Diagram showing direct database access vs. REST APIs

When developers build applications, they need to think about how they will connect their products to data sources. Direct database access vs. REST APIs: which should you pick? Both currently stand out as two of the most popular options. Let’s explore the pros and cons of each so you can determine whether API-led connectivity serves your needs.

Here are 5 things to know about direct database access and REST APIs:

  • Direct Database Access and REST APIs are two popular methods for application connectivity.
  • REST APIs offer flexibility, compatibility, and security, but can stress servers.
  • Direct Database Access is simpler and useful for prototypes, but has security concerns.
  • The choice between the two depends on the scale, security needs, and database complexity.
  • Alternatives to REST APIs include GraphQL API, FALCOR, and gRPC.

Table of Contents:

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What Is Direct Database Access for Application Connectivity?

Direct database access lets client applications connect directly with databases and request information. For example, people using mobile apps designed to provide driving directions might ask for instructions to reach a specific destination. The app would send the query to a database, which would return real-time driving directions to the user.

Most of the work takes place in the backend, so users never see the underlying processes that deliver information to their apps. It’s a relatively straightforward approach to client-server connections that can produce results quickly.

How Do REST APIs Offer Application Connectivity?

REST (representational state transfer) APIs (application programming interfaces) add levels to the process of requesting data. It’s often a necessary approach when the app developer doesn’t own the database(s) users need to access. For example, if you want to get price estimates for flights from NYC to LA, you could ask a web application to give you that information.

Fulfilling your request relies on pulling data from databases owned by several airlines. That forces the app to issue API requests, also known as API calls, to the databases before they can compare rates and give the user results.

It’s also possible for developers to use REST APIs to connect applications to databases they control.

The Pros and Cons of REST API Connectivity

Like any technology, relying on REST API connectivity to databases has its pros and cons.

Pros of REST API Connectivity

Some of the most noteworthy advantages of using APIs include:

  • Options to generate REST endpoints for a range of connections, including data, schema, stored procedures, and functions.
  • Ability to interact with several programming languages, including JSON, Java, JavaScript (JS), and GraphQL, an open-source data query language built for APIs.
  • Security features with Open Authorization (OAuth) and other authentication standards that let you control who can access specific APIs and, therefore, databases.
  • Front-end reusability that lets you apply existing APIs to other web apps, web services, microservices, and mobile apps.
  • Flexibility to work with multiple data formats.
  • Load balancing that reduces latency and prevents databases from trying to process too many queries at once.
  • Options to give users a uniform interface regardless of what data their queries require.
  • Scalability that can adjust to trends in usage, saving you money without affecting the user’s experience.
  • Easy integration with most business intelligence (BI) tools.
  • Private domain name system (DNS) names and private APIs that restrict access to authorized users.

It’s important to note that the benefits of API access could depend on the types of REST API protocols you have. Open APIs, partner APIs, and private APIs can give you different levels of access to databases. They can also charge different prices, which will ultimately play an important role in how you serve users and generate revenues.

Furthermore, not all APIs fall under the REST umbrella. If you don’t currently rely on REST architecture, you might use:

  • SOAP (simple object access protocol)
  • XML-RPC (extensible markup language and remote procedure call)
  • JSON-RPC (JavaScript object notation and remote procedure call)

If you want to use more REST APIs, you can utilize DreamFactory to convert SOAP into REST. Otherwise, your team members can expect to face a fairly steep learning curve.

Cons of REST API Connectivity

Server-side scripting can offer several benefits, especially when you want to add business logic to your APIs, create custom logic, call multiple APIs, and use more scripting engines.

On the other hand, server-side scripting can put a lot of stress on the server. If you don’t set the right data exchange limitations, API queries could slow processes and harm user experiences.

Secondarily, HTTP requests and HTTPS requests from web APIs can include a lot of information databases don’t consider necessary. Depending on the number and sizes of requests at a given moment, databases might fail to respond to queries.

The Pros and Cons of Direct Database Access

Given the numerous reasons to use REST APIs, there are instances when it makes sense to give apps direct database access. The challenges, however, can quickly outweigh the benefits.

Pros of Direct Database Access

It’s very simple to connect an app directly to a database — as long as your application has authorization to query the database, of course. It’s relatively easy to create URLs that target a specific database, issue requests, and receive return information.

More likely than not, you would apply this approach to use cases when you want to build prototypes. You could also distribute them to authorized users within your organization. You probably would not want the public to access the app, though, because doing so would give them nearly unrestricted access to the data set the app relies on.

Cons of Direct Database Access

Developers and stakeholders might balk at the idea of giving apps direct database access because experts have discovered so many potential disadvantages. Some of those disadvantages include:

  • Needing to implement multiple database layers instead of reusing front-end REST APIs.
  • Connecting to multiple databases directly could pose challenges unless you use an ETL or similar solution to put data in one place.
  • Worrying about security issues instead of restricting access via an API dashboard.
  • Ongoing security concerns since potential attackers could have direct access to the database’s code.

While you might want to use direct database access within a controlled environment, the benefits quickly wear thin when you distribute your apps more widely.

Which Approach Serves Your Needs Better?

If you want to build an app prototype before committing to a larger build, feel free to connect it directly to your database. As long as the application remains within your control and you don’t need to query multiple databases, this approach will probably work well for you.

The situation changes quickly once you move beyond the prototype stage or ask people outside of your team to test your product. At this point, you want to optimize your app and data retrieval as much as possible while adding robust security measures that block unauthorized users from accessing the database.

The following scenarios don’t necessarily require REST APIs, but they do need technologies that work better than direct database access:

  • Releasing an app that needs to work with multiple gateways to aggregate data from several sources, potentially including SQL, NoSQL, and MySQL databases.
  • Building a web app SaaS that uses a web browser and relies on HTTP protocol to communicate.
  • Working with companies concerned about controlling access to their data.
  • Making apps that follow business intelligence to automate business processes.

Are There Alternatives to REST APIs?

A REST API isn’t the only way to connect data sources and microservices, although it is one of the easiest and most popular methods for doing so. Some alternatives to REST APIs include:

  • GraphQL API – a slightly more efficient option that lets users specify which data they want and receive it after one request instead of placing multiple requests.
  • FALCOR – a JavaScript library built by Netflix that uses flexible APIs to take a “path-based,” resilient approach to retrieving data over HTTP requests.
  • gRPC – an open-source framework created by Google that lets developers request data via remote procedure calls (RPC).

Note that while these alternatives could suit your needs, few people have much experience with them. GraphQL is probably the most widespread of these technologies. But even it has a tiny number of users compared to REST API.

Nearly Anyone Can Create an API

Engineers typically say it’s easier to connect applications directly to databases. That’s true for professionals who have years of experience building digital products. In today’s business environment, though, not everyone who needs to connect services and data has a tech background.

Imagine that someone in your marketing department wants to create a tool that pulls data from your CRM, e-commerce platforms, and a few other sources. That person knows how to use marketing data to make informed decisions. They probably don’t know how to code an application, connect a database to an app, or create an API.

With low-code and no-code API platforms, professionals don’t need high-level coding skills. Instead, they can automatically create REST APIs, combine databases as needed, rely on fast server-side scripting, set API limits, and deploy applications.

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Start Creating APIs With DreamFactory

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