7 Methods to Prevent API Sprawl Within Your Organization

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We’ve seen a rapid ascent of APIs in recent years. Rajesh Narayan, the senior director of F5 Technologies, estimates that the number of public and private APIs today is approaching 200 million, and by 2031 that number could be in the billions. He goes on to warn about the potential issues this could raise. “As APIs of all kinds proliferate, it will become common for organizations to reach a point where they’re unable to effectively manage and control them.”

Finally, Narayan names the problem, API sprawl, as “the condition of having too many APIs of too many different kinds in too many different locations to get a handle on.”

API sprawl was probably inevitable. Investment in APIs has been trending upward for years, increasing by 37% in 2022 alone. Simultaneously, it’s estimated organizations spent $1.2 trillion on digital transformation in 2022.

Anytime a new technology takes off and generates a significant return for its users, we see a similar wildfire effect to what we’re currently experiencing with APIs. The trouble with a niche technology going mainstream is that new users might not always have the technical experience or understanding to implement it properly.

To help prevent API sprawl in your organization, we’ve compiled a short but thorough guide to help you avoid some of its common causes. We’ll also look at some common reasons that cause API sprawl and some of the risks associated with this trend.

Common Causes of API Sprawl

The lack of global standards regarding APIs is one of the reasons API sprawl is so prevalent. The lack of a globally-accepted API standard means multiple separate APIs might be created to serve one function. It can sometimes even cause compatibility issues if APIs aren’t configured to work together.

This lack of a global standard can sometimes result in API sprawl within an organization, especially when organizations are forced to create their own APIs to act as bridges and translators for other software. For example, APIs are often a vital component of microservices architecture and containerization, which have been seeing a rise in popularity thanks in part to solutions like Docker or Kubernetes. Considering that 92% of companies using microservices experience success, it’s a safe bet this trend will continue.

Continuous software development is another common cause of API sprawl. Each new version might have its own APIs or require new versions of existing APIs. Lack of communication between different departments is another common cause for API sprawl, as each sector might develop its own APIs. Finally, the rise of new technologies like edge computing or everything-as-a-service causes even more APIs to be created.

These combined factors mean that if steps aren’t taken to prevent API sprawl, it could quickly become an epidemic that renders your network unusable. Now, let’s find out how to stop API sprawl from happening in the first place.

How To Prevent API Sprawl

1. Put An API Governance Plan In Place

Having a centralized API management plan in place does a lot towards preventing your APIs from getting out of hand. It also makes it much easier to find, connect, and secure your APIs, which also helps to avoid API sprawl.

Having a centralized API governance strategy helps you to conceptualize things like API architecture, hierarchies, and the like. It’s also easier to implement enterprise-wide API strategies like rate limiting or authorization.

2. Use a Single Source For API Discovery

Keeping track of your APIs is tricky and becomes overwhelmingly complex when API sprawl gets out of hand. Each microservice might have its own individual APIs, for example. Other teams might not have a complete list of those APIs, as they’re not using that microservice. Without visibility, that team might end up building their own APIs.

Having a centralized API discovery solution puts all of your APIs in one place, so everyone can find and use them. Having a better understanding of your surface area can also help avoid shadow APIs or risky “zombie” endpoints.

3. Use Proper Versioning and Documentation

APIs are constantly changing — it’s part of the terrain. But troubles start to arise when other services that consume the API also begin to change to adapt to the changing API.

With this in mind, careful versioning and maintaining proper documentation is vital if you want to stop API sprawl. Creating API documentation can be laborious, time-consuming, and, frankly, just not that much fun. However, if it’s not updated, it can lead to a graveyard of unused and outdated APIs.

Automated API documentation generation can prevent many of these issues. So can following the latest API versioning best practices.

4. Track API Metrics

Again, API architecture can quickly become prohibitively complex. Depending on the size, the organization might require a full team of developers to simply keep track of where every API is located and how they interact.

Providing API metrics lets you see how all of your APIs are performing across your entire enterprise. Without this, optimizing or securing your network can be nearly impossible.

5. Use API Security Across Your Entire Enterprise

90% of organizations that use APIs experienced some sort of security incident in 2020. With every new API you create, you’re creating more surface area for cybercriminals to exploit. This can lead to APIs being misused and exploited, which can cause further API sprawl.

6. Seek Universal Solutions

API adoption will only increase as the years go on. Thus, it’s better you address API sprawl now before the problem gets out of control. Creating a universalized solution that will ensure all of your APIs are discoverable and able to communicate with one another will help stop API sprawl in its tracks, and alleviate many other issues too.

7. Follow an API Spec

Even something as simple as following an API specification, like OpenAPI, can help to reduce API sprawl, as it makes it easy to visualize an API and all of its components. This makes it far less likely for APIs to get lost or forgotten in the shuffle.

Following an API spec makes it so your API can generate automated documentation, which further reduces the risk of API sprawl.

Risks of API Sprawl

So many of the services we rely on today rely on APIs. That whole system could collapse if we don’t put proper API governance in place. Although this is the worst-case scenario, it’s not unrealistic. It’s also just one of the risks of letting API sprawl get out of control.

Wasted Time and Resources

It’s never been more important for businesses to stay competitive than in today’s highly saturated business world. Thus, leaders must consider every opportunity to reduce expenses and cut costs.

Developing, implementing, and deploying software that you can’t even find in six months is like setting money on fire. Saving money by reducing API sprawl can help your business grow by allowing you to invest those resources in more worthwhile pursuits.

Sprawl Poses A Security Risk

Untended and out-of-date APIs are a common source of security risks in a network. It’s so important you know where all your APIs are, what they’re doing, and what’s interacting with what if you intend for your system to be secure.

Underperforming or Broken Products

Unmanaged or improperly managed APIs can lead to service disruption if you’re not careful. So often, an API infrastructure is like a house of cards — one piece goes missing, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Considering how high user expectations are, regarding uptime for APIs and the products that consume them, it’s just one more reason why you need to stop API sprawl in its tracks now before it gets out of hand.