Introduction

Imagine you were suddenly transported to a foreign city where you don’t speak the language—in fact, every person you encounter speaks a different language, and you aren’t even sure which one they are. That’s the situation faced by many developers and users today as they try to integrate different software and systems.

One of the greatest challenges of modern computing is its complexity. With millions of different software applications, services, and systems currently in use, each one is speaking its own “language." How can they ever hope to have meaningful communications by exchanging information with each other?

So what can you do in the face of this spiraling complexity and lack of universal communication standards? The answer, for many organizations, is using a REST API. But what is a REST API, exactly, and why do you need one? We answer these questions and more below.

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Table of Contents

What Is a REST API?

An API (application programming interface) is a set of functions and protocols that enables communications between different software applications or systems. The API establishes a collection of commands that users can invoke to retrieve the information that they’re looking for in an organized, programmatic manner.

REST (representational state transfer) is a style of software architecture that defines constraints on how different systems communicate. An API that complies with these REST principles is known as a “REST API.” The six principles of REST (five required, and one optional) are:

  • Client-server architecture: REST APIs separate the client (the one requesting information) from the server (the one possessing information). The client does not have to worry about how the server stores and retrieves data.
  • Uniform interface: Whether the client is a software application, a browser, a mobile app, or something else entirely, it can access and use the REST API in the same way.
  • Statelessness: The server does not have to remember the client’s state. All the client’s requests must be “stateless,” so each request must include all necessary information (such as the client’s authentication details).
  • Cacheability: REST servers can cache data and reuse it for other requests in the future.
  • Layered system: REST APIs may have multiple intermediary layers between the client and the server. However, the client does not have to know these implementation details.
  • Code on demand (optional): Clients may download code (e.g. Java applets or JavaScript scripts) to access additional functionality at runtime.

Related Reading: How to Make a REST API

4 Reasons Why You Need a REST API

We’ve discussed what a REST API is—but why do you need a REST API? In this section, we explore four excellent reasons to use a REST API in your organization.

Related Reading: Why You Need a REST API Connector for Data Management

1. Simplifies Development

If APIs didn’t exist, developers would have to write a separate communication protocol for each third-party software or service with which they wanted to communicate. Not only would this be tremendously time-consuming and technically complex, but it would also be highly brittle—if one of the systems changed, it could break the entire protocol and force developers to start from scratch.

Creating an API establishes a “lingua franca” for wildly divergent systems to speak to each other. Rather than having to learn each other’s unique “language,” both entities can communicate in a common format, which can also be used by any other application or service.

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2. Provides an Abstraction for Technical Details

Even if everyone spoke the same “language,” communicating between two different systems would still be technically challenging without an API. Developers would have to dive deep into low-level concepts such as data formats and data transfer, making it more challenging and laborious—and preventing you from getting quick, easy access to the information you need.

APIs solve this problem by presenting a clean, smooth layer of abstraction over the messiness of the underlying technical implementation. Instead of working with low-level communications protocols, developers simply have to look up the syntax of how to send a high-level REST API request—a much easier task. With the right REST API, you don’t need to understand the specifics of how the server stores or retrieves the data you’re looking for. You only care about the results that it sends back in response to your request.

3. Most Popular API Architecture

REST isn’t the only API architecture out there. The older simple object access protocol (SOAP) architecture is still in use among a minority of organizations. However, REST is by far the predominant choice for building APIs. According to a 2017 report, 83% of APIs use the REST architecture, while 15% make use of SOAP. Meanwhile, just 2% rely on neither of these and instead use Microsoft’s .NET architecture.

The status of REST as the most popular API architecture carries with it a number of valuable benefits. For example, it’s easier to find tools and tutorials for working with REST APIs. Tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Twitter all actively promote REST APIs for accessing and using their services.

4. Technical Benefits

Why is REST more widespread than SOAP and other API architectures in the first place? Much of its popularity has to do with the inherent technical advantages of the REST architecture. In fact, REST was created in part as an answer to some shortcomings of SOAP.

The technical benefits of REST APIs include:

  • REST is compatible with a variety of messaging formats, including XML, YAML, and JSON. However, SOAP only uses XML. This makes REST more flexible and lightweight for certain use cases.
  • REST is much “leaner” than SOAP, without much overhead beyond the HTTP request itself. This makes the performance of REST slightly faster for servers, and much faster when traveling over the network. In contrast, it is necessary to wrap SOAP messages in an “envelope.”

How Xplenty Can Help with REST APIs

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REST APIs have a wide range of use cases—so how can you actually harness the power of REST APIs for your own organization? More and more, businesses are turning to automated ETL tools like Xplenty.

Xplenty is a powerful, feature-rich ETL and data integration platform for building data pipelines between your data sources and your cloud data warehouse. The Xplenty platform comes with a simple, user-friendly drag-and-drop interface and more than 100 pre-built connectors and integrations—including a REST API connector.

Related Reading: Xplenty’s REST API Connector

Need to fetch data from a third-party website or service, like YouTube or Twitter? Xplenty’s REST API connector can help. You can also use Xplenty to build REST APIs that retrieve data from internal systems without a fully exposed database layer.

Ready to learn how to build REST APIs with Xplenty? Get in touch with our team of data experts today for a chat about your situation, or to start your pilot of the Xplenty platform.