Tips to Building a Successful API – Part 3

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If you haven’t read part 1 and part 2 this API series, check the a links on the right 🙂

A successful API is more than a feature; when you view your API as a product, it can be an enabler of your business strategy. Part of the magic of APIs is that creative developers find uses that the API designers never envisioned. If APIs are well designed and easy to use, this can be an enormous benefit and opportunity, turning your service into a platform that can grow in many ways.

A successful implementation encourages developers to use it and share it with others, creating a virtuous cycle where each additional successful implementation leads to more engagement and more contributions from developers who add value to your service. A great API can help you grow an ecosystem of employees, customers, partners who can use and help you continue to evolve your API in ways that are mutually beneficial.

But the promise of APIs can only be realized when target consumers begin to use them. For internal developers, APIs introduce a new way of working and one that will require some buy-in. In addition, internal developers won’t use your API if they don’t believe it’s the best, most efficient way to achieve their goals. ell designed APIs that are easy to use will encourage adoption by internal developers, paving the way to a better-defined, more consistent and maintainable approach to development.

For public APIs, the situation is even more competitive. An ever-increasing pool of APIs is competing for developer’s attention, making the design and ease of use of your API critical to its adoption and ultimately, its success.

Unfortunately, too many API providers build theirs before thinking through the critical success factors, resulting in APIs that fail to meet business objectives. Delivering a great API isn’t hard if you follow a few proven principles. In this post, I’ll demystify some strategies by reviewing the 4 tips of a successful API.

Tip #1: Design for successful APX (API User Experience)

To deliver great APIs, design must be a first-order concern. Much like optimizing for UX (User Experience) has become a primary concern in UI development, optimizing for APX should be a primary concern in API development. An optimal API design enables applications, developers, to easily understand the purpose and functionality of the API so that they can quickly become productive using it. It also allows organizations to focus on getting the design right before investing in back-end implementation, which
is time-consuming and expensive to undo if design issues aren’t identified until after implementation.

The best way to design an API that developers want to use is to iteratively define the structure in an expressive manner and get feedback from developers on its usability and functionality along the way. The API Designer is an example of this concept in action. The API Designer is an open source design environment that leverages RAML, the RESTful API Modeling Language. The API Designer provides an editor for drafting the APIs structure while rendering in real-time an interactive console to enable interaction with the API.

As the API is designed, application developers can interact with it and test its behavior, thanks to an integrated mocking service that returns the values a call to the live API would produce. Because APIs designed in RAML( RESTful API Modeling Language) are concise and easy to understand, application developers can rapidly assess the APIs functionality and usability and offer concrete feedback on ways to improve it.

Tip #2: Optimize for use case scenarios

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all API. Even for the same underlying service or set of services, multiple APIs might be required to support different types of users and use cases. An API should be optimized to fulfill a specific business request in a specific context. Too often APIs are modeled after the design of the backend services or applications they expose instead of the use case they fulfill. This results in poor performance of the client application, poor user experience, and ultimately, poor adoption.

To optimize your API for a specific use case, think about how coarse or fine-grained it should be. For example, if you’re designing an API to enable access to sales order status from a mobile device, you need to consider the constraints of that use case. A mobile application has a higher sensitivity to number of network trips, latency and data size than a web application so this API should be designed to limit backend calls and minimize the size of data returned.

In addition, this use case is fairly granular – the API will lookup an order based on the order number and return a status. Therefore, the API should expose this specific fine-grained functionality so it can be invoked independently.

If the underlying service it accesses is coarse-grained and you anticipate building
additional APIs on that service to address additional use cases, consider a tiered approach. Expose fine-grained services that users can access directly, and add coarse-grained services on top of them to support broader use cases. Users can choose to call the fine-grained APIs directly or if they need the combined functionality of multiple fine grained calls they can use the coarse-grained APIs. This API designed in API Designer is an example of an API optimized for this case.

Tip #3: Provide super easy access

Finding an audience for your API begins with publishing it to a portal that allows developers to discover your API so they can begin evaluating it for their use case. The developer portal should include all of the tools developers need to learn about and begin using your API. Developers reviewing your API will only invest a few minutes before deciding whether or not to continue; having information available in a clear and easy-to-consume format will encourage them to stick around rather than go elsewhere. Developers will quickly scan your documentation to get an overview of its functionality then zero in on what it will take for them to get up and running.

From there, they’ll quickly want to see some examples and ideally, start interacting with the API. Developers are far more likely to use an API that includes interactive documentation that allows them to interact with the API over static pages that only allow them to read about it.

The API Portal includes interactive documentation that not only describes the endpoint but also the fields required to call that API and the data that is returned. In addition, you can add code samples to give developers a head start in building the code to access your API in the applications they build. Finally, the Console includes “try it” functionality that allows developers to interact with and test the API. During the design phase before the API has been implemented, a mocking service allows developers to test the API’s behavior and see the resulting body a call to that API would produce. Once the API is implemented, developers can test live.

Tip #4: Build an ecosystem (community)

apiThe application developers who consume your API are not just your customers; they are the ecosystem that will drive your success. Treating them as valued members of your community can drive significant mutual benefit An obvious benefit of a thriving developer community is a wider reach for your API.

To support the organic growth of your API, your developer portal should include an easy way for developers to share knowledge with each other. The Notebook feature of the API Portal demonstrates this concept in action. It allows developers to document new uses they discover for your API to grow the addressable market for your API. In addition, they can share tips and tricks in forums and even add code samples to make it easy for new developers to get started quickly with your API. Finally, a valuable benefit of the community that is sometimes overlooked is that the greater the number of developers using your API, the faster bugs and issues will be identified and communicated so that you can continue to improve the value offering.

In addition, there is a great benefit in having an established communication channel with your developer community. Your API is not a static entity – as new use cases are identified and use of your API expands, enhancements and fixes are inevitable.
When you release a new version of your API, you can easily communicate the enhancements in the new version through your developer portal. You can also quickly assess who’s using each version of your API and communicate an upgrade path to them as you deprecate older versions. Finally, understanding your
developer community and having accurate insight into use cases and patterns provide invaluable knowledge that you can use to enhance your API over time.

Summary

APIs are becoming ubiquitous as their potential to transform business is becoming widely recognized. But delivering a successful API program that achieves defined business objectives requires a systematic approach to designing and managing APIs. Great APIs aren’t difficult to develop if you design for your users and the business
processes the API will support, if you make it easy for developers to find and consume your API, and you actively manage your API developer community as an extension of your business.

Until next time, Rob…

“Breaking Bad” on APIs – Lessons Learned – Part 2

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If you haven’t read Part 1 of this series, click here.

APIs

Organizations often decide to build an API without fully considering key success factors or without first engaging their stakeholders. I saw this first hand at a previous employer and it is very painful, not just for the company, but for the consumers of the API, which can have long-lasting repercussions.

In either case, the risk is that the API does not fit the needs of its API consumers. And APIs that don’t fit the needs of consumers have a high cost: limited adoption by developers and ultimately, a failure to meet business objectives. Once the API is designed and built, undoing these mistakes is difficult and time-consuming.

In most cases, you must start over again, redesigning a new API, implementing it by connecting to backend services, then rolling it out again to the developer community. Worst of all, you will have to transition all existing users to the new API. This will require additional work which they may not have the time or willingness to do. At that point, you’ll be faced with a tough choice – continue to support the original API and its users until they eventual (hopefully) migrate, or shut it off and potentially alienate and lose those users.

APIs

Another common pitfall of API programs is allowing the design of your API to be dictated by the constraints of internal systems or processes. This is never a good idea, but is particularly perilous when the backend functionality lives in legacy systems whose data schemas are overly complex or whose business logic has been extended over the years using hard-coded workarounds and convoluted logic. Exposing this kind of dirty laundry to your API consumers is a recipe for failure. APIs modeled after internal systems are difficult to understand and use and developers simply won’t invest the time it takes to become productive with them.

What you need is an API that is simple to understand and easy to use. Developers should be able to assess the functionality of your API and start using it in just a few minutes. The only way to deliver that kind of ease of use is to design for it upfront.

Next up, “Tips to building a successful API”

Until next time, Rob

Not all APIs are Created Equal – Overview – Part 1

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To continue on from my last post on API’s and their Business Value I did a few years ago.  I thought I would write an updated post on API’s (Application Programmer Interfaces) do a little deep dive. APIs have had a big impact on my last role and bigger impact on my current role as a PM @ 5nine Software, and thought I would share my knowledge and research so far. APIs are not scary 🙂

APIs are not new. They’ve served as interfaces that enable applications to communicate with each other for decades. But the role of APIs has changed dramatically in the last few years. Innovative companies have discovered that APIs can be used as an interface to the business, allowing them to monetize digital assets, extend their value proposition with partner-delivered capabilities, and connect to customers across channels and devices.

When you create an API, you are allowing others within or outside of your organization to make use of your service or product to create new applications, attract customers, or expand their business. Internal APIs enhance the productivity of development teams by maximizing re-usability and enforcing consistency in new applications. Public APIs can add value to your business by allowing 3rd party developers to enhance your services or bring their customers to you. As developers find new applications for your services and data, a network effect occurs, delivering significant bottom-line business impact.

For example, Expedia opened up their travel booking services to partners through an API to launch the Expedia Affiliate Network, building a revenue stream that now contributes $2B in annual revenue. Salesforce released APIs to enable partners to extend the capabilities of their platform and now generates half of their annual revenue through those APIs.

Next up, “Breaking Bad” on APIs – Lessons Learned”

Until next time, Rob.

Building Nutanix Ready – Understanding "Ready" Early On – Part 1

The Journey to “Ready”
Are you Ready?

This is my journey to building a world-class “Ready” Program and understanding what validation means to me and the customer….This will be a multi-part series of my journey.

The early days of understanding the concept of “Ready”

I’ve spent the better part of my life in IT consulting. It has been some of the best and worst times of my life ;).  But when you make a choice to work in this industry, there are certain givens. Sometimes as consultants and IT Pros we don’t get the recognition we deserve, but if you have the passion for technology, it doesn’t matter.  I’m happy with the fact that I resolved or completed a project for a client. And enabled them to make their businesses stronger and more efficient. These IT pros tend to be part of grassroots communities, like the Microsoft MVP community, which is all about giving back and enabling others.

Anyways, moving along on with the story.  As a consultant, my many years in the field gave the opportunity to deploy a wide range of technologies.To name a few: InfoBox, Riverbed, Plexxi, Cisco, Microsoft (of course), CheckPoint, RSA, Silverpeak, A10, Carbonite, Comvault, CyberPower, EMC Solutions, F5, Fortinet, Sonicwall, Juniper, Palo Alto, Splunk, Trend Micro, VMTurbo (before they were Turboonomics) Veeam and the list could continue on, but I think everyone gets the point. Try saying that line in one breath :).

Deploying and supporting all these solutions for years is what prepared me to understand what “Ready” really means for a solution. When I first joined Nutanix, I was hired as a Microsoft Solutions Architect in Technical Alliances.  My job was to help advance and evangelize the story around Microsoft and Nutanix.  Also, I supported the field with sales motions around Microsoft solutions. Or as my new colleagues knew me, I was the resident “Microsoft Guy” :).

Introducing “Ready” into my Journey

About 2 or 3 months into my journey at Nutanix, I was approached by my manager about starting a “Ready” program for alliance partners. When he first told me, it took me a day or so let it set in  “I thought wow, this is right up my alley. I’ve been in the field and felt the good and bad of these solutions for years.”

Building a ready program is like building a highway through a mountain, especially in a startup. It’s not just about rubber-stamping a solution for anyone willing to pay to have their logo on your site. It’s a critical validation process that requires a team experienced and critical enough to ask; 1) Is there a real need from my customers that this solution answers;  2) Is this solution possible? In other words, the customer has to be the first and last consideration. Yes, as with the highway. There is an advantage to the solution builders (Who hasn’t wanted a highway named after them, not to mention collecting tolls?). If it doesn’t solve a problem, it’s not worth the investment.

Validation implies that you have guidelines and standards that the partner must meet. If they don’t meet the criteria, then they don’t get the status of “Ready” and all the benefits that go along with it. As Indiana Jones would say “No Ticket, No Ride” (from the Last Crusade movie 🙂 ).

So you ask, “What’s the importance of validation?”

Well, let’s look at the pharmaceutical industry. Validation for the pharmaceutical industry is the process of establishing documentary evidence demonstrating that a procedure, process, or activity carried out in testing and then production maintains the desired level of compliance at all stages. In the pharmaceutical industry, it is very important that in addition to final testing and compliance of products, it is also assured that the process will consistently produce the expected results.[1]   Validation is “Establishing documented evidence that provides a high degree of assurance that a specific process will consistently produce a product meeting its pre-determined specifications and quality attributes. This, for the pharmaceutical industry, is to maintain and assure a higher degree of quality for drug products.
Breaking it down simply, validation gives customers a degree of confidence that they are getting exactly what is advertised. Without validation in the pharmaceutical industry, there would be a lot of quality control issues. And this results in people getting sick or death in some cases.
So now, you can see why validation is so important. In the software industry, this can be the life or death of a customer environment resulting in costly downtime. It also puts doubt in the customer’s mind about if they should move forward with the solution.

Crazy story about Validation and QA with a Vendor Solution

Back in my consulting days, I was working with a large enterprise client deploying (at the time) Exchange 2010.  The client was on Exchange 2003, which at the time, did not really have a simple solution for failing over Exchange to a secondary site, in case of failure. This led to the rise of third-party products that made this failover process easy and gave you lots of options.  Continuing on with the story, I was at the end of the day at the client. We had just finished getting the Exchange 2010 DAGs (Database Available Groups) in place between the US and UK. This was so we could start the migration from Exchange 2003.
I had left for the day around 6 pm to head home. Within an hour, while I was in Boston traffic, I got a call from the client.  They proceeded to tell me that their Exchange 2003 environment was down. The product solution that was supposed to auto-failover is not working. The client asked, “Can you please come back and take a look. We have already called the vendor support and making no headway?”
I arrived back and started my troubleshooting.  Sure enough, before support called I found a serious bug that was not accounted for during the vendor’s QA process. In addition, the solution had completed another vendor’s “Ready” program. Now, I’m not going to name vendors, but this caused the client to go down for a number of hours while I worked with support to get this rolling again.
For this client or most clients, any downtime on email is a loss of business.  They took a big hit that day of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Now, I’m not saying that validation is a silver bullet or could have saved this client headaches that day, but it certainly reduces the surface area of a problem arising in the field.

More about “Ready” with Technical Alliances and the Customer

Having a “Ready” program in the software industry is not just about approving and denying a solution, it’s also about helping partners resolve their issues whether it’s on either side, so they can eventually achieve “Ready” status.  And with that, “Ready” for a customer gives them the peace of mind that a solution will run on the given platform or hypervisor.

I was up to the challenge, and so starts the journey to “Building Nutanix Ready, What “Ready” means?”……Up next, paving the road to “Ready”.

Until next time, Rob.

Building Nutanix Ready…What does it mean to be “Ready”?

Before we go into what “Ready” really means.  Every great journey has a story behind it. This will be a multi-part series starting with how I joined Nutanix and evolved myself to build a world-class program called “Nutanix Ready”. Stay Tuned, Part 1 coming very soon!  RobNutanix Ready

API’s and their business value…

API

In the past few months, I have been focusing a lot of my time around the development of our Nutanix Ready Integrated Program which deals with partner solutions leveraging\cosuming our API (application programming interfaces).  After a lot of research on API programs and consumption patterns, I thought I would share my thoughts and some conclusions on the business side. Not sure if this is considered a blog post or just ramblings, but here we go.

API and DATA

Data is, in many ways, is one of the most valuable assets a business has. A growing number of consumers and businesses are incorporating web and mobile apps into their daily routines, and companies are using data to provide more personalized, tailored experiences to their customers. In addition, companies are analyzing customer and operational behavior to make better decisions. These are some of the valuable new uses for previously isolated data sources.
APIs have emerged as the most accessible way for consumers within the business to extract value out of that data; developers can use them to create new business opportunities; improve existing products, systems, and operations; and develop innovative business models. Analysts can grab new data sources more quickly and pull the data into their analytics platforms. As the keys to unlocking precious enterprise data, APIs need to be combined with enterprise connectivity to actually free the data from systems. The APIs is the piece that makes the data consumable and reusable, thus they become ever more valuable to business.

API Evolution

As more and more APIs come into use, the architecture underpinning them needs to evolve as well – organizations cannot simply attempt to deploy APIs on top of existing monolithic systems and processes and expect an overnight transformation. Rather, the transformation begins with initiatives targeted at new innovative directions for the organization, such as the embrace of microservices, mobile apps, and laying the groundwork for a world of connected sensors. Also, product companies should consider making API framework a key part of their design strategy which would enable end users to adopt their product more rapidly and aggressively.  And above all, embracing APIs will help ensure that these connections are made intelligently and efficiently.  With all of this, I’ve seen there’s a direct connection to business value as well – generating revenue is considered the most important value that APIs provide to the business.
While revenue generation is an important part of the story, the impact of APIs goes much further into organizations, enabling transformation and agility at many levels. APIs enable enterprises to deploy apps quickly, in a repeatable way, which leads to a faster pace of delivery, and the ability to create new and innovative experiences quickly. In addition, APIs can greatly reduce the cost of change, enabling IT and application owners to change apps with minimal impact – especially when there are numerous back-end integrations involved. This is critical to agility since for the most part, the pace of change of the front end applications is much faster than in the back-end applications. APIs also help enterprises achieve operational efficiency, enabling greater visibility and expanded capabilities since every API call from the mobile app to the backend system is tracked and traced through an API key.

What are some examples?

For those who are not familiar with API, some examples are API are like SOAP or  REST. Nutanix uses REST (representational state transfer) based API, and we allow partners and customers to build leverage our API to do some very cool things.  From VM monitoring to solution orchestration, the possibilities are endless.
API
For example, Comtrade, a Nutanix Partner has developed a System Center Operations Manager Management Pack for Nutanix.  It leverages our API to pull metrics into SCOM to correlate with application workloads into a single pane of glass.  In this scenario, an IT Pro can really understand where his bottlenecks are and take action or automate that action.  Now that is the power of API with some DevOPs mixed in!!
To summarize….businesses from every industry are using APIs to add additional value, from increased revenue to increased agility to improved customer experience. Extraordinary changes are taking place in the enterprise which necessitates a new organization and philosophy for utilizing technology.
In a future blog post, I plan to go into the technical aspects of API and use cases.

Until next time, Rob… 🙂