Back to Basics: What is an API?

  • Anna Daugherty
    Anna Daugherty
    January 12 2022

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January is all about fresh starts. That’s why we’re sharing back-to-basics info and resources throughout the entire month on all that goes into API architecture. Do you know what API means?

Whether you’re just starting out in the API space, or your organization is looking to transform your entire API program, stay tuned to the Stoplight blog. Let's get into the API basics!

An API, or an “application programming interface,” is the collection of definitions and protocols for connecting software. As the connection point between two programs, the API exposes the specific business or operational value from one application to another. In addition to simply connecting programs, APIs:

  • Enable access to—and restriction from—certain types of data
  • Allow monitoring of users and their activity
  • Increase security if designed well
  • Hide back-end complexity to increase innovation and time-to-market

API programming uses a method of connecting your infrastructure and business value through the Internet. They make it easy to share your data with internal users, external developers, customers, and partners.

But if you’re not a developer or technical person, what’s an easier way to think about APIs?

Think of an API as a Messenger

You may have heard the analogy of an API being compared to a restaurant; you place an order, and the server delivers the order to the kitchen, where your food is prepared before being served back to you. In this case, the server represents an API; they hide all of the back-end goings-on in the kitchen so that you get the delight of a delicious meal without having to know what’s happening in the back of the house.

However, I think APIs are like delivering a package.

Each API example has a set of standards that represent an agreement between two parties. If the first party sends a remote request that is structured in a specific way, the API contract determines how the second party’s software responds.

You have to follow a set series of specific instructions in order to correctly address a package for delivery. After following those instructions, you expect that the package will be delivered.

An API represents the entire middle section of the process. Many functions and operations occur from the moment the package leaves your hands and goes through the shipping service.

These back-end functions are abstracted; you don't need to know all the steps and processes of the postal service or the back-end work that goes into delivering your package. You just need to know that you followed the required steps in order to make it happen. You expect that the Postal Service will do the rest.

The same can be said for APIs. Following the protocols of the API, developers don’t need to know the back-end systems and processes in order to reap the benefits. API methods work as expected, and the transaction benefits both parties.

Now that you know a bit about the basics of an API and what it looks like as an easy-to-understand analogy, let’s dig deeper into API meaning, how APIs are created, the types of APIs, API code, and some more available resources by checking out our full guide here.



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