Innovation through Automation: How are today’s businesses using APIs?

We are seeing businesses across a range of industries make increasingly innovative use of technology to both drive down costs and improve product offerings. To gain a competitive advantage, many IT departments and service providers are increasingly looking to APIs (Application Programming Interfaces – sets of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications) to enable automation, allowing them to increase consistency and efficiency while significantly reducing costs. How are businesses doing this? And what are the opportunities for future development?   

Using APIs to improve operational consistency   

One important outcome of the automation enabled by APIs is consistency. Through automation, businesses remove human error (and human expense) from operational processes. Even if a repeatable task is well-documented with a clear procedure, when human workers perform the task it is likely you will end up with varied outcomes. On the other hand, if that repeatable task is automated through APIs, it will be performed in the same way every time, improving operational reliability and, in turn, operational efficiency. API-enabled platforms are driving a true re-think in how we manage IT; we are moving quickly from a process-driven, reactive world to an automation-driven, proactive world. 

Streamlining resources by automating DevOps processes 

APIs allow for more dynamic systems that can scale up and down to deliver just the right amount of infrastructure to the application at all times. For example, instrumentation in your application that provides visibility to an orchestration layer can tell when more capacity is required in the web or app tiers. The orchestration layer can then come back to the APIs provided by the infrastructure and begin spinning up new web servers and adding them to the load balancer pool to increase capacity. Likewise, systems built on APIs will then have the instrumentation to tell when they are overbuilt, for example, at night, and can then use the APIs to wind down unnecessary servers to reduce costs.   

Indeed, through the ability to script the powering-on of development and testing environments at the start of the business day and automatically powering-off at the end of the business day, businesses can realise huge cost-savings on their hosting: up to 50-60 per cent depending on the nature of the business. 

Overall, leveraging APIs in support of a DevOps strategy is always a blend of optimising for cost, for performance and the ability to have deep app-level visibility.   

Using APIs to produce meaningful insights from vast datasets 

APIs are also highly useful in reporting procedures, as many applications are now producing vast amounts of data that are often an untapped asset. To exploit this, IT teams need to think about how to efficiently make those datasets available to build a dynamic reporting engine that can potentially be configured by the end user, who will be the person that understands the nature of the information they need to extract from the data.   

This is often accomplished through APIs. IT teams and application services providers can use APIs to build systems that process the data and make it accessible to end users immediately, meaning they don't have to go through a reporting team and don't lose any of the real-time value of their data.   

APIs as a core component of disaster recovery solutions 

The benefits of automation through APIs make them a crucial part of modern disaster recovery (DR) approaches. The assumption that you’ll be able to access all tools you would need during a disaster through the regular user interfaces is not always true. In the modern world of highly virtualised infrastructure, APIs are the enabler for the core building blocks of disaster recovery, in particular replication, which is driven from the APIs exposed by the virtualisation platforms. The final act of orchestrating DR, failover, is now also often highly API-dependent, for these reasons.   

In essence, DR is one specific use case of the way that APIs enable efficiency and operations automation. Humans make mistakes and processes can become very difficult to maintain and update. Therefore, a DR plan based on humans executing processes is not an ideal option to ensure the safety of your business in the event of a disaster. Kicking off DR can be likened to “pressing the big red button”. However, if you can make it one button that kick-starts a set of automated processes, this will be much more manageable and reliable than thirteen different buttons, each of which has a thirty-page policy and procedure document that must be executed during a disaster. 

Opportunities for new uses of APIs   

Despite the clear benefits of API-enabled automation and technology, the broader IT industry has not yet fully realised the potential of this technology, particularly in industries that have been leveraging information technology for a long time. In these industries, we are seeing a critical mass of legacy applications, legacy approaches to managing infrastructure, and legacy staff skillsets.   

It is likely that the younger generation coming into the IT industry will move towards more comprehensive API use and maximise the value of APIs, because this generation has grown up with them and been trained in their use.  As we see disruptors displace incumbent packaged software players and new entrants to the enterprise IT community, we are likely to see more realisation of the benefits of API use – particularly when these organisations make full use of cloud infrastructure. However, this will take time, and we may be one to two full education cycles away from producing and maturing enough entry-level IT professionals that have the education and training required to fully make use of the opportunities offered by APIs, particularly cloud ones.   

When used as part of cloud computing solutions, APIs can also reduce the cost of launching new businesses. When a start-up is developing the IT infrastructure it needs to run, it can now use cloud infrastructure as-a-service platforms to quickly start the business and keep costs low by using APIs to control and power systems up and down as needed. Entrepreneurs that want to develop an idea into a business no longer need to invest in costly equipment up front to get their business started, which significantly lowers the cost, and therefore risk, involved.    

After the initial set-up phase, start-ups can easily scale on the same cloud infrastructure as they grow. In order to stay ahead of the market, businesses must make full use of new API-enabled software in order to take full advantage of the benefits and cost savings that they can offer. Additionally, to fully realise the benefits of APIs, they should be fully integrated into the design and development of cloud solutions, rather than an add-on feature that is implemented later at an additional cost. Moving forward, we are likely to see an increasing number of creative uses of APIs to drive efficiency, automation and consistency at both start-ups and existing businesses.   

David Grimes, VP of Engineering at Navisite

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