July 10, 2020

Stop Your Software from Fighting: APIs Get Your Systems to Work Out their Problems


In the days of yore, the technical giants battled for dominance not only through innovative products and marketing, but through creating their own proprietary ecosystems with non-standard technology that didn’t play well with their competitors.

While some companies have had some success with such tactics (hi, Apple), others have learned the hard way (good day, Microsoft) that when you build a system with the purpose of full control, moving quickly to adapt to new technology is challenging, which leaves you vulnerable to your faster moving competition.

Lessons Learned?

Since complete product lockdown became a liability as more browser based programs grew up and started poking at the big guys, the big guys had to find a way to play nicely in order to keep their clients happy. How to do that?

In order to allow companies and developers to develop on an existing platform, they require an interface and access to do so.

An API is just that. API stands for Application Programming Interface and is a method of giving others access to your program's functions and data. While there are many types of APIs out there depending on what you want to develop for (hardware, operating systems, software), web APIs are becoming increasingly common.

So What's That?

A web API allows others to connect a platform using web servers and web browsers. While APIs have been around for a long time, web APIs are pretty new. The first concept and design for a web API didn’t spring up until the year 2000 (which I now realize was 20 years ago....) and while Salesforce implemented the technique, it wasn’t made publicly available.

Today, APIs are pretty much standard operating procedure for any software or platform. Facebook, Twitter, eBay, Instagram, TikTok, pretty much all of Google (Search, Maps, Youtube, Analytics) all have APIs so that developers can extend the functionality of these platforms or create their own programs within them.

While most web companies have APIs these days, not all APIs were born equal. Some were born ugly and twisted. Paypal for example (sorry Elon fans, he's a rockstar for many reasons, but Paypal has a horrid API. Here's a blog on Tesla to cheer you up again).

For what Paypal does, its API is very large and overly complicated, has unnecessary steps involved and tends to have outdated documentation. On the other hand E-xact has a clean, simple and concise API making it great to work with.

Could You Use an API? Let's Find Out

While APIs are most often designed for the technically inclined, it is a good idea for anyone using software to operate their business to understand APIs and learn about their usefulness, even if it's just to ask your IT crew about the potential. For anyone interested in looking into APIs or in investing in software development, some things to consider when choosing software platforms and vendors:

  • Does your current software have an API?
  • Are there costs associated with accessing the API?
  • Do I have limitations on how much I can use the API (ex only so many API calls in a certain time frame)?
  • What sort of documentation and support is available for the API?
  • Has the API been around for a long time? Is it going to be changing in the near future?
  • What technical skills are required to use the API?

While APIs at this point may seem like a dark and murky concept, there are ways to play around and figure out how they work if you're interested in some basic integrations between software platforms. Zapier has created a non-technical interface for people to use APIs to make different software platforms pass information back and forth. For example, if you wanted to use Project Management Platform X, but wanted to use CRM Platform Y, and Zapier has access to those APIs, you may be able to tie your data together. This has huge value for bringing related data points together for analysis, or just for reducing or eliminating redundant data entry, but not forcing your staff to learn a whole new platform. 

Now You Know What APIs Can Do; What's Next?

For complicated software integrations, you will usually need to reach out a professional with some development skills for help.

At Levis, the majority of our projects are based on our web application framework, Levis PRISM. Our CMS and websites, our software modules (ERP, logistics) are all based on PRISM, which has an API. While we often connect to APIs from PRISM to fill software gaps with tools already developed (Google Maps, various payment gateways, social media integrations), we also have other companies connect to our API to either extend their functionality or to join forces to create a more cohesive solution for users.

One of our clients, NSC Minerals, has two different vendors connecting to our API. Ship Xpress uses the PRISM API to dispatch load information for the ordering system that we have build for them, and Stockpile Reports uses their computer vision technology to to read the size of piles of material and push that to our API to manage inventory levels.

The API connections allowed us to create a user friendly interface and extend the features of their existing systems, and have brought two powerful tools together to manage NSC shipping logistics far more efficiently.

Is Your Software Fighting? Let Us Mediate

If you're struggling to manage data across different software systems, including in some cases legacy systems that aren't web browser friendly but too challenging to move away from, we might be able to help. Building a new interface for a functional system with an API can be vastly more efficient than investing in a whole new system, training and data transfer.

Don't fight your software if you don't have to is what we're saying. With APIs, we can all learn to play in the sandbox without hoarding toys or throwing sand at each other.

Give us a call.

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