Without realizing it, almost all of us will have used a service that relies on APIs at some point in our lives. API stands for Application Programming Interface and, in essence, they are used to allow computers or applications to ‘talk’ to each other. Some famous examples of websites and software employing multiple APIs behind the scenes to power their services include Facebook and Twitter – however, the technology is widely used across a huge variety of other websites and applications.
A basic guide to the workings of APIs
The majority of us realize that most website and application User Interfaces (UI) are designed for exclusive use by humans (i.e. featuring text, images, video, buttons, etc to make them easier to use and understand). At the other end of the scale, APIs are intended for use by computers or machines – essentially as a set of rules that allow communication between devices or software. In terms of flow, APIs sit as an intermediary in the computing process – a typical working example might be a human interacting with an application or website which then calls an API, in turn retrieving data or generating a function on a web server or in another piece of software. To give a real-world example, you could think of an API being rather like a waiter in a restaurant who takes your order then relays it to the kitchen to be prepared. APIs work in the same way, almost as a middle man.
The importance of security in APIs
Of course, with such widespread use of APIs across all sectors, they have become a primary target for cybercriminals, often exploiting their underlying security weaknesses. As APIs typically transfer sensitive data (for example, credit card or other personal details between services), they are a ripe target for online criminals to harvest significant private data. Consequently, API security is a major concern for development companies– both from an end-user and production perspective.
APIs and Software as a Service (SaaS)
While being eminently useful across a wide array of web services and apps, APIs have also given rise to a whole new sector of the computer industry – namely Platform as a Service (also called Software as a Service) which typically relies on remote computing power to perform complex actions, even on relatively low-power tablets and cell-phones. By using APIs, SaaS companies can leverage considerable processing power remotely, enhancing the user experience and empowering even the most basic of low-end tech.
However, the advantages don’t just stop there – by using APIs in the production process, experienced programmers can include tiny lines of code that effectively streamline software development and offer endless scalability to apps and websites. For example, a developer might use the Stripe payments API to include secure online purchasing services in an app or website – saving significant time writing the code from scratch and instead calling on established and secure services.
APIs have revolutionized the scale, scope and speed of software and web development, in turn improving the user experience across a huge range of apps and websites. APIs allow otherwise-separate software and servers to work with one another, increasing performance and making it easy for developers to add multiple additional services to their platforms.