API Discovery is for Internal or External Services
10 May 2018
The topic of API discovery has been picking up momentum in 2018. It is something I’ve worked on for years, but with the number of microservices emerging out there, it is something I’m seeing become a concern amongst providers. It is also something I’m seeing more potential vendor chatter, looking to provide more services and tooling to help alleviate API discovery pain. Even with all this movement, there is still a lot of education and discussion to occur on the subject to help bring people up to speed on what is API discovery.
The most common view of what is API discovery, is when you need to find an API for developing an application. You have a need for a resource in your application, and you need to look across your internal and partner resources to find what you are looking for. Beyond that, you will need to search for publicly available API resources, using Google, Github, ProgrammableWeb, and other common ways to find popular APIs. This is definitely the most prominent perspective when it comes to API discovery, but it isn’t the only dimension of this problem. There are several dimensions to this stop along the API lifecycle, that I’d like to flesh out further, so that I can better articulate across conversations I am having.
Another area that gets lumped in with API discovery is the concept of service discovery, or how your APIs will find their backend services that they use to make the magic happen. Service discovery focuses on the initial discovery, connectivity, routing, and circuit breaker patterns involved with making sure an API is able to communicate with any service it depends on. With the growth of microservices there are a number of solutions like Consul that have emerged, and cloud providers like AWS are evolving their own service discovery mechanisms. Providing one dimension to the API discovery conversation, but different from, and often confused with front-end API discovery and how developers and applications find services.
One of the least discussed areas of API discovery, but is one that is picking up momentum, is finding APIs when you are developing APIs, to make sure you aren’t building something that has already been developed. I come across many organizations who have duplicate and overlapping APIs that do similar things due to lack of communication and a central directory of APIs. I’m getting asked by more groups regarding how they can be conducting API discovery by default across organizations, sniffing out APIs from log files, on Github, and other channels in use by existing development teams. Many groups just haven’t been good at documenting and communicating around what has been developed, as well as beginning new projects without seeing what already exists–something that will only become a great problem as the number of microservices grows.
The other dimension of API discovery I’m seeing emerge is discovery in the service of governance. Understand what APIs exist across teams so that definitions, schema, and other elements can be aggregated, measured, secured, and governed. EVERY organization I work with is unaware of all the data sources, web services, and APIs that exist across teams. Few want to admit it, but it is a reality. The reality is that you can’t govern or secure what you don’t know you have. Things get developed so rapidly, and baked into web, mobile, desktop, network, and device applications so regularly, that you just can’t see everything. Before companies, organizations, institutions, and government agencies are going to be able to govern anything, they are going to have begin addressing the API discovery problem that exists across their teams.
API discovery is a discipline that is well over a decade old. It is one I’ve been actively working on for over 5 years. It is something that is only now getting the discussion it needs, because it is a growing concern. It will be come a major concern with each passing day of the microservice evolution. People are jumping on the microservices bandwagon without any coherent way to organize schema, vocabulary, or API definitions. Let alone any strategy for indexing, cataloging, sharing, communicating, and registering services. I’m continuing my work on APIs.json, and the API Stack, as well as pushing forward my usage of OpenAPI, Postman, and AsyncAPI, which all contribute to API discovery. I’m going to continue thinking about how we can publish open source directories, catalogs, and search engines, and even some automated scanning of logs and other ways to conduct discovery in the background. Eventually, we will begin to find more solutions that work–it will just take time.