May 18th, 2012

The Secret Lives of REST APIs

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Netflix APIThe recent enterprise acceptance of lightweight REST-based protocols for exposing data and application assets as APIs has been due, in large part, to the simplicity of the resulting interfaces. This simplicity means there is little barrier to entry for developers wishing to consume these APIs in applications built for mobile, Web, desktop, Cloud and gaming platforms. However, as this article from Netflix’s Daniel Jacobson reveals, simplicity can’t be the only goal when designing an API. Flexibility, scalability, optimization, orchestration and adaptation are just a few of the features required in a successful API infrastructure.

At Layer 7, our enterprise customers build incredibly elegant API platforms using our API management technology. Our solutions recognize that one size does not fit all and we provide the tools to adapt to changing requirements without re-architecting new APIs from scratch. Though we certainly support the simple “large number of known and unknown developers” use case Jacobson describes – with robust, scalable technology deployed on a wide variety of hardware, virtual, software and Cloud platforms – we can also address the specific concerns raised by the variety of devices and environments in Netflix’s ecosystem.

Message size, structure and delivery constraints due to device variation represent a large part of the problem. Layer 7 Gateways support the relevant formats and transports and can perform message transformation and protocol mediation on the fly. Policy-based configuration enables custom “virtual” APIs tailored to each device, community of developers or calling application. These format and behavioral changes can be explicit or can be triggered by user identity, app permissions, message content or transaction metadata. Even more complex mediations, such as REST exposure of internal SOAP-based assets, are simple to configure and help to reduce re-implementation costs.

Interaction models can also be optimized and tailored to the calling platform. Composition of comprehensive document-based APIs from multiple backend calls can reduce chatty client interactions. Conversely, small messages from memory-constrained devices can be aggregated into larger, less frequent backend calls. Mobile traffic can be optimized using persistent HTTP(S) connections and over-the-wire compression. And content can be cached at any level of granularity, using an in-memory cache like Terracotta, to reduce the number of calls to the application backend.

As director of one of the world’s most broadly adopted public APIs, Jacobson’s most profound observation is that “public APIs are waning in popularity and business opportunity and… the internal use case is the wave of the future.” API infrastructure needs to support everyone – open API developers, internal coders, contracted development teams and partner groups – especially as mobile workforce enablement and BYOD gain popularity. Layer 7 solutions allow enterprises to make that distinction clear through public vs. private APIs, configurable classes of service and role-based access control.

Jacobson mentions several piecemeal solutions that he and others have attempted to compile into a working platform but notes that those approaches still fall short. Providing an enterprise-grade REST API is no simple feat and it’s great that the truth of the matter is starting to come out. The benefits of a successful API strategy are numerous and well-documented. Layer 7 is the only vendor providing an API management solution that incorporates all the basic necessary functionality and much, much more.

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