What is an API?

You’ve almost certainly used an API before, perhaps without each realizing it. This technology allows two or more software applications to communicate with each other and share information. For example, the weather app on your smartphone uses an API to gather data from the National Weather Service (NWS) and display it on your device. 

As you progress through your data science or engineering career, you will learn more about APIs and how they can help you with your data projects. Below, find the answer to the question: “What is an API?” Then discover the benefits and drawbacks of this incredible technology. 

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API Meaning

API stands for Application Programming Interface. It refers to the mechanisms that allow two or more software applications to talk to each other via pre-determined protocols.

So, how do APIs work? API architecture consists of the API itself, a client, and a server. These three components allow different applications to communicate. 

Say two applications want to exchange information:

  • The application sending the request for information is known as the client.
  • The application receiving the request is known as the server.
  • The API acts as a kind of middleman between the client and the server.


When all three components work together, applications can exchange information with each other and provide users with the services they require.

Origins of APIs

The term “API” originated in the 1960s. However, the APIs used today didn’t exist until 2000, when Salesforce created a technology that allowed its customers to share data between business applications. Over the years, APIs have become more sophisticated and can now be found in various industries, primarily banking and finance. 

Different API Types

It’s important to note that there are different types of APIs:

  • SOAP APIs use Simple Object Access Protocol to exchange messages between applications via XML.
  • Websocket APIs use JSON objects to exchange data via a two-way communication protocol. 
  • Remote Procedure Call (RPC) APIs involve a client completing a procedure on a server and the server returning the output to the client. 
  • REST APIs are the most popular type. You’ll come across this technology as you advance your data science or engineering career. That’s because these APIs are scalable, flexible, and lightweight.  

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Benefits of APIs

There are various benefits of APIs, including:

  • APIs distribute information to wider audiences by extracting and sharing data for various use cases.
  • APIs automate manual tasks for businesses in various industries. Allowing two or more applications to communicate can improve performance and productivity for organizations. 
  • Letting applications talk to each other can improve website personalization and content integration. 

Drawbacks of APIs

Here are some of the drawbacks of APIs:

  • APIs can be a prime target for hackers wanting to steal information from businesses. When a cybercriminal compromises an API, they can gain access to data in the applications that connect to it. Different API types have unique security protocols.
  • APIs can cost thousands of dollars to build, making them unaffordable for many organizations with data integration needs.
  • Some APIs can have limitations. For example, an API might restrict the number of people that can use it. 

Final Word

An API permits two or more software applications to communicate with each other, enabling users to access different services. You will learn more answers to the question, “What is an API?” when you start your career in data science or engineering.

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