API Integration: Why all the fuss?Don't Panic - Not a technical post!
I recently posted on Free Business Forum UK for the first time and in my introductory post, I mentioned we do a lot of work with "APIs". One of the members kind enough to reply and say hello mentioned that she'd appreciate more information on the topic, as it can be a tricky one to get your head around.
So I'm going to cover a few of the basics and hopefully de-mistify the term API (which stands for Application Programming Interface) as well as explaining how they can benefit you. My intention is for this to be a non-technical post, so please don't panic!
What is an API?
At the risk of stating the obvious, an API is an interface allowing programmers to interact with or manipulate an application. They have been around forever and most applications have them - there are APIs for Microsoft Office, for QuickBooks - virtually everything.
Typically they only interest programmers and techies - when you need to automate a tedious task, import or export data or tie an application into your business processes, then it's normally best achieved via APIs exposed by that application. Maybe I should tell you to think of an API as a serious of "hooks" which application programmers leave visible, so that you can attach your own logic and get to their data.
But recently we've been hearing more and more about APIs, the fact that our favourite applications have them, how easy they are to use and how great it is for us that they are available. I'll forgive if you're one of the majority who want to know why!
APIs, Cloud Computing and Software as a Service
It's because of cloud computing. Or more specifically, it's because of "Software as a Service" (SaaS) applications - which are based in the cloud - and are currently enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity. Most SaaS applications expose versatile APIs allowing developers to integrate with them, build third party modules and to help clients perform bespoke tasks.
These are often called "Web Services" - I know I'm leaving gaps our technical readers will poke holes in, but I'm not trying to give an accurate portrayal of the technology. Basically these provide an easy way to make calls to a SaaS application and because of the way they work, most of the infrastructure is already there.
Business Process Integration - the benefits
An example? Imagine that you use three applications - one for your accounts, one for customer relationship management and another to send marketing emails to your customer base. Alone, all three might be fabulous, but when combined - they become far more powerful.
If they are integrated so you can maintain a single customer list between them (ensuring all three have the right details for every customer), you can see that suddenly you'll have a lot less work to do. Maybe the integration could be more sophisticated and you could click through a customer in your CRM and see the status of their invoices - without having to log into the accounting package.
This is already possible. We use KashFlow, CapsuleCRM and MailChimp. Not only do they play nicely with each other, but our website uses the MailChimp API so that you can sign up to our newsletter from our form here. We are planning to create a client portal where you will be able to view (and pay) invoices and manage your contact details.
All of this is made possible by the APIs and it allows us to tie together business processes in a seamless, more efficient way. This sort of automation and integration, making technology more efficient and increasing the time we have available to carry out businesses - rather than administrate - can only be a good thing!
Learn more about some of the APIs we use »