What is API First Development? | Q90

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December 20, 2022

What is API-First Development?

In the cloud era, many designers, developers, and their non-technical counterparts are adopting strategies that accelerate application development lifecycles and enhance digital products. 

Understanding the nuances between API-first development and API design-first development is key. Here, we’ll talk specifically about API-first development. What is it? And what should you prioritize when adopting an API-first development strategy? 

Application programming interfaces (API) are central to many of these strategies. An API program enables two applications to exchange data and function interactively with each other to perform a complete business function. One application (let’s call it Finance App A) requests information from another through the API (Credit App B). App B responds with data based on the API’s coded instructions. 

What is API-First Development?  

API-first development is all about APIs treating as first-class citizens, and prioritizing them over design and code. Design-first means standardizing API design so humans, computers, and algorithms can understand them. Applications can be provisioned for a multitude of mobile, IoT-connected, and traditional computing devices. Every tool they use applies the same API design principles. Designers and developers use a common set of documentation and contracts, and they can work in parallel instead of waiting on each other to complete their phase of the project. 

API development lifecycles have three phases: 

  1. Design - Architect the API against business specifications, create the data model, simulate how the API will interact with designated applications with a mock-up, and gather developer feedback. Modify the mock-up based on the feedback, and iterate. 
  2. Implement - Build and test the API based on the design until it performs to the functional and workload requirements defined in the design phase. 
  3. Manage -  Ongoing API maintenance, monitoring, and optimization to ensure it is as secure, scalable, reliable, and functionally effective as possible.  

API-First Development Prioritizes Core Application Functionality

Developers traditionally wrote API code based on business requirements before defining the API in a machine-readable format. The adoption of microservices and the rising popularity of continuous development and cloud integrations have changed that for many organizations. 

The API-first model is ideal for cloud applications, especially with headless applications which need deployment to multiple computing, mobile, and IoT device platforms simultaneously.  

Before starting your application development initiative, it is wise to establish and share these API-first development principles:

  1. API-first requires product-centric development 

It is essential for development teams to take a product approach to API services. Use tools like Docker and Kubernetes to package modules in run-time production environments to separate dependencies from infrastructure. A minimum viable product (MVP) prototype should be developed first to ensure an API can solve a business problem or achieve a business goal. 

  1. Developers must take a foundational design approach

APIs are communications channels for the flow of data between applications. Yet you can’t just spontaneously connect APIs to a couple of applications and expect them to work “automagically.”

An API-first approach treats API workflows as the foundation for applications that you build on top of them. In the case of an e-commerce website, a team might develop a shopping cart API before the product catalog and customer experience elements are architected. 

  1. Team collaboration 

Running an Agile development team building microservices-architected applications shouldn’t happen in silos. Product and project managers should monitor development milestones against roadmap objectives. 

Modular application development eliminates dependencies, ensuring one successful or failed deployment, not a chain reaction and total project collapse. Microservices teams still need to share learnings and communicate successes and failures for the organization's benefit. Keep your project or product management teams up-to-date on each sprint so they can manage expectations with key stakeholders. 

4. API-First Supports Microservices

Microservices approaches isolate application functionality into reusable modular components. It enables developers to work individually or in small teams on assigned functional elements. Development containers separate modules so coders can develop, test, and deploy without the risk of impacting other functionality. 

APIs facilitate data communication between applications based on operating instructions, so it’s safe to say microservices enable API-first development. 

API-First Development in Agile Environments

Agile business models are ideal for API-first development, as teams can schedule API release development and continuously design, build, test, and manage against evolving business specifications. 

Agile principles are geared toward satisfying internal or external customer business requirements. They prioritize change management, continuous deployment of working applications, and ongoing feedback and improvement. These are ideal conditions for an API-first cloud development environment.  

On the other hand, code–first development approaches are a better fit for waterfall management methodologies and monolithic on-premises software development initiatives. 

Prioritizing API Development Over UX Design

Putting APIs at the center of the development process helps to create more efficient and effective business applications. Developers can focus on API stability, reliability, scalability, and security before the user interface. For example, when developing a bank payments API, they can prioritize securely transferring funds from a transaction system to an accounts ledger before concerning themselves with the user experience. 

Companies that adopt DevOps methodologies share the responsibilities described above between business operations teams and their application development colleagues. 

Low-code and no-code API platforms enable suitably-trained operations professionals to create 

APIs. Yet these platforms don’t allow for customization. Organizations digitally transforming complex workflows need skilled developers to create compatible RESTful APIs within their application ecosystem.   

Why Should Your Business Adopt an API-First Development Approach?

The rapid pace of cloud innovation challenges developers to get their products to market faster, and support multiple device platforms, including wearables, mobile devices, and computers. 

API-first development: 

  • Supports headless architecture by exposing functionality through APIs, not just UX interfaces. 
  • Enables the use of cloud-native and microservices development methodologies by multiple teams working in parallel. Each independent development, testing, and deployment team can work at its own pace without holding up other new features or upgrades. 
  • Enables continuous documentation, development, deployment, integrations and testing. 
  • Improves developer engagement and onboarding by helping them focus on a defined set of functionality. Developers don’t have to ramp up on an entire platform. They can work with a consistent support team of testers, UX designers, and project leads. If a developer wants a change of focus, they can work with their managers to shift to a different API instead of an entirely new company or platform. 

As mentioned earlier, Agile development approaches are ideally suited to API-first development strategies as they succeed when team members can brainstorm together in standups. When a developer faces a project blocker, their colleagues can contribute ideas to overcome challenges. Waterfall management would call for the developer to consult with their manager, which could slow down the project.  

API Stakeholders and Contracts 

Identifying and aligning technical and line-of-business API stakeholders can help create company-wide buy-in for a digital transformation and development initiative like a unified communications and collaboration platform. 

A product manager can identify the telecommunications features the UCC platform offers, such as instant messaging, voice calling and video conferencing. They should provide the developers of these APIs with guidance around how these functions should work and critical API design standards. 

An API contract establishes the standards and best practices that APIs must meet to be considered complete, or successful. It should help developers to create consistent API functionality that can translate into cohesive user experiences throughout a platform. 

Automate Processes Where Possible

High-volume, low-complexity tasks like documentation, upgrades, and promotion from development to test can help keep development teams focused. To free them up to build new features and to ensure API products meet overall requirements instead of painstakingly testing each workflow or feature. 

API creation and management tools can conduct unbiased reviews to ensure APIs comply with security policies. Does your team lack the experience and knowledge of API management platforms? Q90 can provide staff augmentation support through the full project lifecycle—from problem definition and solution discovery to building, launching, and supporting the API over the long term. 

For more information about Q90 API management software and professional services, visit our homepage and request a no-obligation quote.

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