We’re living in an API-centric world. Many of our daily activities revolve around APIs, and most of us are not even aware of it!
Have you ever wondered how the following actions are executed?
You can instantly browse information on the current weather conditions as well as the weather forecast using platforms like Apple’s weather app, Google search, or smart home devices.
The travel booking websites aggregate numerous destinations and flights right away for displaying the cheapest option to you.
You can log in to certain websites and mobile apps using the profile login details of your Google/Facebook/Twitter account.
You can play Spotify while using the Uber app.
Well, the common component responsible for all these prompt and useful actions is an API! APIs connect two distanced entities and enable them to communicate with each other in a standardized format. APIs reduce a considerable amount of time and effort to securely exchange data. For instance, weather booking sites collect information from a third party via APIs, and the weather data is sent to them in a manner that can be easily reformatted. Travel booking sites use third-party APIs for gathering information on the availability of flights and hotels directly from the providers. A website can leverage the API of popular services like Google or Facebook to authenticate a user so that users do not have to bear the hassles of creating a new profile for every website service. Likewise, Uber uses an API to connect with Spotify.
So, what is an API, how does it work, and why is it important? This post answers them all! Read along to gain comprehensive insights on an API, its functioning, and its importance from the perspective of developers and businesses.
The Basic Principle of an API
An Application Programming Interface, commonly known as an API, is a software intermediary that enables computers/computer programs to communicate with one another. In other words, an API contains a set of functions using which apps can access data and can interact with various OSs, external software components, or microservices.
When one uses an app using a smartphone device, the app sends data to the server using the internet. The server retrieves this data, then interprets the data, carries on the required actions, and finally sends the data back to the user’s mobile device. Now, the app interprets this data and displays the information requested by the user in a readable format. All the aforementioned actions are made possible by an API.
How does an API function?
Technically, an API comprises a bunch of defined rules that instruct how software apps or computers will communicate amongst each other. An API works as the intermediary layer between an app and the web server; it processes the data transfer that takes place between the systems.
Steps on how an API works:
Step # 1
A request is placed by the user – the client app initiates an API call for retrieving information. Then the request gets processed from the app to the web server, through the URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) of the API.
Step # 2
Once a valid request is received, the API makes a call to the web server or the external program.
Step # 3
A response is then sent by the server/program to the API. This response contains the requested information.
Step # 4
Now, the API transfers this data to the app that had initiated the request for obtaining the information.
Here, the data transfer varies based on the web service used.
When you search flights online, you need to choose from different options available like departure/return dates, one-way/round trip, names of the departure & destination city, the type of seats, the number of passengers, and so on. Through these actions, you are actually interacting with the website of a particular airline and accessing their database to check the seat availability and flight fare on the desired dates.
Now, let’s discuss an instance when you are not using any specific airline’s site for directly obtaining the information; but using an online travel service to check out the deals offered by various airlines and choose the best available option. Travel services like Expedia, MakeMyTrip, Kayak, etc. aggregate information from the databases of several airlines by interacting with an airline’s API. The third-party provider will allow this interface to execute actions like acquiring information from airline databases, booking seats for passengers, etc. After receiving the request for such actions, the API will collect the airline’s response to this request and deliver the response back to the aggregator. And, thereafter the aggregator will display the updated and relevant information to the passenger.
Tips on API Development
A sound API comes with clear and concise commands that can be reused by programmers. While designing APIs, developers need to create endpoints within an API. An endpoint is an URL performing a specific kind of function. Endpoint provides a path for other fellow developers to follow and this way, the API development process is smoother, ruling out chances of confusion and guesswork.
The Modern API Development: Characteristic Traits
Today, APIs are considered more as products than codes and are created for specific sets of users like software developers. And, like any other software end-product, APIs come with their own SDLCs (software development lifecycles) – designing, development, testing, managing, and versioning. A modern API adheres to HTTPS and REST standards so that they are understood properly, can be easily accessed, and are developer-friendly and secured.
APIs ensures safe data transfer between different platforms. The endpoint of the API decouples the consuming app from the service provider’s infrastructure, API calls include authorization credentials for minimizing the threat of attacks on the server, and an API gateway is empowered to limit access for ruling out security risks. Besides, during the exchange of data, extra layers of security are employed in the form of cookies, HTTP headers, query string parameters, etc. Navigate this link to learn more about the best practices for ensuring API security.
A good API usually contains different formats as various apps communicate in different languages including CSV, XML, and JSON. Furthermore, comprehensive documentation stating an API’s usage is present to make it DevOps-friendly. Also, good APIs are supported and backed by dynamic developer communities for extending help to the ones who get stuck.
Types of APIs
Public APIs are meant to be shared with the outer world such that an external mobile app development company or developer can leverage the capabilities of these APIs for building apps. Certain firms provide semi-public access to their APIs – no public documentation is available; developers/development companies need to submit their apps for approval.
These APIs are internal ones created for specific user bases and audiences. Such APIs are used within an enterprise for enhancing collaboration and facilitating communication amongst employees. These APIs can be used by those employees who are granted access.
Why are APIs important for Developers?
No Need to Reinvent the Wheel
Ready-to-use APIs are available for all OSs including iOS, Android, and Windows to carry out most standard developmental tasks. As such, things become easier for developers; they do not have to reinvent the wheel and waste their time and efforts in API development.
For example, if developers are building an iOS application and need to embed a web browser for displaying pages on browser inside the app; they don’t have to program a web browser from scratch. All they need to do is utilize the WKWebView API for embedding a WebKit (Safari) browser object within the app. Similarly, instead of creating a camera interface separately for an app, the camera API is used for embedding the in-built iPhone camera into the application. If developers intend to provide the facility of fingerprint authentication support for an Android app, they need not test every fingerprint sensor of different Android manufacturers. They just need to use a ready-made API!
With such useful APIs, developers can acquire quite a lot of data, services, and resources while building apps. This reduces the time-to-market.
More Scope for Innovation
After integrating APIs into a system, you get an application layer for distributing pieces of information smoothly into other systems. This way, new services can be introduced to new audiences as per their ever-changing desires & needs - developers can utilize APIs for creating personalized services/features for them.
API access enables businesses to publish the app content very quickly as the system automatically publishes content and makes it available for all channels. This way, the content reaches a wide range of audiences effortlessly and in much lesser time and cost as compared to traditional marketing practices.
Software systems of a firm need to be updated within time and the presence of a custom API speeds up this process. Furthermore, data migration becomes easier and the information can be reviewed in a better way.
Why are APIs important for Businesses?
API integration has helped several enterprises to automate workflows and enhance workplace collaboration. The absence of APIs would have created connectivity woes and informational silos, adversely affecting performance and productivity.
Facilitates B2B Dataflows
APIs are essential for running data-driven businesses. API usage enables businesses to integrate data flows with their partner’s systems or customers. They also increase the flexibility of traditional data exchange methods like EDI and MFT.
Improved Success Rates
Several businesses maximized efficiency as well as revenue generation through joining forces with other businesses. For example, Uber didn’t waste time, money, and efforts in creating their own services like mapping, communication, or payment gateway. Instead, they utilized the best available services and integrated these services into their app via APIs. And, their success rate and profits are evident.
APIs are omnipresent, empowering our daily activities from behind the scenes, without being noticed. And, most importantly, they are an integral part of today’s economy. APIs not only enable the sharing of crucial data, but also makes it possible to utilize practical business functionality between individuals, apps, and devices.
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