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Inside the API management platform and strategy adoption process

Selecting an API management platform isn't very different from choosing any other tool, some experts say. Take a look at how education giant Pearson adopted an API management tool to add a layer of governance.

Best practices for selecting an API management platform, tool or service are not unlike other processes for selecting technology partners, according to Al Hilwa, program director at IDC. Aside from their features, capabilities and scale, enterprises need to look at the quality of support they offer.

Enterprise architects have numerous choices when adopting an API management strategy for opening their IT infrastructure to cloud, mobile and business-to-business use cases. Lead API management platforms including 3scale API Management Platform, Apigee, IBM API Management, Layer 7 API Management Suite, Jitterbit, Mashape, Mashery API Management Platform, MuleSoft Anypoint Platform for APIs and SOA Software API Gateway. All of these platforms offer varying degrees of support for security, control, analytics and other capabilities.

"API management technology comes in to help organizations scale and secure their APIs, as well as potentially make them more discoverable," Hilwa said. "As companies take a more strategic approach to mobility and to supporting [Internet of Things] initiatives, APIs are becoming extremely important."

Hilwa believes the drives that underlie the SOA and API movements are similar. However, APIs tend to take SOA decomposition and encapsulation to more detailed and more easily and usefully composable services. This has been essential for external consumption.

Leveraging APIs for education

Support and services were two of the key reasons that Pearson, the education publishing and assessment service giant, adopted Apigee as its key API management platform. Allen Rodgers, director of the API program and developer network at Pearson, said, "What tipped the scale for us was Apigee's consultative approach. I would argue that what we bought into was not so much the tool but the folks at Apigee."

As companies take a more strategic approach to mobility and to supporting Internet of Things initiatives, APIs are becoming extremely important.
Al HilwaIDC

Another selling point was that most of the Apigee products were used through managed services or direct access to APIs. "We thought it was brilliant that most of their infrastructure was based on APIs," Rodgers said. The Apigee platform also brought to Pearson a rich feature set around key management, versioning, setting policies and the ability to segment out a specific set of APIs for high-value use cases.

Good versioning tools also helped Pearson to maintain a six-month versioning policy, so that when it needs to deprecate an API, a partner can continue to use the old API before the transition. However, Rodgers pointed out that sometimes they need to break compatibility for performance or stability reasons. Apigee helps to preserve the front end contract.

Building up the developer community

With an API management program, Pearson is relying on the API management platform to enforce certain rules. API management is similar to SOA, but without the connotations of an IT-centric, governance-heavy framework. This makes the APIs more attractive to external developers than more cumbersome interfaces might have been.

SOA includes a vertical layer of governance, which made it easy for Pearson to enforce policy without burdening developers. "Governance is great if you are in IT, but if you are a developer, governance is a bad word," Rogers said. "It implies imposing something on the consumer."

A good API management platform can also help overcome some of the challenges with using SOAP as a protocol to deliver information by translating it to RESTful APIs. "I would not argue that one is inherently better than the other. They both serve a purpose, but REST is much simpler to understand and execute," Rogers explained. "Also the metadata enclosed in the package is simplified so there is less overhead on the network and the system."

Rodgers believes that the simplicity of building applications on top of APIs is leading a creativity movement around citizen integrators. The API management tools make it easier for managers and business users to develop applications on their own, and that can drive more business to Pearson.

Not just for external developers

Pearson has grown through acquisitions, each of which brought a different internal technology and structure. In many cases, APIs were not part of these acquired architectures, and if the architectures had APIs, they were leveraging SOAP. "In those cases, instead of determining if we would rebuild that technology, we bolted APIs to the side of those [architectures]," Rodgers said.

There have been cases where some members of the Pearson team implemented APIs without considering certain features. "This is not because they were not intelligent, but they typically were not thinking about nonfunctional requirements for key management, capacity management or spike arrest," Rodgers said.

By standardizing on an API management platform, the centralized IT staff at Pearson ensures these capabilities are available for different business needs in one place. Pearson also implemented guidelines on securing APIs, and having a tool in place helps to ensure the new APIs comply with internal standards.

Pearson faced some internal challenges around developing an API strategy. One team wanted to build its own API management infrastructure. "Fortunately, sanity prevailed," Rodgers said. "It made more sense for us to work with a third-party product and then focus on building our own program on delivering content, learning management systems and homework tracking."

Think like an API consumer

With Google dominating the search engine space, competitors are turning to a comprehensive API management strategy to make their platforms more attractive to developers. For example, DuckDuckGo decided to leverage the Mashape API management platform to improve its developer outreach.

Service providers need to be creative in getting traction in the developer community. Zac Pappis, director of marketing and community at DuckDuckGo, said a best practice is to think like an API consumer. "Creating a great API doesn't help anyone if people can't find it or easily use it, so be sure to account for where your audience is already consuming similar APIs and how they'll be accessing [or] learning about yours and why it's great," he said.

DuckDuckGo chose Mashape because of its large marketplace. Pappis described it as a large, searchable index of APIs that can be used to create answers instantly and improve search results. Many instant answers are available via the API, so being in the marketplace exposes DuckDuckGo's community creations and highlights the fact that developers can use it for fun.

Mashape made it easier for DuckDuckGo to build traction for its DuckDuckHack open platform where developers create instant answers for DuckDuckGo search results in a few or zero clicks using information from the Web's best sources. For example, if someone searches for "movies with Bill Murray," they'll see films he's appeared in, above any ads or links. In that case, it's an API-based instant answer, and the source is Kwixer.

In the same way the Apple store drove the growth of the iPhone, API marketplaces will drive new business opportunities. Better API design tools and rich marketplaces will allow developers to add value to integrations in a matter of hours. "If that works for companies, they will do this not just dozens of times, but thousands of times in a year to differentiate themselves in the market," said Andrew Leigh, vice president for products at Jitterbit.

About the author:
George Lawton is a journalist based near San Francisco. Over the last 15 years, he's written more than 2,000 articles on computers, communications, business and other topics. Find out more at glawton.com.

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This was last published in September 2014

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Are you trying to choose an API management platform?
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Really interesting article. You might find it useful to look at IT Central Station - there are vendor neutral reviews and ratings of many of the API Management tools you mentioned here: https://goo.gl/i6fsRq.

Currently rated #1 is CA API Management (also known as Layer7) and #2 is IBM API Management. Here is a useful chart comparing them: https://goo.gl/zBMyF3.

Hope this helps.
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