Person integrating an API

Whether you’re working in the marketing or operations department, you’ve probably heard a lot about APIs and API integrations. These have become the “buzz” terms of IT departments in recent years as more enterprises embrace the trend toward digital transformation.

That being said, if you’re not a developer – or if you don’t work in the IT department – you might not have a clear picture of what API integrations actually are. If you’re still new to the world of APIs, this guide is for you. Below, we provide a comprehensive introduction to the concept of API integration from the ground-floor up.

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API Integrations in a Nutshell

API integrations are the data connections that allow multiple applications or services to communicate with each other through their respective APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). Without these integrations, the different applications, microservices, microapps, and SaaS platforms that make up a larger IT infrastructure – or a larger application – would not be able to communicate and interact with each other. 

While this definition gives a general overview of API integrations, for a more in-depth understanding, we need to learn about APIs and REST APIs. 

What Are APIs?

APIs (or Application Programming Interfaces) are sets of definitions, protocols, and commands that applications use to interact with each other. Each API exposes a number of services (or endpoints) for the application or service that sits behind it. Other applications can use those API endpoints to submit commands, communicate, and interact with the application.

APIs generally come with human-readable API documentation as well. This documentation tells developers how to code the commands and requests that their system can submit to the API in order to use the services it exposes.

To better understand the concept of APIs, imagine that a restaurant is an application component. The waiter who takes your requests would be the API. The menu that tells you what you can request and how to request it would be the API documentation. After reading the menu (API documentation), you know what you can ask the waiter (API) to do – bring you a drink, a hamburger, etc. – and you know how to phrase the request. 

You don’t need to know how the restaurant (application component) operates. You can walk into any restaurant – Chinese, Italian, fast-food, etc. – quickly scan the menu, and request what you want. 

In the same way, developers don’t need to know how the application component operates. They don’t even have to know what kind of language the application was programmed in. All they need to know are the services that the API exposes and how to request those services. With this knowledge, developers can quickly write the code required for their system to interact with the API of another system. Ultimately, the code that allows one API to interact with another API is the API integration.

It’s important to point out that APIs are not UIs (user interfaces). UIs are what humans use to interact with applications. APIs are what other applications use to interact with applications.

What Are REST APIs?

When it comes to the most popular web-based services and cloud-based SaaS platforms (such as Salesforce, SAP Concur, Office 365, etc.), these systems commonly expose REST APIs that allow other apps and systems to integrate with them. REST APIs are APIs that adhere to a specific set of principles and constraints are called “REST” (Representational State Transfer).

In recent years, REST has become the most popular way of integrating applications. In fact, approximately 83% of all APIs are REST APIs. Having taken the place of SOAP (an older standard that uses the XML messaging format) as the most popular type of API, REST APIs are more flexible and easier to learn than SOAP. They also work with the widely understood HTTP protocol and use HTTP URLs instead of XML.

As for their operation, REST APIs rely on the following four components: 

  1. A web-based, API-enabled app or service
  2. A remote server
  3. A request made to the API
  4. A returned function or returned data in response to the request

One of the biggest advantages of using REST APIs is their interoperability. It doesn’t matter what language a piece of software was written in, and it doesn’t matter what platform it’s running on. A REST API can serve as a standard interface that understands familiar HTTP commands. In this way, REST APIs allow diverse applications to communicate and interact with them through a simple, widely understood protocol.

What Are API Integrations In-Depth?

As we have already established, API integration allows multiple applications to connect and interact with each other through their APIs. With an API integration in place, two or more applications can work together on the same tasks, integrate to form a larger application architecture, or they can simply sync data between each other. This in turn allow the integrated applications to send information requests, commands, and responses back and forth through their APIs.

One of the most common ways that enterprises use API integrations is to connect their CRM systems with their marketing automation systems. For example, an enterprise might want to integrate their Zoho CRM data with their Marketo marketing automation data. In this case, developers can establish an integration that automatically updates the data in one system when the corresponding data in the other system changes – so the data in both systems is always in sync.

Developers can also use API integrations to speed up their application development projects. Rather than coding all services and features of an application from scratch, developers can focus on coding a unique part of the application, then use API integrations that integrate pre-built features into the application – and thereby complete the application faster. This allows developers to build modular, microservices-based applications at lightning speed.

Ultimately, API integrations offer the following benefits when developing IT infrastructures and applications:

  • Flexibility: API integrations minimize interdependencies between system components. This makes it easier, faster, and more cost-effective to add, upgrade, and remove different services and features in response to changing business needs, translating into speedier development cycles.
  • Highly available systems: API-based systems make it easy to replicate different system components for redundancy. You can also use safety measures – like circuit breaker strategies – to prevent a network service failure from cascading into other parts of a system. These benefits allow developers to build more resilient, highly available systems.   
  • Scalable and more efficient: It’s easier and more affordable to scale a microservices-based API-connected system. As demands on one or two parts of the system increase, you only need to replicate and divert resources to the individual components that need it.

How Do You Build API Integrations?

There are several techniques that developers use to establish API integrations. The main three methods are (1) hand-coded API integrations; (2) using API connector tools like Zapier; and (3) using API integration management platforms like MuleSoft, IBM App Connect, or DreamFactory.

(1) Hand-Coded API Integrations

In the past, developers needed to code all API integrations from scratch. Whether they were connecting two APIs across an IT infrastructure or connecting multiple app components to form a larger system – developers needed to hand-code the integrations between these components.  To make matters worse, if the APIs for both components didn’t already exist, developers needed to hand-code the APIs as well.

The problem with hand-coding APIs is that it takes a lot of time and it’s expensive. Hand-coding a single API can cost $20,000 or more per API. Hand-coding an API integration can cost $10,000 or more depending on the complexity of the integration.

(2) API Connector Tools

The simplest method for establishing an API connection is to use an API connector tool. These are easy-to-use platforms (like Zapier), which offer a host of pre-built API connectors for popular enterprise applications. These tools feature no-code, point-and-click interfaces that focus on workflow automations between two apps. This usually involves the syncing of data between two applications across enterprise IT infrastructure. 

The advantage of an API connector tool is that it eliminates the need to hand-code APIs and API integrations. The disadvantage of these tools is that they don’t offer the ability to create complex workflows. Furthermore, they are not useful to developers who are building API integrations to form a larger microservices-based application.   

Here is when API connector tools are useful: 

  • You need to set up basic workflow automation integrations across an IT infrastructure.
  • The connector tool includes pre-built API integrations for the services you want to connect.
  • Your workflow automation needs are not complex.
  • The API connector tool offers the workflow automation features you need. 
(3) API Integration Management Platforms

API integration management platforms are applications that help developers build complex API integrations while bypassing all (or most of) the hand-coding required to build those applications. Like API connector tools, integration management platforms offer pre-built API integrations. In addition, API integration platforms exceed the capabilities of API connectors tools by providing deeper functionality for more complex API integrations. They also service the microservices-based app development use-case.

Here is when API integration management platforms are useful: 

  • You need to develop complex workflows between apps in an IT infrastructure. 
  • You need to integrate the APIs of microservices and other components while building a microservices-based application.

Unfortunately, the most widely used API management platforms – such as MuleSoft and IBM App Connect – some with some serious downsides. First, they have complex, difficult-to-use front-ends. Most enterprises need a team of experienced developers with extensive coding skills and special certifications to operate these platforms. Second, they are expensive to license and host. The high costs of platforms like MuleSoft and IBM App Connect are largely because they offer a wide range of services beyond API integration, such as ESB and ETL services. 

Because of these downsides, traditional platforms like MuleSoft and IBM App Connect are best for enterprises with large budgets. They are usually too expensive for small and medium-sized firms, and enterprise departments on strict budgets. However, we do have some good news for firms on tighter budgets. New API integration management platforms – like DreamFactory – are opening the doorway to powerful, affordable API creation and integration.

Recent Advancements in API Integration Management

During the last half-decade, API management solutions – like DreamFactory – are focusing solely on API life-cycle management and API integration management. By eliminating the additional tools that larger, more expensive solutions like MuleSoft and IBM App Connect lump into their platforms, DreamFactory has brought API integrations down to earth – by making custom API integrations easier and more affordable for budget-conscious organizations to achieve.

In addition, DreamFactory and other API management tools are including productivity-enhancing features like automatic API generation. With DreamFactory, you can immediately generate custom, Swagger-documented REST APIs for any service or database without writing any code. This allows you to integrate new services and features into your projects in a matter of minutes. Moreover, DreamFactory’s new Citrix Workspace integration also gives developers access to instant microapp generator features that allow you to automate the process of building beautiful microapps with stunning UIs. 

Did you know you can generate a full-featured, documented, and secure REST API in minutes using DreamFactory? Sign up for our free 14 day hosted trial to learn how! Our guided tour will show you how to create an API using an example MySQL database provided to you as part of the trial!

Create Your RESTful API Now

Conclusion

By now, you should have a general understanding of API integration and how developers integrate APIs to connect applications across an IT infrastructure or build microservices-based systems. You should also have a general understanding of the most popular API integration techniques – and their potential advantages and disadvantages. More importantly, you’ve learned how platforms like DreamFactory are making custom API integrations faster and a lot more affordable for budget-conscious organizations to achieve.  

If you’re looking for an API integration management platform that offers enterprise-level capabilities – without enterprise-level costs – consider DreamFactory. As a scalable, API management solution that runs in the cloud or on-premises, DreamFactory will eliminate your app integration bottlenecks while reducing costs and dramatically speeding up your time to market. 

Want to learn more about DreamFactory or try the platform out for yourself? Sign up for a free hosted trial of DreamFactory now!

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