API demystified

Happy people

What is an API

A = Application

P = Programming

I = Interface

API or Application Programming Interface is a set of functions and procedures that enable applications to access the features or data of another application, service, etc.

an interface that allows different applications to communicate with each other

is how applications can communicate and utilize functionalities of each other

For example: You do not control or understand the YouTube system, but can still programmatically interact with YouTube features - writing codes that search, update titles, get video statistics, etc. - through sets of functions provided by the YouTube team - that is the YouTube API.

Analogy: API is like a waiter

Imagine different applications are like different restaurants. Then the API is like the waiter

To use services of a “restaurant”, you don’t go straight into the kitchen and cook food yourselves.

Instead, you communicate through a “waiter” who first presents you with a “menu” of available options - similar to real-life API doc that details available functions or endpoints.

With the help of the menu, you choose an appropriate dish and supply required components, then the waiter takes your info into the back “kitchen” for some mysterious processing

Finally, the chef finishes cooking, and the waiter returns with your desired “response”

Anatomy of a web API

One popular type of API is web API, which takes the form of a list of “endpoints” that you make HTTP requests to.

Four types of HTTP requests:

  • GET request: Typically employed to get some information
  • POST request: Typically employed to add some data to the system
  • PUT request: Typically employed to update existing information
  • DELETE request: Typically employed to delete information

As a result, POST and PUT endpoints often require additional data in the request’s body (e.g what content to add, who to update, etc.), and GET endpoints often employ query strings to filter the result.

An HTTP request can also have a header that contains useful metadata: origin, user-agent, authorization info, etc.

How to make a HTTP request

  • Browser JavaScript: Native fetch API, Axios package, etc.
  • Node.Js: Node-fetch package, Axios package, etc.
  • PHP: cURL library, etc.
  • Python: Requests library
  • Command line: curl
  • Extra tool: Postman, Hoppscotch.io

Make your own API

  • Python: Flask, Django, FastAPI, etc.
  • NodeJs: Express, Nestjs, Feathers, etc.
  • Java: Spring, etc.
  • PHP: Laravel, etc.

Final notes

  • Making an API is not only useful to the outside world but can also help separate concerns between the backend and frontend team: Backend creates API that processes business logic, and Frontend just consumes the endpoints.
  • Many APIs implement authentication to prevent unwanted access. Remember to check if authorization is needed (keyword: Token, API key, etc.) when you use another’s API
  • Remember to read API documentation carefully. Some bugs you encounter can be squashed by using the correct options and syntax described in the API doc.
  • Not all services have an API. In such cases, you might need other ways to access the service’s data, such as web scraping and crawling.