Why Do I Need an API-First Approach in App Development?

Jenna Rodrigues
July 13, 2021

Once upon a time, at the turn of the century, tech giants were building platforms as monolithic applications. Updating code was like playing Jenga — you hope that the piece you touched won’t cause the entire building to crumble down. To solve this challenge, development teams started to use microservices and adopted its underlying principle, API-first approach to app development (sorry, not IPA!). Find out what it is and if it’s right for you.

What is an API-First Approach to App Development?

An application programming interface (API) is an interface that defines how multiple software applications (e.g., microservices) interact. An API-first approach prioritizes APIs over code-driven development. The development team starts with planning how the API will behave to connect various functions before coding the application. The programming process begins with the API, while the subsequent steps aim to preserve the consistency, reusability, and quality that APIs bring to the table.

What are the Benefits of an API-First Approach?

While the developers tinker away in their nerd nest, you may wonder what you can expect from the final product when you adopt an API-first approach to app development.

Faster Development Cycles

An API-first approach makes it possible for multiple teams to work on different aspects of an application simultaneously. Also, they don’t have to spend time developing every functionality from scratch because they can reuse “modules” already built. The increased productivity and efficiency helps to shorten development cycles.

Support Agile Development

The API-first process aligns with the principles of agile software development, which take advantage of rapid iterations. Using an API development environment, both technical and non-technical stakeholders can share their input early and often to develop a product that meets the needs of the business and end-users.

Reduce Development Costs

The methodology makes it easy to recycle code between projects. Thanks to such baseline architecture, development teams don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Developers can also troubleshoot API issues early and often without any code, further lowering the time and cost associated with the development process.

Improve Scalability

APIs allow you to easily integrate your app with other apps, systems, and more. REST APIs, in particular, create “loose” connections that minimize dependencies. You can respond to fluctuating demands by deploying, replicating, or destroying instances of a specific microservices app component with ease.

Increase the Ease to Upgrade

The minimal dependency of well-designed APIs supports pluggable, component-based architectures. This gives you the flexibility to add, remove, or upgrade individual services with a low risk of affecting other parts of the system. You can more easily improve your app to meet fast-changing customer expectations.

Shorten Time-to-Market

The API-first approach supports automation, which enables even novice developers to work quickly with the API documentation. Since you can efficiently scale or update the product, you can release frequent updates to meet market demands or even reap the benefits of a first-mover advantage.

What are Microservices?

Microservices are often mentioned alongside API. How are they related?

Microservice architecture is a software systems development method that focuses on building modules with a single function and well-defined operations. It supports agile development, enables continuous testing, and allows enterprises to move towards a DevOps model.

Back when most applications were developed as a monolithic unit, the big clump of codes was like a house of cards — making even minor changes to one portion could affect the entire system. Imagine how cumbersome it was for behemoths like Amazon, Netflix, Uber, and Etsy to wrangle their codes!

That’s why the big boys have switched to microservices. The modular approach builds an application as a collection of smaller services. Each of them runs on its own, has its own programming language, and can be deployed independently. These microservices are connected via APIs (ta-da!), so it’s possible to leverage the same tools and solutions in different parts of the system.

How to Implement an API-First Approach to App Development

While it’s not rocket science, implementing an API-first approach does require planning, cooperation, and enforcement. Well-orchestrated collaboration among developers, key stakeholders, and future users can help create an adaptable, developer-friendly, and compatible product. Here are the key steps:

1. Formulate Project Objectives With Users and Stakeholders

Identify internal stakeholders and the API consumers. Collaborate with these individuals during the planning stage to ensure that the API is easy to use while satisfying their requirements and use cases. List out the key functions and services, then determine the API endpoints you need to meet those needs.

2. Take Stock of the Application Ecosystem

If you’re integrating with an existing system, find out what you’re dealing with by understanding application silos, disparate backend systems, data handling requirements, and more. You can then identify possible integration points and integration requirements to satisfy current objectives and accommodate future expansion.

3. Create an API Contract for Each Project

The API contract brings every developer involved onto the same page by codifying the standards and best practices everyone must adhere to when building the API. Design and document the API to ensure compatibility and consistency. Also, apply reusable standards to improve efficiency. While there are various standards, OpenAPI is the most widely used.

4. Develop a Company-Wide API Style Guide

To fully tap into the efficiency, scalability, and cost-saving benefits of an API-first approach, every development team in your organization must follow the same consistency and reusability standards. An API style guide codifies status codes, error handling, versioning strategies, and more to ensure that there’s a method to the madness when you have different people working on various parts of the platform.

5. Enforce API Governance

Your API style guide is only as good as how well your teams are following it. API governance enforces the standards through peer reviews of the APIs and the application codes. It involves policies that concern versioning, tracking, documenting, deprecating, and integrating APIs.

An API-First Approach Isn’t Just About Coding

Ultimately, an API-first approach should help you streamline the app development process. It should allow you to shorten product cycles, increase speed-to-market, and lower development costs while creating an app that can adapt to fast-changing demands and meet user expectations.

When you work with a full-service digital product agency, you can be sure that an API-first approach is applied with a focus on achieving your overall business objectives. Here at Camber, we start thinking about APIs at the product strategy stage to help you get the most of this methodology. Get in touch to see how we can help you leverage the latest app development best practices to build a robust and profitable app.

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