What is API integration?
API integrations are like the glue between applications and processes in this modern world run with data. They are part of almost everything in the digital world no matter the business or size of it. In API integration, the APIs of two or more applications are used to connect the applications so that they can share information or start processes in other applications. Before diving deeper into what exactly an API integration is, we need to understand what an API is in the first place.
What is an API?
API stands for Application Programming Interface and is a way of connecting between computers or computer programs. It can also be described as the rules that allow interactions between various different applications. This means that the purpose of it is to serve and communicate with other computers instead of humans. We need APIs to bring applications together and share data and execute predefined processes - without human interaction.
APIs can be thought of as the electrical outlets we have in our homes or the charging ports we have on our phones. Just like different countries have outlets and plugs that are a standard size and shape, so are APIs. Application programming interfaces are the ways to communicate with applications in a standard and defined way. And much like an iPhone has a different charging port compared to an Android phone, there are different types of APIs.
When you interact with websites, just like this blog, your browser is making API requests to retrieve the webpage texts, images and other content to you. In that scenario we do not talk about this retrieval as an integration.
APIs allow developers to communicate with applications in a programmatic way. This means that they can trigger certain actions to happen within an application or request for data from the application. These operations are called API requests or API calls. By adding logic around these API calls, they are a powerful way of connecting various systems or building entirely new applications.
When requests to an API are made between two systems and they do this repeatedly, the interaction is referred to as an integration between the two systems.
What is the difference between API and integration?
Integrations and application programming interfaces are not synonymous. APIs are simply the way to connect and request information from a system according to that system’s specifications. When integrating, the response provided by the system needs to be translated or transformed into the format accepted by the other system’s API. To keep this integration operational, it also needs a way to make these requests to the source and destination systems, or a way to react to requests that come from a source system. In other words, APIs are just the shores of two islands and an integration is a bridge in between them.
Why are API integrations important?
The importance of API integrations is hard to overlook in a world full of cloud-based products and applications. On average, organizations are using 80 applications and that number of tools will only continue growing as applications are becoming more specialized. However, the need to collaborate between teams, and departments internally and with vendors and customers externally is not going to go anywhere. This creates a dilemma; we use various tools to collaborate better, but if we’re not all on the same tool, it makes collaboration across teams worse.
Organizations must be able to manage their processes in ways so that applications are connected with each other and automatically process data for various tasks. API integrations allow organizations to automate processes between systems, and enhance seamless data sharing even across their organizational boundaries. Here are some of the main benefits of API integration.
API integration improves collaboration and helps to unify systems
When organizations are using multiple tools in their various processes, there are often gaps when a process needs to jump between the tools. Instead of attempting to consolidate all your operations into a single platform, API integration allows your teams to use the tools they are most comfortable with, but still allows for the process and information to flow automatically between the applications.
API Integration saves time and boosts efficiency
Manual and repetitive work destroys any efficiencies gained from streamlining a process. Each time someone needs to jump between multiple applications to get work done and spend time copy-pasting information between applications, they are doing work that can be entirely automated. While it may take only seconds to do, when you sum up all of the seconds spent across your organization, it quickly adds up to thousands of hours every year. API integrations save time from manual copy-pasting by automating the data flow and thus freeing up resources for more valuable tasks.
API Integration reduces errors and rework
When employees are required to gather, process, and report data manually, there is always the potential for errors and mistakes. Errors lead to rework and inefficiencies when employees need to perform some of the tasks again, or worse, it may lead to financial or reputational damage. Utilizing API integrations can reduce the need for human interaction and thus cut down on errors and possible rework.
Using different types of APIs vs. other alternatives?
The type of API you will need to work with when integrating often depends on what APIs the application vendor provides. Due to this lack of choice, it’s important to know what types of APIs you may face when integrating.
Different types of APIs
It's worth mentioning that 70% of the public APIs are RESTful. Most likely because they are more flexible to work with, have a lower learning curve, and work directly via HTTP instead of other transfer protocols.
SOAP stands for Simple Object Access Protocol and is a protocol defined by a standard, whereas REST is an architectural style. SOAP uses XML as its data format and the structure of the data is commonly defined in a WSDL (Web Services Description Language) document. The advantage of using a WSDL file means that how you can use the web service is strictly defined and well documented. The major downside, though, is that it allows for very little room for error when working with a SOAP web service and it becomes very cumbersome to integrate with.
XML or Extensible Markup Language is a similar markup language to HTML found on websites, with the difference that it does not have predefined tags to use. This leaves you with an opportunity to define your own tags that you can design specifically to your own needs. You can store, search and share data in XML format.
RPC stands for Remote Procedure Call. RPCs are known as the earliest form of APIs because they work to execute a block of code on a different server. Using RPC over HTTP it can become a Web API.
GraphQL is an open-source data query and manipulation language for APIs and a runtime for fulfilling the queries with your own existing data. It gives the clients the power to ask for what they need without getting the results they don’t need, making it easier to evolve APIs over time. It also provides a complete and understandable description of the data in your API and enables powerful developer tools.
API integration vs Flat-file integrations
Flat-file integrations are when your source data and in some cases your destination data must be represented in a file such as a CSV. With some systems it might be required to have this as an alternative to an API or a direct database connection. Compared to API, flat-file integrations store data in a simple way: one piece of data per line in a text file. Generally, flat-file integrations are too rigid for most integration use cases, and generally work well only to transfer batch files or overnight consolidation of accounting records.
API integration vs Integration using database scripts
Database script project is a series of command line scripts which are used to dump, erase, restore and merge databases. The best setup to work with database scripts is when developing within a version control environment. In these circumstances the primary goals are: keeping the database in sync with the code, preserving the ability to use the web GUI, enabling rapid development work and merging development and production databases together. Compared to API integration, database scripts are quick, easily replicable and best for migrating data – not as a long-term integration solution.
And the benefits of API integration? Well, let’s get into that now.
What is an example of API integration?
Say you want to collect contacts through your website that is running on WordPress.
You can create a form in WordPress and send that information via an API call to Hubspot to create a new contact in your CRM. If you’re using an external email automation tool to send newsletters to these contacts, for example, Mailchimp. Mailchimp would then be able to use the Hubspot API to retrieve the list of contacts that you would send emails to.
For many use cases, there are pre-built integrations that help you to do many of the integrations for you. However, they are often limited in what they can achieve. When you run into a situation like this, you will need a tool in between the two systems to handle the communication, i.e. to retrieve data from WordPress and then send it to Hubspot, or something that retrieves the data from Hubspot to be sent over to Mailchimp. If you also want to update your contact records in Hubspot to know whether certain emails have been sent, you will need to have an integration that pulls the information of whom an email was sent to in Mailchimp and then send that field back over to Hubspot.
To achieve this, you basically need some way of running these API calls. Setting this up on your own can be costly, as you not only have to worry about making these API calls, you need to maintain this infrastructure, keep it secure, and scale it as your needs grow.
How do you integrate an API?
Building an API integration requires a deep understanding of each of the systems you are connecting to each other - and a bit of technical knowledge. Consider using this framework when planning your integration:
- Outline what is the business case for the integration: What problems are you solving with this integration and how will the end-user interact with the integration?
- Collect internal teams and resources: What are the additional tools and processes I need for building the integration?
- Research the relationship between data in each system: What parts of these systems should I connect to ensure a clean data transfer?
- Build and test the integration
- Monitor the performance of it
As well as the technical side, there are project-related considerations to be made:
- What tools do we have available for integrations?
- Who is responsible for the development and maintenance of the integrations?
- How much would it cost for the project, and the ongoing maintenance costs?
Options for building an API integration - with code, native or tools and platforms
At this point, you're most likely wondering what are the different ways of building an API integration and what would be the best solution for you. Read the pros, cons and costs of different options below.
Building it yourself
When building the API integrations yourself with a hand-written script you will have the freedom to customize it as you like. No restrictions on what can be accomplished.
Hand-written script from a software developer with a comprehensive understanding and knowledge of the API documentation is required for custom-built integrations. This method gained popularity a few years ago, but the high cost of customized development (and continuous maintenance) has made it less appealing in comparison to other integration options. Taking this strategy might also be quite time-consuming.
Depending on the complexity of the interface and the time investment of your developers, a single API integration can easily cost $10,000 to $100,000 or more. Pre-built integration and automation technologies, on the other hand, can dramatically reduce your costs and save your developers numerous hours of effort.
Using a native connector application
These are usually SaaS applications focused on establishing API connections that allow other SaaS applications and systems to communicate with one another. Data communication between two well-known software platforms is made easier with connector programs. Connectors are inexpensive, make typical API solutions faster to install, and make connections easier to manage and maintain. They also eliminate the necessity for API administration.
The out-of-the-box API connectors that come with your various software programs should theoretically address all of your difficulties as you continue to use these apps for marketing, sales, and revenue tasks.
You already know that in the real world, one-size-fits-all solutions rarely work. Your issues and use cases are unique to you and your team. There's another issue here: your tech stack isn't likely to consist just of Salesforce and Marketo. If you work in marketing, for example, your tech stack could comprise any of the thousands of marketing programs available.
While the vast majority of current business applications have APIs that may be used by business users, only a few of them offer customisable, native connectors with thousands of other tools. This implies that getting all of your applications to talk to one other in the way you need them to isn't something that just happens.
In reality, you'll be dealing with stoppages as apps de-sync, lead data is lost or duplicated, and you deal with all of the other hassles you've grown accustomed to. Trying to get your data to sync frequently necessitates error-prone human labor, hacky solutions, or submitting an IT help ticket.
Native connectors are an inexpensive way to integrate as they are often provided free of charge by a software vendor through their integration marketplaces. If the connector is provided by an external 3rd party, it might cost up to $100 to purchase the connector. Configuring the connectors is usually an easy task, so a non-technical user may be able to set everything up, without the need for paying for developers.
Buying an integration platform i.e. an iPaaS
Multiple API integrations are most commonly the province of middleware integration tools designed to connect various software applications. Small organizations can use simple point-to-point connectors (functions that literally connect one software application to another) all the way up to large corporate software packages.
On the market, you'll normally find two types of middleware integration tools:
- Lightweight SMB: Because these products are frequently more user-friendly, they are well-suited to the demands of small and mid-sized businesses (SMB). They can't always assist enterprises that require deeper, more complex integrations to complete complex tasks.
- Heavy-duty enterprise: These solutions have a more comprehensive set of features, but their front-ends are complex and require coding. Engineers are frequently used by businesses to engage with applications like this. Not everyone will be a good fit, especially revenue professionals who need to respond to changing market conditions (and can't wait for IT tickets to modify).
If you opt to use a middleware integration tool or iPaaS, there are a few things to think about:
Will the solution you're considering adequately deliver notifications for critical events like data or runtime errors? Will it just come to a halt without warning?
Will your solution charge for integration services in order for you to scale? Unfortunately, numerous early middleware technologies continue to use antiquated pricing methods that impose extra fees per user or each connectivity.
Data scalability - Will your solution be able to scale to meet your task-specific requirements? You need a system that can manage changing quantities of data as you increase your processes to flow more data between your various stack applications to assist you to complete your most important tasks.
Scalability of connectors - Will your solution be able to provide support for new connectors or improve existing connectors in a timely manner? If the tool you're looking into doesn't handle your specific use case and doesn't have a track record of swiftly developing native integrations, it can be a while before it does!
iPaaS is a very flexible and powerful way to integrate, however, the freedom comes with a caveat. Although the requirement for technical know-how is lower, compared to writing code to integrate, you will still need people who are capable of building the integrations.
Integration developers who are skilled at architecting integrations and building them with an iPaaS may be harder to come by and require a specific skillset that increases the cost of building integrations. Hence, purchasing an iPaaS is a significant and strategic investment.
A better alternative to integrate APIs (ONEiO)
You don't have to bother about building it yourself with ONEiO, and upkeep is taken care of for you. In contrast to an iPaaS, you aren't constructing everything from the ground up; instead, you are purchasing a ready-made solution.
Fortunately, there's an even better way to get over the constraints of traditional middleware and do smooth API integrations that are tailored to your individual requirements: an Integration Automation Platform.
ONEiO solves all of your API integration needs throughout your stack by using endpoints that are both flexible and accessible enough to let you construct them without coding.
With ONEiO, you can:
Ensure that integrations are never out of date: Adapting to any changes made to APIs is no longer a worry for you as ONEiO's endpoint types are continually updated to match any new functionality or needs.
Reach full automation even for the most complex business logic: Connect your several cloud services and automate tasks between them, such as having marketing automation update lead status in CRM based on conditional requirements you create.
Enjoy user-friendliness: A user-friendly interface that allows business users, not just engineers, to directly integrate their tech stack. ONEiO provides an interface that lets you get up and running in minutes.
Limitless scalability: Infrastructure built on the cloud handles even the largest volumes of transactions and growing usage over time. Integrations to new tools is possible through the ever-growing library of ONEiO endpoint types.
Never stress about breaking integrations: ONEiO comes with comprehensive alerting and analytics tools to assist you to swiftly detecting any issues. 24/7 monitoring by ONEiO's operations team ensures you can rest easy and no longer worry about integrations breaking.
Interested in learning more about ONEiO’s alternative to API integration? Get in touch with one of our integration experts below.