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The Why and How of APIs: Modernizing the Enterprise

Brian Mulloy
Jun 11, 2014

In the previous post in this series, we explored some of the trends fueling demand for API-centric business approaches. Here we’ll take a closer look at some of the reasons why APIs play such a critical role in modernizing an enterprise and the way it interacts with customers, employees, and partners.

An innovation platform atop legacy systems

Service-oriented architectures (SOA) traditionally addressed the needs of corporate information system integration, but projecting data via apps places new demands on companies.

SOA models discrete information systems or components as services, which are accessible over a network via well-defined protocols and data formats. This enables independent development and the evolution of cooperating systems, without the need to employ a common technology base. This, in turn, gives companies flexibility in managing discrete business functions, which translates to operational efficiency.

Enter the iPhone. Not long after its introduction in 2007, this wireless device began its disruptive influence on information systems. The viral spread of smartphones and the advent of tablets, along with advances in browser technologies, brought new interactivity, style, and power to web applications, and enabled consumers to carry the web around with them.

This change creates the need for a way to connect corporate information systems with remote systems and mobile devices, in a way that SOA can’t.

Hide complexity, expose functionality

APIs aren’t necessarily a replacement for SOA and legacy systems, however. Rather, APIs can act as a façade in front of these systems; adding this layer fosters digital ecosystems by enabling developer portals and analytics. APIs offer the ability to hide complexity and expose functionality in an easily consumable way (this is often referred to as the "exposure layer," while the API layer that faces developers is described as the "consumption layer"). They also present the opportunity to learn the ropes of the digital economy and the market value implicit in APIs.

A very powerful use case exists in the way an API layer can help a company discover how to simplify the upgrade of legacy back-end systems. It also makes it far easier to upgrade these systems without disruptions.



Open up—thoughtfully and securely

Companies that decide to leverage their brand and value propositions through apps understand that there is value in their internal systems and data and that they must participate in the digital economy in the same way as they did in the Web economy during the past decade.

However, an app developer can’t simply access a typical internal system at a Fortune 500 company. Providing this kind of access requires a very deliberate, thoughtful, and secure process on behalf of the business.

Social, mobile, and cloud services empower developers by enabling them to access and interact with corporate data, but IT departments still need to be concerned with security, compliance, and rapid changes.

The key to crossing the chasm between IT requirements and those of the new digital economy is an API. As with any technology that involves enterprise data, security should always be a prime concern. It should be built into the APIs themselves, but threat protection, identity services, infrastructure security, and compliance must also be considered.

Data—a two-way street

APIs don’t just enable an enterprise to expose or project data. They also create a path for data to flow back to the enterprise. They’re critical for data analytics, because they give enterprises end-to-end visibility from the back end all the way to the mobile user.

With an API, a company receives feedback and data that provide a powerful view of whomever is using an app, whether it’s a customer, a partner, or an employee. Which developers or partners are using your API, how much traffic is moving on it, how the API is performing, how many purchases and downloads of your apps have occurred, how many developers are building apps—all of these data streams can be captured and analyzed.

In the next post, we’ll discuss the “digital value chain” and begin to explore the different API use cases.


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