What is an API?

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What is an API?

What is an API? The term API stands for ‘Application Programming Interface’ and it’s something online users interact with on a daily basis, even though they can’t see it.

When you use a website, it’s made up of a few different bits;

  • The front-end part is what you can see on screen
  • The server is where the data sits - sometimes this is a physical storage box, but more commonly the server is in the Cloud
  • You then need a way to connect the front-end to the server - this is where an API comes in.

When you use any application on your phone, the application accesses the internet and sends data to a server. The server then retrieves the data, reads it, and sends it back to your phone in a readable way. An API can be used to connect the entire website to another server, or just an isolated aspect on the web page. To put this into perspective, let’s look at some everyday examples of an API in action:

Examples of an API in action

E-Commerce

When you shop online, often the payment part of the process is fulfilled by a third party payment gateway.

This means that when you check out of your basket, the website uses an API to call the server of the payment provider (e.g. Paypal) and you’ll complete payment through them. Even though you’ll usually remain on the same website and won’t notice anything changing, what’s happening in the background is the website calling the third party payment provider with an API.

This way, the online shop doesn’t need to create a bespoke payment service, including security, bank authorisation and Terms and Conditions. They can simply piggyback off the existing process of the third party provider, without disrupting that all important end-user’s experience.

Images and Video

When you are scrolling on Facebook and see a hilarious cat video, you’ll click the ‘play’ button and the video starts to play instantly. What you don’t see is that Facebook needs to contact the server of the video provider (using an API) to retrieve the content and allow the video to play.

Similarly, when you view an image gallery on your favourite craft beer website, the images need to load. So, when you click on the gallery, the website calls the image server to load the images so you can happily scroll through the gallery of mouthwatering beers. All thanks to the API.

Calendar tools

Remember when we used to go out and do things, before lockdown? Well, whenever you visited your favourite events website, like Timeout or Ticketmaster, you would select a date range or specific date using a calendar tool.

Imagine if, every time you clicked a date, the entire web page needed to reload? This would be time consuming and frustrating for you as a user.

Instead, you can interact with the calendar and play around with dates in a fluid way. Each time you select a date, the website calls the server via an API. It might check availability or see if there is any content to present that’s relevant to that date.

You’ll see the information appear on screen instantly, but it’s the API that’s done all the hard work in the background.

How is an API created?

APIs are used so commonly that they’re almost as easy to get hold of as a pint of milk down your local Co-Op!

Developers can write an API from scratch, which is particularly useful if there’s a niche requirement or the subject matter is quite complex.

For more common website designs and application development projects, developers can even use existing APIs. If they’ve developed an API previously that matches the requirement, they can use this and then develop on top of it to add the latest requirements. Or, it’s possible to source an API that has been written by developers at other companies if they’ve made these public.

This flexibility means that developers can create or use an API in the most efficient way to suit their needs.

The benefits of an API

Back in the old days of website development (circa early nineties), whenever an end-user made a request on a website, the entire website would reload.

So if the user clicked an image or a contact button, the entire website needed to make a request to the server. It would reload a new presentation of the site with the information the user had requested.

This took time and often caused the website to overload and crash. The API solves this issue because it isolates the user’s request to the exact bit they need and only requests the information for that request.

This means the rest of the website continues performing as normal and the user’s request can be fulfilled much quicker.

API integration by Digital Detox

At Digital Detox, we provide a full stack development service to clients. When APIs are required, we’ll investigate the best API integration to provide value and useful functionality to end-users.

We’ll tailor the API to the specific user needs and existing system constraints to make sure it functions as expected, and doesn’t introduce any issues or bugs when it’s exposed to your existing platform.

Now we’ve solved your ‘what is an api?’ question, find out more about what Digital Detox do by getting in touch, or visit our Case Studies section to see our work in action!