What is an API???

When the Harvard Business Review, a wonderful publication that rarely gets deep in technology “solution-eering”, starts talking about adopting an API strategy,  it’s time to lend an ear.  If you have not read it, here it is in full:

I’m going to skip over the smart sounding techno- speak of Cambridge for a moment, and head Southside to talk about APIs and why they are so important in basic terms.

Let’s say you want a Pizza but there is no such thing as a pizza parlor.  To get a pizza you need a big oven, you need ingredients, and you need some pizza skills to put it all together and cook it to perfection.  Pizza after pizza, sooner or later you get tired of spending all this time in the kitchen.   Pizza making is a time sink on your day and you’ve pretty much boiled your pizza making to a regular set of steps for a reliable pie.  Maybe you can get someone to do it for you?

Enter the invention of the pizza parlor.  There is a person to manage and assemble the ingredients, another to work the oven and cook pies to perfection.   The pizzas come out great.  The staff is great at their assigned task ( but pretty bad at anything else.)   But there is one more important person.  The person at the counter.  No more fooling with ingredients, assembling or cooking.  All you have to do is go to the counter and say, “pepperoni pizza”.   Voila, 30 minutes later pepperoni pizza appears.

The guy at the counter?  That’s your API.   APIs abstract us from the rigors of what happens behind the technological counter of a piece of software.   With an API, I don’t have to touch or do anything behind the technological counter, ever.  As far as I am concerned, as an abstracted consumer, the dirty work stays a nice mystery.   And just like a pizza menu, I can order up any number of special items .  Just talk to the guy behind the counter.  No messing with ingredients (data), assembly  (“ETL”), cooking (processing).

So why is an API strategy so important?

  • 90% of the world’s data was created in the last 2 years.

Using the pizza analogy we now have a TON of ingredients in the fridge.  Spoilage is a real problem (lost/hidden data).  We have neither the time nor person-power to have people knocking about behind the counter trying to make their own pizzas. Think I’m kidding?  Just give a thought to all the CSV files a typical corporation deals with on a day to day basis.  These are useful little devils.  CSVs are useful in the sense that we really, really need the data within;  CSVs are devils in the sense that to use that data we have to get behind the technological counter and vlookup and code ourselves into a knot.

  • API s have evolved beautifully.

Back in the day the ways of ordering a pizza from the behind the technological counter guy was a bit cumbersome.   You had to order a pizza in a very specific and lengthy way.  Kind of like giving the pizza counter guy a secret password, special handshake, awkward exchange of pizza ordering language and salutation to the sun and moon.  Some APIs are still like this, but they have evolved a lot.  These days it’s all Internet speak (Web Services) and has been simplified to the Nth degree (REST).  At BroadPeak we joke about companies that talk about “integrating” into  REST APIs.   If you think about it, saying you have integrated to a REST API is like saying, “We integrate into the thing that is absolutely and thoroughly designed for integration.”   Well, good for you!

Yes, API ’s Have Gotten This Good

How good have APIs gotten?  Good enough that there is a bit of a movement pulling away from traditional notions of SOA (service oriented architecture).  The truth is we don’t really care what applications are doing in the pizza kitchen.  So long as we have a single place to call.  When deployed across the enterprise it eliminates the need for clunky service busses and ESBs.   So, rather than spending millions of dollars on a TIBCO implementation with a high failure rate, we proliferate APIs.  Our developers spend their  time building really cool applications instead of costly data marshaling.

Oh so much more to come. Stay Tuned