The Impact of APIs in the SaaS industry

Dr. Patrick Desbrow, Ed.D. - CIO and VP of Engineering, Crownpeak
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Dr. Patrick Desbrow, Ed.D. - CIO and VP of Engineering, Crownpeak

The Software as a Service (SaaS) industry has been evolving over the last 15 years. Today, we take it for granted that consumers and business professionals rely on commercial software products hosted in the cloud and priced as a subscription model. Some of the largest products in this space include: Salesforce, Office365, Google Apps, and others. These products represent a shift in the technology industry from software that was once hosted on premise in local data centers and accessed through graphical user interfaces (GUIs) applications installed on PC desktops. The current SaaS model hosts software in cloud-based data centers such as Amazon Web Service (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and others. These applications are now accessed through web browsers, updated regularly, and administered remotely through sophisticated virtualized management tools.

GUI replaced with APIs

These browser-based web applications are graphics in nature and are created by teams of software engineer and user experience (UX) designers. This is the most common method that customers and partners use to access SaaS platforms. However, there is an alternative method to accessing these platforms called web APIs. Application programming interfaces are the non-graphical access method used by a growing population of developers. Web APIs have been common place in IT since 2000. APIs gained a high level of usage with the transition from Simple Open Access Protocol (SOAP) interfaces to RESTful services after 2005. This change standardized the API endpoints from free form names and parameter lists to standard HTTP calls such as GET, PUT, POST, and DELETE. This has made it far easier for developers, programmers, and application engineers to learn and consume these endpoints.

Looking forward, the future is very bright for APIs in the SaaS industry. The evolution of faster and more intuitive API solutions has led to innovations such as Headless Interfaces, Microservices, and API Gateways.

APIs make SaaS products headless

Many software companies have invested for years in web APIs as a viable alternative access method for programmers. However, a new group of software companies are offering web APIs as the primary and perhaps only access method to their SaaS platform. The term for this is a “Headless” experience when the largest portion of the platform consumers access the web services directly thereby going around the traditional user interface.

 Looking forward, the future is very bright for APIs in the SaaS industry. The evolution of faster and more intuitive API solutions has led to innovations such as Headless Interfaces, Micro Services, and API Gateways. 

This can be seen as a bold move to lead with a web interface engineered exclusively for an external developer community. For this to work the API must be simple, clear and very well documented for the customers. Simple is key. The external developer community contains programmers with a very wide range of skill levels. Most full stack developers can easily navigate and consume even the most confusing set of API endpoints. However, the headless software companies need every member of the developer community to really enjoy using their platform. Excellent documentation is critical. A great API with limited documentation may be effectually invisible to the developer community. Creating great document includes: class definitions, real world examples, turn-by-turn instructions, and online help from the company’s support organization when necessary. Crownpeak is one example of a digital experience leader in the SaaS industry that has invested over the last few years in web APIs as a viable alternative for their Content Management Platform.

Microservices

The most agile software companies are adopting Microservices as another way to make API endpoints easier to consume. Today most APIs are based on self-contained, abstracted, and encapsulated functionality. Behind these endpoints are object oriented development languages designed or refactored recently into web service modules. These modules divide the SaaS platform into the major functional areas. They often mimic the features found in the traditional graphical user interface.

Microservices provide an alternate approach to web services endpoints. These services are smaller in size with a single purpose. They can be developed, deployed, and replaced separately as part of an automated continuous delivery plan. The move to Microservices requires a new level of refactoring. The goal is to create an API that is simple in design that can be used by developers of all skill levels.

API Gateways

Software companies in the SaaS industry must ensure their APIs are designed for scalability in order to grow quickly without service disruptions and frustrating customers. They often look outside the company to help with this challenge. API Gateway providers offer solutions to ensure scalability in all of its different forms. These software companies pass their SaaS platform web services through an API Gateway to guarantee performance, security, high availability and documentation support.

The API Gateway vendors ensure that the IT Infrastructure will expand and respond to the additional traffic as more users consume these services. Scaling can be accomplished by adding more machines to the server farms automatically within their cloud-based data centers. These vendors can also limit individual access to the environment, also known as rate limiting, in order to ensure the SaaS platform is not overloaded.

These API Gateway vendors are also designed with security controls limiting access with authentication processes that defend again hackers and other unauthorized users. The most common options are key passing, basic authentication, and OAuth over secure encrypted connections (HTTPS).

These environments must be supported by an IT Infrastructure that is always available with a goal of at least 99.9 percent uptime. This is possible with the use of High Availability (HA) technologies such as redundant server farms located in more than one data center. This is easily accomplished with cloud based computing platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS). These environments leverage monitoring tools that trigger alerts when issues begin to appear.

The API Gateway vendors can also help with documentation support. They provide tools to quickly create high quality materials that is very well organized and easy to discover. A software company’s existing documentation can be imported into these tools and updated regularly as part of the normal software release process. Companies such as Crownpeak have greatly benefited from partnering with API Gateway vendors such as AWS to ensure performance, security, high availability and documentation support.

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