DEV Community

Cover image for What is an API?
Sahil
Sahil

Posted on • Originally published at sahilfruitwala.com

What is an API?

Application Programming Interface or API is the term every developer has heard and used. From sending a WhatsApp message to playing a YouTube video, every Application uses API(s). You might hardly find any application that uses the internet and doesn't use API(s). So, you might be wondering, "what are these APIs?"

What is an API?

APIs are just pieces of code that help two server applications(backend) or one client application(frontend) and one server application to communicate. This communication is essential for any modern application to work. Therefore, APIs are considered the backbone of the latest software and/or services.

If I have to say in simple words what APIs do. I will say, APIs are just services that return some kind of data on demand. This data can be anything such as an image file, sound file, raw text, etc.

Image description

Here, I have illustrated the basic architecture overview of how an API works. As I mentioned earlier and shown in the picture, any system, service and software can use APIs.

Explanation of how API works for 7 years old

Let's assume the server that serves us APIs is a pizza parlour. Now, what do we do when we want a specific kind of pizza?

Right! We call a waiter and either we will ask for a menu or will order another pizza.

The same goes for APIs as well. We call an API endpoint* and request it to get some data or validate some data for us.

So, after one request is served, what now?

Correct! Either we ask for a check or more pizzas. It can be the same or different kinds of pizza.

Now, let's look at this in the context of an API. After one request is served, either we can do nothing or request API to do another task. (we can do nothing means there is no need for another request)

At most of the places, instead of the fixed pizzas, we can order customized pizzas.

We can do the same for APIs as well. If API has the capabilities, we can ask for specific data (customized data) or operate on particular data. For example, instead of asking for all user data, we can ask for the user data with a specific ID. Or we can request API to delete the data of a user with a particular ID. Some APIs provide certain functionalities, whereas some don't. It all depends on how APIs are designed.

This is just a top-level explanation. In real-life API, many things are going on underneath that we can discuss in another blog.

Types of API. The Past, Present and the Future!

Throughout the history of APIs, there have been mainly three kinds.

  1. RPC (Remote Procedure Call)
  2. SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol)
  3. REST (Representational State Transfer)

RPC or Remote Procedure Call APIs seem to be the most simple and ancient APIs. In general, RPC requires developers or clients to run a block of code on a server. RPC-style makes it possible for developers to easily create and invoke multiple programs and services on a server. Nowadays, you won't see much use of RPC APIs. There are two sub-type of RPC APIs:

  • XML-RPC: A XML-RPC is basically an RPC API coded in return XML formatted data.
  • JSON-RPC: A JSON-RPC is basically an RPC API coded to return JSON formatted data.

SOAP or Simple Object Access Protocol uses XML format to transfer data over HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP). SOAP uses Web Services Definition Language(WSDL) to publish the definition of its interface. Before the REST APIs came into the picture, SOAP had dominance over how APIs were created back then. SOAP was the first API protocol that can be created and invoked on any kind of operating system and, two decades ago, it was a huge deal.

REST or Representational State Transfer is a modern web services API. REST follows an architectural style instead of a generic protocol style. The main benefit of this style is it detaches consumers and providers. It means, that because of its architectural style, consumers can use it without worrying about its underlying protocols. REST APIs support both JSON and XML formats. But, most developers prefer JSON format as it is easy to use and read. Currently, REST is the most popular type of API. If you research, you will find that Netflix, Amazon, Google or any other giant tech company uses REST APIs in their products.

Accessibility of APIs

Not every API is a public API. There are many private and partner APIs as well. Public APIs are the APIs that any person in the world can access. It can be free, paid or on a subscription base. Private APIs can be developed by the organization for internal uses. Private APIs can be used in products that are available to the public. Partner APIs are the kind of APIs whose access is restricted to some user, or these APIs can be used with some Applications or services only. For example, Twitter API is a public API. But, there might be some APIs that Twitter is using for some internal tasks. Now, if some organization has created some API that can only be used with certain services of other organizations, then it will be called partner API.

General Use of APIs | Basic Functionalities of APIs

As a developer, we use and develop APIs for many purposes and for many use-cases. Some of those use-cases are:

  1. To fetch data from the server (DataBase)
  2. To add data to DataBase
  3. To update record(data) in DataBase
  4. To delete records in DataBase
  5. To validate a user or for authentication
  6. To request other services (s) to perform some operations

Note: According to RapidAPI, the API
endpoint is the point of entry in a communication channel when two systems are interacting. It means
that the API endpoint is a URI through which you can access API or communicate with the server.

Conclusion

Now, there is a lot about API that can only be understood by writing code. There can be many other types of APIs, and there can be many functionalities that I might have missed.

That was it. Thank you for reading. I hope now you know What is API?

If you like this blog, let me know. Let me know if you need any help or want to discuss something. Reach out to me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Discussion (10)

Collapse
fjones profile image
FJones

I would point out that the term "API" refers to any (semi-)public facing interface. Accessible methods to the includer in an includable package are also an API.

This article is talking strictly about APIs exposed on an application-level, i.e. Service-to-Service.

Collapse
vaso profile image
Vaclav Elias • Edited on

I also got confused with this. I believed at a certain point of my career that APIs are only what is described in this article. I would elaborate further that APIs are also Libraries and Frameworks (examples: blog.ndepend.com/top-10-net-5-0-ne..., docs.microsoft.com/en-us/dotnet/api/, ..) and that the article is focusing only on Remote/Web APIs? I would also mention gRPC and GraphQL which are emerging and becoming significant at the time of writing this comment.

Collapse
sahilfruitwala profile image
Sahil Author

Thank you for your suggestion. I wanted to add those topics. But, I wanted to write something focused for beginners that's the reason I didn't add it.

Collapse
sahilfruitwala profile image
Sahil Author

I totally agreee with you. But if I would have tried to explain every concet it will be very difficult fopr beginner to understand. And I tried to put other concepts in simple words but couldn't.

Collapse
suchintan profile image
SUCHINTAN DAS

Well written Sahil, while anyone move to backend part of any website they come through this thing quite often but a detailed explanation of the same is not there .

I think this blog would be a good place for beginners to get an idea what an API is and why we need it.

Many stuffs on this blog were not known to me as well so it's a good block of knowledge to earn 👍.

Collapse
sahilfruitwala profile image
Sahil Author

Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you liked it

Collapse
gabrielrowan profile image
gabrielrowan

This definitely helped to clarify my understanding of APIs - thank you :)

Collapse
sahilfruitwala profile image
Sahil Author

I glad you liked it and I was able to help you ☺️

Collapse
dnasedkina profile image
dnasedkina

Wow, this is the best explanation I have encountered so far. Thanks!

Collapse
sahilfruitwala profile image
Sahil Author

I am glad I was able to explain it in simple words.