October 15th, 2012

API Workshops in Europe

Paris API WorkshopI had a great time presenting on API design and management trends at our London API Workshop a few weeks back. James Governor from RedMonk delivered an exciting talk on APIs, the need for API Management and some stark truths, like the fact that Java is still at the top of the programming pile. All of the trend talk and analysis was followed by a great real-world example when MoneySupermarket.com’s Cornelius Burger described his organization’s journey implementing the MoneySupermarket API with a SecureSpan API Proxy. We had excellent feedback on the event, so I know I wasn’t the only one who learned a lot from our speakers.

I was particularly impressed by the range of industries and organizations that were represented in the audience. We had developers from large enterprise shops, specialized Internet-focused start-ups and even a few entrepreneurs just getting started. I think this range of interest is indicative of the value of Web APIs for all and bodes well for a continued investment in designing great APIs, rather than just chucking them out into the ether.

Next up on the tour is our Paris API Workshop taking place tomorrow (Tuesday, October 16).  As always, we have a great set of speakers lined up, with Martin Duval from bluenove talking about building developer outreach programs and Benoit Herard from Orange Labs discussing their API launch. France has a  great start-up culture and a reputation for enterprises like Orange driving innovation, so I’m expecting good conversation, some excellent API Management presentations and – if I’m lucky – some great wines.

September 17th, 2012

Web APIs are International

APIs are GlobalI had the great fortune of spending last week in India, helping a Layer 7 customer develop a Web API program from scratch. While it’s always exciting to walk into a greenfield situation and build something new, I was doubly excited to be doing this in India, where the concept of open APIs is still fairly new.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen explosive growth in open APIs across North America, lead of course by the avant garde Internet companies on the West Coast. The API Management industry has focused much of its attention on the US market but the Web API movement has definitely made its way to other markets and the push towards mobile and device-based applications is clearly having an influence on enterprise architectures.

Western Europe has had a strong influence on the API scene, with notable government and enterprise organizations diving wholeheartedly into the collaborative, developer-focused open API space. London, in particular, has developed a thriving technology scene with tons of hackathons, codeathons, meetups and start-up companies trying to change the world or at least get rich trying.

At the moment, the open API scene in India is still in its infancy and I’m looking forward to helping the concept blossom in whatever way that I can. As you may be aware, the number of mobile devices being used in India is mind-boggling and the ratio of mobile-use-to-desktop-computing is much higher than in North America or Western Europe.  This quantity of mobile client platforms, combined with the large number of motivated developers on the scene, makes this a very intriguing open API marketplace. I can’t disclose any details on the nature of the project yet… but I’m hoping to to have exciting news to share in the near future, so stay tuned.

I’ve spent most of the summer in North America, for a variety of reasons and I’m excited that I will finally be getting back home to the UK so I can re-engage with the European API and mobile scene. We have some great Layer 7 API workshops scheduled across Europe over the next few months and hopefully we will uncover a few new and noteworthy European API publishers while we are on tour.

July 12th, 2012

Are Open APIs Too Open for Big Business?

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Twitter and Facebook APIsI’ll admit it.. I’m a “big enterprise” guy.  I’ve either worked for or worked with very large enterprise organizations for most of my career and I’ve seen these companies struggle with the challenge of  incorporating ideas that are spawned from the collective brain trust of the theorists, coders and entrepreneurs that exist in the chaos outside the enterprise’s doors.

It took time and some adaptation for concepts like open source software, social media integration and viral marketing to become part of the enterprise world and I believe that opening up Web APIs will require a similar shift in mindset to work on the enterprise stage. The biggest ships take the longest to turn but modern businesses (even the most risk-averse) must be open to leveraging new technologies and architectural philosophies in order to avoid being left behind.

The buzz around Web APIs has definitely piqued the interest of big business and large enterprises have dipped their toes into its waters with the release of a few compelling APIs over the last year.  But, along with the excitement generated from opening new consumer channels and new avenues for innovation, there is still a  prevailing sense of danger associated with the API movement.

For many enterprises,  there is a fear that publishing APIs means giving up control of their services and data to an army of anonymous 16 year-old mobile developers. After all, who wants their carefully crafted brands and products to end up at the mercy of the masses? We’ve seen marketing experiments with “crowd sourcing” produce some interesting results in the past, so there is reason to be cautious when opening up the doors for collaboration in any form.

Of course, the good news is that the challenge of controlling APIs can be elegantly addressed with a strong API Management system. At Layer 7, our SecureSpan API Proxy gives enterprise customers the tools they need to maintain control over how content and services are used, allowing publishers to lock down APIs as much as they want.

However, publishers will also need to ensure that they provide enough accessibility to their API libraries or they will run the risk of exposing wonderful APIs that sit unused, waiting for developers to utilize them. APIs are only useful when they are used and a closed-door policy will not encourage anyone to sign up. That’s why we also offer the Layer API Portal, which is designed to facilitate developer community outreach and secure developer onboarding.

Making APIs attractive to the developer community is the key to increasing usage and it is becoming clear that developers want stability and control in the APIs they use. For example, Twitter’s continued restrictions on API usage and Facebook’s closure of the face.com face recognition API have created a small wave of backlash amongst their developer communities. While it’s not enough of a storm to make much of a dent in the uptake of Twitter or Facebook APIs,  application developers are realizing that building their apps based on APIs from which they may lose access is ultimately a losing proposition.

This is good news for larger enterprises as it signals a growing level of maturity in the API market and the need for stable, fairly-priced APIs that can support apps in the longer term. A set of well-designed, secure APIs with a well thought out revenue model is exactly the right fit for the large enterprise world.

So, are open APIs too open for enterprises? Probably. But enterprises will need to adapt or risk being unable to reach their customers as the device revolution continues at its explosive pace. Conversely, launching a poorly-designed API library just to get it out there can be an equally devastating misstep. Organizations need to think carefully and plan their API strategies in order to find the perfect balance between control and accessibility.

It isn’t easy for enterprises to embrace open APIs but when the risks are managed properly with a well-built API Gateway, developer portal and API strategy, the rewards can be immense.

July 10th, 2012

Hey Twitter: API Management = Developer Management

Twitter APIQuick question for you: What matters most, the client or the server?

Answer: Neither —  they are really only useful as a whole. A client without a server is usually little more than an non-functional wire frame and a server without a client is simply unrealized potential. Bring them together though and you have something of lasting value. So, neither matters more and each actually matters a lot less than half.

In the API world, this is an easy point to miss. The server side always wields disproportionate power by virtue of controlling the API to its services and this can easily foster an arrogance about the server’s place in the world. This effect is nicely illustrated by Twitter’s recent missteps around developer management.

The problems for Twitter all began with a blog entry. Blogs are the mouthpiece of the platform. Tucked away within an interesting entry about Twitter Cards and the potential to run applications within tweets (something that is genuinely exciting), can be found a restatement of an early warning to developers:

“(D)evelopers should not ‘build client apps that mimic or reproduce the mainstream Twitter consumer client experience.’”

Ominous stuff indeed. This was quickly picked up on by Nick Bilton writing in the New York Times Bits blog, who pointed out that the real problem is that Twitter just isn’t very good at writing client-side apps that leverage its own API. Stifling competition by leveraging the API power card can only alienate developers — and by extension the public, who are left with a single vendor solution. Suddenly, it feels like the 1980s all over again.

This ignited a firestorm of concern that was well summarized by Adam Green on ProgrammableWeb. Green acknowledged that API change is inevitable but pointed out that this is something that can be managed effectively — which is not what Twitter is doing right now.

The irony of the whole thing is that, in the past, by exercising its power position, Twitter has actually made great contributions to the API community. In mid 2010, Twitter cut off basic authentication to APIs in favor of OAuth, a drop-dead event that became known as the OAuthcalypse. Hyperbole aside, in terms of actual impact on the populace, this cut over made even Y2K look like the end of days. Given a tractable challenge, developers cope, which is really Green’s point.

What is important to realize is that API Management isn’t technical but social. Win the community over and they will move mountains. Piss them off and they will leave in droves for the next paying gig.

The thing I always remind people is that as a trend, APIs are not about technology; they are a strategy. Truth is, the technology is pretty easy — and that’s the real secret to API’s success. You see, the communications are never the thing; the app is the thing (and that is what WS-* missed). Maintaining simplicity and a low barrier to entry counts for everything because it means you can get on with building real apps.

Now, I can give you the very best infrastructure and tools to facilitate API community. But how you manage this community… Well, that is where the real work begins and — in the end — it’s all a lot less deterministic than we technologists like to admit. People are hard to manage but communities are even harder.

If there is a lesson here, it is that APIs are really about potential and that potential can only be realized when you have two sides — client and server — fully engaged. Mess this one up and you’re left with just a bunch of unused interfaces.

June 7th, 2012

Platform Comes to Washington

Digital GovernmentEveryone wants his or her government to be better. We want more services, better services and we want them delivered cheaper. Politicians come and go, policies change, new budgets are tabled but in the end we are left with a haunting and largely unanswerable question: Are things better or worse than they were before?

One thing that is encouraging and has the potential to trigger disruptive change to the delivery of government services in the US is the recent publication Digital Government: Building a 21st-Century Platform to Better Serve the American People. The word to note here is platform –  it seems that government has taken a page from Facebook, Twitter and the others and embraced the idea that efficient information delivery is not about a carefully-rendered Web page but instead is really a logical consequence of developing an open platform.

I confess to some dread on my first encounter with this report. These publications are usually disheartening products of weaselly management consultant speak refined through the cloudy lens of a professional bureaucrat (“we will be more agile”). But in this instance, the reverse was true: this report is accessible and surprisingly insightful. The authors understand that Mobile+Cloud+Web API+decentralized identity is an equation of highly interrelated parts that, in summation, is the catalyst for the new Internet renaissance. The work is not without its platitudes but even these it bolsters with a pragmatic road map identifying actions, parties responsible and (gasp) even deadlines. It’s actually better than most business plans I’ve read.

Consider this paragraph clarifying just what the report means when it calls for an information-centric approach to architecture:

An information-centric approach decouples information from its presentation. It means beginning with the data or content, describing that information clearly, and then exposing it to other computers in a machine-readable format—commonly known as providing web APIs. In describing the information, we need to ensure it has sound taxonomy (making it searchable) and adequate metadata (making it authoritative). Once the structure of the information is sound, various mechanisms can be built to present it to customers (e g websites, mobile applications, and internal tools) or raw data can be released directly to developers and entrepreneurs outside the organization. This approach to opening data and content means organizations can consume the same web APIs to conduct their day-to-day business and operations as they do to provide services to their customers.

See what I mean? It’s well done.

The overall goal is to outline an information delivery strategy that is fundamentally device agnostic. Its authors fully recognize the growing importance of mobility and concede that mobility means much more than the mobile platforms — iOS and Android, among others — that have commandeered the word today. Tomorrow’s mobility will describe a significant shift in the interaction pattern between producers and consumers of information. Mobility is not a technological instance in time (and in particular, today).

But what really distinguishes this report from being just a well-researched paper echoing the zeitgeist of computing’s cool kids is how prescriptive it is in declaring how government will achieve these goals. The demand that agencies adopt Web APIs is a move that echos Jeff Bezos’ directives a decade ago within eBay (as relayed in Steve Yegge’s now infamous rant):

  1. All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.

It was visionary advice then and it is even more valid now. It recognizes that the commercial successes attributed to the Web API approach suggest that just maybe we have finally hit upon a truth in how system integration should occur.

Of course, memos are easy to ignore — unless they demand concrete actions within limited time frames. Here, the time frames are aggressive (and that’s a good thing). Within six months, the Office of Management & Budget must “Issue government-wide open data, content, and web API policy and identify standards and best practices for improved interoperability.” Within 12 months, each government agency must “Ensure all new IT systems follow the open data, content, and web API policy and operationalize agency gov/developer pages” and also “optimize at least two existing priority customer-facing services for mobile use and publish a plan for improving additional existing services.”

If the recent allegations regarding the origins of the Stuxnet worm are accurate, then the President clearly understands the strategic potential of the modern Internet. I would say this report is a sign his administration also clearly understands the transformational potential of APIs and mobility, when applied to government.