What Are The Benefits of API-First Development?

What Are The Benefits of API-First Development?

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In the modern software space, the development style is almost more important than the development process itself. The paradigm that an organization chooses could drive its decision-making, iteration process, and even its final marketing plans, and for better or worse, will serve as the chief defining characteristic of the organization.

Below, we’ll look at one such paradigm that brings significant potential benefits: API-first development. We’ll review what API-first development entails and how it can provide many benefits, like better reusability and developer experience, to improved standardization and security.

What is API-First Development?

API-first is a software design approach with two distinct considerations: technical and business. On the technical side, API-first privileges the creation of the API and its consumption model above all else. Essentially, you create the API and then iterate upon it for business use cases and design forms. This places the API as the product rather than its specific implementation. API-first is in contrast to approaches such as design-first or code-first.

From the business side, this results in an approach where the API itself is the deliverable, and all business units are aligned to support it. Teams share the same vision, and marketing is themed around the API as a core offering. At the end of the day, this is a shift from the traditional model of creating a SaaS product and then producing an API to distribute it. With API-first, the API is the product.

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Six Benefits of API-First Development

With this definition in hand, what are the actual benefits of API-first development? Let’s look at a few big ones.

1. Better Developer Experience

The ultimate result of an API-first development cycle is an API that is logical, well-documented, and well-formed. This should create a dependable API rather than something constantly changing outside of an understood structure. With such a solid foundation, developer experience is improved.

Put another way, when the API is the product, the actual view of the developer experience changes. Too many businesses, unfortunately, view engineers as an ongoing expense that doesn’t directly benefit revenue growth. However, when you treat your API as the product, this is no longer the case, as the developers themselves are creating the revenue-driving product. This also means that developer support must effectively become the first line of consideration.

By defining the API as the product and ensuring that it comes before everything else, the developer experience is automatically prioritized, which has add-on effects throughout the entire organization.

2. Parallel Development

API-first development requires that the API is used as a solid reference point. Once the API is created, changes to it will be deliberate, well-planned, and iterative, as opposed to quick, breaking, and dramatic. Accordingly, development teams can use the API as a base for parallel development.

Let’s think about this by way of metaphor. Imagine you are a phone case manufacturer. Wouldn’t it be incredibly difficult to produce phone cases if the phone’s size was constantly changing, year to year? With every release, you’d have to wait to see the dimensions. More importantly, it’d be challenging to partner with other manufacturers. But what if the phone stayed the same? What if the dimensions were unchanging?

That’s somewhat the idea behind API-first development. When the core underlying API doesn’t change so readily and dramatically, teams can use it as a sort of North Star to develop their products in parallel. This dramatically increases efficiency, reduces budgetary spending, and provides benefits to multiple parts of the organization.

3. Improved Reusability

Reusability is a simple concept — build the thing once and then reuse it. If you know you will be building a large number of microservices with baked-in authentication, why not build an authentication module once and then reuse it across the board? The problem with reusability is that it expects — in many cases, demands — that systems don’t dramatically change.

If you create a microservice that expects Environment A and then you change the environment to Environment B, you can expect cascading problems. At best, you need to update some minor parts of the codebase across multiple reused parts, and at worst, you have a breaking change that requires an overhaul.

With API-first development, stability is the name of the game. When stability in the code base is literally baked into the paradigm, issues in reusability are significantly reduced because the environment where the reusable component is created is more standardized. That doesn’t mean the environment can’t change — what it does mean is that changes will be slow and deliberate, and thus well-planned, expected, and baked into the iteration cycle.

This makes for reusability of the API in parts, which thereby increases total efficiency in terms of both time and budgetary spending.

4. Increased Standardization and Security

One of the best add-on benefits of this approach is the benefit to standardization, and thus, to security. When an API-first practice is standardized, clients that iterate against the API will be in lock-step with the API at its core. If the process is properly followed, anything developed will match the security and governance rules of the underlying API.

This has significant potential benefits in terms of standardization, meaning that new parts will fit well within the existing ecosystem. More importantly, however, it means that these new parts will also match in security and governance, thereby increasing the total security posture of the API itself. API development often occurs so quickly that minor mistakes can be introduced in the creation process that echo throughout the API’s lifespan. When everything is unified behind a securely developed and governed API, this introduction of insecurity is much harder to do and is much easier to detect.

Beyond just the increased security, this also results in an auditing process with less to review, less likely to result in costly fixes, and more strictly limited to known issues rather than deep-dive inspections for long-term issues.

5. Reduced Time to Market

APIs are in a competitive field. It seems like every week there is a new entrant promising to disrupt the space. Accordingly, speed is the name of the game for many developers. API-first development can dramatically reduce the time to market for API products, increasing overall speed.

It does this through two core parts. First and foremost, the introduction of reusable, well-governed, secure components means that iteration can happen very quickly without introducing breaking changes that require fixing and standardizing. When the API-first development cycle creates components that mesh with the existing API and follow those rules and conventions, it results in an API addition that is better, more efficient, and yet still in line with the API as first created.

Secondly, having an API initiative focused on stability makes automation much easier to implement. Automated, API-first development using definition files and schemas allows for the auto-generation of documentation, SDKs, and much more, speeding up the process by cutting out significant parts of the development process.

Beyond just the time saved to market, this also decreases the overall effort that is necessary to get to this point, which results in overall better organizational performance.

6. Lower Risk of Failure

APIs fail for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is the risk of non-adoption because of poor customer experience. With API-first, this should not occur because the API is itself the product. When a business defines what they want to do and then creates the product to fill that niche, only part of the logic has been represented — the business side. Conversely, if only the product is developed without considering the cost of that development, only the other side of that logic, the customer side, is represented.

API-first development represents both considerations since the product, and not the underlying supportive structure or marketing functions, is the entire focus of the effort. This mindset change results in an organization that lives and dies by the product, but more importantly, it results in a product that is aligned to both logical sides of the coin.

By being product-minded, internal development will always focus on iteration based on consumer needs and business potential. This balance is the underlying health estimate of the API itself, and requires deep introspection and long-term planning. Put another way, API-first design is almost a self-selecting evolutionary way to look at development. Since the API requires product thinking, the organization will be better equipped to evangelize it.

API-First Benefits: Final Thoughts

In API-first development, the API and its consumption model are the product, which defines the business support structure underpinning it.

While API-first development carries its drawbacks and is certainly not a panacea to all of the problems that could occur in software development, it is nonetheless an excellent choice for organizations that want to focus on creating reusable, productized components. Doing so will create a product that is a better fit for market and is easier to iterate — and that alone is worth its weight in gold.

What do you think about API-first development? Are there any significant drawbacks that you see in this approach? Let us know in the comments below.