What exactly is an API?
Think of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) as similar in purpose to the human-machine interfaces we use to interact with software everyday - but between two systems or applications. The most simplistic way of describing this is that one database has a female socket and the other, a male plug. The integration process is to bring these two (APIs) together to establish a connection through which data (electricity) can flow.
This plug analogy only goes so far and software architects know that in reality there are multiple pieces that need to be joined between systems. The integration process itself is often complex as it requires mapping between “syntaxes.” An example here would be how in English we say “the blue car” but in French the proper syntax would be “the car blue." So as you begin to map the relationship between two languages (or two databases) it becomes programmatically more complex.
What do they do?
APIs connect your back-end systems and make data digestible for your front-end systems. If designed correctly, your APIs will play a major role in creating new business models and products and increase your network effect by allowing external developers to leverage your most valued assets in a straightforward and consistent way.
Understanding the API Economy
APIs can be either public - projecting your data and capabilities to the outside world - or private - simplifying access to those designated within your company or trusted partners. Last year, external facing APIs were a faint blip on the horizon, but now ProgrammableWeb lists over 9,000 APIs just waiting to be tapped. No doubt that number will grow exponentially as new data points and databases emerge. And for every public API, there are approximately ten more private ones shuttling enterprise data within their companies and partner ecosystems.
To better understand the relationship between APIs and the emerging API economy, an example would be a coffee company whose app has purchasing functionalities but doesn’t yet identify the nearest store to a customer’s present location.
A developer (internal or external) could establish connections between the Google Maps API, the coffee company's store list (via another API) and a customer’s geolocation (via their cellphone data) to give that consumer the ability to instantly direct themselves to the most convenient location of their favourite brand of coffee.
The coffee company benefits as this new functionality helps maintain the customer’s brand loyalty. The App developer, if external, benefits via in-app revenue streams (such as advertising) or reselling the data that is generated.
Categories of APIs
Unfettered creativity and rapid innovation promised by APIs isn’t based on how fast data can flow from one system to the other but how fast you can build and integrate “plugs” from different data sources.
In terms of different flavors of APIs, SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) is an older, legacy architecture that was originally engineered to link related applications together at a fairly low level. Its design requires a deep dive into the component systems and the underlying resources that make up its data and capabilities. As such, it is stable and dependable, but complicated to work with.
REST (Representational State Transfer) Level One and Two are varieties of a more advanced and refined model that attempts to abstract the underlying systems so that API developers do not have to dive as deeply into them. REST Level 3 is an emerging and advanced architecture that is especially applicable for the API economy, emerging touchpoints, and the Internet of Things - because its freshly architected with these things in mind, rather than adapted from an old paradigm.
Something to remember when creating your API strategy: more people know how to plug in a switch then assemble an Ikea desk. Simplicity, uniformity and low maintenance are key for an API. However no API has reached the pure plug and play state yet.
API toolkits are also important in that they aid developers in ecommerce integration, security, permissions, development, maintenance and efficiency of the API. For example, tools that link data for delivery when an API call is made will, in part, determine the load that your systems can bear. For example Twitter recently received a record-breaking 145,000 API calls per second. If each call had to return 3 separate pieces of data in 3 separate calls rather than one call of grouped data, systems might crash.
Unified API Strategy
To create a seamless digital experience, a unified API strategy is recommended. Rather than each database directly connecting to other databases and touchpoints, a unified touchpoint broker or mediation layer becomes a central point of contact.
Example of a traditional hardwired system:
A unified API connects all backend systems allowing digestible data to flow out to touchpoints:
A unified API architecture has several benefits:
- Data flows into one central spot - both from backend systems and external, customer-facing touchpoints. This has ramifications for processing data in real time.
- Promotes ease of swapping out backend systems
- Fast creation of new products/campaigns/offers/programs. Systems don’t have to be pre-wired together.
- Provides data digestible to new touchpoints such as Tablets and Mobile
Future Proof Your API Strategy
To future proof your API strategy Forrester writes in their 4-part series on API Design:
If the business goals for your APIs are limited, and you know precisely what you want your API users to be able to do, open-ended design is not a big concern: Design and deliver a static set of API capabilities and leave it at that. However, this is not the typical attitude on the open Web, where digital disruption and rapid innovation are the order of the day and where restrictive APIs tend to provide less opportunity for your organization to ride the coattails of someone else’s success.In between the extremes of limited, static APIs and complete openness to your entire business,your business goals, your place in the ecosystem, and creative thinking about future possibilities will help you determine how much unfettered creativity your APIs should enable.
There’s lots to learn about ecommerce APIs and the API economy so start with the Forrester Report then come check back in with us as we explain more about the different levels of Rest and how you can start building your blueprint for digital success.
This post is contributed by our own Lisa Walker, ecommerce strategist focused on emerging business trends and technology at Elastic Path.
Interested in learning more? Check out our archive of API strategy and ecommerce API posts.