APIs: A Soup to Nuts Analysis
Your APIs are doorways into your business systems
Mar. 31, 2014 08:45 AM
APIs are transforming businesses to extend the reach of their information systems and data. In technical terms, APIs are rather finite, allowing two software applications to exchange data and execute procedures. Yet their business impact is so great that API management requires a far from finite thought process. A "soup to nuts" approach is needed to help companies determine how to achieve the most business success with APIs.
An API enables applications to access back-end systems using lightweight, standards-based protocols such as REST and JSON. For example, if you were in food distribution, the actual business of soup and nuts, you could develop an API that lets mobile app developers tap directly into your ERP system. They could build consumer apps for recipes that showed ingredients that you had in stock. Grocery stores could build apps that gave their shoppers bulk discounts on large orders and so forth. The API extends your food distribution business into customer realms where you've never played before. This is fantastic. But it also presents a number of challenges to the management of the business.
An API Is a Product
Whether you like it or not, your API is basically a software product. It should be managed like one. As external parties connect with your API, they will reasonably expect the kind of professional communication and seamless updates that they would find with any web-based software business. If you are a mobile app developer who is accustomed to tapping into Amazon.com's API or any number of comparable interfaces, you will expect the same kind of experience when you connect with a corporate API.
Perhaps more significantly, the API represents an investment of resources. As such, it should serve a well-thought-out and thorough business strategy just like any software product. This means managing its lifecycle. The software lifecycle starts with planning, continues through development and operation, and ends with retirement and replacement. Ideally each phase of the lifecycle should be managed and monitored for optimal results. Certainly better API lifecycle management will foster more satisfied developers and partner communities.
Planning and Building Your APIs
Sometimes an API just is. Someone in the IT department created it for some reason that has since been forgotten, and there it is. It may or may not be great, but you have it. Should you use it "as is" or wait? This is more common than you might imagine. If you are approaching your APIs as if they were products, you would wait and work through a plan first. You have to get together with business and technology stakeholders and determine the business purpose of the APIs that you will be building. Now, this begs the question: Who exactly is this "you" we are referring to? That is one of your first planning challenges. Who is going to own the API business products that will extend the business into new spheres? So first you have to figure out who owns the API, and often it will be a collection of people that represent different parts of a business. Then the next planning task is to understand the cost/benefit outcomes for the business and intended users.
Chances are there will be more than one API developed and within each API there will be a host of different features to be developed. You will have to devise a priority for the rollout of new features. For instance, with the recipe app, the first release of the API might include simple searching and browsing. The second release might enable users to order products for delivery. The third release could let users pay for orders with credits cards and so forth. Not all of these features can be perfected at once.
Once the API is up, the organization has to be in place to support it. It is necessary to think through the empty seats that might need to be filled so that users of your API will feel as if they are connected to a responsive, living business. For example, if you are planning to invite developers from Europe to connect with your API, you need to have a technical point of contact for them as well as documentation that will be meaningful to them, perhaps translated into different languages. You will have to structure your business to support and manage the API.
Running the API: Protect, Secure, Manage
Your APIs are doorways into your business systems. That's great, but it is also a bit scary. APIs need strong, coherent security and management. If you have a handful of APIs, you will be able to stay on top of their availability, security and provisioning by hand. As your API program grows and it will if you are doing it right, you will likely find that using an API platform becomes a best practice - simply because it can take care of the serious work of API management. Effectively running an API through a platform involves the following:
- Support non-functional requirements - These include message protocol handling, security policy, authentication and authorization, etc.
- Manage provisioning and access control for apps - This means the selective provisioning of API access. Corporate APIs are not like their consumer counterparts where you want millions of users. With a corporate API, controlled access is where the users are the most valuable, not the most numerous. The API platform should enable selective provisioning that is still highly automated and light in terms of administrative load. Unfettered usage can bring a host of problems. Traffic and load management can get strained. Worse is the possible need to add extra server instances of costly business software just to satisfy API-driven demand. If the increased load is not generating revenue, satisfying it with more instances will be a waste of money.
- Monetization and control - An API might be a profit center itself. For example, a food distribution company API could be monetized from selling access to data about sales trends in the food industry. This scenario requires the ability to license access to the API.
- Provide API monitoring - APIs are just like any other piece of enterprise IT that is monitored for its system health, response times, and availability. In some cases, uptime may not be a big issue. However when your customers and partners are connecting to an API, you will want to know whether it is up, down, or running slowly. The API platform should provide monitoring functionality as well as failover for APIs that go down.
Sharing Your APIs: Publish, Support, Syndicate
APIs succeed when they are shared. The API platform can help create a marketplace where developers can discover your APIs and request permission to use them. The marketplace can be internal to your company or set up for external relationships. Whether it is a developer portal or something comparable, the platform should provide the below sharing functionality:
- Enable you to interact with and recognize your API developers. In some cases, this process can be set up on a self-service basis to allow it to scale without a major resource investment on your part.
- Facilitate the creation of great documentation about your API and how to use it.
- Make testing against your API as easy as possible.
- Monetize your API to assist in future cost benefit analysis.
Analyze Your API Program: Measure, Report, Iterate
Measurement of program results is in the DNA of most good IT managers. The API platform can help make this process as simple as possible. You will likely want to measure and report on the success of your program across the whole API lifecycle. Lifecycle and results are usually linked. For instance, if you see adoption of the recipe API rise as new features are added and new versions are introduced, that is an important finding to determine the payoff of earlier investments in the program and guide future direction. The right API measuring tools can help you drive improvement back into the planning stage. It is a never-ending cycle.
The Platform Approach to API Lifecycle Management
The execution of an API program that manages APIs like products across their full lifecycles requires a combination of organization and technology. The technology alone cannot make it happen. The organization cannot do it alone without the proper tools. In our experience working with many large enterprises, the best practice is to match the API owners with a platform approach to lifecycle management. The platform can be a complete offering, such as our own SOA Software API Management Solution, or it can be built in a variety of other ways. What's important is to recognize that the people, process and platform need to work together to effect comprehensive API lifecycle management. This will ensure the success of the API program.
Ideally lifecycle management will be baked into the structure of the platform tooling, allowing for automated approvals and workflow for each stage of the API lifecycle. This means having the ability to align work streams related to API lifecycle, such as costing, product management, documentation and legal. People involved in running the API program can thus work together efficiently. The API development capability itself should have API modeling, templates, versioning and change management, and impact analysis. These features serve the goal of managing the full API lifecycle without an untenable resource investment.
API management typically works using a proxy that can be managed and monitored more easily than the API itself. For multiple APIs, the best approach is a "gateway" or collective proxy with added integration and mediation capabilities including:
- Process Composition/Orchestration.
- Security, including AU/AZ, attack prevention, and protecting your systems from abuse.
- Caching and paging.
- Supporting multiple mobile app platforms.
- Managing quality of service (QoS).
Exposing APIs to your systems involves building a community. Developers whom you don't know will be writing code to access your data through APIs. For the process to work, they need to feel as if they are connecting with real people. This can be achieved in part with self-service and automation and actual human involvement. A developer portal is essential for the following functions:
- Self-service community to promote innovation and lower support costs.
- Interactive documentation to increase adoption and encourage experimentation with your APIs.
- App provisioning so you can gain visibility and control over the apps that are hitting your APIs.
- Integrated testing to speed up learning.
- Analytics to provide feedback and measure success.
You have your soup. You want the nuts. There is a path to dessert. However all this requires a mature and profitable API program. Our recommendation is to think about what you want to accomplish with APIs from the vantage points of productization and lifecycle. Building APIs puts you into the business of creating software products. While you may not see the API as a product, it is one. And, like any software product, it needs to be managed across its entire lifecycle. From planning through running and sharing, the API has to be monitored and secured. The work of managing it needs to be handled efficiently so that the program can be financially and strategically beneficial to the business. The best practice to ensure all of these outcomes is to use an API management platform to automate the handling of all of your APIs as they progress across their lifecycles. That will get you the nuts. The alternative is to go nuts, and that's not what anyone wants.