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API tools create a new networking economy

As enterprises and vendors increasingly collaborate to strengthen networks, both sides recognize the need for flexible, robust API tools that help enable development.

Nationwide Insurance, a strong proponent of APIs, sees digitization as the future to enable its business. To that end, the $43 billion financial services corporation has focused on establishing a robust API portal that external developers can use to integrate Nationwide's online services into their own apps as well as to learn what's available and how to interact with API tools.

According to Michael Carrel, senior vice president and CIO of enterprise applications, at Nationwide, based in Columbus, Ohio, is aiming for an "API-first" mindset. "All IT professionals should understand how to consume and create APIs and how to apply them to the digital ecosystem."

APIs define the correct way for a developer to write a program that requests services from an operating system or other application. While API tools have always been an essential part of development, today's integration demands -- fueled by the shift to digitization -- are forcing vendors of all sizes to expose their APIs. The result: Enterprises are able to control applications so they can meet their requirements and not be hamstrung by how vendors might want their software to be used.

Digitization demands technology that integrates both internally developed and externally sourced, packaged APIs, Carrel said. "We can use [APIs] to create value for our members and partners."

For Nationwide, this is more of a mindset shift to a microservices architecture enabled by API tools. "We need to strengthen our ability to identify creative API opportunities and develop them with a microservices frame of mind," he said.

Enterprises and vendors are in a tremendous push-pull when it comes to APIs. Enterprises demand more flexibility in how devices and applications are configured, managed and integrated with existing systems. They are asking vendors to provide a robust set of API tools. At the same time, while loosening their grip over their systems, vendors want to know enterprises can handle the development needs that go along with APIs.

"APIs have become table stakes, with everyone opening up their systems as far as they can, as fast as they can," said Teren Bryson, a Seattle-based engineering consultant. "However, there is this idea that APIs are this magical thing that will help you go to market and all will be sunny."

He said it's a little more complicated than that and requires a lot more thought on the part of vendors and enterprises.

In the new API economy, according to a report by analysis firm Gartner, APIs "make it easier to integrate and connect people, places, systems, data, things and algorithms, create new user experiences, share data and information, authenticate people and things, enable transactions and algorithms, leverage third-party algorithms, and create new products, services and business models."

From IT pro to pro-API

Forrester Research predicted that by 2020, spending on API management software will reach $660 million, a significant leap from $140 million in 2014.

As the API momentum hits full steam, enterprises must be ready. But what will be the impact on IT professionals? Some believe IT pros will have to become API experts to reap the full benefits. Others are pushing back on vendors to make APIs simpler.

Nationwide's Carrel said IT pros should learn how to use APIs. "APIs are the new application economy. We've deployed an internal approach through a digital enablement program to ensure our associates are prepared and trained to deliver upon these new expectations."

Ed Addario, CTO of London-based Currencycloud, a cloud-based global payments platform, took a different view. Addario said he does not believe IT pros need to become API pros because there is so much choice in the market. "If an enterprise finds an API too complex to use, they should try a different provider," he said. "Today, there are so many API providers in the space, and democratization of services is at the heart of an API. Enterprises can have their pick and find the API that's best for them -- one that's easy, flexible and adds value to the business."

Bryson said the necessity for a full development team is wholly dependent on the business case. For instance, if you are simply automating day-to-day tasks, then you can tap knowledge that currently exists on the team, send your team to class or have them learn about APIs on their own.

"If you're planning on full-blown automation development using Amazon Web Services or other platforms, you're going to need more than a network engineer who has learned to code or a software engineer who understands networks," he said. "At scale, you'll probably need help from systems integrators."

API tools bridge the gap

Addario has found that enterprises with a more complex business need than a vendor API package can cover tend to bring development in-house, reinventing the wheel, which increases labor and time requirements as well as costs for the business.

Instead, enterprises should look to collaborate with API vendors. "If an enterprise finds an API that gives them 80% of what they need but is missing a specific feature, they should talk to the API provider," Addario said. He added that API companies are always looking for what value they can bring to the market.

Enterprises also can bridge the gap by asking for advice from user groups specific to that vendor and product or through a customer advisory board, according to Todd Loeppke, lead CTO architect at custom IT services provider Sungard Availability Services in Wayne, Pa. "If you are a significant customer for that vendor, then asking to be a part of their customer advisory board is an effective way to collaborate and impact the future direction of third-party software," he said.

Nationwide's Carrel agreed, saying that the answers don't have to be one-size-fits-all. "We can go to where the capability exists and integrate with numerous vendor packages across multiple functionality domains to solve a business need," he said. "If my business needs are more complex than what can be procured through multiple API integrations, we'll use a variety of tactics, including influencing vendors to expose application functionality through additional APIs, partnering to deliver a more intricate package with new functionality or supplementing with API services of our own."

API deployment time up in the air

The complexity of the environment dictates the timeframe, according to Sudheer Matta, vice president of product management at Mist Systems, a cloud-managed wireless service company based in Cupertino, Calif.

"In some simpler environments, we have seen APIs integrated in a few hours," he said. Brand new technology stretches to 45 to 60 days. "It truly depends how sophisticated you want to get with APIs. If all you are doing is monitoring, that is much easier compared to automated site bring-up via APIs." He added that to facilitate the process, Mist provides sample scripts, documentation and online forums where customers can compare notes, exchange ideas and share code.

Addario agreed that complexity is the prime determinant. "If you're dealing with an API that's moving money like Currencycloud, you'll want to make sure that the framework, security, compliance and regulation are all in place," he said. Since the promise behind APIs is quick delivery and service, however, he advised that if the implementation time is not measured in days or weeks, then enterprises should reconsider "if their API provider is solving a problem or actually creating one."

Vendors as API partners

"Vendors expect that if enterprises ask for APIs, they will have the resources ready and lined up to consume the APIs they provision," said Preston So, development manager at Boston-based web content management system provider Acquia. In addition, he said, vendors expect that enterprises themselves will adopt an API-first strategy, where APIs are the first consideration in development, not the last.

Carlos Aragon, director for solutions marketing for Kandy and unified communications at Genband, a communications applications provider based in Frisco, Texas, called a full development team a great way to squeeze the most out of API tools, but he also said that is unrealistic for a large portion of the market. Companies that do have full development teams often find that their skill sets may not be in tune with the latest API technologies or are resource-constrained. Therefore, he advised vendors to provide shortcuts that help enterprises from having to start from scratch with APIs.

Be prepared to "mash up," Aragon warned. "In such a fast-changing environment, it's unlikely that a single vendor's API will cover all the enterprise's needs."

Vikas Anand, vice president of product marketing and strategy for Oracle's integration, process and API management cloud services, believes the onus is on IT to become API pros. Although Oracle, which purchased API management vendor Apiary in January, has a platform that helps businesses with API design, development and documentation, Anand said IT teams still need a high level of API skills.

From a technical perspective, that includes web-based programming languages; microservices; representational state transfer, or REST; and JavaScript Object Notation, or JSON. Culturally, the development team and the business should adopt that API-first mentality, he said. "Remember, the API itself could be a product." For example, a transit bus service can expose its fleet tracking system via an API to an application that lets commuters know when to expect their bus to arrive. Doing so will enhance the commuter experience and improve adoption of public transit services, he said.

Acquia's So said many IT professionals already have become API pros in that the tools they use have become more API-driven. He pointed to business intelligence tools, saying they require strong knowledge of their APIs to extract compelling data to produce reports or guide data-driven decisions. 

Next Steps

The essential API management strategy

What does API mean for developers?

Getting started with API management

This was last published in August 2017

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