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Your business might be using APIs, but is it really taking an API-first approach?

Application programming interfaces, or APIs, have been around for decades, but it’s only in the past few years that the concept of being “API-first” has really started to emerge. Today’s digital ecosystem is powered by APIs, and because they’re so ubiquitous many businesses fall into the trap of thinking that because they’re predominantly leveraging APIs in website development they must be “API-first”, but that’s rarely the case.

An API, of course, is a way to let one application obtain data from another, making them interoperable to some extent. It’s what allows one application to communicate with another, and it’s the cornerstone of the modern customer experience. Linked accounts and joined-up customer experiences depend on API integration to allow them to share data securely with one another. APIs also allow retail businesses like yours to take advantage of new functionality by integrating it into your existing applications instead of having to develop it from the ground up. 

The majority of businesses take advantage of APIs in the ways mentioned above, but that does not make them API-first. Using APIs as an effective integration tool is all but unavoidable in the modern digital era, but re-shaping your development and deployment strategies around the use of APIs is where the real benefit lies. This is what countless businesses are missing out on when they consider themselves “API-first”. In this article, we’ll explain what it means to truly be API-first and what it can do for your online retail business. 

What are the different types of APIs?

As we referenced in the introduction, static APIs certainly aren’t a new technology. They’re there to bridge the gap between disparate applications and have been doing that job admirably for the past few decades. These APIs were added to monolithic applications as an afterthought, or as a necessary evil, but were never intended to be the primary way to use the software. Software monoliths were created with all the logic wrapped up on the inside and used proprietary methods for accessing the logic that was hidden inside the monolith. If and when APIs were added, there were only a handful of them and they were only designed to allow access to a small subset of the logic, and this subset was usually only what was necessary to get essential data in and out of the monolith.   

Modern APIs, sometimes referred to simply as “web APIs” are quite the opposite. They aren’t added as an afterthought, and they are not a subset of the functionality. Instead they allow access to all of the application capability and provide a means for developers to compose a loosely coupled system, which allows developers to take a more modular approach to how they develop and integrate new services. Traditional APIs are only designed to achieve a specific goal. Modern web APIs, on the other hand, are more flexible and can be manipulated to fit seamlessly into many different slots. Modern web APIs often deliver XML or JSON, which means they can even bridge the gap between brand new applications and old legacy ones - making them the API of choice for modern businesses looking to scale their services and evolve their technology.

What’s the difference between using APIs and an API-first approach? 

We’re living in an API-first world, and it’s imperative that businesses start developing like it. New technology trends have a habit of coming and going, but the ones that stick often scale quickly and become an intrinsic part of our digital ecosystem. That’s certainly the case with APIs and it’s why the term “API-first” has become so popular. But what is it? How can your business achieve it? More importantly, what does your business stand to benefit from it? 

An API-first approach puts APIs ahead of implementation in the rank of priorities when it comes to developing and deploying new services. Instead of creating a piece of software or service to fulfill a particular need and then “patching it” with APIs to make it compatible with other services and broaden its usefulness, an API-first approach puts interoperability first rather than as an afterthought. So instead of ending up with one giant beast of interconnected monoliths, your business can instead focus on creating a dynamic, joined-up and truly compatible solution that grows and scales with demand, without ever becoming overly cumbersome. 

This approach will allow your business to develop new solutions in parallel, consolidating common functionality and resources for different applications at the service layer. That means your retail business will be able to work on different front-ends at the same time - from mobile apps and smart speakers to device-optimized websites - all safe in the knowledge that the APIs you will need to make them “talk” are already there and ready to be leveraged. This open-ended and flexible API-first approach will accelerate the time-to-market when it comes to rolling out new services, allowing your business to respond to competitors quickly and decisively without sacrificing security or cutting corners. 

An API-first approach simply gives your retail business more options when it comes to scaling up and evolving services. We live in an age where standards - particularly in e-commerce - are constantly being rewritten, sending customer expectations soaring. By adopting an API-first approach to development, your business can ensure it has the agility to meet these rapidly changing expectations and not only stay relevant in the market, but help to shape it. 

Find out how you could be a part of this with Emporix today.

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