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What are APIs?

What are APIs?

Harold Bell
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Key Takeaways

APIs streamline software development by defining how components interact and share data, enabling automation and efficient interaction with existing services. API security, crucial for preventing breaches, requires authentication and encryption mechanisms to protect the data from unauthorized users.

Application programming interfaces, or APIs, help make applications and digital services easier to consume. APIs also make it easier for developers to build, enhance, and maintain applications. How exactly? In a nutshell, APIs are specifications that dictate how software components interact with each other, and define how data is shared and modified. Usually written in machine readable formats such as XML or JSON, APIs make it possible to seamlessly transmit data between disparate systems.

What do APIs do?

APIs do two things: first, they allow people to build applications (software) that communicate with existing applications and services. And second, they allow people to build applications that perform certain actions on data. Some APIs even give software the ability to interact with physical devices using specialized protocols.

With APIs, you can build applications that automatically update without requiring any manual work. You also empower users to interact with existing applications and services in a more efficient way. This increases developer productivity by allowing them to focus on the functionality of their application, not on the software components.

Types of APIs

There are different types of APIs, some of which are used for communication between microservices. These types include SOAP, RESTful, and graphQL APIs. Some APIs are intended to manipulate data, such as CRUD (create, read, update, delete) APIs.

APIs vs microservices

APIs and microservices often get confused because microservices use APIs. However, APIs are usually the communication medium between microservices, which are groups of software components that communicate autonomously. Microservices are capable of processing requests on their own, usually without requiring human intervention. Those requests can be for actions such as reading data, updating data, or even deleting data. So again, microservices leverage APIs but are not in fact APIs themselves.

Examples of APIs

A lot of this may sound scientific if you’re not familiar with the terms. With that said, it may be helpful to include a few real-world examples of APIs in the wild. One example is the Twitter API that allows people to build applications that are able to pull Twitter data and compose tweets. Using an API, it’s possible for an application like Tweetbot to pull tweets from a Twitter account, and allow the user to compose a new tweet without ever logging into the Twitter website. Similarly, the API for Gmail allows people to build applications that allow users to compose emails and send them, without ever logging in to the Gmail website.

Why APIs need to be secured

Since APIs make applications and services easier to consume, open APIs make it easier for malicious actors (hackers) to steal data, abuse company resources, and other malicious activities. Therefore, APIs need to be secured. One way is by using authentication mechanisms to ensure that only authorized users (applications and services) can access data. Another way is by using a data encryption mechanism to protect the data from being viewed by unauthorized users.

The truth is, securing APIs requires quite a bit of thought. And traditional application security tools aren’t designed to provide the security controls and observability required to adequately protect APIs. Which means that modern API security solutions are really the only way to secure your API estate. With that said, we encourage you to investigate Noname Security. Our API security platform helps to accurately inventory all APIs, including internal and shadow APIs, and proactively secure your environment from API vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, and design flaws. You can learn more here.


How do APIs work?

Before we dive into how APIs work, let’s answer the question: What is an API? 

API stands for application programming interface and consists of protocols and code that allow components of different software or applications to communicate with each other. What makes APIs so powerful is that they give applications the power to communicate with other tools, operating systems, and platforms to create unique solutions.

An API allows a client or user to request a specific action or dataset from a server through a request-response mechanism. The request will target a URI or API endpoint that contains the specific resource or actions the API client seeks. The API process works between disparate systems by using common data formats that most modern systems can read, write, and parse, such as JSON and XML. 

Generally, the API process looks like: 

  • A user or app request goes out to an API endpoint or URI.
  • The API or API server processes the request and sends it back as a response to the user or app as a response.

When the API processes a request, it can go through several actions and call on other systems to fulfill the request.

What are some security concerns of APIs?

While APIs can be very beneficial, there are some security concerns that developers and admins must consider when allowing API clients to access their API endpoints. Here are a few API security considerations you should know:

What are APIs used for?

APIs have a tremendous number of uses and are widely used in practically every software service, platform, or application. Some of the most common uses of APIs include:

  • A third-party application that displays your photos from a specific social media platform.
  • A payment processing application that can pull or display your financial data from an unaffiliated bank account.
  • An e-commerce site or application that displays your tracking information from a shipping site without you having to go look it up yourself.
  • An analytics platform that can create reports using your data from various other sites, platforms, or applications.

How do APIs drive innovation?

Much of the modern interconnectivity between applications and the growing number of IoT platforms and devices all exist because of APIs. APIs drive innovation in many ways. A developer can use the functions of an established framework to power a new idea or reinvigorate an old one.

API platforms also allow this all to happen very quickly. The building blocks already exist, so a developer can focus on making the most use of them in new ways, such as with:

  • Smart home technology, which allow automation, voice assistants, and devices to work in sync to create a fully autonomous home
  • Healthcare services, which exchange data to create better coordination between providers and see the full picture of an individual’s overall health
  • Rideshare businesses, which utilize location APIs to navigate seamlessly from one location to another

Harold Bell

Harold Bell was the Director of Content Marketing at Noname Security. He has over a decade of experience in the IT industry with leading organizations such as Cisco, Nutanix, and Rubrik, and has been featured as an executive ghostwriter in Forbes Technology Council and Hacker News.

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