Welcome to the API economy, catching hold in a datacenter near you.
The term API, for application programming interface, has a long history, but for the longest time it was used mainly by developers and others of a technical bent. Recently, though, API has been gaining currency, not only across a broader swath of the IT landscape, but with the business set, as well.
API is now a key concept in discussions about mobile computing and how best to manage IT infrastructure. It's critical to many plans for e-commerce, enterprise architecture, the virtual corporation, and the very future of the service economy. Today, even brand managers worry about APIs, for these well defined connection points, or gateways, into an organization's IT services are a key element in the electronic face that so many enterprises are scrambling to present to their business partners and customers alike.
That explains, perhaps, why the API phenomenon has been making so many headlines lately. Mid-April saw Intel cut a deal to pay $180 million for a firm called Mashery, a provider of API management tools, only to be followed by word of software giant CA Technologies acquiring Layer 7 Technologies, a maker of similar tools. Earlier in the month, an API outfit called Mulesoft raised a healthy $37 million E round, pushing its total funding to $81 million.
Mulesoft has bought ProgrammableWeb, an outfit that promoted open APIs and encouraged people to build all sorts of mashups, some silly, some quite practical, from it.
And there may be more such deals in the offing, with API-focused companies such as Apigee, 3Scale, and SOA Software still operating independently. Evidently, as the so-called API Economy takes off, not just creating but managing APIs becomes critical.
"Today, the API is the product," SOA Software CTO Alistair Farquharson told me in a phone interview. Enterprises design and publish their APIs, "but then, they leave it up to others to figure out how to use the APIs, how to build new business applications with them." Ideally, those new apps will include many that the API publisher has never envisioned, showing that its API truly is a good one and useful to a wide range of partners.
That's where management tools come into play. It's not a matter of managing a large number of APIs -- Facebook offers just one or two of them -- but helping the large number of API consumers be as effective and successful as possible. There are technical issues to address, such as security and monitoring the performance of any IT services the API calls on, and there are business issues to manage, as well. Outside developers will want to have access to proven code samples, documentation, facilities for registering their apps and acquiring security tokens, and even legal documents covering their use of the APIs.
Farquharson says SOA Software's new API Gateway product, being unveiled today, is quite likely the only such API management platform that takes care of both the technical and business aspects of API publishing in one system. The company has drawn on its years of experience working in the field of systems-oriented architecture (SOA), starting with XML-heavy web services protocols such as SOAP and UDDI.
Like everyone else, of course, SOA Software has watched the services paradigm shift to newer, lighter-weight, easier-to-use protocols like REST and JSON. (It's their availability that has fueled the exploding use of APIs.) Indeed, SOA's gateway product is able to convert between SOAP-based and other services and REST and the like, all on the fly.
UDDI (for universal description discovery and integration) is an XML-based scheme that was designed in 2000 to serve as a way for organizations to publish their services and to facilitate their discovery by other organizations. In theory, UDDI was to foster the emergence of a sort of worldwide marketplace of web services. IT systems would be able to find services more or less autonomously. Unfortunately, the scheme was perhaps more complex and less friendly than it needed to be and it never took off as hoped. Early backers such as IBM and SAP closed their public UDDI setups in 2006.
SOA Gateway, says Farquharson, "is what UDDI should have been."
As he sees it, APIs will be increasingly important, not only for the sake of companies wishing to make their information and services available to developers of mobile apps, for instance, but across the IT domain, as well. "We're going to see huge uptake there," Farquharson predicts, particularly as schemes like software-defined networking, cloud orchestration, private clouds, and PaaS catch on. None of these will catch on unless their main elements can be controlled through stable, well documented APIs.
"APIs are the currency of this new platform," Farquharson says, referring to the cloud paradigm and its promise to help standardize and automate a large portion of IT operations. Even when an enterprise runs a certain app in the public cloud, he explains, APIs will be required back in the home datacenter to enable the cloud-based app to interact with systems down on the ground.
It's an API world, as they say, and we only live in it.