A short introduction to APIs: what are they and how do they work?

We interact with APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, daily. But what exactly are they? Guest writer, Hardus Swanepoel, breaks it down for us.

2 years ago   •   2 min read

By Angelique Tzanakakis

Clients and colleagues often ask me “Hardus, what is an API?”. In my experience, before I even finish my first sentence, I am met with the classic thousand-yard stare. I quickly realised that I needed an easier way to explain that an API is a set of programming code that enables data transmission between one software product and another. So, in this post, I’ll explain how I do it.

Let’s bring it back to something we all are familiar with, the Licencing Department. We’ve all been there, standing in that seemingly never ending queue. But the interaction is very much the same as any API. Except for the never ending part, that’s not what we want.

When you need to renew your license disk for your car, you need to complete a form, let’s call that a request. This form has very specific blocks and sections that need to be filled, we’ll refer to that as the schema. In order for your request to be processed, the desk agent would then use your ID to confirm that you are the owner of the car, we’ll refer to this as authentication.

Once this process has been completed, you receive your green printed form with your license disk, and we’ll call this the response. From your response you cut out your disc and stick it in your windshield. Done. The below image illustrates this:

If you compare the above to the one below, you will notice that the way APIs work is not that different.

And there you have it, a very basic overview of how an API works. APIs can become more complex, have different schemas, authentication and authorisation methods.

Now let’s take this a step further and bring the conversation to a daily activity. We’ve all used Google search. You type in what you are looking for, press the enter key, and receive results of listen pages that match your search.

By doing that you have interacted with an API. You provided a request and received a response. In this instance, the schema is the text you put into the search box. As for authentication, if you’re logged into Chrome with your Gmail account you are authenticated automatically. However you also don’t need to be authenticated to use this API.

And there we have it, a very quick, high level overview of what APIs are and how they work. At DotModus, we have cloud and data experts who handle the technical side when we provide clients with bespoke solutions. Reach out to us here to find more about what we have done for other clients and what we can do for you.

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