The Role of APIs in the Digital Enterprise

Ed Julson, Senior Product Manager, TIBCO Software
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Ed Julson, Senior Product Manager, TIBCO Software

There’s a movement a foot in the enterprise software world that is having a major impact on how we think about building and using applications. Companies are now aggressively building application programming interfaces (APIs) to provide new ways to deliver information to the edge of the enterprise and beyond. This is now considered a core requirement for companies embarking on a digital business transformation.  

“Enterprises are also finding APIs to be a very cost-effective way to provide self-service access points for channel partners, supply chain participants, and internal developers”

A key force driving this shift is the growing importance of mobile applications. Sometimes this is driven by the needs of an increasingly mobile workforce, and sometimes it’s more of an opportunistic approach to find new ways to engage with customers and new routes to market. APIs make it possible to connect across business and technology boundaries to deliver data and capabilities where they are needed, when they are needed.

Unlike prior approaches to building APIs (think SOAP), this newer generation of RESTful APIs are lightweight, developer-friendly, and well suited to the high performance needs of mobile applications and highly distributed networks.  

But the API surge is not just about mobility. Enterprises are also finding APIs to be a very cost-effective way to provide self-service access points for channel partners, supply chain participants, and internal developers. The opportunities for both top-line and bottom-line benefits are motivating a lot of companies to experiment, and it also turns out that APIs are a good way to open up access to legacy applications. It’s a lot more cost effective to add functionality by writing an external service called through an API than it is to hack around in an old monolithic application.

The real wild card and potential game-changer, though, is the Internet of Things (IoT). Over the next decade, as the IoT matures, almost everything that spins, moves, or plugs into an electrical outlet will become web connected with a digital heartbeat. It is estimated by industry analysts that there will be up to 50-billion connected devices in the world by 2020.

The first 20 years of Internet development has been mostly consumer targeted, but the next round of innovation is going to be focused on driving large-scale instrumentation and connectivity into the industrial world. Discreet and process manufacturing, transportation and logistics, medicine, and power generation are just a few examples of where this is already happening today.

Not only is the sheer number of IoT devices unprecedented, they will also be hyper-connected—to servers for providing or consuming data, and to each other creating networks of machines that use complex analytics and algorithms to optimize their collective operation. And this will largely be happening in real time.

And What enables all of this Connectivity?

Of course, there’s a need for a high-performance messaging layer to move all of the data around, but the actual enabler for connectivity will come in the form of APIs. Whether that happens at the device level, or through an abstraction layer that devices connect to, depends on the nature of the devices and the applications to which they connect.

Bottom line: there will be APIs for mobile access, APIs for partner and supply chain access, APIs to enhance the customer experience, APIs for third-party developer use, and APIs for the internal teams who will build these loosely coupled and distributed IoT applications. You can do the math. That’s a lot of APIs.

What I’m leading up to here is that the explosion of APIs is going to require a pretty robust API management solution to handle all of this complexity. Depending on the business you’re in and the use cases you have to support, your needs will vary. But you’ll almost certainly need at least the following capabilities:

• An easy way to discover APIs and understand how they work
• A policy-based framework to control security, access, and runtime attributes
• Analytics capabilities to monitor and align IT capacity with API usage
• Management of the diverse API user communities (internal and external)
• Ability to easily integrate with your existing applications and middleware

Most companies are not starting from scratch in their use of APIs as they transform into digital businesses. Many have been building APIs over the past decade in the service of enterprise service bus (ESB) and service-oriented architecture (SOA) investments. These organizations have deep portfolios of existing SOAP APIs, and it’s important to tap into these assets and drive reuse where possible, avoiding the expense and lost productivity of building a new set of REST APIs that essentially do the same thing and access the same data.

This brings me to my final point. Building bridges between core IT (which runs the business) and IT at the edge (which transforms the business)requires a robust set of integration and API management capabilities, ideally in a single integrated platform. Integration platforms are designed to handle API interoperability and provide operations mapping, payload transformations, micro-services architecture, and choreography needs that bridge these different IT domains.

The digital enterprise is not a specific thing that you can draw on a whiteboard: it’s a state of mind. It’s the recognition of a new reality wherein the rate of change is not going to slow down and barriers to entry for markets will continue to drop. The companies that will compete the best in this century will be those that are good at building dynamic, agile ecosystems of products, services, and partners. APIs will help them do it.

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