Application programming interfaces (APIs) can be thought of as a set of protocols that create a dialogue between two separate apps or machines. Through an API, these two discrete sources can exchange information, often in a way that improves the overall functionality and value of each.
But to someone unfamiliar with APIs, they can seem like a mysterious force. What exactly are APIs? How do they work? And what should you know about them before using them?
APIs: A High-Level Overview
You can think of APIs as functioning as the gateway, or bridge, between two apps. The API provides a set of instructions and functionalities that work somewhat independently from these two apps. Through these instructions and functionalities, the API can translate information, redefine its context, and carry it to new places.
You can think of an API like a bartender. You may not understand all the ingredients of your favorite cocktail, or the names of every common cocktail in existence; in a sense, the bar is functioning like one app, and you’re functioning like another. You want a drink, and you don’t have access to the bottles behind the counter, nor do you have knowledge of how to combine them. The bartender serves as an intermediary agent, taking your instructions, processing them, and applying them to mix you the right drink.
It’s a simple metaphor, but it works for a basic explanation.
Strengths and Weaknesses of APIs
APIs are commonly used in part because there aren’t many weaknesses inherent to them. There are very few, if any, downsides to introducing an API into a system of apps. However, there’s one important consideration to bear in mind: APIs often introduce security vulnerabilities, so you’ll need to think carefully about API security if you want to keep your applications secure.
This is because APIs serve as the portal between two different apps. An API opens a gateway into your infrastructure. If the incoming traffic isn’t properly scrutinized and scrubbed, hackers can infiltrate your networks and cause potentially serious damage. Additionally, the API sometimes introduces new vulnerabilities, which hackers can exploit to get access to the information being exchanged. With the right API security practices, these weaknesses can be overcome, but not all businesses make the effort to do so.
In stark contrast to this one area of weakness, APIs carry many distinct advantages, including:
– Abstraction and simplification. Depending on how you employ it, an API can function as a kind of translator; it takes information you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to understand, and simplifies it to a form you can understand. In this way, the API’s job is to take complex information and make it abstract or parse it enough to be usable in a new application.
– Shortcuts and development speed. If you’re hoping to make two apps work together, or if you’re looking to build something complex, APIs can serve as a kind of shortcut, leading to faster development cycles. Instead of having to write code, line by line, for how two apps work together, you can utilize the API to take care of the job for you; instead of writing an entire application from scratch, you often end up needing only a few lines of additional code.
– Universal availability. In many cases, APIs are offered freely to the user base of a given app. This way, users can take charge of developing their own customizations and integrating with other apps as they see fit. This also leads to an explosion in creativity in most situations; with the API in hand, there’s no limit to what developers can do with an existing app.
– Updatability. Though this strength is dependent on the support an API is receiving, most APIs can be updated regularly. Developers can issue patches for vulnerabilities, or upgrade the API to reflect the new functionality of the core app. Sometimes, managing multiple versions and new updates can be time consuming or annoying, but it ultimately results in higher security and more functionality.
Types of APIs Available
Another advantage of APIs is that they can be used for almost any type of application. The most common use is allowing an API to pull data from one source and make it available to another source; for example, you might use an API to automatically update one app with new data from another, monitoring the changes in real-time. APIs can also be programmed in a variety of different languages, like Python and Java, and there are tens of thousands of public APIs available.
APIs have been an important development tool for decades, and they’re only going to grow in importance as we see a wider diversity of apps available to the public. Through APIs, we can customize functionalities and integrations that would otherwise be impossible.