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API - use and functionality

An API consists of several tools, definitions and protocols for developing and integrating application software. API stands for Application Programming Interface.

With it, products or services can communicate with each other regardless of their implementation. In this way, application development can be optimized, which in turn saves time and money. They are flexible and simplify handling, regardless of whether you are developing new tools and products or managing existing ones. On top of that, they create opportunities for innovation.

APIs are sometimes viewed as contracts containing documents that represent an agreement between parties: when one party sends a remote request structured in a certain way, the second party responds accordingly.

APIs simplify integration

Because APIs make it easier for developers to integrate new application components into an existing architecture, they automatically support collaboration between companies and IT teams. As a company, you often have to be able to react flexibly to the constantly changing conditions of the market in which a competitor can, for example, transform the entire industry with a single new app. Rapid development and provision of innovative services is therefore essential in order to remain competitive. One method for accelerating the process is cloud-native application development, which is based on the linking of an architecture of microservice applications via APIs.

An API itself offers a simple way of connecting your own infrastructure by developing cloud-native applications, but it also enables you to share your data with customers and other external users. A public API represents a high business value because it simplifies and at the same time expands the connection to your partners and also provides a possible monetization of your data (a common example here is the Google Maps API).

Let's take a book delivery service as an example. Such a company could provide its customers with an app that employees can use to inquire about the availability of certain books when they are dispatched. This app could be potentially expensive to develop or limited to specific platforms, and require long development times and ongoing maintenance.

As an alternative, book shipping could provide an API to check availability. There are several advantages to this approach:

  • By granting data access to the customer via an API, they are given direct access to inventory information.
  • Bookshipping can make changes to its internal systems (as long as this does not change the API behavior) without affecting its customers.
  • With a publicly available API, developers working for book distributors, book sellers or third parties can create apps to make it easier for customers to find books. This, in turn, can lead to higher sales and other business opportunities.

In short, APIs allow you to grant access to your resources while maintaining security and control. How and for whom you grant this access is entirely up to you. The foundation of API security is good API management. The connection with APIs and the development of applications that use data or functions provided by the APIs can be carried out with a distributed integration platform that connects everything together, including legacy systems and the Internet of Things (IoT).

There are three approaches to API release guidelines.

Private API

A private API is intended for internal use only. This approach gives companies the greatest possible control over their APIs.

Partner API

The API is shared with specific business partners. This allows you to tap into additional sources of income without compromising quality.

Public API

This API is available to everyone. This allows third parties to develop apps for interacting with your API and opens up opportunities for innovation.

The benefits of innovating with APIs

Opening your APIs to partners or the public can:

  • lead to the development of new or expansion of current sources of income.
  • increase the reach of your brand.
  • Facilitate or improve open innovation or efficiency through external development and collaboration.

To be too good to be true? But how is all of this possible with APIs?

For example, let's go back with book shipping.

Let's assume that one of the partner companies is developing an app that can be used to determine the exact position of books on the shelf. This enhanced experience may bring more shoppers to the store (the book delivery customer's) and allow an existing source of income to grow.

Perhaps a third-party company is developing an app based on a public API that customers can use to order books directly from book delivery instead of in-store. This opens up a new source of income for book shipping.

Sharing APIs with select partners or around the world can have positive effects. With every partnership, your brand awareness expands beyond your marketing efforts. By making technology available to the public, like a public API, developers are encouraged to create an app ecosystem based on your API. The more people who use your technology, the more likely it is to build relationships with you.

The release of technology can have novel and unexpected effects. Now and then these lead to the disruption of entire industries. New companies such as B. a book lending business, change their business completely. Partner and public APIs enable you to harness the creative efforts of a community much larger than your team of in-house developers. In this way, new ideas can come from anywhere, which is why companies must be aware of market changes at all times and be able to react accordingly. This is where APIs can help.

A very brief history of the API

APIs date back to the early days of computing, well before the PC. At that time they were primarily used as a library for operating systems. They mostly operated on the respective system of their installation, but were occasionally also responsible for forwarding messages between mainframes. Almost 30 years later, the APIs had finally pushed the limits of their on-premises environments. Then, at the beginning of the new millennium, they became an important technology for remote data integration.

Remote API

A remote API is designed to interact over a communication network. “Remote” here means that the resources manipulated with the API are located outside the local computer system making the request. Since the Internet is the most widely used communication network, most of the APIs are developed based on web standards. Not all remote APIs are web APIs, but it can be assumed that web APIs are essentially "remote".

Web APIs typically use HTTP to query messages and provide a definition of the structure of the response messages. These response messages usually take the form of an XML or JSON file. Both XML and JSON are preferred formats because they present data in a way that the apps can easily manipulate.

What is being done in the area of ​​API improvement?

As APIs have become the ubiquitous form of Web APIs, various efforts have been made to make their design simpler and more useful to implement.

A little SOAP and a lot of REST

With the ever-expanding Web APIs, a protocol specification was developed to standardize the exchange of information: the Simple Object Access Protocol, or SOAP for short. APIs created with SOAP use XML as the message format and receive requests via HTTP or SMTP. SOAP simplifies the exchange of information for apps running in different environments or written in different languages.

Another specification is Representational State Transfer (REST). Web APIs that are subject to the framework of the REST architecture are called RESTful APIs. REST is fundamentally different from SOAP: SOAP is a protocol, REST is an architectural design. In other words, there is no official standard for RESTful web APIs. As outlined in Roy Fielding's dissertation “Architectural Styles and the Design of Network-based Software Architectures”, APIs fall into the RESTful category if they meet the six main requirements of the RESTful system:

  • Client / server architecture: REST architectures consist of clients, servers and resources. Requests are handled via HTTP.

  • Statelessness: No client content is stored on the server between requests. Instead, session status information is backed up on the client.

  • Caching ability: Caching can be used to eliminate requirements for some client / server interactions.

  • Multi-layer system: Client / server interactions can be extended to several layers. They can be used to carry out additional functions such as load balancing, shared caches or security.

  • Code on Demand (optional): The functionality of a client can be expanded by the server by transferring the executable code.

  • Uniform surface: This requirement is essential for the design of RESTful APIs and comprises four aspects:

    • Resource identification in the request: The resources are identified in the respective request and are separate from the representations returned to the client.

    • Resource manipulation through representations: The clients receive files that represent resources. These representations must contain sufficient information to enable modification or deletion.

    • Self-describable messages: Any message returned to a client contains sufficient information to describe how the client processed it.

    • Hypermedia as the application status engine: After accessing a resource, the REST client should be able to identify all other currently available measures via hyperlinks.

This sounds like a lot of guidelines, but basically these guidelines are much easier to follow than a mandatory protocol. This is the reason why RESTful APIs are gaining ground over SOAP.

In the recent past, the OpenAPI specification has established itself as the common standard for defining REST APIs. It offers a language-independent approach that allows developers to build REST API interfaces that users can easily understand.

SOA or microservices architecture

The two approaches that remote APIs use the most are SOA (Service-Oriented Architecture) and microservices architecture. The SOA is the older of the two and started out as an improvement on monolithic apps. While a single monolithic app offers full functionality, some functions can be taken over by different apps that are loosely coupled via an integration pattern such as an Enterprise Service Bus (ESB).

While SOA is simpler than a monolithic architecture in many ways, it risks cascading changes through the environment if the component interactions are not properly understood. This added complexity led to some of the problems that SOA was intended to address.

Microservices architectures are similar to SOA patterns in terms of the use of special, loosely coupled services. But they go one step further in breaking down traditional infrastructures. The services within the microservices architecture use a common messaging framework such as RESTful APIs. This allows you to communicate with each other through these APIs without complex data transformation transactions or additional layers of integration. The use of RESTful APIs enables and even promotes the rapid provision of new functions and updates. All services are discreet. In this way, they can be replaced, improved or deleted without affecting the other services in the architecture. This lean architecture optimizes cloud or distributed resources and supports dynamic scalability of individual services.