Using HAL in content APIs

5 minute read

I was recently tasked with building a few APIs to provide content to our frontend and a few modules on our website, and perhaps a third party application in the future. I then started researching the best way to pass content information using an API. I found HAL pretty simple and straightforward, and quite enough for our needs.

First of all, let me start by briefly explaining what HAL is. You can find more information here.

HAL stands for Hypertext Application Language, and it is a way to standardise how to pass information to clients who consume your APIs. The data returned is in JSON format and it consists of mainly three parts:

  • the data about the resource itself, called state
  • a _links section with endpoints to get more information about the resource
  • an _embedded section with other resources (in HAL format) related to resource in question.

For example, a response from an API to get data about a book could look something like the following

  "_links": {
    "self": {
      "href": "/api/v1/books/12345"
    "author": {
      "href": "/api/v1/authors/isac_asimov"
  "id": "12345",
  "title": "Foundation",
  "author": "Isac Asimov"

Since I had at least three resources I needed to provide an API for, and with more to be added in future, I wanted a simple, nice, clean way to add new APIs for new resources. What I chose to do was to create a HAL resource class to help me build the response and a contract that a model should implement if there is an API for that resource.

So, let’s start with the HAL resource. I am going to break it down to make it easier to understand.

As I said, there are three parts, so have them as protected variables

class HalResource
    protected $state = [];
    protected $links = [];
    protected $embedded = [];

Now, I needed to define setter methods for them. The setter methods for the $state and $links properties are quite straightforward:

public function setState(CastToHalContract $state): self
    $this->state = $state->toJsonHal();

    return $this;

public function addLink($ref, $href): self
    $ref = trim(strtolower($ref));

    if ($ref != 'self') {
        $this->links[$ref] = trim(strtolower($href));

    return $this;

Note the use of the toJsonHal() method. More on it later.

I chose to have them return the object itself so that I can nicely chain these calls when building the API response.

The setter for the $embedded property is slightly more complicated. I decided to have two setter methods: one to add another HalResource object directly and one to add a collection of Eloquent models. This way the controller will be so much easier to read and understand.

public function addEmbeddedResource($ref, HalResource $resource)
    $ref = trim(strtolower($ref));

    if (!isset($this->embedded[$ref])) {
        $this->embedded[$ref] = [];
    $this->embedded[$ref][] = $resource;

public function addEmbeddedResources($ref, Collection $collection)
    $collection->each(function ($item) use ($ref) {
        $this->addEmbeddedResource($ref, (new self())->setState($item));

They are not quite the same. As per HAL specification, an embedded resource is a fully fledged HAL resource, with embedded resource as well if necessary.

This can be achieved with the addEmbeddedResource() method, but not with the addEmbeddedResources() (note the plural) method. This is because the latter works on Collections of model and creates HAL resources on the fly with only the state set. This was enough for what I needed and therefore I did not look into a more sophisticated way of adding embedded resources.

Finally, I needed a method to transform this object into an array, ready to be returned by the API.

public function toArray(): array
    $data = $this->state;
    foreach ($this->links as $ref => $href) {
        $data['_links'][$ref]['href'] = $href;
    if (!empty($this->embedded)) {
        $data['_embedded'] = [];
        foreach ($this->embedded as $ref => $resources) {
            $data['embedded'][$ref] = [];
            foreach ($resources as $resource) {
                /** @var HalResource $resource */
                $data['_embedded'][$ref][] = $resource->toArray();


    return $data;

I’m sure you noticed I have already used the contract I was talking about as a typehint in one of the setter method’s signature, so let’s define it, it is extremely simple

interface CastToHalContract
    public function toJsonHal(): array;

That’s it, just one method. Every model that you would like to return as a HAL resource will need to implement this contract and off you go.

I worked for a magazine at the time, so an issue had articles and contributors associated with it. I already had the Issue model class defined, all I needed to do was to implement the toJasonHal() method.

class Issue extends Model implements CastToHalContract
    public function toJsonHal(): array
        return [
            '_links' => ['self' => ['href' => route('api.v1.issue.index', [$this->issueid], false)]],
            'id'     => $this->issueid,
            // Add all the other properties that you wish to return by the API
            // ...

One thing to notice here is the inclusion of the _links section. You may think this is wrong as I have defined a setter method for it and I should be using it. And you’re probably right. The thing is though, I want to be 100% sure that the link to itself is always present, so instead of relying on me remembering to call the addLink() method I decided to make my life easier by always including it in the implementation of the toJasonHal() method. Also notice that the implementation of the addLink() method does not allow the developer to add a self link. This is to prevent accidentally adding the wrong link.

I was now ready to put everything together in the controller.

public function info(LegacyIssue $issue)
    $issueResource = (new HalResource())->setState($issue);

    // Add the previous and next links if any
    $prev = $this->issueService->getPreviousIssue($issue->getKey());
    if (!empty($prev)) {
        $issueResource->addLink('prev', route('api.v1.issue.index', $prev->getKey(), false));
    $next = $this->issueService->getNextIssue($issue->getKey());
    if (!empty($next)) {
        $issueResource->addLink('next', route('api.v1.issue.index', $next->getKey(), false));

    // Add the articles, if any
    $issueResource->addEmbeddedResources('articles', $this->issueService->getArticles($issue->getKey()));

    // Add the contributors, if any
    $issueResource->addEmbeddedResources('contributors', $this->issueService->getContributors($issue->getKey()));

    return response()->json($issueResource->toArray());

Let’s go through the controller and see what it does.

The first thing is to set the state of the new HAL resource. Notice that this will use the model implementation of the toJasonHal() method.

Then I add the endpoint for the previous and next Issue resource, if any, and the embedded resources.

Finally, the HAL resource is transformed into an array and returned as a JSON structure.

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