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Introduction to APIs: What is an API and What Does it Do?

30-01-2018

An Application Programming Interface (API) is a type of technology that has been available online since the 60s. Today, more software development companies are using APIs to connect to the information they need quickly and efficiently.

 

Think of an API as a locked doorway that protects your database and assets. People with special keys can get through the doorway and access the information they’re looking for. Conversely, you can use an API key to access the information stored on the database of another company whose data you need.


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Image: Information flowchart for an API
 


A Real-life Example of an API in Action


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Imagine that you walk into a restaurant. When you sit down at the table, you don’t know what items are on the menu. In this case, you’re obviously the end user. The kitchen and chefs making food are the database and assets. How do you find out what the specials for the day are, or get a menu?

 

You ask the waiter, of course. In this case, the waiter is the API. They are a link between the end user (you) and the database (the kitchen). They provide you with the information you ask for. When you place your order, they communicate it to the kitchen and return with your food. When you ask for your bill, they communicate or interact with the Point of Sales system and bring it back to you.


How an API Works Online


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If you use the internet, you’re bound to have used an API, whether or not you know it. If you’ve ever used a site like Expedia or Travelocity to book a vacation or a flight, you’ve interacted with an API.

 

When you go on a site like this, you select your destination, travel dates, and other information, and hit Search. The second you press that button, the site sends a request to the APIs of various airlines and hotels with the parameters you selected (an API call). The databases of each of these companies return information relevant to those parameters. This data passes through the API and back to the travel site, populating your search results.


How Does It Work For You?

You can play two roles in the world of APIs. You can either be the source of information, or the entity requesting the information.


The Source


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If your company has a database of information other businesses need to operate properly, you’re the source. Using an API allows you to create a security system. Only people with the unique access keys can use your data and assets to extract information. You can give paying clients these keys to use in their applications and connect to your data. Depending on the type of key you hand out, you could potentially allow the other party to read or even overwrite your data.

 

A common use of this is internally – if you have multiple branches at various locations (even globally), you could use an API to protect your networked or shared data from the outside world. At the same time, you’d give your employees and branches access to a centralized database. You could also customize the API so that each branch would only get information relevant to their location or operations.


The Requester


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This role is more common if you want to get data from other websites, databases, or platforms. A good example of this is if you sell some of your products on a site like Amazon or Shopify. You can use an API to connect and synchronize data between this platform and your own database, keeping your stock and pricing information up-to-date across the internet.

 

As the requester, you’d need access to the API of the platform or database from which you need information. You’d hire an API developer or a software development company to connect to the necessary interface and build a seamless means of communication between platforms.

 

This means that you could program a web-based application (on your site) that users could use to search for information and place orders without waiting or leaving your site. This increases your conversions and generates more leads and higher credibility for your business.


Three Benefits of APIs


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1. Makes Cloud Migration Easier

 

Businesses are moving away from traditional data storage methods – hard drives and in-house servers. Instead, they’re moving to the cloud. Your company’s data is more secure, easier to access, and harder to lose when it’s stored online.

 

As more businesses migrate to cloud storage, any software development company will have one major first move: API integration. With an API, your cloud migration is immediately more secure, faster, and error-free. API infrastructure also allows you to experiment with new methods of data management with low risk.

 

2. Expand Your Presence Faster

 

We touched on this earlier – using an API allows you to provide unfettered access to your assets across your branches and locations in real time. Enjoy instant updates to stocks, accounts, and pricing information across your company’s locations. Each branch can also only access sections of the database important or relevant to that location and business, allowing for faster data retrieval and synchronization.

 

3. Link Your Operations Internally

 

Gone are the days of floor managers patrolling factory floors to keep everything running smoothly. If you have a manufacturing plant, for example, an API allows your managers to track the progress and status of your machinery and production processes digitally and in real-time. You can use the API to access machine information, facility statistics (temperature, production volume, etc.) and more data.


How to Make an API Connected Business


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Your first step should be to hire a software development company. There are professional API developers out there who specialize in various types of APIs. For example, you could hire a company that has expertise in internal application development and APIs. Alternatively, you could work with professionals who develop web applications for end-user consumption. The possibilities are truly endless when you use an API.

 

APIs are the way into the future for companies today. They offer multiple benefits, allow for greater operational flexibility and control, and are a more secure way of requesting and receiving information from databases across the world. Start using an API today to enhance your operations like never before.


Image credits:

“Waiter”: Made by: Freepik from www.flaticon.com; licensed by CC 3.0 BY

“Airplane”: Made by: GraphBerry from www.flaticon.com; licensed by CC 3.0 BY