Why Would Want To List All Your Universities Web Services (APIs) Out In The Open, Via Central Portal? What A Security Risk!

I went up to California State University Channel Islands the other day to talk APIs with their tech team, and I was happy to find at least one strong API skeptic on the team. API skeptics also give me material for stories, so I thoroughly enjoy coming across them, and telling these stories is how keep polishing my argument for the next API skeptic encounter at campus IT, at the higher educational institutions that I visit.

During the discussion I was asked several interesting questions, the first one was: why would you want to list of your web services (APIs) for your public university, out in the open, via a central portal?? What a security risk!!

Sorry, But Security Through Obscurity Is Not A Strategy
I’m sorry, hiding things, and hoping nobody finds them is not a valid IT strategy. You are a public university, and you should have a sophisticated identity and access management, as well as well tight approach to security. If you can’t properly secure an API resource available at a public URL, you shouldn’t be running campus IT, sorry. You should be able to provide a public description, of what resources are available, without giving away the farm.

The Feeling You Have —It Comes From Legacy Power And Control
As an IT professional, if you don’t acknowledge that power and control exists within classic IT processes, you are in denial. I’ve taken over numerous company IT operations, and there is ALWAYS political struggles between IT and the rest of operations. If you list all digital resources in a single portal, and make them available in a self-service way, it disrupts existing power and control structures. When you make things hard to find, you play a central role in people finding these resources, and you are in power—adding to decades of legacy stories about IT being a negative force in operations. Self-service access to campus resources is the future, no matter how much you resist.

Centralized Location To Aggregate All Digital Resources
A centralized API portal provides a single place for anyone to discover or share their digital resources. Like the main website, administrators, faculty, students, parents, and the public will know there is a single place to find machine readable versions of campus resources. API portals are more than just a listing of APIs, it includes documentation, code samples, widgets, buttons, spreadsheet connectors, visualizations, blogs, twitter accounts, and other resources that can turn a simple portal into an active ecosystem where everyone collaborates around campus resources.

Self-Service Access For 3rd Party Vendors Delivering Vital Campus Services
It takes resources to engage with 3rd party vendors on campus, and a single, self-service portal provides a standardized way for vendors to access the institutional resources they need to deliver the services they are bringing to campus operations. There is no reason that IT or departmental contacts should ever be bottlenecks in delivering the information vendors will need. API portals should provide them with the access they need, along with proper identity and access management, and monitoring of exactly how vendors are accessing, and putting campus resources to use (or not).

Interoperability Between Higher Educational Institutions
Most higher educational institutions are part of a larger network of institutions, and at the very least have relationships with other schools, in which information, and resources are shared. As with vendors, much of this can be provided via a self-service API portal, where institutions can find the data, content, and other resources they need, able to access only the resources they are supposed to during the fullfillment of established relationships.

Smoother Interactions With Local, State, And Federal Government
Higher educational institutions have regular integration points with local, state, and federal government agencies. Data is reported on a regular basis, back and forth, and a central API portal is excellent for aggregating the commons resources a government agency will be asking for. API portals are not just for student hackers, or 3rd party developers, they are increasingly how government agencies are sharing, and getting what they need to regulate, monitor industry, and govern more effectively.

It Is About People Getting Access To What They Need
Central API portals are about making sure people get access to what they need, and at a public university, this should be priority number one. You have data, content, and other digital resource students, faculty, administrators, vendors, government, parents and alumni need, and because you aren’t confident in securing it, from a handful of hackers you are going to hide this away, and forgo all the benefits? I’m sorry, the perceived negatives just don’t out-weighs the positives. There are proven ways to secure APIs, and for much of university operations, it won’t hurt to provide a title, description, and location of a resource, and let identity and access management handle who should be able to get at resources—or not.

Bringing IT Out of Shadows Across Campus Operations
Security is a concern, and should be front-and-center in all conversations, but it is too often used to hide away insecurities, incompetency, and shortcomings in security, rather than actual address the root of security concerns. If a resource is accessible via Internet protocols, over campus networks, it should be mapped out, with the definition made publicly available in a sensible way. This conversation should involve careful consideration what resource should be public, and what should remain private, with a heavy emphasis on transparency at a public university.

Between 2000 and 2007, we start seeing a shift of IT services into the cloud, and much of this has happened, as un-sanctioned shadow IT, by administrators, faculty, and students looking to get their work done, because IT hasn’t been able to keep up. The cloud evolution of IT has been all API driven, and making IT resources available to the public at Amazon sounded insane at first, but it has changed not just how Amazon operates, but has evolved the entire world deploys software architecture—using APIs.

There are many great examples of leading companies, making personally identifiable information, banking, healthcare, and other vital data and content available on the open Internet, in a secure way. It is not a security risk to share information, and provide access to your valuable resources, in a central, publicly available portal--if you do it right. Who knows, if you do open up, there may be some unintended consequences, leading to IT being seen as positive influence on the education process, as opposed to the roadblock image it often has on campuses across the country.