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APIs and why they’re vital to your business systems

This is a guest post by Jon Eastgate – CTO of Job Management software company simPRO

What is an API?

We all know that techs and propellerheads (my term of endearment for developers) love their acronyms – and API is one you’ll see spouted wildly at the moment – particularly with the cloud trend in full swing.

API stands for “application programming interface”. Or in layman’s terms, it is a feature in software that allows it and other software to communicate and share their (and your) data.

Concept of social developmentYou may be surprised to learn that APIs have been in use for years, and are used for all sorts of things – from processing your Frequent Flyer points amongst retailers to processing payment for your eBay purchase. APIs weren’t just born of the internet – they have been used for decades to allow disparate software systems to share data.

APIs are getting some notice now because they are actually a really important reason the cloud has taken off so quickly. Without APIs, products like SalesForce, PayPal, Google Apps and Amazon would not have grown popular at such a pace. These products have been able to establish themselves at lightning speed because of their open and well-documented APIs that give other software vendors and businesses the option to integrate existing software and platforms into those new products and feature sets.

In the past, it was difficult to use a combination of software products, as each often had no ability (or desire) to communicate with other software. But with the advent of the cloud, suddenly every cloud software provider realises that businesses using their software will want to communicate and share data with many of the other cloud applications they use.

This is seen as a core feature in cloud circles.

Why you should have API in your systems?

If you are using the cloud, one of the first things you must consider when selecting a cloud software product or vendor is this – does their application provide an API?

Why? Because this simple little feature (simple to you and I, although propellerheads hate programming them) will give you the ability to build a FULL business system using a range of different software for different purposes that can communicate in real-time and automate many of the processes your staff are doing now.

APIs also replace the need for the old “export from one to import to another” phenomena. Most APIs can be used to both export and import data from many different systems – and with the right propellerhead, you can manage all sorts of wonderful data exchanges in real-time, potentially reducing your admin requirements substantially.

One of the really powerful features that an API delivers to your business is the ability to build reporting systems around the API, thus automating generation of business specific reports that you might need. In the past – even with your desktop software – you may have spent hours doing this via Excel or similar. Now with the cloud, you can build a report engine via your cloud software vendor’s API and even automate all these reports – daily, weekly, and monthly.
Why modern systems are so focused on API

Gone are the days when a small number of software products were used to run a business. In today’s highly commoditised software market there are software tools for just about every task and vertical you can imagine.

Software vendors realise their product will become part of a larger suite of products used from many different vendors. And they also know that by allowing you to build easy integrations to other systems, you are more likely to continue to use their product in the long term.

This makes you “sticky” to both their software and their subscription revenue model – as has become the new billing norm in the cloud.

Some cloud software vendors provide pre-build integrations to other cloud products. Take SalesForce. There are literally thousands of other cloud software products that provide a prebuilt, API-based integration and vice versa. However, almost every cloud vendor knows that they must now at least provide SalesForce integration, as so many business worldwide use SalesForce.

There are even companies like OneSaas who are actually building highly integrated middleware systems that allow one piece of software to openly communicate and share data with hundreds of other systems in near real-time. I dare say these sorts of systems will become a more regular part of your software suite.

What developers and cloud integrators can do with API

Good propellerheads can do almost anything with an API, from building reporting tools through to complete exchange of data including automated processing of payments, etc. The key to all such development work will be how extensible the cloud product’s API is – and what types of data it makes available via its API.

Developers can also use APIs from many products to build their own software products – almost like a collage of the various features from a group of other products. Good examples of this are many of the Apps you will find on your Apple and Android Smartphone. Most of the applications rely on an API to talk back to the main vendor’s system, and quite commonly also use other vendors APIs to provide additional data, ie map information via the Google Maps API, or take a payment via your mobile device.

As Chief Technology Officer at simPRO Software, I know that our big challenge over the next few years will be to integrate our cloud based software to many other cloud systems in our business space. We have provided an open API for developers to use for the past 6 years – but we’re now ramping up that API’s features, and also building out of box integrations into other products so that clients can use these integrations by simply turning them on. We do this with a number of existing legacy products such as MYOB and QuickBooks, and we are now providing integrations to new cloud software such as Xero and OneSaas.

This year we are actively working on integrations with Google Apps, Microsoft Office 365 and Gem Accounts. And we have a further list of about 20 products we plan to integrate to next year.