In Praise of Open APIs

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APIs provide the building blocks that make it easy for applications to talk to each other. As the use of APIs has become mainstream, the industry is seeing a movement toward open APIs. An open approach enables efficient development of all the online services we now take for granted.

In May 2016, Singapore’s oldest bank, OCBC Bank, laid claim to being “the first bank in Southeast Asia to launch an open Application Programming Interface (API) platform.” The bank said the API platform would “allow software developers—whatever their focus, from fintech to lifestyle—to access OCBC Bank’s products and services in a fast and seamless manner.” At launch, the bank’s Connect2OCBC platform offered access to four open APIs, including ones that provide the locations of the bank’s branches and ATMs.

As the OCBC Bank examples indicate, APIs are a means through which one program can exchange data with another, without the author of either program understanding the intricacies of the other.

Many systems use multiple APIs. For example, if you use a travel Web site to book an airline ticket, APIs feed details of the airline’s schedule from the airline’s application to those of the travel Web site. Then, if you book a flight, APIs take your details to the airline’s reservation and ticketing applications and pass information back to the travel Web site’s applications.

The APIs of the Connect2OCBC platform are open, which means they are free for anyone to use and based on open standards. In addition, open APIs often provide links to open data.

For what might seem a fairly esoteric initiative, the OCBC Bank announcement attracted a large amount of press coverage; it was reported by the Straits Times, ZDNet, Business Times, Asian Banking & Finance, and others. Why should the introduction of open APIs by a bank generate so much interest?

An Aid to Regional Investment

An answer can perhaps be found in the paper “A Paradigm Shift Toward an Open Platform Economy in Asia – Mobilizing AIIB Resources for Cross-Border Cooperation in the Region” from Gongpil Choi of the Korea Institute of Finance. AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), which was created in December 2015, plans to support the building of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region.

Choi writes:

The platform-based API will be a default paradigm of the future growth where participants share and cooperate extensively to create new values … Going forward, investment in an open, digital platform and API infrastructure will be more important than building physical infrastructure. The future of the economy will greatly depend on “connectivity” across different industries.

Not surprisingly, any technology to enhance connectivity across different industries needs to be standardized. To this end, the Open API Initiative was created under the auspices of the Linux Foundation in November 2015. The initiative aims to create an open technical community within which members can easily contribute to building a vendor-neutral, portable, and open specification for APIs that will “allow both humans and computers to discover and understand the capabilities of the respective services with a minimal amount of implementation logic.”

APIs at the Heart of the Data Center

While APIs underpin many of today’s online services, they are just as essential under the hood of IT. Developers of next-generation applications have embraced a model of accessing data center infrastructure through APIs. They use APIs to provision their applications, APIs to scale those applications up and down, and APIs to release resources when they are done.

For efficiency, developers of modern applications don’t want to deal with the details of the underlying data center infrastructure directly. They would rather leverage a framework that layers on top of that infrastructure. These frameworks, such as the VMware® Integrated OpenStack distribution, are often based on open standards and open source software. Open frameworks are popular because they facilitate creating ecosystems of associated tools and libraries. They also have the potential to offer significantly improved workload portability across diverse types of infrastructure.

Ultimately, open APIs enable agility by helping developers build and modify applications more quickly , thereby allowing the business to rapidly realize and respond to new opportunities. That’s critical in today’s digitally driven world, where enterprises must effectively transform into software companies to innovate and differentiate themselves through applications and services.

 

Photo credit: iStock.com/annabaek

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