The API, the whole API and nothing but the API

When programming against a remote service, do you like to be provided with a library (or service stub) or do you prefer “the API, the whole API, nothing but the API”?

A dedicated library (assuming it is compatible with your programming language of choice) is the simplest way to get invocations flowing. On the other hand, if you expect your client to last longer than one night of tinkering then you’re usually well-advised to resist making use of such a library in your code. Save yourself license issues, support issues, packaging issues and lifecycle issues. Also, decide for yourself what the right interaction model with the remote API is for your app.

One of the key motivations of SOAP was to prevent having to get stubs from the service provider. That remains an implicit design goals of the recent HTTP APIs (often called “RESTful”). You should be able to call the API directly from your application. If you use a library, e.g. an authentication library, it’s a third party library, not one provided by the service provider you are trying to connect to.

So are provider-provided (!) libraries always bad? Not necessarily, they can be a good learning/testing tool. Just don’t try to actually embed them in your app. Use them to generate queries on the wire that you can learn from. In that context, a nice feature of these libraries is the ability to write out the exact message that they put on the wire so you don’t have to intercept it yourself (especially if messages are encrypted on the wire). Even better if you can see the library code, but even as a black box they are a pretty useful way to clarify the more obscure parts of the API.

A few closing comments:

– In a way, this usage pattern is similar to a tool like the WLST Recorder in the WebLogic Administration Console. You perform the actions using the familiar environment of the Console, and you get back a set of WLST commands as a starting point for writing your script. When you execute your script, there is no functional dependency on the recorder, it’s a WLST script like any other.

– While we’re talking about downloadable libraries that are primarily used as a learning/testing tool, a test endpoint for the API would be nice too (either as part of the library or as a hosted service at a well-known URL). In the case of most social networks, you can create a dummy account for testing; but some other services can’t be tested in a way that is as harmless and inexpensive.

– This question of provider-supplied libraries is one of the reasons why I lament the use of the term “API” as it is currently prevalent. Call me old-fashioned, but to me the “API” is the programmatic interface (e.g. the Java interface) presented by the library. The on-the-wire contract is, in my world, called a service contract or a protocol. As in, the Twitter protocol, or the Amazon EC2 protocol, etc… But then again, I was also the last one to accept to use the stupid term of “Cloud Computing” instead of “Utility Computing”. Twitter conversations don’t offer the luxury of articulating such reticence so I’ve given up and now use “Cloud Computing” and “API” in the prevalent way.

[UPDATE: How timely! Seconds after publishing this entry I noticed a new trackback on a previous entry on this blog (Cloud APIs are like military parades). The trackback is an article from ProgrammableWeb, asking the exact same question I am addressing here: Should Cloud APIs Focus on Client Libraries More Than Endpoints?]


Filed under API, Automation, Everything, Implementation, Protocols, REST, SOAP

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