What Makes a Good Enterprise API?

Loraine Lawson

For my money, one of the most promising strategic integration discussions right now centers on how organizations can learn from the Web's use of open APIs for collaboration and integration.


API stands for "application programming interface," but that tells you little about how important APIs have become. APIs are a way for software to share information or functionality and, in a proprietary form, they've been around in enterprise applications for a long time. What the Web added is the concept of Open APIs, which basically means anyone can access the API and use its information or capabilities, hence the term "open."


Open APIs are fast, easy and have done wonders for the likes of Twitter, Facebook, eBay and other big-name Web companies. Open APIs are even attracting attention outside of IT: Mashable.com recently featured an article explaining why every brand should have an API. (That said, with recent API problems in the news, I wouldn't base my entire business on someone else's API.)


It's taking a while for enterprises to work out how to apply this concept, but as Dion Hinchcliffe shares, there are signs that's changing.


Hinchcliffe is the executive vice president of strategy at Dachis Group. He also writes for ZDNet, ebizQ and Social Computing Journal, and he's been writing about the value of open APIs for years now.


In a recent post, he reports that NetworkedHelpDesk.org - an association for the customer service industry - recently unveiled a new API designed to connect customer service applications. Its API is designed to provide a lightweight method for integrating different kinds of customer care systems in a supply chain, writes Hinchcliffe. So far, 18 vendors have signed on, including SugarCRM, Pivotal Labs and Twilio.


The first half of Hinchcliffe's post is devoted to explaining this new API and why it matters. He seems impressed with the effort, largely because he believes the NetworkedHelpDesk.org API builds on what we've learned from the Web.


It sounds like a great development for call centers and CRM, but what I found more interesting is Hinchcliffe's list of success factors for modern enterprise APIs. Hinchcliffe says to be successful, enterprise APIs will need to be:

  • Simple. "The chance of a standard ... being adopted is inversely proportion[al] to its complexity, so shorter is better," he writes. "Simple is also more scalable in today's deeply connected, cloud-based, ecosystem-oriented world."
  • Based on existing standards. You shouldn't reinvent the wheel unless you really have no other option, he contends. This means using established standards such as JSON, XML, HTTPS, REST, etc.
  • Consumable by browser and smart mobile devices.
  • Aimed at a common and recurring problem. "I'm always wary of any API that is too special purpose (because it can't be broadly reused in many situations)," writes Hinchcliffe.
  • Web-oriented. Hinchcliffe lists a number of reasons why it's important for APIs to be Web-friendly, including scalability.
  • Accommodating of social media standards.


Because I write about integration, I focus on that when I talk about APIs. But as Hinchcliffe points out, this is about more than just "plumbing." It's about connecting IT systems to support collaboration, and it's about making that easier. Be sure to check out his full column - approximately four pages in length - to learn more about APIs.

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