What Is an API?
An API (Application Programming Interface) is a set of code that enable two or more systems to connect and share data. As opposed to a user interface that serves to connect programs with people, APIs are used to connect programs with other programs.
Why have APIs become such a large topic over the past few years and what can they do?
APIs are extensively used all over the world to connect businesses, exchange data, and enhance programming capabilities. Companies like Facebook, Amazon, and Google all develop their own APIs to give other programs tailored data without handing over complete access to their ecosystem.
API stands for Application Programming Interface.
It is a software interface that serves to connect two or more systems.
This technology enables systems to exchange data, simplify program complexity, extend system functionality, and provide a layer of security.
APIs can be compared to waiters at a restaurant. They are the critical link between the customer and the kitchen.
The Restaurant Example
To get a firm grasp on what an API is, imagine you are hungry for some gourmet burgers, but you don’t have the capability to make them yourself. So you go to the new gourmet burger restaurant in town. You want to order some food and the kitchen is ready to make it for you. But how do you relay your order to the kitchen staff?
This is of course done through the waiter. He is the critical link between you and the kitchen. Without the waiter, you would not be able to interact with the kitchen and they would be unable to serve you the burger. But the waiter allows you to enhance your dining capabilities through a connection with the kitchen.
In this example, the waiter is the API of the restaurant while you and the kitchen are two separate systems. With the API connecting these two systems, complex procedures can be performed by simply asking for them. In this way, an API serves to optimize and extend the functionality of the two systems by connecting them.
Where are APIs Used?
APIs are used all over the world. They are the engine under the hood of global connectivity. Online recipes, music, maps, parking space availabilities, and more are all made possible and enhanced daily by APIs. In reality, it is very hard to find an internet application that does not use an API to some degree.
API Example 1
Take, for instance, buying ballet tickets online through a third-party ticket service. The service does not own the seats at the theater but simply has access to a database through the theater’s API. This capability enables them to sell tickets and automatically update the event’s database.
API Example 2
The maker of your smartphone is not a weather company, yet it has up to the minute data on the weather all over the globe. This data is provided by companies like The Weather Channel. They have sensors around the globe and their API enables your phone to have access to their database in order to receive weather updates.
API Power: 4 Key Attributes
- Critical Exchange of Data
APIs open up the doorway to an enhanced data exchange between systems, giving you the best and most current data when you need it.
Let’s continue the restaurant example. When you want to know more about your order, you simply need to ask your waiter. He can then provide you with needed information about the food, regular updates on how long you’ll be waiting, and much more.
We can see this in a real-life example with the weather app built into any iPhone. Apple is not a weather company. They do not have weather sensors all around the globe. Rather they are pulling data from the API of forecasters like The Weather Channel.
In the same way, APIs enable systems like VKS work instruction software to exchange information with other systems like ERPs (Enterprise Resource Planning) and MES (Manufacturing Execution System).
- Simplify Program Complexity
APIs also serve to simplify functions that would otherwise be complex. As data is exchanged, the programs can facilitate each other by efficiently automating critical tasks.
Imagine you’re back at the restaurant and they are serving a lovely chocolate lava cake that sings to you while the molten ganache is flowing out. You don’t need to know how to make this fantastical dessert. Since you are with the waiter, you only need to order it. The kitchen will take care of the rest.
Similarly, API-enabled programs don’t need to know how to connect to the internet or take a picture using the device camera. They simply need to ask the operating system to do it for them. It doesn’t matter what device or operating system the program is using, it only matters that there is a connector exchanging information between the two or more programs.
APIs enable programs to achieve new levels of integration and teamwork with other systems.
- Extended Functionality
APIs enable systems to extend their functionality based on the programs they are connected to. We’ve all seen this happen on our phones. One program is asking for permission to access our camera or use our current location. This is the program using its API to connect with data sources and devices within our phone.
What’s incredible is that the possibilities are seemingly endless. Imagine the potential of integrating every system within your operation and supply chain. Now each program feeds off of the information and capabilities of other systems.
Think of it as adding a new member to your team. As you add more people and expertise, the capabilities of your business grow. Likewise, programs interact with other systems and extend their functionality through powerful API technology.
- Layers of Security
APIs also serve to provide layers of security the same way a passport office does. Think of the process of applying for a passport. Normally, the process is controlled by the passport office and shielded from the general public. Much like our waiter example, the passport clerk is the intermediary between you and the process that happens behind the counter.
As we’ve discussed, this hides a certain level of complexity where you don’t have to do anything except applying. But just as importantly, it protects the internals of the system from unwanted tampering. Since users can only interact with the teller at the passport office (API), the process is protected.
Similarly, APIs provide systems with a level of control over how others interact with their system. APIs give users safe and strong connections that protect valuable data and processes.