By Sanjeewa Malalgoda, Technical Lead at WSO2
Even if you’re not an excessively tech-savvy individual, you most likely would have used a mobile application in your mobile device via an internet connection, used a Gmail client, Twitter, Facebook, or mobile apps, or purchased something online. In a tech world, you’re already reaping the benefits of application programming interfaces (APIs).
The use of APIs is becoming even more popular today as service providers are scrambling to embrace the Internet of Things. With the availability of new tracking devices, smart homes, smart vehicles, mobile phones and tablets, consumers now have more options on how they consume applications.
Let’s take a step back and try to understand what this all means. An API is a term that’s used to denote a well-defined interface to access certain resources – in other words a service available to an end-user. If you haven’t worked with web APIs before, you may think it’s a type of service exposed over the Internet to perform certain operations.
APIs are the foundation of today’s software engineering industry and enterprises are jumping on the bandwagon to reap the benefits of using them to integrate and automate to make their online services more appealing and user-friendly to end-users. Well-designed APIs will enable your business to expose content or services to internal and external audiences in a versatile manner. Today, most organizations use APIs to build their solutions internally and expose these services to the world at large. APIs will immensely benefit both service development teams as well as service consumers.
A good, yet simple example that illustrates this well is a weather update application that’s available on your mobile device. This application that typically runs on a device will not be able to provide weather forecasts of a specific area without connecting to an external service.
However, it can call a GPS device on your mobile device or request the user to retrieve location coordinates of a specific area for which you want a forecast. Once you’ve defined your geographical location, the mobile application can simply call a weather service API and request the required information. What’s important to note here is that you don’t need to perform any complicated tasks, do calculations, or run an analysis on the mobile device. You can simply push relevant parameters to an API and obtain the results you want.
If you view this same example from one level up, you’d see that there’s a client application and a service and both of these are connected by an API. That’s essentially what an API does; it can integrate your services, data, content, and processes with external parties in a very effective and efficient manner. So, what’s the difference between services and APIs? Essentially, the functions of both are the same, but a slight differentiator would be that an API would generally have a well-defined interface to its services.
That said, there’s a notable difference between managed and normal web APIs/services. Managed APIs are often enriched with additional features on top of a standard API or service. These are referred to quality of services or QoS. Common QoSs include security, access control, throttling, and usage monitoring. Security forms the foundation any API infrastructure across the entire digital value chain. Malicious users can access your systems the same as legitimate users would, therefore it’s important to enable security at all points of engagement. Usage monitoring helps enterprises to improve their APIs, attract the right app developers, troubleshoot problems and, ultimately, translate these to better business decision
Boosting efficiency to become more competitive
Enterprises too are seeing the potential benefits of APIs to propel business growth, irrespective of the size and nature of the business and the industry they operate in. The key is to get started now to be able to maintain a competitive edge. A typical example is the extensive use of APIs in the hospitality industry; for instance, the owner of a restaurant or a small hotel would operate a simple website and some internal services. But at some point, when the business grows, they cannot maintain the same internal system and work with external parties. At this stage, business owners would need to think about consuming external services and exposing their services to the external world. And that’s when APIs and API management solutions come into play.
Large, global companies in the financial, transportation, logistics, and consumer sectors have already started to expose their systems and services to the outside world as APIs. The real benefit lies with being able to seamlessly integrate internal systems with those external ones to leverage benefits like creating properly structured services that are synced within the company, e.g. human resources department exposing non-sensitive employee data to other departments that need this information. A typical example is an online retail business that would need a payment solution to integrate with its system. Such a solution would not need to be implemented from scratch, rather the business can expose APIs via already available payment solution providers like Stripe, Zuora, or PayPal.
To explain this further, let’s consider a restaurant owner who can expose menus and ordering services via APIs. This will enable external developers to consume these APIs with their apps and incorporate the restaurant’s menus and services into the travel applications they’re building. When exposing APIs, the restaurant owner would need to consider throttling, a process responsible for regulating the rate at which the application is processing, as well as the security aspect of exposing these APIs. On top of these, a service provider may need some insights into the usage of these APIs – for instance, details about service consumers (like which apps have been invoked more), usage patterns (most popular food types), traffic patterns (peak order times), etc in order to make certain business decisions and make the service more efficient. For this, you might need sort of analytics and usage monitoring capabilities as part of your overall API management solution.
Ultimately what you achieve in terms of business benefits is brand awareness by becoming a smart business. Moreover, in addition to profits gained from direct API consumption, users can earn additional revenue by charging users for API/service usage. This concept is known as API monetization and most API management solutions already have this feature in-built as an extension, enabling creative users to turn cool ideas into revenue generating APIs within minutes. And open source products have proved to be most useful to meet all your API management requirements as its cost effective and easy to deploy.
About the Author: In his role, Sanjeewa has been providing consultancy to WSO2 customers, including Fortune 500 companies, on designing and building API management solutions across different verticals. He has also spoken in numerous global conferences and technical forums on API management. He holds a first class honors degree in Computer Science and Engineering from University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. He is a member of the Blackberry Developers Community, an Associate Member of the Institute of Engineers, Sri Lanka, and a member of the International Association of Computer Science and Information Technology. He is also a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).
To contact the author email firstname.lastname@example.org.