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An Introduction to the Search/Retrieve URL Service (SRU)

Internet databases more seamlessly without the need of more expensive and complicated meta-search protocols.

SRW and SRU as Web Services

SRW/U are Web Services-based protocols for querying Internet indexes or databases and returning search results. Web Services essentially come in two flavours: REST (Representational State Transfer) and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol). A "REST-ful" Web Service usually encodes commands from a client to a server in the query string of a URL. Each name/value pair of the query string specifies a set of input parameters for the server. Once received, the server parses these name/value pairs, does some processing using them as input, and returns the results as an XML stream. The shape of the query string as well as the shape of the XML stream are dictated by the protocol. By definition, the communic- ation process between the client and the server is facilitated over an HTTP connection.

OAI-PMH is an excellent example of a REST-ful Web Service. While OAI 'verbs' can be encoded as POST requests in an HTTP header, they are usually implemented as GET requests. These verbs act as commands for the OAI data repository which responds to them with a specific XML schema. "SOAP- ful" Web Services work in a similar manner, except the name/value pairs of SOAP requests are encoded in an XML SOAP 'envelope'. Similarly, SOAP servers return responses using the SOAP XML vocabu- lary. The biggest difference between REST-ful Web Services and SOAP requests is the transport mech- anism. REST-ful Web Services are always transmitted via HTTP. SOAP requests and responses can be used by many other transport mechanisms including email, SSH (Secure Shell), telnet, as well as HTTP.

Web Services essentially send requests for information from a client to a server. The server reads the in- put, processes it, and returns the results as an XML stream back to the client. REST-ful Web Services encode the input usually in the shape of URLs. SOAP requests are marked up in a SOAP XML vocabu- lary. REST-ful Web Services return XML streams of varying shapes. SOAP Web Services return SOAP XML streams. Many people think implementing REST-ful Web Service is easier because it is simpler to implement and requires less overhead. SOAP is more robust and can be implemented in a larger number of networked environments.

SRW is a SOAP-ful Web Service. SRU is a REST-ful Web service. Despite the differences in imple- mentation, they are really very similar since they both define a similar set of commands (known as "oper- ations") and responses. Where OAI-PMH defines six 'verbs', SRW/U support three 'operations': explain, scan, and searchRetrieve. Like OAI, each operation is qualified with one or more additional name/value pairs.


Explain operations are requests sent by clients as a way of learning about the server's database/index as well as its functionality. At a minimum, responses to explain operations return the location of the data- base, a description of what the database contains, and what features of the protocol the server supports. Implemented in SRU, empty query strings on a URL are interpreted as an explain operation. When ex- plicitly stated, a version parameter must be present. Therefore, at a minimum, explain operations can be implemented in one of two ways:

  • http://example.org/

  • http://example.org/?operation=explain&version=1.1

An example SRU response from an explain operation might look like the text below. It denotes:

  • the server supports version 1.1 of the protocol


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