Exploring today's technology for tomorrow's possibilities
What is an API and How Does it Work?
January 30, 2023
Stop everything you’re doing for just one moment. Think about how seamless our modern digital experiences are - they get you everything you need, right where and when you want it. You can instantly share this blog on your social media with one click, allow your email app to fetch your calendar, and share the fitness data from your smartwatch with your healthcare provider.
There’s a secret superstar behind the scenes powering it all - an API. How does an API work? Better still, what is an API really? Whether you’re a software engineer, a hobbyist coder, or just someone who’d like to know more about the term pivotal to every software discussion, we’ve got your back. Let’s walk you through the exciting world of APIs.
What is an API?
The acronym API stands for “Application Programming Interface.” The key here is that it’s an “interface” - a bridge between two software. An application might use an API to fetch information from another app. Information, that could take many forms - it could be data or software itself.
An API is, therefore, a simple link that connects two things, allowing information to flow from one software to another. The API is like a translator between two entities - software with the knowledge of the set of rules (the communication protocols) each one uses to facilitate information exchange. Like a good intermediary, it never gets in the way but sets all communication on track.
How does an API work?
Let’s try to understand how APIs work through a (delicious) real-world implementation. Once upon a time, you finished savoring a cheezy hot pizza delivered to your home on a freezing winter evening, still cuddled in your bed, streaming your favorite show. The perfect weekend. It’d be great to update your social media status with a close-up of melting cheese to tease your buddies, you thought. You reached out for your phone, opened the food delivery app, and tapped the share feedback button, your fingers still drenched in soft mozzarella.
At this stage, the food delivery app used an API to talk to the social media server. The API established a connection between the two parties and began fetching information. The app then took you to a social sign-in page. You then posted a picture and told your friends how good the pizza was. All, without ever leaving the food delivery app!
It’s a win/win for everyone really - aside from you being able to seamlessly share your gastronomic adventures with the world in an instant, the API greatly simplified software development for the programmers of the food app, too. They were spared the massive effort of developing complex code to communicate with the social media server themselves and could instead offload the task to an API to handle it all for them. The result: greatly reduced development time and improved software efficiency.
In our pizza example, the API essentially bridges an app and a remote web server; it’s what’s called a web API. Similar APIs are invoked every time you use a browser to access a website, make a video call, or shop online. The browser makes API calls to servers to fetch you the desired information.
This is just a small glimpse into the power of APIs, which open up a world of possibilities for app users and software developers. An API links diverse experiences together and eliminates some complexity from software development.
The world of APIs and their many kinds
Web APIs are just one of the many different types of APIs we all use, knowingly or unknowingly, every single day.
Open APIs: An open API, true to its name, is open, i.e., available in the public domain for anyone to use. Such APIs are very commonly used in banking and healthcare apps. Many companies create open APIs to allow other organizations to access their internal systems in a controlled manner. The open API presents a simple single interface to anyone wishing to use the resources that lie at the backend (and which may not be publicly accessible).
Open APIs are great ways to accelerate the development of new products and services with external partners. You can find great open APIs on GitHub and other API directories on the Web. Well-known APIs like Twitter API and Youtube API can be accessed directly from the developers’ sections on their respective websites.
Browser APIs: All browsers, including the one you’re using to read this article, use several browser APIs to access data. Modern browsers are capable of handling an array of computationally complex tasks, like playing videos and music, and processing geo-location data. APIs built into the browser make it all possible. Mozilla, Microsoft, Apple, and Google Chrome provide some great browser APIs, which can be useful when you’re creating browser extensions.
Android/iOS APIs: All mobile operating systems, including Android and iOS, offer built-in APIs for app developers to use. APIs allow app developers to access the sensors on the user device like the microphone, camera, or gyroscope. If you’re a developer making an innovative new chat app, you could use an API to access the mobile’s modem chip to forge network connections to your cloud server.
There are many benefits of this approach. It protects the security of the underlying user device. It also helps developers quickly create apps without worrying about creating the needed code. Without APIs, developers would have a hard time creating the powerful apps we all love! Access Android API Reference and Apple Developer Documentation to know more about these APIs.
REST APIs: REST stands for Representational State Transfer. It’s basically a set of guidelines for APIs. These are used by client software to request a server for data, which the latter sends in a structured format. REST APIs use HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) and URLs to function. These are very widely used on the Web and are an integral part of most e-commerce websites.
SOAP: Simple Object Access Protocol is an alternative to REST that is also more complex. Like REST, it uses structured data, but unlike REST, it only supports a fixed format. While REST is more of a style for architecting APIs, SOAP is an actual protocol.
Internal APIs: These are private APIs that are strictly for internal use within an organization and are never made available in the public domain. Such APIs simplify interactions between a company’s internal teams. Contact your IT team to access a directory of your company’s internal APIs.
External APIs: External APIs are extremely common, and are a great way for a company to expose some functionality outside of the company. This helps third parties integrate the company’s offerings into their own products and services. Remember the pizza story? You’ve got an external API to thank there. To access a company’s external APIs, explore the developers’ resources on their website or get in touch with them.
The API advantage: why APIs are so important
APIs have tremendously simplified modern software and app development. Developers no longer need to micromanage every aspect of code when some can be sourced through a secure and reliable API, harnessing the expertise of tested code that’s already proven to work.
This leads to shorter development time, lower costs, and software that’s also more scalable and efficient.
If you run a business, APIs can help add additional functionality to your digital assets. Content creators can integrate paywalls into their systems to monetize their offerings, and e-commerce websites can leverage APIs to manage payment gateways for their customers. APIs can also automate tedious, repetitive tasks (like data entry between two incompatible systems) that are otherwise prone to human errors.
How are APIs created?
So you’ve decided to create your own API. The first step is to map all your goals and requirements and decide the type of API that’ll be most suitable. Public APIs greatly extend the reach of your software, helping create an entire ecosystem around your product, while private APIs are better suited for exchanges involving confidential data.
The next step involves choosing an architectural style. REST and SOAP are among the most common frameworks. As you begin programming your API, it’s imperative to inculcate security right into the design from the start to minimize vulnerabilities. You’ll constantly test your API to optimize its performance.
As you set out on your API adventures, you’ll need a machine capable enough to be your trusted aide. The ideal laptop will have a fast processor and adequate RAM to handle the workload - you’ll typically have multiple apps and tools open when programming.
The OMEN Gaming Laptop 16-k0797nr features a blazing-fast 12th Generation Intel® Core™ i7 processor and 16GB DDR5-4800 MHz RAM to dramatically reduce code compile time. It also has a big 16.1-inch Full HD screen, which is super convenient, as you’ll spend hours staring at the screen, crafting your API masterpiece. The OMEN packs in a dedicated NVIDIA® GeForce RTX™ 3060 GPU for graphics-intensive work and machine learning-based software development.
The HP ZBook Firefly 14-inch G9 Mobile Workstation is another great option for professionals who need a robust laptop. It features a 12th Generation Intel Core i5 CPU, 16GB RAM, and 14-inch Widescreen Ultra Extended Graphics Array (WUXGA) display. This compact workstation can go wherever inspiration takes you.
For those seeking an enterprise-grade coding device, the HP ProBook 445 14-inch G9 Notebook PC Wolf Pro Security Edition with AMD Ryzen™ 7 processor, 16GB memory, AMD Radeon™ Graphics, and 14-inch Full High Definition (FHD) display is an ideal choice. It has pro commercial-grade security features, including HP’s self-healing BIOS to protect against firmware attacks and HP Sure Sense, which harnesses AI to safeguard against malware infections. The ProBook is designed to keep you and your work secure at all times.
Create your game-changing APIs
We owe most of our connected experiences today to APIs. They’re a powerful way for businesses to integrate enhanced functionality into their offerings without incurring additional costs and drastically simplify software development.
If you’re a programmer stepping into the exciting world of API programming to craft your very own breakthrough APIs, we’ve got your back with powerful laptops to support you in this amazing journey. Bon voyage!
About the Author
Vidhu Jain is a contributing writer for HP Tech Takes. A Fortune 500 experienced brand storyteller, she’s a voracious reader who loves traveling and exploring the world.
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