Thursday, October 19, 2017

How businesses are using APIs in their IT infrastructure to drive innovation

by David Grimes, VP of Product Engineering at Navisite

Companies are often seeking ways to reduce costs and increase efficiency, while simultaneously maintaining excellent quality in their products and services. IT departments and service providers are increasingly looking to use APIs (Application Programming Interfaces – sets of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications) to enable automation and therefore increase consistency and efficiency while significantly reducing costs. How are APIs being used by IT departments and what are the opportunities for further development?

Enhancing operational efficiency

One important outcome of the automation enabled by APIs is consistency. Through automation, businesses remove human error (and human expense) from operational processes. Even when a repeatable task is well-documented with a clear procedure, when human workers perform the task it is likely that you will end up with varied outcomes. On the other hand, if that repeatable task is automated, 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.

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 tier. 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 in order 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 in some cases.

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.

Automating reporting using APIs

APIs are also highly useful in reporting procedures, as many applications are now producing vast amounts of data that are often an untapped asset. IT teams therefore need to think about how to make those datasets available efficiently in order 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 that he or she needs to extract from the data.

This is frequently 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, so that they do not have to go through a reporting team and do not lose any of the real-time value of their data.

Using APIs to enable business continuity and disaster recovery

The benefits of automation through APIs make them a crucial part of modern disaster recovery approaches. The assumption that you’ll be able to access all of the tools that you would need during a disaster through the typical 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 also often highly API dependent, for these reasons.

In essence, disaster recovery 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.

The future role 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 utilise their cloud infrastructures fully.

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 reduce the cost of idea development, as innovative new businesses no longer need to invest in equipment up front to get their ideas up and running. Instead, using cloud infrastructure as a service platforms, start ups and entrepreneurs can quickly start their business on a pay as you go model and can keep costs low by using APIs to control and power systems up and down as needed.

Organisations can then quickly scale on the same cloud infrastructure, according to how quickly their product or service grows. To fully take advantage of the benefit of APIs, they should be fully integrated in the design and development of cloud solutions, rather than being an add on feature, which is implemented at a later stage, at an additional cost.

We are likely to see an increasing number of creative uses of APIs to drive efficiency, automation and consistency, as more innovative start-ups enter the technology industry. To gain competitive edge and stay ahead of the market, businesses must make full use of new API-enabled software in order to fully realise the benefits and cost savings that they can offer.