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What is an API?

What is an API?I sometimes get the question what is an API? I like that question for two reasons: first of all, there is no such thing as a stupid question. If you don’t know something, you ask it. The second reason is that when we talk about APIs, it is good to understand how everyone sees and understands it.

What is an API? The definition

API is an acronym for Application Programming Interface. You can also find other explanations for instance Program instead of Programming but that is basically what it is. It is, in layman’s terms, a set of defined methods to communicate between programs.

But you might say: wait! I always understand API to be about REST (REpresentational State Transfer). And that is something that a lot of people think or, perhaps it’s better to say that people use the word API for this. But when you look at the at the definition, for instance the one on Wikipedia, there is a mention of REST of course but the API can be any library of routines that enable the connection between programs. It does however cause a lot of confusion to talk about Soap APIs since Soap (a.k.a. Web services) and REST are different technologies.

For the rest of this article I would suggest that we use the definition of APIs that talks about REST rather than anything else.

API galore

APIs are very common, although you might not see them directly or even realize that you are using them. A lot of cloud services offer APIs to connect to the services but APIs are also used in the connection between systems. And with systems I mean traditional systems and connections like the connection between for example a HR system and a finance system but also in other areas like for instance the area of dashcams. Let’s look at a scenario where a dashcam requires an API.

Because of cameras getting so cheap, we see them materialize in all kinds of devices. Doorbells, multiple cameras in smart phones and since a couple of years also in so-called dashcams. These cameras are mounted for instance on the interior windscreen in your car (there are also versions for your bike) and record what’s happening on the road in front of you. The purpose of the camera is to have a recording when something goes wrong, for instance an accident. One of my colleagues almost had this on the road next to our office. His traffic light was green but two trucks clearly went through red from their side of the crossing. If he had an accident without the camera footage, it would be very hard to prove that the other party was guilty.

A dashcam is there in case something goes wrong and for a lot of people having a dashcam is an excellent level of traffic security. Insurance companies are aware of this and they like it. People with a dashcam are people who drive, on average, more safely than people without a dashcam. In the UK, where one in ten cars has a dashcam, insurance companies offer combinations of free dashcam’s and or a deduction on the insurance premium to motorists.

Where do the APIs come in?

Well, let me paint a scenario that isn’t too much future looking. A dashcam records a constant loop of the trip that you’re taking. Suddenly another car hits you. Because dashcam’s have G-sensors, they can actually detect there has been a prang and save the recording around the time of the accident to a piece of safe memory, or even in the cloud. When these kinds of accidents happen, you put the car to the side of the road and together with the other driver you digitally fill in the accident form on your mobile phone. Because your mobile phone knows that you have a dashcam in the car, it can download the footage from the dashcam (using an API) and attach it to the message that you’re sending to the insurance company. The latter is, of course, also using an API.

Is this science fiction? I don’t think so. It is just a clever piece of integration that you can create not only to save evidence with regards to the accident but also to streamline the claim. Streamlining in this case for you as a driver but also for the insurance company.

Give it a rest

As you can see, an API is the interface between many things and in the future is many things will be much more things. Communication technology like Bluetooth will have more connected devices being part of our world and APIs are going to be the way to connect those systems.

So, this is just one example of an API. But I am sure that when you look inside your organization you will find a lot of APIs. There are your own APIs but also third-party APIs from partners customers and other stakeholders. All of these APIs need to be managed. Managed in the sense that there needs to be a level of security but also a service level and scalability. This is actually what makes an API a managed API by adding these elements to make them useful in your organization.

And it won’t surprise you when I say that the managed API needs an API Management solution that is up for the task. Although the elements might vary between organizations, our API management selection guide white paper will give you a good insight into the key criteria for such a solution.

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Picture of Ruben van der Zwan
Published July 30, 2019

Ruben van der Zwan

Ruben is CEO and founder of Yenlo. He is an IT visionary from the first hour, and always working on creating better ICT solutions. Ruben believes that with technology, we can bring the people in this world together and bring prosperity to everyone. Ruben is an evangelist of open source technology, integration platforms, and WSO2 in particular. He is a frequent speaker on international conferences.

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