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The Why and How of APIs: The Internal API Model

Brian Mulloy
Jul 23, 2014

In previous posts, we discussed how and why APIs enable digital acceleration, and where to get started building an API strategy.

As we've said before, several flavors of API initiative support the digital economy. Many successful API initiatives are done in stages. With each stage, businesses can build on previous projects, assume more risk, and invest in larger projects more easily. The type of initiative you launch—internal, partner, or open—depends upon whether the app developer resides within your business, within a partner’s company, or works independently (“in the wild”).

Companies might be inclined to start with an open API, using Twitter, Foursquare, or Facebook as an archetype. This approach isn’t necessarily the right way to get started. Rather, an open strategy should generally be undertaken after a business has learned lessons and mitigated risks by executing an internal or partner model first.

Internal APIs for business agility and flexibility

Often, demand for an internal API is driven by the need for mobile applications or portals to handle internal business processes, including HR or CRM functions.

Keeping things secure and while providing access—a core strength of APIs—is often important even within an organization. Cross-departmental projects today often require big program management apparatus and onerous processes.

Legacy IT systems tend to be stable, but also slow moving, and so can’t easily keep up with market evolution. By putting APIs between IT systems and apps, agility and flexibility result, while still enabling a business to take advantage of the underlying stable systems.

Benefits of internal APIs

There's a considerable list of reasons why internal API programs are beneficial, not the least of which is their ability to help an enterprise learn the ways of APIs within the comfort and safety of the corporate perimeter. Here are some more:

  • Enabling lines of business:There are organizations within a company that have no developers—that is, no technology people to build an app. But departments like marketing often have a mandate to respond to new customer expectations, are faced with slow-moving IT,  and have the budget to hire developers to build apps. Exposing a business’ data and services via APIs enables those developers.
  • Cross-department security and streamlining: A common concern for enterprises, even internally, is keeping data and services secure when providing access to a company’s backend. Cross-departmental interactions are easily secured and streamlined by APIs.
  • Building an app-enabled business: As companies become larger and more complex, many are deferring to API ecosystems to minimize the amount of development effort to support multi-channel enablement. Dell is an exemplar in using internal APIs to better support internal development teams, partners, and retailers. The company provides Dell Mobile applications for both Android and iOS devices that make use of product catalog, product advisor, and CRM APIs to efficiently deliver critical business information in real time.
  • IT productivity: Systems of record have vices and virtues. The most important virtue: they generate revenue. If you are in the hotel business, then your system of record is your reservation system; if in finance, it’s your stock trading system; in the automobile business, it is your inventory and analytics system that predicts economic cycles.

Because enterprise systems are stable, they are often slow-moving and do not allow for core systems to keep up with market evolution. By thinking as a platform–that is, putting APIs between the database and the apps–enterprises achieve agility and flexibility while taking advantage of the stability of those systems.

Tackling an inward-facing project enables the API team to learn important lessons—by starting with a smaller project, but also by gaining access to data on usage metrics—while keeping the project scope small. The API thus starts to add value immediately while setting the groundwork for later-stage developments.

In an upcoming post, we'll discuss partner API initiatives.

image: BrynPinzgauer/Flickr


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