Bottles, birds, and packets: how the message is exchanged is less important than what the message is as long as it gets there.

I heard it said the other day, regarding the OpenStack announcement, that “the world does not care about APIs.”

imageUnpossible! How could the world not care about APIs? After all, it is APIs that make the Web (2.0) go around. It is APIs that drive the automation of infrastructure from static toward dynamic. It is APIs that drive self-service and thin-provisioning of compute and storage in the cloud. It is APIs that make cross-environment integration of SaaS possible. In general, without APIs we’d be very unconnected, un-integrated, un-collaborative, and in many cases, uninformed.

Now, it could be said that the world doesn’t care about APIs until they’re highly adopted, but unlike the chicken and the egg question (which may very well have been answered, in case you weren’t paying attention), it is still questionable whether the success of sites like Facebook and Twitter and the continued growth of SaaS darlings like Salesforce.com are dependent upon exactly that: their API.

The API is the new CLI in the network. The API is the web’s version of EAI (Enterprise Application Integration), without which we wouldn’t have interesting interactions between our favorite sites and applications. The API is the cloud’s version of the ATM (Automated Teller Machine) through which services are provisioned with just a few keystrokes and a valid credit card. The API is the means by which interoperability of cloud computing will be enabled because to do otherwise is to create the mother-of-all hub-and-spoke integration points. As Jen Harvey twitterbird ( co-founder of Voxilate, developer of voice-related mobile applications) pointed out, an API makes it possible to develop a user-interface that essentially obscures the underlying implementation. It’s the user-interface the users care about, and if you don’t have to change it as your application takes advantage of different clouds or services or technologies, you ensure that productivity and user-adoption – two frequently cited negative impacts of changes to applications in any organization – are not impacted at all. It’s a game-changer, to be sure. 

So the API is the world in technology today, how could we not care about it?

WE DO. WE JUST CARE MORE ABOUT the MODEL

Maybe the point is that we shouldn’t because the API today is just a URI and URIs are nearly interchangeable.

Face it, if interoperability between anything were simply about the API then we’d have already solved this puppy and put it to sleep. Permanently. But it’s not about the API per se, it is, as William Vambenepe twitterbird is wont to say, “it’s the model, stupid [Edited per William's comment below, 7-27-2010] 

Unfortunately, when most people stand up and cheer “the API” what they’re really cheering is “the model.” They aren’t making the distinction between the interface and the data (or meta-data) exchanged. It’s what's inside the message that enables interoperability because it is through the message, the model, that we are able to exchange the information necessary to do whatever it is the API call is supposed to do. Without a meaningful, shared model the API is really not all that important.

The API is how, not what, and unfortunately even if everyone agreed on how, we’d still have to worry about what and that, as anyone who has every worked with EAI systems can tell you, is the really, really, super hard part of integration. And it is integration that we’re really looking for when we talk about cloud and interoperability or portability or mobility, because what we want is to be able to share data (configuration, architectures, virtual machines, hypervisors, applications) across multiple programmatic systems in a meaningful way.

COMMODITIZATION REALLY MEANS NORMALIZATION

Here’s the rub: having an API is important, but the actual API itself is not nearly as important as what it’s used to exchange.

APIs, at least those on the web and taking advantage of HTTP, are little more than URIs. Doesn’t matter if it’s REST or SOAP, the end-point is still just a URI. The URI is often somewhat self-descriptive and in the case of true REST (which doesn’t really exist) it would be nearly completely self-documenting but it’s still just a URI. That means it is nearly a trivial exercise to map “/start/myresource” to “/myresource/start”. But when the data, the model, is expressed as the payload of that API call, then things get … ugly. Is one using JSON? Or is it XML? Is that XML OVF? Schemaless? Bob’s Homegrown Format? Does it use common descriptors? Is a load balancer in cloud a described as an application delivery controller in cloud b? Is the description of a filter required in cloud a using iptables semantics or some obscure format the developer made up on the fly because it made sense to her?

Mapping the data, the model, isn’t a trivial exercise. In fact without a common semantic model it would require not the traditional one-chicken sacrifice but probably a whole flock in order to get it working, and you’d essentially be locked-in for all the same reasons you end up locked-in today: it costs too much and takes too much effort to change. When pundits and experts talk about commoditization of cloud computing, and they do often, it’s not an attempt to minimize the importance of the model, of the infrastructure, but rather it’s a necessary step toward providing services in a consistent manner across implementations; across clouds. By defining core cloud computing services in a consistent manner and describing them in similar terms, advanced services can then be added atop those services in a like manner without impacting negatively the ability to migrate between implementations. If the underlying model is consistent, commoditized if you will, this process becomes much easier for everyone involved.

Consider HTTP headers. There is a common set, a standard set of headers used to describe core functions and capabilities. They have a common model and use consistent semantics through which the name-value pairs are described. Then there’s custom headers; headers that follow the same model but which are peculiar to the service being invoked. In a cloud model these are the differentiated value-added cloud services (VACS) Randy Bias twitterbird mentions in his post regarding the announcement of OpenStack and the ensuing cries of “it will be the standard! it will save the world!”. The most important aspect of custom HTTP headers that we must keep in any cloud API or stack is that if they aren’t supported, they do not negatively impact the ability to invoke the service. They are ignored by applications which do not support them. Only through commoditization and a common model can this come to fruition.

Having an API is important. It’s what makes integration of applications, infrastructure, and ultimately clouds possible. But it isn’t the definition of that interface across disparate implementations of similar technology that will make or break intercloud. What will make or break intercloud is the definition of a consistent semantic model for core services and components that can be used to describe the technologies and policies and meta-data necessary to enable interoperability.


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Comment made 25-Apr-2011 by Lori MacVittie
API Jabberwocky: You Say Tomay-to and I Say Potah-to
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