what is api as a service

What is API-as-a-Service?

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API-as-a-Service, or APIaaS, is a rising technology solution in the tech space. But just what is it, and when is it appropriate? In this article, we’ll examine this offering and see where it might make sense — and where it doesn’t.

APIs as Value-Adding Systems

APIs are many things, but more than anything else, they are a powerful enablement tool. At their most basic, APIs are an intermediary to help connect and translate disparate systems. While this sounds simple on the surface, the reality of that connective process is massive. Put another way, APIs take that which is isolated and create an ecosystem. This ecosystem, or platform effect, can catapult a business into brand new territory in mere seconds, opening up brand new revenue paths, new ways of working within existing bodies of data, and more.

Accordingly, APIs are best thought of as massive value-leveraging systems. For this reason, it’s no surprise that businesses are often desperate to find the best API to solve a given problem, whether that problem focuses on revenue, operations enablement, or even simple data analytics.

The problem is that APIs can also be expensive to produce. For every natively developed API, a large amount of work must be done — creating the code, spinning up server resources, locating the data — all of these steps can be difficult for an organization to support. Even though there are new frameworks, solutions, and offerings to speed these steps up, the entire process from start to beginning can be pretty heavy.

Defining the “as-a-Service” Model

In response to this cost, many organizations have arisen to provide functions and resources as a service to the end organization. This model, referred to as the “as-a-service” model, utilizes cloud resources and connective systems to provide and manage a specific resource via a dynamic charge model.

Many organizations have certain development needs, whose cost or complexity can be prohibitive to build in-house. For example, building a native platform for developing systems and services can be extremely expensive and have built-in costs. However, simply subscribing to a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering can get you started with minimal long-term costs outside of your subscription. Similarly, building and spinning up massive amounts of servers to meet new demand can be costly, but scaling through an infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) provider can be quick and cost-effective.

The story bears out again and again — the “as-a-service” model offers an affordable and scalable way to build business success without incurring the heavy costs associated with native deployment.

Introducing API-as-a-Service

A core problem still exists, though — all of these systems require a certain amount of management and maintenance. While they simplify the process significantly, this additional friction can be a dealbreaker for some organizations. The ideal state for an API environment is one of low friction — any amount of friction can introduce relative complexity, so reducing the amount of time and resources involved is often a prime concern.

API-as-a-service (APIaaS) aims to deliver on this ideal by providing systems and services that allow providers to develop, deploy, and manage APIs at scale. In essence, the promise of an API-as-a-service offering is a reality in which the provider only has to worry about their internal offering. Everything else — the underlying infrastructure, the scaling and load balancing, the documentation, the versioning, and more, are managed by the API-as-a-service provider.

How Does API-as-a-Service Work?

In this paradigm, APIaaS operates as an all-in-one service platform — the service provider handles everything from development to deployment and long-term maintenance. APIaaS is a souped-up take on the software-as-a-service model. Put another way, APIaaS provides businesses with an easy way to surface and streamline the exposure of their services, data, and the functions that operate upon them.

The developer’s involvement with API-as-a-service offerings is often a sliding scale. Some APIaaS services allow for highly controlled API development and more custom actions as desired. Other APIaaS offerings are literally no-code plug-and-play style API building blocks that allow a provider to create their API with extremely low technical demand.

API-as-a-Service Benefits and Drawbacks

As with any technology solution, APIaaS has some major benefits and drawbacks to consider.

Advantages of API-as-a-Service

API-as-a-Service principally benefits efficiency. First and foremost, APIaaS delivers market solutions with better cost efficiency — by not centralizing the cost within native development solutions, APIaaS can allow for better and more efficient initial builds, scaling, extensions, and more. This also results in a reduced time-to-market, as much of the initial overhead in development is severely reduced.

In many cases, these efficiencies are long-term as well as immediate. Leveraging a partner can result in better utilization of staffing and IT resources, moving the management process away from central and internal teams and into a provider specialized in such functions. This also introduces a reduction in technical debt over the long-term by avoiding complex multi-tiered and multi-team systems, reducing the impact of turnover on legacy development, and ultimately reducing overall tech debt overhead.

Drawbacks of API-as-a-Service

Of course, these benefits come with a cost. By offloading some of the management process to an external partner, there is a not-insubstantial loss of control. While some APIaaS offerings allow you to have as much control as you want, at a certain point, this begs the question of why you are using this offering to begin with. More complete offerings can remove much control but result in more seamless and low-lift implementations. Accordingly, this is best thought of as a sliding scale between high control, low efficiency, and low control, high efficiency. For many organizations, the need for a high degree of control might make the decision to avoid APIaaS sensible.

There are also some security concerns. Centralizing so many systems under a central management offering introduces bundled points of failure. No organization is impervious to attack, and when an APIaaS provides so much of your initial and ongoing functionality, a failure of even one part of their security posture can have huge implications for your business. You can diversify your implementations to get around this, but then you are moving away from APIaaS and more into utilizing multiple as-a-service solutions.

Finally, there is the reality of cost variability. This will be true of any solution, but when you build something native, you tend to see the cost variability more clearly. If you own your server cluster, you may be aware of the rising cost of microchip controllers and data platters which impact SSD costs and thereby increase your cost to replace mass storage devices. When you never have to think about this, you get a certain amount of peace of mind, but you may also be oblivious to looming financial costs that could feel suddenly applied with little warning.

Should I Implement API-as-a-Service (APIaaS)?

Ultimately, the choice of whether or not to implement APIaaS will have a lot to do with the importance of efficiency against control. APIaaS, and really any as-a-service model, will take away some control but grant significant efficiency. If your organization can stomach this transition, APIaaS is a wonderfully powerful solution. If it can’t, you may want to reconsider implementing it (or perhaps whether this desire for control is appropriate or necessary).

What do you think of the trend towards APIaaS? Let us know in the comments below! Are there any APIaaS solutions you’d love to see us review? Let us know and we’ll take a look!