Trends Unveiled: Summarizing the 2021 Cloud Elements State of API Integration Report

With remote work and digitalization on the rise, organizations worldwide have accelerated their modernization efforts in record time. While highly-scaled integrations were chiefly challenging for developers last year, agility has become a headlining focus in 2021. Teams now face ambitious development timetables. COVID–19 and shifting business priorities have thrust cloud applications into ubiquity.

This year’s edition of the Cloud Elements State of API Integration Report highlights these trends and more. Mainly, the findings reinforce the following points:

  • API integration is an essential step in promoting improved collaboration, speed, and overall innovation.
  • While API integrations for internal and external use have become commonplace in the past five years, the pandemic has accelerated the maturation of API design, tooling creation, standardization, and the platform-as-a-service (PaaS) model’s rise.
  • GraphQL has experienced a massive surge in popularity — chiefly since 75% of respondents now view it as the leading API type versus 40% in 2020. However, there’s an interesting disparity between API consumption preferences and API offerings.

Yet again, Cloud Elements has surveyed scores of API professionals and enthusiasts to take the software realm’s pulse. The study reflects revelations both old and new — capturing the changes observed over the past five years while taking COVID’s timely impacts into account. Their findings? Over 80% of respondents share that COVID has jumpstarted integration efforts. Furthermore, 67% say that COVID has increased employee investment and tooling, while 70% are embracing new technologies and practices.

Now that’s a snapshot, but there’s more nuance behind these evolving trends. Let’s dive deeper into the nitty-gritty and unpack CEO Mark Geene’s insights.

Important Trends and Business Results

We’ve touched on the fact that API development has been a story of maturation and exploration in recent years. Long gone are the days where APIs were novel, mystifying technologies. Developers are now beginning to rethink design principles and architectures — providing more external APIs to power web applications. There’s now a greater emphasis on both cross-platform and cross-site functionality, as agnosticism has gained importance.

Those surveyed also highlighted their focus on API-centric design, scalability, and iPaaS adoption on the development side. It seems that tools like Postman have been integral in this.

What about the future, however? In the next five to ten years, respondents foresee (or might like to see) the following coming to fruition:

  • Agile, simple innovation for all via the unification of robotics, microservices, and no-code platforms
  • The rise of decentralized, modular coding at the enterprise level —perhaps another move beyond the monolithic approach
  • A greater impact on seamless software experiences thanks to improved AI and machine learning (services)
  • Ongoing investment into APIs triggering the abandonment of legacy approaches, once we reach a critical mass of APIs or “technological tipping point”

Accordingly, business priorities are changing. Innovation and response speed to specific demands now outpace productivity. Cost concerns are also wavering; it appears that companies have read the writing on the wall and realize that investment is critical when keeping up with the Joneses.

Similarly, while APIs can drive revenue and help cut costs, these benefits aren’t the most prominent.

API Integration Technical Trends

GraphQL looks to be the predominant API query language moving forward, though that outcome isn’t without concern. There’s speculation that APIs will continue moving from the Remote Procedural Call (RPC) approach to a resource-based approach.

The former means executing code blocks remotely based on methods and arguments (and making web APIs via HTTP). Thanks to the rise of REST and JSON, resource-orientated processes have grown in lockstep. However, there’s concern that GraphQL — essentially queried RPC with more bells and whistles — could undermine internet-synced integrations.

There’s a real hunger within the enterprise community to boost architectural flexibility and agility. Large organizations are known to progress more slowly overall (despite leveraging numerous services themselves), and stagnation is no longer possible in a competitive marketplace.

Time Commitments

Integration development is demanding indeed. These are the most time-consuming elements of that process, according to respondents:

  • Workflows (35% vs. 32% last year)
  • Events and polling (16% vs. 7.4% last year)
  • Data transformation (14% vs. 12.% last year)
  • Error handling (14% vs. 11.5% last year)

Creating event-based APIs and integrations has become critical, explaining that sharp rise in timing. It’s also notable that both custom objects and authentication require less time than they did last year. That’s not necessarily because these areas are now less important. For example, a push for simpler authentication may have helped streamline this process.

Preferences and Disparities

While REST remains the most popular protocol amongst respondents, there’s still a gap between those who prefer GraphQL and those who offer it. Professionals who might otherwise enjoy GraphQL peg their skill sets and lagging industry adoption as obstacles.

What about authentication? A growing share of surveyed professionals (34.7%) prefer OAuth 2.0 and basic HTTP (18%), while support for API Tokens and secrets has wavered.

When considering event-driven integrations, it appears that individuals prefer Webhooks and (marginally) long polling more than their organizations themselves do. Additionally, 6.5% of companies represented still don’t offer an API whatsoever. As a final observation, a staggering majority of survey takers want the industry to form data standards more aggressively.

API Integration Business Trends

Cloud Elements highlights that reader observations and business developments have matched pretty closely in the past five years. Speed, collaboration, and innovation are king — more so than cost benefits. Integration remains a crucial element of business strategies, with an interesting caveat. While 72% categorize integration as “critical” or “very critical,” 84% of 2020 respondents felt the same.

That dip in collective opinion is unclear. Perhaps Cloud Elements surveyed a different collective demographic this year. What do we know about business priorities as they pertain to job title? Independent software vendors view integration as paramount, whereas the C-suite, product leaders, sales, and even engineering are less enthusiastic. There’s seemingly a common view that API integrations are baseline requirements for being competitive in the marketplace. Could it be that organizations are motivated by obligation, as opposed to intrinsic interest?

Accordingly, the largest share of respondents believe that API integrations fill a specific business need (42%). The second-most-popular response states that customers and partners need better documentation (27%). It seems that purpose-built integrations are now favored, as no-code templates have declined in popularity since last year.

Twenty-one percent more businesses charge for API access than they did last year—perhaps signaling a rise in external integration offerings compared to internal. After all, internal chargeback models are rare, and the business model necessitates development. Additionally, needed integrations are a major driver of customer upgrades.

These developments might also stem from the fact that 77% of respondents see themselves as platform providers. Most of those provide private APIs, a near majority public APIs, and nearly a third provide partner-specific APIs. These figures are all down from last year. It’s believed that digital products are more influential than cloud or SaaS adoption and modernization in driving demand.

Variety and Complexity

There’s an interesting observation pertaining to development time and integration breadth. ISVs plan to build 20 integrations on average for their products this year, compared to 15 last year. These integrations tend to be the most demanding — requiring 58 days in advanced cases and up to 300 days to create.

Meanwhile, CEOs and IT pros plan to build more integrations than they did in 2020. Average completion time clocks in at 47 days, with complex cases requiring roughly 260 days. This data is centered on internal development, as opposed to external.

Finally, system integrators plan to build 25 integrations this year compared to 18 previously. These surprisingly take only 28 days to create in most cases, while demanding cases require 150 days. System integrators make these integrations for clients in-house under direct oversight. This, plus their skillset, can accelerate development. More integrators also turn to iPaaS tools to streamline these build processes.

Larger ISV teams with more full-time engineers tend to produce the most integrations and maintain the largest budgets, unsurprisingly. There’s also a linear relationship between company revenue, integrations, team size, and integration budgets.

Closing Thoughts

This year’s State of API Integration findings have illuminated some fascinating trends. There’s greater buzz around integrations and the technologies behind them, and while some trends seem almost paradoxical, there’s logical reasoning behind them.

The 2021 Cloud Elements State of API Integration Report included 250 respondents from over 30 countries. Forty-four percent were CIOs, IT professionals, and members of internal integration teams. ISVs accounted for 32% of survey takers, while system integrators made up 24%. While enterprises might be a major guiding force in integration development, small-medium companies continue to have the largest voice in these surveys overall.