negotiation in Web API. The first part of the article will focus on the formatters, where it is described, how to support XML or JSON formats in Web API and how to format the result of the API. We’ll take a sample Web API project, that caters simple CRUD operations on the database, using the Entity Framework. We’ll not go into the details of underlying project architecture and the standard way of architecture of the same, but will focus on the content negotiation part in Web API projects. For creating a standard enterprise level Application with Web API, you can follow this series.

Content Negotiation

REST stands for Representational State Transfer and one of the important aspects of the representation is its form. The form of the representation means that when the REST service is invoked what should be the response and in what form the response should be. The best part of REST is that it can be used for multiple platforms, like.net client, HTML client playing on JSON objects, or any other mobile device platform.The REST service should be developed in such a way that it suffices for the needs of clients in terms of what format it is requesting. The format of the response may still keep the business entities and informative data intact, but they also may vary in context of returned media type form like XML, JSON, any custom defined media type, the character set or the encoding that the client is using to render the data and the language as well. For example, suppose a service is intended to return a list of any entity, then the object needs to be serialized in the form on which the client is expecting it.

If the REST service only returns XML, then the client that has bound its controls with JSON object, will not be able to make use of the returned data or may have to write some other tricky implementation to first convert the data into desired JSON format, then bind the controls, which results in an extra overhead or may, eventually, turn out to be a bottleneck. The server should be able to send the best possible representation available with it, as per the client request. ASP.NET Web API provides that capability of making a robust REST service that handles the client’s request, understands it and serves the data accordingly. Web API introduces a layer, called content negotiation, in its underlying architecture, having standard HTTP rules to request a data in a desired format.

The following statements from this link gives the proper explanation of Content Negotiation and its primary mechanism.

“ The HTTP specification (RFC 2616) defines content negotiation as “the process of selecting the best representation for a given response when there are multiple representations available.” The primary mechanism for content negotiation in HTTP are these request headers,
  • Accept: Which media types are acceptable for the response, such as “application/json,” “application/xml,” or a custom media type such as "application/vnd.example+xml"
  • Accept-Charset: Which character sets are acceptable, such as UTF-8 or ISO 8859-1.
  • Accept-Encoding: Which content encodings are acceptable, such as gzip.
  • Accept-Language: The preferred natural language, such as “en-us”.

The server can also look at other portions of the HTTP request. For example, if the request contains an X-Requested-With header indicating an AJAX request, the server might default to JSON if there is no Accept header.”

negotiation

We’ll deep dive into the content negotiation and learn how  it works with Web API. First of all, we’ll set up a small solution having CRUD operations on database and services exposed as ASP.NET Web API REST services. We’ll do a basic implementation of exposing REST services on content negotiation part and will not focus much on the architecture of the application.

Application Setup

We’ll not go in very many details while setting up the solution step by step, but will have an existing solution that I‘ll explain before we proceed further. I have tried to create a sample application serving a product catalog. The complete source code (basic setup + end solution) and database scripts are available for download with this article. Following is the technology stack used in this solution,

  • Database : SQL Server Local DB (any database could be used)
  • IDE : Visual Studio 2015 Enterprise (any version of Visual Studio can be used that support .Net framework 4.5 or above)
  • ORM : Entity Framework 6
  • Web API : Web API 2
  • .Net Framework : 6.0 (4.5 or above can be used)

The database used is very simple that contains only two tables named Product and Category, to which a product belongs. Following is the entity relationship diagram of the database. The application is used Local DB for database. I purposely used it for this tutorial, as it is a small application. One can use any database as per the need or requirement in a real time scenario.
scenario

The solution is divided into three layers, as shown below.

layers

ProductCatalog.DataModel project takes the responsibility of database interactions. This is a simple C# class library acting as a data model of the application, and directly communicates with database. It contains the Entity data model generated with the help of Entity Framework. Apart from that for transactions, the project defines a repository contract named IProductCatalogRepository implemented by a concrete class named ProductCatalogRepository. This repository contains all the CRUD operations required for DB interactions for the Product and Category. ProductActionResult class is responsible for returning the result of a transaction, be it a status or an exception (in case of error). ProductActionStatus class defines the list of enums showing the status of the response to be returned. The Factory folder contains two factories named CategoryFactory and ProductFactory responsible for transforming database entities to custom entities to be used for transferring the object and vice-versa.

IProductCatalogRepository

  1. using System;  
  2. using System.Collections.Generic;  
  3. using System.Linq;  
  4. using System.Text;  
  5. using System.Threading.Tasks;  
  6. namespace ProductCatalog.DataModel   
  7. {  
  8.     public interface IProductCatalogRepository  
  9.     {  
  10.         ProductActionResult < Product > DeleteProduct(int id);  
  11.         ProductActionResult < ProductCatalog.DataModel.Category > DeleteCategory(int id);  
  12.         ProductCatalog.DataModel.Product GetProduct(int id);  
  13.         ProductCatalog.DataModel.Category GetCategory(int id);  
  14.         System.Linq.IQueryable < ProductCatalog.DataModel.Category > GetCategories();  
  15.         System.Linq.IQueryable < ProductCatalog.DataModel.Product > GetProducts();  
  16.         System.Linq.IQueryable < ProductCatalog.DataModel.Product > GetProducts(int CategoryId);  
  17.         ProductActionResult < ProductCatalog.DataModel.Product > InsertProduct(ProductCatalog.DataModel.Product product);  
  18.         ProductActionResult < ProductCatalog.DataModel.Category > InsertCategory(ProductCatalog.DataModel.Category category);  
  19.         ProductActionResult < ProductCatalog.DataModel.Product > UpdateProduct(ProductCatalog.DataModel.Product product);  
  20.         ProductActionResult < ProductCatalog.DataModel.Category > UpdateCategory(ProductCatalog.DataModel.Category category);  
  21.     }  
  22. }  
ProductCatalog.Entities project is the transfer object or custom entities project. This project contains POCO for Product and Category entities used for the to and fro of objects between API and data model project. This project is again a simple C# class library holding two POCO classes. The data model project adds reference to this entity's project.

The main part of the application lies in Web API project named ProductCatalog.API. I created this project by adding a Web API project type available in Asp.Net web applications category in Visual Studio 2015.

api

The default structure of the project is kept as it is, apart from adding a ProductsController to the project. The ProductsController simply contains a Get method to fetch all the Products from the database.

ProductsController
  1. using ProductCatalog.DataModel;  
  2. using ProductCatalog.DataModel.Factory;  
  3. using System;  
  4. using System.Collections.Generic;  
  5. using System.Linq;  
  6. using System.Net;  
  7. using System.Net.Http;  
  8. using System.Web.Http;  
  9. namespace ProductCatalog.API.Controllers {  
  10.     public class ProductsController: ApiController {  
  11.         IProductCatalogRepository _productCatalogRepository;  
  12.         ProductFactory _productFactory = new ProductFactory();  
  13.         public ProductsController() {  
  14.             _productCatalogRepository = new ProductCatalogRepository(new ProductCatalogEntities());  
  15.         }  
  16.         public ProductsController(IProductCatalogRepository productCatalogRepository) {  
  17.             _productCatalogRepository = productCatalogRepository;  
  18.         }  
  19.         public IHttpActionResult Get() {  
  20.             try {  
  21.                 var products = _productCatalogRepository.GetProducts();  
  22.                 return Ok(products.ToList().Select(p => _productFactory.CreateProduct(p)));  
  23.             } catch (Exception) {  
  24.                 return InternalServerError();  
  25.             }  
  26.         }  
  27.     }  
  28. }  
The Web API project adds reference to the data model and the custom entities project. The ProductsController creates an instance of Repository by instantiating it further with ProductCatalogEntities i.e. the data context used in data model project. The repository instance is used to fetch records in Get method to fetch all product records and further send a response of 200; i.e., by converting the database entities to custom entities. You can develop this structure in a more sophisticated and scalable manner by using IOC and dependency injection and may further add more layers to make it more loosely coupled and secure. Follow this series to develop that kind of architecture in Web API. This is our basic solution that we’ll take forward to learn about Content Negotiation in Web API. Download the source code attached.

Now, make the ProductCatalog.API project as startup project and run the application. Since we have not defined any route, the application will take the default route defined in WebAPI.Config file lying in App_Start folder of API project. When the application runs, you’ll get a home page because our default route redirected the application to Home Controller. Just add “api/products” to the URL and you will get following screen showing all the product records.


code

The result is shown in the plain XML format, but what if the client needs the result in JSON format? How will the client communicate with server to send the result in desired format and how will the server understand and process different requests from different clients? Content negotiation is the answer to all these questions. The temporary part of the application is done; let’s explore formatters in Web API now.

Formatters in Web API

Now, why does this browser return XML? That has to do with how the browser creates a request message. When we surf to a URI that supports fetch API, the browser here is the client of the API. A client creates a request message and the REST service responds with a response message. Here, the browser creates a request. That must mean that browser somehow requests XML. To have a closer look of it, let’s use Fiddler. Fiddler is a free web debugging tool to inspect services and their requests and responses. Let’s invoke the service again, this time, using Fiddler and see what the browser has requested. Launch Fiddler and refresh the URL in browser. You can see that every message, either request or response, has a header and a body.

Fiddler

Fiddler

When you see the header collection of request header, it indicates that the browser has sent a request with an accept header. Accept header in the request specifies in what format the client needs the response to be. There is also an Internet Media Type (IME) i.e. text/html, stating the response to be in text html format. It specifies that if prior IME is not available, application/xhtml+xml is to be sent. Let’s change that using Fiddler. Let’s configure our request using Fiddler to get the data in JSON format. Go to Composer tab of Fiddler and invoke the same URL. This time, we'll say that we will accept JSON.

Composer

Now, look at the response; the JSON is returned.

response

We can also look at a raw response which makes this even more obvious.

raw

Now, it would be nice if our API automatically returns JSON when a browser is the consumer of the API instead of XML.

We can do that. There's two ways to do this and they both require us to manipulate the supported media types for the formatters supported by our API. We're back in our web API configuration. By default, web API supports both XML formatting and JSON formatting. What we now want to do is to ensure that JSON format is invoked when a consumer requests text HTML, which, as we have seen, is the highest priority IME the browser requests. To do this, we add this media type to the supported media types collection of the JSON formatter. We can access these formatters through config.Formatters. Go to the WebAPI.config and add JSON formatter’s new supported type to log the default route defined.

config.Formatters.JsonFormatter.SupportedMediaTypes.Add(new System.Net.Http.Headers.MediaTypeHeaderValue("text/html"));

Run the application again in browser.

browser

And this time, the results are returned as JSON. Why? Well, what we've just done means that when a request stated text HTML as an accept header, the JSON formatter will be invoked for the request, because it now, contains that media type. Yet, when we ask for application XML, that's a media type that's still supported by the XML formatter, we will still get XML. Let's give that a try with Fiddler. And we're going to say that we accept application XML, and there we go.

XML

We've got XML.

XML

There's another way to do this. Instead of adding text HTML as a support media type to the JSON formatter, we can also simply remove all supported media types from the XML formatter.

//config.Formatters.JsonFormatter.SupportedMediaTypes.Add(new System.Net.Http.Headers.MediaTypeHeaderValue("text/html"));
config.Formatters.XmlFormatter.SupportedMediaTypes.Clear();


The difference is that our API, now, doesn't support returning XML anymore. There's no more support media types but the best way to handle this depends. If you want to keep on supporting XML, this isn't a way to do it. On the other hand, if you don't, this is. Not supporting XML is a choice made by a lot of API developers. It removes a possible level of errors. For example, if you want to support XML, you better make sure your XML formatter is bug-free. Anyway, both approaches are viable, and it depends on your requirements. But there's more we can do. The results we just saw in our browser, well, they aren't really nicely formatted, right? I'd like to apply some formatting so the API is more easily discoverable through the browser. We can do that by altering the serializer settings of the JSON formatter. So let's look at that. We can access the serializer settings through config.Formatters.JsonFormatter.SerializerSettings. Serializer settings has two interesting properties we want to use for this. First is the formatting property. We can state that we want to use indentation when formatting. The second thing I'd like to do is to ensure that we get results back CamelCased.

config.Formatters.JsonFormatter.SerializerSettings.Formatting = Newtonsoft.Json.Formatting.Indented;
config.Formatters.JsonFormatter.SerializerSettings.ContractResolver = new CamelCasePropertyNamesContractResolver();


That's true to contract resolver. And let's set that to a new CamelCased property named contract resolver. And there we go! Let's give it a try.

code

That already looks a lot more discoverable.

Content Negotiation in Web API

We have our solution set up and have an idea of how accept headers and formatters work. Now, let’s have a closer look into Content Negotiation. Content Negotiation works more in a similar manner, as we saw while learning formatters. Client makes a request with the desired response formats in the header collection and server responds the same. The content negotiator pipeline is aligned with the list of registered media type formatters. When a particular request comes in the pipeline, the framework tries to match the first available type with the request and sends the response. HttpConfiguration provides IContentNegotiator service and pipeline also fetches the list of available formatters in HttpConfiguration. Formatters media type mapping is the first task that pipeline performs for matching. Apart from requesting header mapping, Web API supports other mappings like QueryString, URIPathExtensions and MediaRange mapping too. This is not limited to these specific mappings, you can also make your custom mapping to achieve the implementation.

Accept Headers

Accept Headers is one of the major criteria for matching the media types. Client can send the request with Accept attribute in the header and define the desired media type as shown below.

Headers

Accept: application/xml or Accept: application/json

The Content Negotiator takes care of the the request and responds accordingly.

Content Type

The request can alternatively contain content type of the body. In case Accept header is not present , the content negotiator looks for the content type of the body and serves the response accordingly. In case both accept headers and content type are present, the precedence is given to accept headers.

Content Type

Content-Type: application/json.

Formatters

Formatters comes into picture if neither of the mentioned criteria's like MediaTypeMappings, Content Type and Accept Headers are present. In this case the content negotiator pipeline checks the formatters in the HttpConfiguration.Formatters collection and in the precedence of order in which they are stored it picks the one and returns response accordingly.

Accept Language Headers

It is very similar to Accept header , but its purpose is to request the language type from the service. Accept header was used to request the media formatting. Accept language can specify, what language type is requested by the client. The API may have resources like html available to be shared via a representation and in case of multilingual support, the API may contain various versions of html’s w.r.t. various languages or messages could also be multi lingual. In these type of cases , a client can request the message or html file as per its culture or language.

Accept Language Headers

Accept-Language : en

The client can also request the language in order of precedence like shown below,
Accept-Language: sv, en-us; q0.8,da;q=0.7

Quality Factor

In the prior example of Accept Language, we see string q=0.7 . q is nothing but termed as Quality Factor in content negotiation. Quality Factor varies from 0.1 to 1.0. The greater the value of quality factor is, the more the preference is given to the type. Example of Accept header with quality factor is shown below.

Accept: text/html,application/xhtml+xml,application/xml;q=0.9,*/*;q=0.7

Accept Encoding Headers

This header specifies the encoding that client accepts; i.e., the content encoding , primarily encryption. Some examples of the Accept-Encoding header are gzip, compress, deflate, identity etc. Client can request the type of encoding it needs by just supplying Accept-Encoding : <encoding type> in header request along with the request.

Example : Accept-Encoding : gzip

Accept Charset Headers

This header defines what type of character encoding is accepted by the client. It specifies basically what type of character sets are acceptable like UTF-8 or ISO 8859-1.

Example : Accept-Charset: ISO-8859-1,utf-8;q=0.7,*;q=0.8

Content Negotiation Implementation in Web API

Let’s look into how we can implement content negotiation. In Web API.DefaultContentNegotiator is the name of the class that takes care of content negotiation in Web API. We talked about IContentNegotiator service in the last section. The content negotiator pipeline calls this IContentNegotiator.Negotiate service method with the parameters like, the type of object that has to be serialized, the media formatters collection and the associated Http request. The return type of this method is ContentNegotiationResult , specifying which formatter has to be used and the return media type of the response. For example in our case we can implement the content negotiation in the following way in our Web API action.
  1. public HttpResponseMessage Get() {  
  2.     try {  
  3.         var products = _productCatalogRepository.GetProducts();  
  4.         var customProducts = products.ToList().Select(p => _productFactory.CreateProduct(p));  
  5.         IContentNegotiator negotiator = this.Configuration.Services.GetContentNegotiator();  
  6.         ContentNegotiationResult result = negotiator.Negotiate(typeof(List < Product > ), this.Request, this.Configuration.Formatters);  
  7.         if (result == null) {  
  8.             var response = new HttpResponseMessage(HttpStatusCode.NotAcceptable);  
  9.             throw new HttpResponseException(response);  
  10.         }  
  11.         return new HttpResponseMessage() {  
  12.             Content = new ObjectContent < List < Entities.Product >> (customProducts.ToList(), // type of object to be serialized   
  13.                 result.Formatter, // The media formatter  
  14.                 result.MediaType.MediaType // The MIME type  
  15.             )  
  16.         };  
  17.     } catch (Exception) {  
  18.         return new HttpResponseMessage(HttpStatusCode.InternalServerError);  
  19.     }  
  20. }  
In code of Action that fetches list of products, I have made some changes to support content negotiation as mentioned in the above code. As explained, we get IContentNegotiator service and store in negotiator variable. Then Negotiate method is called, passing the type of object to be negotiated, the Http request and the list of Formatters. Then an HttpResponseMessage is sent to the client. I tried to capture the best matched media type and best matched formatter in the code, and sent the request from the browser and got the following.

code

I.e application/xml as the request was from browser with these accept headers. I made the same request with Fiddler by changing the media type to application/json along with the request and got following best media type.

media

code

I.e. application/json,
application

Custom Content Negotiation Implementation in Web API

You can also write your custom content negotiator in Web API by overriding the default one. Just create any class that derives from DefaultContentNegotiator and override the methods on your own. After which you just need to set up your global configuration in WebAPI.config file like shown below.

GlobalConfiguration.Configuration.Services.Replace(typeof(IContentNegotiator), new CustomContentNegotiator());

Let’s see the implementation. Add a class named CustomContentNegotiator and derive it from

DefaultContentNegotiator 
  1. using System;  
  2. using System.Collections.Generic;  
  3. using System.Linq;  
  4. using System.Net.Http;  
  5. using System.Net.Http.Formatting;  
  6. using System.Net.Http.Headers;  
  7. using System.Web;  
  8. namespace ProductCatalog.API   
  9. {  
  10.     public class CustomContentNegotiator: DefaultContentNegotiator {}  
  11. }  
Now add the override Negotiate method in the class to support custom content negotiator.
  1. using System;  
  2. using System.Collections.Generic;  
  3. using System.Linq;  
  4. using System.Net.Http;  
  5. using System.Net.Http.Formatting;  
  6. using System.Net.Http.Headers;  
  7. using System.Web;  
  8. namespace ProductCatalog.API {  
  9.     public class CustomContentNegotiator: DefaultContentNegotiator {  
  10.         public override ContentNegotiationResult Negotiate(Type type, HttpRequestMessage request, IEnumerable < MediaTypeFormatter > formatters) {  
  11.             var result = new ContentNegotiationResult(new JsonMediaTypeFormatter(), new MediaTypeHeaderValue("application/json"));  
  12.             return result;  
  13.         }  
  14.     }  
  15. }  
In the above code we are using our custom logic to add application/json format media formatter. Now in WebAPI.config add the following configuration.

GlobalConfiguration.Configuration.Services.Replace(typeof(IContentNegotiator), new CustomContentNegotiator());

Now run the application and you get json result at the browser.

application

Even if you try to run the service from Fiddler with accept header as application/xml, you’ll get the JSON result. Which shows our custom formatter is working.

formatter

Conclusion

This article explained about content negotiation in Asp.NET Web API and its practical implementation. This is a very smart topic, and very important too, for REST development. Content negotiation helps services to become more robust and extensible. It makes the services far better and standardizes the implementation.

References

Here are some further good reads about Content negotiation in Web API.