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Your guide to APIs for modern software development

Read Time 10 mins | Written by: Cole

guide to APIs

APIs (application programming interfaces) are the foundation of modern software development and architecture. They’ve revolutionized how developers build applications – opening up a world of possibilities for integration, collaboration, and innovation. Just think of Paypal or Stripe transforming online payment options across countless websites and services – that’s all possible because of APIs. 

Behind the scenes of every company, many different APIs enable software ecosystems to communicate, share data, and interact with each other. They are the reason microservices and service-oriented architectures (SOA) are possible. APIs also make cloud-native development and containerization work at scale. They’re one of the foundational technologies that make everything from individual software apps to whole cloud-native architectures function. 

Here’s an overview of what an API is, the different types of APIs, some common use cases and benefits, and how to find a team of experts who know how to build APIs at scale. 

What is an API?

An API is a set of rules, protocols, and tools that define how different software components interact with each other. APIs provide a standardized way for applications, services, or platforms to communicate – allowing them to send and receive data and perform specific tasks. APIs act as a bridge between software and systems – enabling seamless integration and interoperability in modern technology stacks. 

APIs define the kinds of requests that can be made between services, apps, libraries, and more. They define how to move data back and forth, the data formats that should be used, and the conventions to follow. APIs enable developers to weave functionalities of many software components, libraries, or services together – allowing for a more efficient and faster software development process.

What’s the general shape of an API?

There are many types of APIs (we’ll cover in the next section), but they all have a similar shape. APIs comprise endpoints, request methods, parameters, and clear documentation (ideally) so your senior software engineers and external API consumers know how to use them. 

Here’s the basic structure of an API:

Endpoints: An API typically exposes a set of endpoints that represent the available resources or operations. Endpoints are the URLs or URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers) that clients use to interact with the API. Each endpoint corresponds to a specific functionality or resource that can be accessed through the API.

Request methods: APIs utilize various HTTP methods (also known as verbs or request methods) to define the type of operation that should be performed on a resource. The most common HTTP methods used in APIs are:

  1. GET: Retrieves data or resources from the API
  2. POST: Sends data to the API to create new resources or perform actions
  3. PUT: Updates existing resources with new data
  4. DELETE: Removes or deletes resources from the API

In addition to these standard methods, APIs can also define custom methods or utilize other HTTP methods like PATCH, HEAD, or OPTIONS to cater to specific requirements.

  1. Request and response formats: APIs specify the structure and format of the request and response payloads. The request format defines how the client should structure and provide data when making a request to the API. Commonly used formats include JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) and XML (eXtensible Markup Language). The response format determines how the API returns data or results to the client, typically in JSON or XML.

  2. Parameters: APIs often utilize parameters to pass additional information in the API request. Parameters can be included in the URL (query parameters), request headers, or request body. They provide a way to customize and modify the behavior of API operations, allowing clients to pass specific values or filters to the API.

  3. Authentication and authorization: APIs incorporate mechanisms for authentication and authorization to ensure secure access to protected resources. Authentication verifies the client's identity making the API request, while authorization determines whether the client has the necessary permissions to perform the requested operation. Common authentication methods include API keys, OAuth, JWT (JSON Web Tokens), or username/password authentication.

  4. Error handling: APIs define how errors and exceptions are handled and communicated to clients. When an error occurs during API processing, the API typically returns an appropriate HTTP status code (e.g., 400 Bad Request, 404 Not Found, 500 Internal Server Error) along with an error message or code that describes the issue. Error responses provide information to clients about what went wrong and how to resolve the problem.

  5. Documentation: Well-designed APIs provide comprehensive documentation that describes the available endpoints, their functionality, input parameters, expected responses, and any additional guidelines or considerations. API documentation helps developers understand and utilize the API effectively – reducing the learning curve and enabling smooth integration.

What are the different types of APIs?

Whether you need to integrate your Azure cloud services or connect a suite of apps to the same Typescript library, there’s a certain kind of API for that. Each has its own unique functions and your DevOps team will manage an ecosystem of them.

  • Web APIs: Enable communication over the internet using HTTP/HTTPS protocols, often following REST principles.
  • SOAP APIs: Use the SOAP protocol for exchanging structured information in web services – offering extensive support for data typing and security.
  • GraphQL APIs: Provide a query language and runtime for efficient data fetching and manipulation – allowing clients to request specific data.
  • Library APIs: Sets of functions, classes, or modules providing specific functionality within a programming language or framework.
  • Operating System APIs: Expose functions and services for interacting with the underlying operating system.
  • Database APIs: Facilitate CRUD operations on databases – allows developers to retrieve, create, update, and delete data.
  • Messaging APIs: Enable communication and messaging between applications – e.g. the exchange of messages, notifications, and events.
  • Payment APIs: Integrate payment gateway services and allows applications to process online payments securely.
  • Maps and Geolocation APIs: Provide mapping services, geolocation data, and routing capabilities for applications.
  • Cloud APIs: Interact with cloud-based services and resources – facilitates the creation, management, and automation of cloud resources.
  • Social Media APIs: Integrate with social media platforms – allows authentication, content posting, and access to user data.
  • IoT (Internet of Things) APIs: Communicate and control IoT devices – enables the retrieval of sensor data and remote management.
  • Machine Learning/AI APIs: Leverage pre-trained models, algorithms, and AI capabilities for tasks like natural language processing, computer vision, sentiment analysis, and recommendation systems.

Enterprise use cases for APIs in software development

Need to build a new software application to keep up with the 100 million users on Threads? API. Have to move data between cloud services to inform your customer experiences? APIs. Whatever use case you can imagine in a digital landscape likely runs off an API. 

  1. Integration with external services: APIs enable applications to integrate with external services and leverage their functionality. For instance, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn provide APIs that allow developers to integrate social sharing, authentication, and data retrieval features into their applications.

  2. Data aggregation and mashups: APIs allow applications to gather data from multiple sources and combine it into a unified format. This is commonly seen in weather apps that collect data from various weather APIs to provide accurate forecasts or in travel apps that aggregate data from different airlines and hotel APIs to offer comprehensive travel information.

  3. Payment processing: APIs offered by payment gateway providers like PayPal, Stripe, and Braintree enable e-commerce applications to process online payments securely. These APIs handle tasks such as authorizing transactions, managing customer data, and generating receipts.

  4. Maps and geolocation: APIs such as Google Maps, Mapbox, and OpenStreetMap provide developers with geolocation services, mapping functionality, and routing capabilities. These APIs enable applications to display maps, find locations, calculate distances, and provide directions.

  5. Cloud services: Cloud providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform offer APIs that allow developers to interact with cloud-based services such as storage, computing, databases, and machine learning. These APIs enable the creation, management, and automation of cloud resources.

  6. Messaging and notifications: APIs like Twilio, SendGrid, and Firebase Cloud Messaging facilitate sending SMS messages, emails, and push notifications to users. These APIs are commonly used in applications to deliver notifications, verify user identities, or send transactional messages.

  7. Internet of Things (IoT): APIs play a crucial role in connecting and controlling IoT devices. They enable applications to retrieve sensor data, send commands, and monitor and control IoT devices remotely. Popular IoT platforms like AWS IoT, Google Cloud IoT, and Microsoft Azure IoT provide APIs for device management and data exchange.

  8. Data analysis and machine learning: APIs provided by platforms like TensorFlow, Scikit-learn, and IBM Watson enable developers to incorporate machine learning and data analysis capabilities into their applications. These APIs provide pre-trained models, data processing tools, and natural language processing services.

7 main benefits of using APIs for software development

APIs open up a wide range of business benefits when you make them central to your software development process. They accelerate design and deliver and promote code reuse, scalability, and flexibility. 

Using an API-first approach to software development is one of the ways to build a microservices architecture, is crucial to cloud-native development, and unlocks new scale and flexibility for your business. 

  1. Microservices/service-oriented architecture (SOA): APIs align with the principles of SOA, where software functionality is provided as services that can be accessed and combined to meet specific business requirements. This promotes flexibility, modularity, and the ability to evolve and adapt the enterprise software landscape over time.

  2. Integration and interoperability: APIs allow different software systems within an enterprise to communicate and share data seamlessly. They facilitate the integration of various applications, databases, and services, enabling them to work together cohesively. This promotes interoperability, eliminates data silos, and improves overall operational efficiency.

  3. Modularity and reusability: APIs promote a modular approach to software development, where functionality is exposed through well-defined interfaces. This modular architecture allows different teams to work independently on specific components – promoting code reusability and speeding up development cycles. APIs enable developers to reuse existing services and components, reducing duplication of effort and increasing development efficiency.

  4. Scalability and flexibility: APIs provide a scalable and flexible architecture for enterprise systems. Organizations can scale individual parts of their systems by decoupling different components and services through APIs. This allows for easier expansion, load balancing, and the ability to adapt to changing business needs without disrupting the entire system.

  5. Ecosystem and innovation: APIs encourage the creation of an ecosystem around enterprise software. Organizations can invite external developers and partners to build applications, extensions, and integrations that enhance the core software by exposing APIs. This fosters innovation, accelerates product development, and expands the capabilities and reach of the enterprise software.

  6. Security and control: APIs enable organizations to enforce security measures and control access to their systems and data. Enterprises can ensure that only authorized users and applications can access their resources by implementing authentication, authorization, and rate limiting mechanisms in APIs. APIs also provide a centralized point for monitoring and auditing access, allowing organizations to maintain security standards and comply with regulations.

  7. Legacy system modernization: APIs facilitate the modernization of legacy systems. By wrapping legacy systems with APIs, organizations can expose their functionality in a standardized and controlled manner, allowing for integration with newer applications and technologies. This approach avoids the need for a complete system overhaul, enabling a gradual migration to modern architectures.

How do I hire software engineers who know APIs for enterprise?

It could take 6-18 months (or longer) to hire an internal team that’s ready to dive into APIs. Instead, you can get started with 3-6 weeks with Codingscape. We have senior software engineers and agile pros who know APIs inside and out. We can design and build your APIs from the ground up, help with integrations via API, or help you use APIs to move to a full microservices or cloud-native architecture.

We’re not a software engineer recruiting agency either. You scope out the work with us, and we’ll integrate with your team, technology stack, and partner with you for as long as you need us. 

Zappos, Twilio, and Veho are just a few companies that trust us to build software with a remote-first approach. We know APIs at scale and love to help companies leverage them to the fullest. 

You can schedule a time to talk with us here. No hassle, no expectations, just answers.

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Cole is Codingscape's Content Marketing Strategist & Copywriter.