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January 25th, 2024

What is a Unified API?

Explaining the value of unified data structures and why developers should adopt a unified approach

The Developer’s Guide to Unified APIs

As developers, we constantly integrate new APIs to deliver value for our users. However, API integration remains an Achilles heel that throttles innovation. Modern applications can easily leverage dozens of APIs, yet each comes with its own authentication schema, data structures, endpoints, SDKs, and ambiguities. Simply put, APIs don’t speak the same language. This fragmentation slows down development velocity as we struggle to learn the intricacies of every API integration.

To visualize these challenges, let’s examine a few popular APIs:

  • Stripe: uses OAuth and API keys for authentication. Return data uses nested JSON structures.
  • Twilio: uses account SID and auth tokens for authentication. Returns XML or JSON responses.
  • GitHub: uses OAuth and JWTs for authentication. Returns JSON but paginates data differently than most APIs.
  • WeatherAPI: uses API keys with quota limits. Returns data in inconsistent formats depending on the endpoint.

As you can see, working with these APIs involves understanding four different authentication mechanisms, two data formats, and various pagination logics. Now multiply this across dozens of APIs, and you have a mess on your hands. No wonder developers waste so much time wrangling with integrations!

Enter unified APIs...

A unified API sits in front of multiple backend APIs and handles the dirty work of authentication, data normalization, and request routing so you don’t have to. It aims to provide a simplified, consistent developer experience across disparate providers.

Let’s explore how a unified API accomplishes this integration magic:

Streamlined Authentication

A unified API allows developers to authenticate once then connect to services across many providers. Rather than managing API keys and secrets for every integration, you just authorize against the unified API itself.

For example, a unified API may use OAuth to authenticate developers and assign identity tokens. Behind the scenes, it handles securely exchanging those tokens to obtain the necessary credentials for accessing each connected API.

The unified API may even apply additional access controls, allowing users to only access their own data across services. This abstracts away the complexity of applying fine-grained authorization across multiple APIs.

Normalized Data

One of the biggest pain points in any integration is normalizing data formats. JSON, XML, CSV, GraphQL, and other structures all make parsing responses complicated.

A unified API handles ingesting data from various APIs and converting it into a consistent schema before returning a response. This allows developers to rely on a standardized set of entities and attributes regardless of the backend data source.

For example, here is how a unified API normalizes a customer entity across APIs:

The unified API maps those equivalencies behind the scenes into its normalized format. Of course, the unified API still allows accessing non-standardized data as needed via passthrough methods. But it eliminates 80% of schema headaches for common use cases.

Unified Endpoints

Traditional integrations require you to learn the endpoints exposed by each API provider. A unified API simplifies this by providing a consistent set of endpoints like getCustomer(), createOrder(), or updateSubscription().

Under the hood, these unified endpoints fan out requests to the appropriate backends then aggregate and normalize the data before returning it to the caller. This avoids the need to manually dispatch requests across multiple APIs.

For example, getCustomer(custId) would interface with the Stripe, Twilio and GitHub APIs behind the scenes to collate and normalize data on the given customer. The developer just interacts with the unified endpoint contract.

Additionally, the unified API handles routing webhooks and events to a single standardized endpoint for processing. For example, you can subscribe to customerCreated events instead of managing individual webhook endpoints per API.

This event-driven interoperability abstracts away the challenges of consuming heterogeneous events across providers.

Unified Libraries

Beyond a consistent API interface, unified APIs also provide client libraries and SDKs for popular languages like JavaScript, Python, Java, .NET etc. These libraries handle the nitty gritty integration tasks like HTTP requests, authentication, pagination, and even local data caching.

Developers can just focus on business logic, calling simple methods like api.getCustomers() instead of wiring up complex HTTP client code for every API integration. Additionally, improvements and optimizations made to the unified SDK benefit all consumers.

Self-Service Onboarding

A good unified API makes it easy to integrate new APIs without involvement from the vendor. A self-service dashboard allows developers to connect their accounts with third-party services.

The unified API automatically normalizes the new API behind the scenes and adds it to the existing catalog of endpoints. Over time, the unified API becomes smarter by interoperating with more and more complementary services.

Monitoring and Analytics

Observability is crucial when aggregating multiple APIs. Robust monitoring provides visibility into uptime metrics, request throughput, API errors, and latency spikes across integrated services. Most unified API providers deliver monitoring dashboards out-of-the-box.

Analytics can further help identify usage trends across API endpoints. This data is invaluable for improving developer experience by addressing common pain points.

Compliance and Security

When providing a bridge across customer data, rigorous compliance and security processes are mandatory. Responsible unified API platforms undergo independent audits to certify they meet SOC2, ISO27001, GDPR, and other standards.

Encryption, access controls, key management, and robust infrastructure monitoring defend against data breaches. Ongoing penetration testing and third-party code audits also help identify and resolve vulnerabilities.

Unified API Benefits for Developers

Now that we've explored how unified APIs work, let's recap some of the benefits:

  • Faster time to market: Integrate new APIs rapidly without custom integration code
  • Lower maintenance costs: Underlying changes are abstracted away from your app
  • Consistent schemas: Avoid headaches of normalize data across APIs
  • Standard endpoints: Call unified methods instead of bespoke logic per API
  • Shared SDKs: Lean on maintained libraries with built-in best practices
  • Streamlined auth: No more juggling various credentials and expiry times
  • Normalized events: Handle events consistently without custom parsing
  • Improved reliability: Centralized monitoring provides better uptime
  • Analytics-driven: Usage analytics helps inform unified API improvements
  • Security assurances: Vetted platform adhering to strict compliance controls
  • Self-service: Instantly add new APIs without involvement from the vendor
  • Simplified integration: Integrate faster with less code using the unified interface
  • Future proofing: Support new APIs without refactoring your application

Should You Consider a Unified API?

Here are a few signs it may be time to evaluate implementing a unified API:

  • Your developers spend excessive time on integration tasks vs. core product work
  • Your team repeatedly builds one-off custom integrations to satisfy customer needs
  • You want to quickly support integration with new APIs with minimal engineering lift
  • Inconsistent API data formats create headaches for your front-end consumers
  • Consuming events and webhooks from different APIs requires heavy lifting
  • You lack visibility when downstream APIs experience degradations or outages
  • Engineering spends cycles updating integrations due to API provider changes
  • Onboarding new developers involves heavy ramp up on your various API integrations

If any of these resonate, you likely can benefit from offloading integration complexity to a unified API. The simplicity, consistency and time savings tend to deliver an extraordinarily high ROI.


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