November 2nd, 2012

Opening up Enterprise APIs

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Enterprise APIsA few months back, I wrote a blog post titled “Are Open APIs Too Open for Big Business?” That post was about the challenges large businesses face when adopting an open API mentality. In it, I described the fears of brand damage and lack of control that prevent enterprises from opening up their data stores and services to the world. I also reasoned that large organizations could provide a new type of stable, trusted and highly-available API in the marketplace. Not a lot has changed over the last three months – big businesses are still absorbing the idea of open APIs and are continuing to weigh accessibility against control before taking the plunge. As before, the good news is that their reservations around control are being addressed with solutions like Layer 7′s API Management Suite, which lets them create a developer experience that will bring in the hordes while still keeping the gates secure.

The reality is that many enterprises are already taking advantage of the API wave by using open API tools and philosophies to create and mange private APIs that, in turn, power their branded mobile and browser applications. This is a good thing as it allows businesses to reach their customers and to integrate easily with smaller mobile and device development shops. Plus, it fits well with a corporate culture of control. But organizations are missing a trick if they don’t consciously explore the benefits of opening these APIs up and joining the world of platforms, developers and communities that rely on open APIs to power their applications and projects.

These are big decisions with big consequences. The success of an enterprise open API program will likely be dependent on those at the very top of the organization providing the necessary leadership and investment required for big change to happen. That takes time. In the meantime, the projects won’t stop, the need for B2B integration will continue and the consumer demand for applications on every device will grow louder and louder. In this climate, there is an immediate need for enterprises to release APIs (be they private or public) as quickly and efficiently as possible while still addressing concerns over control.

Layer 7′s new APIfy service fits perfectly in this space as it allows small teams within the enterprise to get their private or public APIs out the door with a cloud-based API Management solution. They will get all the benefits of rate limiting, controlled access and the developer-friendly portal experience that are the hallmarks of a real Web API, in a SaaS platform. The fact that it is cloud-based means that smaller groups will be able to focus on delivering the solution without diving deep into hosting and implementation details.

Amidst all the decision making, strategizing and private API launches, the steady drum beat of progress towards open APIs in the enterprise has not stopped. The idea that information and services need to be shared in order to be valuable is taking root amongst thought leaders in the mainstream technology world and is, in turn, being heard within the enterprise. For example, Gartner has just published a research article claiming that financial institutions should be investing in APIs rather than applications (with API Management technology addressing the issues around control). Just as online banking started with private connections before it eventually landed on the public Web, the big banks could shift from private API adoption to public API adoption very quickly if the market demanded it. When banks open up their services for controlled consumption, there will be little doubt that the open API era has arrived for the enterprise.

It hasn’t gotten any easier to become an open API enterprise over the last three months but it certainly isn’t becoming less important. Hopefully, continued improvements in API Management technology will make that shift just a little bit easier.

October 24th, 2012

Improving the API Developer Experience

Developer ExperienceSometimes design concepts are obvious. We know they are implicitly understood and don’t require drawn-out explanations. But sometimes these implicitly-understood concepts aren’t executed in real life because they haven’t been explicitly defined. I’ve come to the realization that designing APIs with the developer in mind is one of those ideas that often has an audience nodding their heads but which only a few take to heart and apply to their API architectures.

We in the API design world have a great opportunity to learn from our brethren in the product design world. The user-centered design approach for products has paid great dividends for those who can understand and apply the idea to their interfaces. The goal is almost stupid in simplicity – design products that your users will enjoy. But, as always, the challenge is in translating a simple concept into real strategies, methodologies and practices that do not lose that fundamental goal while staying applicable to unique marketplaces.

In our world of API design, most of us understand that machine-to-machine integration still involves a human – the developer who develops the client code. That developer – the one who makes or breaks us by deciding to use an API – is our user. While product designers talk about improving user experience, we talk about improving the developer experience.

But how does this actually happen? What do we specifically need to do in order to create APIs that are enjoyable to use? Indeed, what does enjoyable even mean in this context? This developer/API publisher relationship is a unique one and the product-based, user-centered design and human/computer interaction models cannot just be airlifted in. They need to be massaged and transformed so they are applicable to the Web API world, without losing the potential value inherent in a user-focused design.

I hope to explore these ideas over the coming months and come up with recommendations for how we can build API solutions that deliver on the promise of improved developer experience (or DX). I’ll dive deeper into the world of user-centered design and discuss methods for translating these concepts from the world of product design into our API design domain.

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.

August 3rd, 2012

Standards, APIs & WAC

Wholesale Applications Community LogoGigaOM recently ran a piece opining the demise of the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) after only a couple of years on the scene. The article complained that something like the WAC effort is needed and suggested that, given the nature of the industry and the players involved, it’s not likely to happen. However, what the author failed to notice was that the WAC’s attempted solution was way off the mark.

The WAC’s key failure was that it attempted to standardize the wrong thing: the API. This is a common problem that occurs repeatedly. GigaOm readers may recall another example of industry-level standards going astray, summarized in the “Cloudstack-Openstack Dustup” piece from April. I suspect several readers can call to mind similar cases in the not-too-distant past. Such cases usually share a common theme: disagreement on the details of the API.

The solution is right at hand but few see it. The right way to go is to standardize the way messages are designed and shared, not the data points and actions themselves. In other words, the key to successful shared standardization is through media-types and protocols. This is especially true for any communication over HTTP but it holds true for standards operating over any application-level protocol.

We don’t need to look too far to see an example of an industry-led standardization success. VoiceXML was started by AT&T, IBM, Lucent and Motorola as a way to standardize interactive voice system communications. Not long after the first markup was defined in 1999 (a process which took a matter of a few months), the standard was turned over to the W3C for continued growth and refinement.

The goals of VoiceXML were strikingly similar to those of the WAC and Cloudstack/Openstack efforts: defining an interoperable standard that could be used across an industry group. The difference in the case of VoiceXML was that the committee focused on message design and domain-specific details shared by all players. It did not attempt to document all the data elements, function calls and workflows to be used in lockstep by all.

Most likely, the WAC meltdown won’t be the last one we’ll see. But this is not the inevitable result of competing interests in the global marketplace. This is a result of well-meaning people aiming at the wrong target. We can do better. We can learn from successful interface designs and focus on making it possible to consistently communicate a wide range of information freely instead of attempting to constrain systems to a single set of possible interactions.

The future of an effective Web, a growing and vibrant distributed network, rests in the hands of those who would take on the task of writing the vital standards that will make it work. I look forward to seeing more efforts where the focus is on improving communication between parties through well-designed message formats instead of on limiting communication though constrained APIs.