An Overview of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) and How They’re Used by Developers

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If you use the web or any form of mobile application, the chances are extremely high that you will have (perhaps) unwittingly also interacted with an application programming interface (API). In recent years, the popularity of APIs to be used by skilled developers has skyrocketed as more and more of our online services and apps have converged and begun integrating data from other sources. 

APIs – a brief description

To understand an API in its most basic form, you need to think about how they work. In its most simplistic form, an API allows two (or more) distinct pieces of software to communicate with each other. These services usually involve one app making requests or calls from another app – usually through an API gateway – which may lead you logically to ask, what is an API gateway?

An API gateway is almost like a manager that handles and interprets the requests from one app to another. It provides a virtual boundary around various backend services on offer from the provider.

A real-world example of how an API works

To better understand how an API works, it’s perhaps best to try and find some kind of real-world scenario – and the concept of a restaurant is a very good example. 

If you imagine going to a restaurant to eat, you would first be provided with a menu with the range of dishes they have available. In this case, the menu is rather like the list of services on offer. When you browse the menu and make your selections, you then pass the order to your waiter, who then transfers the request to the backend kitchen where your food is prepared. This stage is rather like the API gateway. 

From your point of view, you don’t need to know how your food is prepared – you just want to eat – and sometime later your food will be delivered to your table. This is similar to how an API provides data to another piece of software. So, in short, the API list is essentially the menu, the waiter could be thought of as similar to the API gateway, and the kitchen is the backend software and services that can be utilized.

Advantages of APIs for programmers

In our rich, digital world, there are now more apps and online services available than ever before. However, when coming to develop software, programmers would have previously had to write long lines of code from scratch.

This development work might have covered anything from coding the user interface (UI) of the app and its core functions through to the data the app could provide.

With APIs, developers can pull on the power of existing code and aggregate these services into their own software. This is not only hugely time-saving from a development and coding point of view but also leads to greater standardization and cross-board design and production familiarity. 

These days, programmers are spoilt for choice in terms of the data and tools they can use from third-party providers, vastly reducing the workload and decreasing production time.