Should-every-company-consider-providing-an-api

For many companies, providing an API is seen as an IT matter exclusive to internet giants like Twitter, Facebook and Google, startups like Algolia, Wit.ai and Context.io, or for government agencies to open data to the public. But are APIs really limited in that way? In this article we denounce common myths associated with APIs and encourage others to join the digital revolution.

An API provider is an organization that exposes data and/or capabilities through a programmatically consumable service or an Application Programming Interface (API).

Nordic APIs, API Platform Defined: When an API Provider is a Platform

Common Myths Surrounding APIs

When some people read ‘providing APIs’ they picture only the visible part of the iceberg, assuming the three following falsities:

  • Providing APIs means providing public APIs
  • Providing APIs is an IT-only matter.
  • Providing APIs is for internet startups and giant corporations.

Myth #1: All APIs Are Public

Having a public API offering is not the only method of providing APIs. Regardless of technical details, from an organization’s point of view there are actually three types, each with unique benefits:

  • Private API: Consume the API for internal use
  • Partner API: Provide the API to selected partners
  • Public API: Offer the API to anybody

Loosening restriction in that order is now a common API strategy, but each type is valuable in itself and can bring unique benefits to a company.

Myth #2: Providing APIs Is an IT-Only Matter

Since ‘API’ stands for ‘Application Programming Interface’, many people are put off by the technical overtones and assume that it’s an IT-only matter. That’s absolutely not true. APIs have the power to transform your company far beyond the IT department by:

  • Transversally impacting how the organization does business.
  • Enabling your company’s digital transformation to be more customer focused.
  • Hiding information system and organization complexities.
  • Acting as a new product for the business.

As their impact can be huge, reducing APIs to an IT-only matter could be a terrible mistake for a company. Therefore, they should be designed and handled by both IT and business.

Myth #3: Providing APIs Is Only For Internet Startups And Giants

An organization does not need to be a startup, internet giant, or government agency to be concerned with APIs. There are many other types of companies with great API programs, such as:

Bechtel, a construction and engineering firm

Bechtel Corp., the largest construction and engineering firm in the United States, engages an API strategy to facilitate access to its monolithic system. Their strategy allows the company to accelerate productivity, enable mobile access with up-to-date relevant data, and diminish paper-based management in the field.

Source

Dun & Bradstreet, a business information company

Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. is an American public company that provides commercial data to businesses on credit history, business-to-business sales and marketing, counterparty risk exposure, supply chain management, lead scoring, and social identity matching. Using APIs, D&B provides data easily and directly into their customer systems, applications, CRM, or ERP — regardless of technologies used.

Source

Marvel Entertainment, a character based entertainment company

The Marvel Entertainment public API allows access to data on over 30,000 comics and 7,000 series. Everything from cover art, character info, and comic book crossover events are accessible via the API.

Source

Absolut Vodka, a spirits company

Absolut Vodka provides the ADDb: Absolut Drink Database. This is an API for Absolut’s drink recipes and other related assets that reduce their advertising campaigns’ time to market.

Source

Your company?

For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it.

Mr Jourdain, The Middleclass Gentleman, Molière

Like Mr Jourdain, perhaps your company is already an API provider without knowing it. For example, if your company has a mobile application or a website plugged into your information system (even if it’s for an internal purpose), you may be in that case. If your company exchanges data with partners via web services, you may be in that case too. These APIs may not correspond to the current standards but it may be a good idea to think about capitalizing on them.

Developing an Internal API: A First Crucial Step With Many Benefits

Learning how to walk with in-house APIs is the must do step in every company’s API journey. Secured within the walls of your company, you can easily learn from your mistakes. If your company does not foresee, for now, the necessity of exposing data and/or capabilities to others via APIs, being your own API provider can already have many benefits.

From The IT Department Perspective

Though we’re arguing that APIs should not be an IT-only matter, they are still a Programming Interface, so it’s fairly common that IT will introduce them to the company and be the first to benefit.

Increasing Agility

The best way to introduce APIs into your information system is to add a new layer on top of your legacy system. The legacy layer can continue to live as before with its own (maybe longer) life cycle.

The new layer will have to be handled with a startup mindset. It must have a faster and more volatile life cycle ensured by a lighter governance and the use of (probably) new and different technologies. This new layer is a logical one — you’re under no obligation to have it within your actual infrastructure or to use only a single technology to build it.

Of course, this new layer will have to compose with the legacy one, but it will be easier to create APIs by orchestrating and adapting what comes from the legacy layer than modifying the legacy layer. New projects could also be totally handled within a new layer if there’s no need for plugging to the legacy IT. This new layer may allow you to integrate in a more simpler way other APIs (Google Maps, Facebook, Twitter, USPS, Best Buy…).

With this two level information system, your IT is ready to respond to any new need with increased agility, whether it be a new mobile application, desktop application, web site or web service on top of your existing information system.

Creating Solutions With Building Blocks

This new layer does not only allow you to develop with more agility, it can also allow you to develop with more efficiency. By using an API first approach you can build reusable API building blocks instead of specific software solutions that will only respond to a specific need. Without having to recode everything, your IT can respond to any new need with more efficiency, inducing a faster time to market and decreased cost.

Refreshing Your Legacy IT

This new layer in your information system may also help you introduce new technologies and new ways of thinking that can improve your legacy IT. The new API layer comes with new (or not so new) ideas concerning documentation, design, development, and life cycle that will disseminate by capillarity to your legacy IT.

Not everything can be handled by separating the new API layer and the existing legacy system. Eventually, you will have to evolve your legacy IT. It may be the moment to evolve towards the new technologies introduced by the new layer and perform a complete refactoring of some parts instead of ongoing palliative care on old unmaintainable systems. Being a central node of your IS, this new API layer could also be cheap way to start a big data program as it will deal with a lot of your data.

A Better Environment for IT Employees

Working on a paralyzed information system that doesn’t evolve easily and prevents the introduction of new technologies can discourage many developers, architects and anyone involved in maintaining this old machinery. This increases employee turnover rate and makes hiring new IT people very difficult, as nobody will want to diminish their professional value on such an old system. By introducing new technologies and new challenges, APIs can make your company a better place to work in.

Begin your API journey by Envisioning The Entire API Lifecycle

From the Company Perspective

For the company, an API improved IT can now propose a light IT, bringing new, once undreamed of, possibilities for the whole company. Here we will address five ways that APIs can illuminate an organization, bringing many benefits to internal operations.

1: Unleashing creation and innovation

light  |  \ˈlīt\
adjective: capable of moving swiftly or nimbly.
adjective: requiring little effort.
noun: spiritual illumination.
Merriam Webster dictionary

By enabling a light IT, APIs can reconcile IT with the whole company and create new momentum. IT and business should work together to build the APIs that will be the backbone of the company. Capitalize on the IT improvement and deliver or evolve products easier, faster and for less cost.

2: Putting “Shadow IT” under control

light  |  \ˈlīt\
noun: the form of energy that makes it possible to see things.
Merriam Webster dictionary

With a paralysed information system inducing high development costs and long time to market, some employees tend to try to find other solutions on their own…

Shadow IT is a term often used to describe IT systems and IT solutions built and used inside organizations without explicit organizational approval. It is also used, along with the term “Stealth IT,” to describe solutions specified and deployed by departments other than the IT department.

Shadow IT definition, Wikipedia

These solutions tend to be hard to maintain for non IT departments (which often pass the hot potato to IT in the end). As they aren’t officially sanctioned, these solutions often do not meet the organizational requirements concerning security or reliability, introducing risks to the company (costs, loss of revenue, reputational risk, and others).

APIs help avoid the use of shadow IT or at least propose a controlled version of shadow IT.

Once APIs have been defined (by IT and non IT), it’s more feasible to allow non IT folks to build whatever they want (within certain boundaries) using these APIs.

3: Offering new ways of working

light  |  \ˈlīt\
noun: a medium (as a window) through which light is admitted
Merriam Webster dictionary

As APIs enable new ways of accessing information system, this means new ways of working. With APIs, it becomes easier to provide system access from outside the confines of the company.

For example, field-based personnel can access real time data while being outside the company’s network on smartphones. You can give tablets to your representatives and allow them to subscribe to products directly from a customer’s house.

With APIs it’s simpler to integrate your data with existing solutions. No more costly development to plug a new software solution to your information system. We can even imagine pushing the envelop and having an IFTTT or Zappier equivalent for internal APIs, giving company internal users the same customization of daily work processes as they have on their personal smartphone.

4: Enabling disposable products

light  |  \ˈlīt\
adjective: casual, occasional.
Merriam Webster dictionary

By reducing cost, development complexity, and by introducing reusable building blocks, your company can now even build ephemeral products, such as websites or mobile apps, that only need to last the length of a marketing campaign.

5: Providing knowledge of internal data and statistics

light  |  \ˈlīt\
noun: something that enlightens or informs.
Merriam Webster dictionary

To build APIs that hide information system and organizational complexities, you need to analyze your system in order to restructure or rebuild lost knowledge. Therefore, APIs will give you a simplified and comprehensible vision of your internal mess.

If the API is the backbone of your company, consumption statistics can create a knowledge of how your data and processes are being used. Better understanding your data processes can create a great base for further innovation.

Providing APIs to Others: The Next Step

After learning to walk as your own API provider, your company may wonder if it’s worth offering its API to others. Many of the benefits earned by being an internal API provider are expanded by providing APIs to others, but entirely new benefits also arise with this opening.

Preventing Data Hold Up

Many companies realize the risk that somebody will open their data sooner or later, whether they provide APIs or not. Personal finance management is a good example of data hold up.

Banks have been sort of robbed by account aggregators. These account aggregators like Yoddle, Intuit or Fiduceo started by scraping data from banks websites with agents logging in on a customer’s behalf to offer new services to these bank customers.

Providing APIs to others to control is a serious option for many companies. It would be a terrible blow to let others harvest a company’s fruits without reaping any benefits from this exchange.

Facilitating Working With Partners or Within Large Groups

Just as APIs can facilitate integration with software used within your company, they can also easily facilitate data exchange with existing partners — as exemplified by Dun & Bradstreet’s commercial data exchange processes. If your company is a large group composed of multiple entities, APIs can also facilitate cooperation between entities, especially if you apply Amazon’s rules for success.

Enabling New Business Opportunities

By having off-the-rack APIs instead of tailor-made software solutions, you can easily propose your service to new partners or even to the public. These new opportunities will depend greatly on your sector and how you market and open your APIs. Possibilities are endless, but some examples include:

  • Improving public reputation by offering data transparency on your product composition or your financial data.
  • Letting other people innovate to build something that your company doesn’t have the resources or time to accomplish on it’s own.
  • Monetizing access to your API.
  • Extending your customer base to small companies or developers who can’t afford the cost of developing such services on their own.
  • Increasing your data volume by offering free APIs.
  • …and more

APIs Must Be a Concern For Every Company

What other conclusion could we have? Providing APIs must be a concern for every company. Whether we focus on internal operations, partner integrations, or public access, APIs come with a myriad of benefits to a business with an information system, and also benefit everyone within the company. Join the revolution — don’t be on the wrong side of industry disruption.

Arnaud Lauret

About Arnaud Lauret

Arnaud Lauret is an IT architect with experience in service oriented architecture and APIs acquired while working in online banking. Passionate about APIs, he also shares his ideas and experiments on the API Handyman blog.