The boom in the development of interconnected hardware, artificial intelligence and other impressive pieces of technology bear testament to how vital APIs are, and how much more important they will become in the near future.
In the past, API design was typically consumer-centric, which meant it only came after a company had already developed a data-rich application and then decided to provide a way for all the data to be accessed by developers through an API. However, in the past few years there has been a gradual shift in the approach companies use in mobile and web development with more and more companies opting for what is called an API-first software development strategy, which has a lot of advantages and potential benefits. First, let’s delve into what API-first software development is before discussing the reasons why trying it out is important.
What is API-first software development?
Many companies used to consider building an API for their website, web apps or mobile apps as a side project for third-party developers or for the purpose of integration. In most cases, the API and the app were considered two separate channels. However, those companies soon realized that approach resulted in a poorly tested and badly put together artificial API. To curb this problem, a better approach was developed to build the web or mobile app on top of the API which is built first. By doing this, you end up with a more versatile and well-built API, which can then be used as a framework for a more practical and developer-friendly application.
Basically, API-first software development means building an API based on the developer’s interests first before building the project on top of it. An API-first approach is applicable for website development, mobile, and web applications as well as SaaS software. The strategy not only helps you save a lot of time and effort on your project, but also lays a solid foundation on which others can build.
The task of building a cloud-native application is more than a single person project, beginning with checking your codes and then moving into the repository and development of services that will interact with the code. Multiple teams will have to work on your project both on the front-end and back-end, all of them building horizontally dependent services. With all your teams working at different paces, a lack of discipline and guiding framework can cause integration failures in the long run.
However, with an API-first software development approach, your teams can work hand-in-hand with each other without getting in the way or tampering with the apps’ internal development scheme, thus avoiding or reducing the possibility of failures. More so, the API-first strategy works for less complicated development ecosystems as well. There are a lot of advantages to starting your project on the API-level, some of which are discussed below.
Benefits of an API-first strategy
When making the decision to start building an API, some critical questions need to be answered as an integral part of the planning phase of the project. To start, you have to establish the rationale behind building an API in the first place, you need to identify who the target audience is for your project, and what vision you have in place for it. With all of these points established during the planning stage, you also need to consider the benefits of starting your software development with an API-first strategy before going into the design phase and creating the API’s architectural framework.
A clean-slate approach
One of the most apparent advantages of using an API-first design is how easy it is to create the API and the app that will depend on it, with little or no consideration of any existing IT framework. With an API-first strategy, the stakeholders working on the project can consult and collaborate in a bid to design, implement and eventually document a well-built and preplanned API even before setting up the application and all the channels that will make use of it. This means there are virtually no constraints to the development process, and the IT infrastructure to be built on it can be twisted to suit the API rather than compromise standard design as is usually the case with developing the app first. With this approach, it is quite easy to mock up an API and get feedback from all the stakeholders involved before going ahead with the design phase of the project. This ensures that the final design is a service that is actually able to deliver according to the desire of the stakeholders and the needs of the final consumers.
Today, we live in a multi-screen world where companies and organizations are finding it harder than ever to deliver applications that perform consistently across all devices and platforms. An API-first strategy makes it possible – and a lot easier – to build just a single app on top of an API layer that can serve different applications on various platforms and still deliver efficiently with high-end cross-compatibility. This approach, apart from making development easy, also makes the process of maintaining and updating apps easy across all platforms whether native or web-based and on mobile and non-mobile platforms.
This is one of the essential features of an API. For seamless usage, it is necessary that the API is easily understood by the stakeholders that will be making use of it even if they were not involved in its creations. This means clear and comprehensive documentation which makes the API entirely consumable and understandable to humans.
An API-first approach makes it easy to present structured documentation, which follows a standardized pattern of resource types, headers, request parameters, response formats and so on. This makes the process of exploring and understanding the functionalities of your API easier even as it grows.
In addition to following standardized formats, an API-first design approach also makes it possible to clearly document deviations from standards when they are inevitable.
Adaptable to change
While many companies might consider it harder to treat an API independently from the implementation of the app, an API-first approach makes it possible to decouple the process of app implementation and API development. This way, your API isn’t merely a thin unimportant layer after your implementation, but rather a separate contract and specification upon which the implementation depends.
The result of the API-first approach is adaptability to change and optimization as your application evolves. You won’t have to make changes to your API; Instead, your apps grows slowly and deliberately as more functionalities are added, thus making room for greater flexibility and growth. Although change is unavoidable, planning for your API evolution before the process of application implementation begins is an excellent way to reduce the probability of a change that may break the system.
There was a time when the idea of building a successful business on just an API was a foreign and totally outlandish idea. You needed a fully-bred application as a complete product to offer before you could say that you were in business.
Today, we see not just API-first companies but even API-only. Successful businesses such as Strip, Twilio, etc. offer nothing more than just API as their sole product which is an indication and definitive proof of how important API can be. At this rate, the relevance and popularity of API-first will probably grow beyond imagination in the next few years.
With all of these advantages, it is easy to conclude that an API-first software development approach is indeed a great idea. But this isn’t to say it is without limitations or possible downsides. While the blank-slate approach is obviously appealing, there are some challenges that companies who adopt an API-first strategy have to deal with too. One major problem is the absence of a real-world context for every project. This means at the end of the day, it is possible to come up with an API that isn’t really able to deliver the functionalities needed to solve the problems it’s meant to address.
This is one of the many other possible limitations of an API-first approach.
An API-first approach is a practice that didn’t exist at all until a few years ago. Today, the word API is gradually going mainstream. Thus, companies who want to consider this approach are finding it a lot easier to identify practical examples that serve as viable sources of inspiration, as well as a good number of potential users.
Of course, we cannot wholly strike out the consumer-first approach that is still very much in use today. But with time, we can expect more and more companies to start trying out the API-first approach. Hopefully, they get it right and perfect it in the long run.
Want to learn more? Read about the commercetools' API-first solution.