Have you ever stopped to think about all of the different applications and programs you use daily, both at work and at home? Many of these are excellent programs that help you do your job or more fully enjoy your personal life. In the world of data and programming, what makes a program even more outstanding is it's extensibility. This means allowing developers to extend the product beyond its initially intended purpose.
This is where APIs enter the picture because we wouldn't have the robust options that we do in our modern technological world without them.
What is an API?
API stands for application programming interface. The important part of this name is "interface" because an API essentially talks to a program on your behalf. The API is the tiny piece of software that connects one application to another and requests certain information to be brought into the first application. An API can't just pull anything from another application. The data must be made 'public' for an API to access it. Still, anything listed as 'public' in an application can be accessed via an API to be pulled into another application.
Why Use an API?
Perhaps it's best to think of an API as a bridge that allows you to access the efforts of people who have already done the work of generating the data you need.
For example, you may have a weather app on your phone. When you open it up, you get updated weather information for the area that you have designated. Where did this information come from? It wasn't stored in the app, and your phone doesn't generate the data, but it came from somewhere. The app utilizes an API to access a database of information that is continuously being updated regularly. The API requests the latest news in the database and then displays this information for you in the chosen way the app developer has chosen. This way, you can see what the current conditions are, and you may also be able to see the predictions for several days ahead.
This is the power of the API. It accesses data that someone else has compiled, so you don't have to "reinvent the wheel".
The Four Types of APIs
Great, so I'll use an API to get what I need for my application, and all will be right with the world. Well, not so fast. There are four different types of APIs that you can use. Open APIs are what you might be thinking of, and they are also known as Public APIs. There are no restrictions on accessing these APIs. Partner APIs are restricted to those who have the rights or a license to use it. Internal APIs are also known as Private APIs and are typically only for use inside of a company. Finally, some Composite APIs combine different data and service APIs. These are used to speed up execution as well as improve performance.
The Architecture of an API
So we see how useful APIs can be and that there are different flavors of APIs available for other uses, but what makes up an API? Fortunately, APIs are the same and consist of three essential elements: the user, the client, and the server.
These are pretty self-explanatory when you think about it. The user creates the request and uses the client to send the request to the server, which is essentially an API. Again, these are tiny little pieces of code that can offer a compelling result. Going back to the weather app scenario, the database or server being tapped for the data has a massive amount of data. Still, not all of it will be available to the user who wants the information. To keep things simple, let's say the database the weather app is accessing has ten pieces of information. The database might only allow for six pieces of information to be available, so the user requests those six pieces of information, using the client, in this case, the weather app.
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Actions to Take Using an API
You might be of the mind that an API can do a lot of things, and they can. By the way, this includes adding information to the database or server as well. But as you might expect, there are limitations to what can and cannot be done using an API. So within an API, four different actions can be given or used.
- GET action, which is common to retrieve things like a name, address, phone number, or other information.
- POST action, which is akin to adding a new information line to the database.
- PUT action, which can be confused with the POST action because they are similar. However, the PUT action essentially overwrites an existing line in the database, where the POST action adds a new line.
- DELETE action removes information from the database. These are potent commands. However, remember that only certain parts of the database are accessible for the API, so it isn't quite as powerful because it is limited by an outside force and can't just do anything the user wants.
Using an API
Using an API essentially comes down to doing three things. First, get an API key, which is the identifier that allows you access to the database. There may be requirements to call this API key, but that will be different for each server or database. The second step is to test the API endpoints, which means that you need to check that you can pull the various information you are allowed to. Using the weather app example, the API endpoints could include current temperature, current barometric pressure, current condition (rain, sun, cloud, etc.), and a few other items. Are you able to get these results from your request? Once you have things working, you develop the app to use what you are getting or putting from/to the server or database.
Using APIs today isn't a luxury, they are necessities. We use them daily without really understanding that an API is delivering the information that we want. They are updating a database with our data, maybe even without us knowing (ever notice how ads follow you across different digital devices, like from laptop to smartphone, etc?). We can get the latest news quickly because of APIs, and we can update the necessary fast as well. And while these are tiny bits of software, they can lead to powerful results that we can all appreciate and benefit from.
Tool to Get Data From APIs
Now that you know what an API is and what it is used for, you may be wondering if there are tools that can help simplify all the processes related to getting data from an API. Yes! Zuar has developed a tool to help you do just that. Zuar's ETL+ tool, Mitto, allows you to access REST API's, SOAP API's, and even enables users to build their own API connectors so that you can retrieve any accessible data for your companies next big business intelligence initiative.
Are you ready to get the most out of your data? Contact Zuar for a free strategy assessment!