In our technologically driven world, not a day goes by where we're not scrolling away on our phone's apps or surfing all corners of the web. but have you ever stopped and wondered how your phone and computer are able to interact with apps and websites in the first place?

Most of us would probably say the internet or an app installation and leave it at that, however, there's a little more to it than this. Much like how your phone's touch screen is an interface for you to communicate with the phone's software and apps, so to does a computer need an interface to speak with websites and their servers.

This is where APIs come in, software specifically designed to facilitate just that. So, for those unfamiliar with APIs, this article is going to cover what they are, how they add security to your actions online, and how you can potentially integrate an API into the online aspects of your business.

What is an API?

As when discussing any kind of software, there's a lot of technical jargon surrounding the question, 'what is an API?' So, to keep things simple, we'll start by answering the question, 'what does API stand for?'

API stands for Application Programming Interface, and its purpose is as simple as it sounds. APIs are literally software intermediaries that provide a set of functions and procedures to enable computers to seamlessly communicate with apps, other computers, and websites, sharing information and data between them.

As you can imagine, this makes APIs an incredibly useful and important piece of software, and they're in use with just about everything. For example, most major websites you can think of will make use of APIs in some capacity.

How do APIs work?

From an ariel viewpoint, watching how an API works might look as simple as its basic definition.

Imagine that you want to log onto a website, and you get he choice to log in using Facebook or Google instead of setting up a separate account. If you choose to log in with Facebook or Google, the site's API is activated and a request is sent to the relevant server.

This server will confirm your authenticity, potentially using an accompanying API key, retrieve your requested data, interpret it into a readable format for the website in question, perform any other action necessary, and then send the data back to you. The API will then interpret this data and display it in a way that you can understand.

Naturally, with so many websites using APIs, and so many users using each website, the number of requests handled by any one API is potentially enormous.

What is an API gateway?

To overcome the issue of overburdening a site's API, many websites implement what's known as an API gateway. An API gateway sits 'behind' the API and intercepts all requests that come in. It then splits up these requests and diverts them to the relevant backend systems for a quicker response.

This helps to streamline the sending and receiving of data for efficient website, app, and computer navigation, while also providing an increased layer of security as API gateways handle authentication and security requests as well.

What is an API key?

Given the importance of APIs in nearly everything, you'd expect all APIs to be highly secure to protect them from malicious use, which is why so many APIs are equipped with more than just an API gateway.

An API key is a code or identity token that serves as a unique identifier for the user in question when they make an API request. This code is read by the API and can be used to authenticate that a user is who they say they are, authorizing their access to the API database in question.

The use of an API key offers API users an extra degree of security by providing a verification system, as well as blocking anonymous users, and controlling who can use the API in the first place.

What is a REST API?

Of course, there are a variety of different API types out there, each offering varying levels of security. Fortunately, the most common format of API is also considered the most secure.

Known as RESTful APIs, these APIs are made using the REST architectural style, giving them an excellent degree of flexibility thanks to the wide range of programming languages compatible with REST.

But it's not just flexibility that RESTful APIs come with. They also receive the following benefits:

  • Client-server decoupling - With REST APIs, client and server applications are always completed independently from one another, preventing them from interacting outside of passing information.
  • Statelessness - REST APIs work on a stateless model, which requires requests to have a specific set of information in order for said requests to be processed, meaning servers can't store any data relating to a client.
  • Layered system architecture - RESTful APIs don't allow the client sending the requests and the receiving server to communicated directly. Instead, a request is sent through a variety of intermediaries, so the client and server are never sure if they're directly communicating with one another.

As you can imagine, the use of a RESTful API gives you even greater security by minimising the risk of malicious data being sent or received. of curse, REST is not the only architecture in use. Learn more about REST vs SOAP architecture.

What is API testing?

Given the level of security APIs provide in the sharing of data, it should come as no surprise that they're heavily utilised in the world of business. A fluid and uninterrupted customer experience is a must for any business with an online presence to help drive revenue. this makes API testing a necessity.

On a surface level, API testing is all about ensuring that the API you use meets the level of functionality, reliability, performance, and security that you require. using API testing software, the API can be analysed to see if it meets your criteria, either directly on the API or as part of API integration testing.

By utilising API testing, you can test and measure response times to bring your site up to speed to handle customer requests and ensure a good customer experience.

What is API integration?

Lastly, we'll touch briefly on API integration. Many businesses, especially those with multiple working parts on a software level, need a way to automate the requests between them.

API integration allows them to do this by interconnecting all the APIs in use to their various software so that they can seamlessly connect and communicate. Automating the system's APIs allows the exchange of data to occur faster, making everything more efficient by minimising human input.

While not necessarily beneficial for small businesses, the added functionality this presents to large businesses should be obvious.

How to use API software

Sadly, understanding, creating, and implementing your own API is a complex topic, one which is far outside the scope of this article. However, if you're wondering how best to use API software and implement its use in  your own business, there are plenty of tutorials and courses online that can get you started.

But if you're ready to implement your API in use on the web, then you're going to need somewhere to host your site. Here at Fasthosts, we offer both cost-effective web hosting and domain name registration. Not only that, but we offer 24/7 support in case you run into any problems.

And if you're just getting started building your online presence, then why not have a look at our website builder as the foundation for your new website. You can also find in-depth guides on all areas of building an online business, and there are plenty of detailed articles over at the Fasthosts blog.