API management in the real world

API management in the real world

Robert Merlicek, Chief Technical Officer, Asia Pacific and Japan 

The business benefits delivered by APIs (Application Program Interfaces) has led to their widespread adoption by organisations of all sizes. Providing a way to share data between disparate systems in a consistent and secure way, they enable innovation in new and exciting areas.

An organisation can use APIs to spur external development through the creation of a third-party ecosystem. Alternatively, they can be used to enable closer linkages with partners through the sharing of data.

While APIs can deliver significant benefits, as their usage increases they can also cause some challenges. Proper management is key and a strategy is needed that covers three key areas: scalability, security and support.

For APIs to be effective, the systems behind them must be readily scalable. As increasing numbers of users hit an API and make requests for data, the back-end infrastructure must be able to cope with the load and maintain performance. 

Here, having effective API management tools in place is critical. They can control factors such as how many times an individual can make a call on an API in a given period of time, and also assist with caching often-requested data at the edge of the network. Both these techniques can help to ensure the API remains available even during peak periods.

The organisation's IT team should also consider making use of the Swagger specification to describe the APIs in a standardised way. It can also define what the interface for the API is going to look like so external developers will know what to expect when making use of it.

Good API management tools will also themselves have APIs. This makes their management easier when the environment becomes more complex as regular tasks can be automated. This, in turn, helps to ensure reliability as API usage scales even further.

API security is all about making sure the right people have access to the right data at the right time. Offering functionality for users should not create any unnecessary risks for the organisation.

When an IT department first starts making use of APIs, there can be some people in the organisation that become wary about increased chances of data loss or system intrusions. However, it is actually very rare to see a data breach happen through an API. When one does occur, it tends to be because of poor code security rather than poor API security.

However security is still critical and good API management tools can help by setting up an effective authentication system. The process starts by identifying what data is security sensitive. This data should then be tagged so its access can be controlled both internally and externally.

Developers must also adopt the habit of constantly reviewing new code for security and data sensitivity issues. They must ensure that any new or enhanced APIs are designed from the start to be secure. Management tools can assist by offering automated testing which will help to streamline the process.

Developers are critical to the success of an API-based ecosystem and providing them with the support they require is very important. This holds true both for internal teams as well as external developers accessing established APIs.

From the outset, you should ensure there is a standard, three-tier support structure in place. Simple queries can be handled in Tier 1 through mechanisms such as forums and social media threads. More complex queries go to Tier 2 where they are handled via email or phone support. The most complicated are fed into Tier 3 where they are assigned to the product team for resolution.

In this way, a large chunk of queries can be handled in an automated way which keeps technical experts free to focus on the higher value-adding activities.

API management tools can aid in the support function. They can provide reports that show who is accessing what resources and what they are trying to achieve. Support can then be targeted to where it is needed the most.

The tools can also provide a content management system which can be used to create a developer portal. This will become the place that people can find documentation and technical details in a self-service manner. Having good documentation in place is critical, and it must be clearly written and complete.

By focusing on these three key areas, an organisation can be sure its APIs are being managed correctly and providing the level of performance that users will require. The organisation will then be best placed to reap the significant business benefits that APIs can deliver.

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