In a couple of weeks, I will be attending the API Strategy and Practice conference in Boston. As program chair of the 2015 edition (held in Austin last October), I am excited to see this year’s schedule, led by 2016 program chair (and senior product manager at Capital One DevExchange) Lorinda Brandon. When I attend, and as I talk with participants across the two and a half days, there is one question I will be asking speakers and participants alike: Are microservices killing the API conversation?
Let’s look back quickly at what has happened in the last two years:
In mid-2015, it looked like the global move towards APIs was gaining considerable attention across businesses of all sizes and industries. Just before that (in March last year), the idea of platform models grew when Tom Goodwin’s oft-repeated quote about Airbnb having no actual buildings and Uber having no cars went viral. APIs were neatly fitting into a story about how businesses can reorient towards a platform model.
Before that, APIs were being positioned as the enabling force behind “digital transformation”: the need for every business to be a digital business and to be responsive to customers online and via mobile. APIs would help businesses do that and allow them to create prototypes and products with a much faster time to market.
And before that, APIs were trumpeted as the enabler of integration, helping to move data and services from one system to another efficiently and without friction, duplication or the introduction of error.
The benefits of APIs come full circle
Of course, APIs provide all of those benefits, and in some ways the conversation has come full circle with integration returning as one of the strongest drivers for implementing an internal API strategy. Among enterprise, government services and growth companies, the need to connect various systems and software-as-a-service offerings that are used across a business’ operations is now driving much of the adoption of an API-based approach.
In the past few weeks, I have spoken with a a financial data supplier, a hospitality company, a major retail chain and a media outlet. They all point to integration as being their major revenue growth driver. The majority of the new customers coming to each of these businesses started the conversation by wanting to integrate with them via API.
The common denominator among these benefits of APIs and the discussions that are bubbling up from them is that they are principally business concerns. While the very name API (application programming interface) may be clunky, it is a term that is growing in recognition among business parlance. But there is still a lot of basic explaining work to do, especially to line-of-business management. To do that, innovation leaders charged with implementing an API strategy tend to try and describe the benefits of APIs without getting dragged down into too many technical discussions. The focus is on:
- Connecting systems (integration)
- Being more customer-centric (digital transformation)
- Helping create new revenue through new partnerships and business models (platforms)
The buzz around containers
But let’s go back to our timeline. So in mid-2015, the conversation changed. Container technology was gaining steam rapidly. The simplicity and power of container-based architecture excited many of the developers and systems architects who had been thinking through the technical implications of how to support a business to be more connected, customer-centric and platform-oriented.
And with containers, came a growing discussion about microservices. Today, only a year later, it is the dominant design paradigm being considered by enterprise and growth companies. Legacy systems are being reoriented towards a composable suite of small services and data assets that can each be put in a dockerized container and will have the consistency to run in any environment. I recently spoke with Foghorn Systems. The company offers an edge processing analytics platform that can be run in dockerized containers on small Linux processors. It is working with traditional, industrial sectors such as energy, manufacturing and agriculture, which are all embracing container architecture and microservice systems design.
Over the past month or so, I have been reviewing the uptake of APIs among banks, one of the slowest-moving industry sectors, and a focus on microservices is emerging even amongst the middle-of-the-pack players in each geographic market.
But this is a sector that is also a good example of how APIs are at risk of becoming a technical concern. In the race to move towards a microservices approach, banking is falling behind (except with some notable exceptions) in talking about open platforms, integration opportunities and how to embrace digital to meet customer expectations.
Finding the right balance
Conversations may start with the need for integration, customer centricity and new revenue streams, but once it moves on to how to use a microservices architecture to achieve those goals, the fear is that the projects are just handed over to technical implementation.
Is the discussion of microservices swamping the API conversation and relegating it to a technical issue rather than a business tool? I am worried that the dominant focus on microservices architecture is turning off and tuning out business and encouraging a new disconnect.
This is why I find the API Strategy and Practice conferences so inspiring: the program content balances how APIs can be used as a business strategic tool alongside talks on technical best practices for building and managing APIs. And microservices has been an important part of that conference conversation. Last year, they had Irakli Nadareishvili and Lori MacVittie each give keynote talks on implementing microservices architectures and DevOps models that were referenced by attendees for the following six months. This year, I see Lorinda has continued the idea of having a full session track on microservices.
For me, this is where the microservices discussion belongs: as a way to enable the value of APIs to surface and be accessible as a business strategizes how to move forward with faster product timelines, a greater array of partners and customer relationships, and with connected data and systems that make data flow seamlessly and automatically from one process to the next.
I’m interested to hear more experiences from my colleagues currently bridging business and technology about whether the enthusiasm for microservices is deafening the conversation on the business opportunities that APIs can create.
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