Here’s How to Tame Your API Sprawl — and Why You Should
“API sprawl” refers to the rapid and uncontrolled growth of API landscapes within an organization. This occurs when an organization has numerous connection points that are either poorly managed or unmanaged at all, leading to a proliferation of APIs that can be difficult to maintain and use.
This sprawl is a side effect of scaling, and it’s not all bad. But the number of APIs per organization are growing quickly. For instance, at the end of 2020, organizations surveyed by SaltSecurity reported an average of 42 APIs. In July 2022, the same survey found its respondents maintaining an average of 162 APIs.
But API sprawl can also heighten security risks, increase maintenance needs, and negatively affect productivity if there are too many APIs to track and manage efficiently.
By having a clear API strategy and establishing processes for managing and documenting APIs, organizations can expose several functionalities while also avoiding the negative consequences of API sprawl. Here’s why you need that strategy and those processes, and some initial steps to creating them.
The Good and Bad Sides of API Sprawl
API sprawl can be beneficial in that it allows organizations to build and expose several functions to external developers or to different teams within the organization. This can lead to increased innovation and faster development times as teams can easily access and use the functionality provided by the APIs, without having to build those connection points from scratch.
There’s greater flexibility, too. With access to numerous APIs, organizations can be more flexible in the way they build and deploy new systems and services. This can allow them to respond more quickly to changing business needs and adapt to new technologies.
However, API sprawl can also have negative consequences. With numerous APIs, it can be difficult for developers to understand which ones are available, how to use them, and how they fit into the overall architecture of the organization. This can lead to confusion and inefficiency and can make it difficult for teams to work together effectively.
A sprawling collection of APIs can lead to duplication of functionality and inconsistency in the way the interfaces are designed and implemented. This can slow down development.
Worst of all, APIs can present a security risk if there are too many of them to manage properly — to keep track of which APIs are being used, and by whom. The same SaltSecurity survey from Q3 2022 found that 94% of respondents reported having API security issues in production APIs.
Finally, the more APIs an organization has the more need for continued maintenance. More APIs mean generating more code to keep them updated, leading to increased costs.
Security Risks Associated with API Sprawl
It can be challenging for organizations to ensure that all APIs have appropriate security controls in place. With a large number of APIs, it can be hard for organizations to monitor which APIs are being used, and by whom. And it can also be tough to identify security issues and respond quickly to incidents.
There is an increased chance of one or more APIs containing vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious actors. This can lead to data breaches and other security incidents.
With so many connection points, hackers may also exploit API sprawl by finding and using APIs that are no longer in use or have not been properly secured. This can allow them to gain unauthorized access to sensitive data or systems without being detected.
Cybercriminals may be able to use an API in a way that it was not intended to be used, such as sending out excessive requests or using an API to scrape data.
And there’s simply the increased danger of errors by well-meaning developers. If they can’t comprehend the API landscape in an organization, they could create errors with safety implications.
Centralization vs. Decentralization
As you devise your API management strategy, you will need to decide whether you will centralize or decentralize control of your APIs. Here are the factors you should weigh.
API centralization involves having a single system that oversees access to all of an organization’s APIs. Conversely, API decentralization implies a more distributed approach, with different teams or departments managing their own APIs.
Centralizing APIs can help reduce API sprawl, making it simpler to oversee and document them, as well as set up security protocols and track API usage. Nevertheless, it could also have drawbacks, such as slowing the development process and inhibiting innovation by imposing too many restrictions.
However, decentralizing APIs allows for more flexibility and faster development, as teams are able to create and deploy APIs without needing to go through the central process. On the other hand, it can cause API sprawl, as there may be less supervision and control over the development and deployment of APIs.
It may be best to opt for a hybrid approach that combines both centralization and decentralization, depending on an organization’s particular needs and goals.
For example, while core APIs that are key to the organization’s operations should be managed centrally, decentralized control may be more applicable for APIs that are less crucial or experimental.
Creating a Strategy to Combat API Sprawl
Creating an effective API strategy is crucial in making sure APIs are built in a way that aligns with the organization’s objectives. This should involve setting up standards for API design and documentation, establishing API governance policies, and allocating roles and responsibilities for API administration.
Take an Inventory.
You first need to know exactly how many and which APIs your organization currently has. Documentation can help developers comprehend each API’s functionality, use, and any requirements or limitations associated with it.
Establish Processes for Revising APIs.
Conducting reviews and retiring APIs that are no longer in use can help prevent sprawl and decrease maintenance costs. This can include conducting regular audits of the organization’s API landscape to identify and discard any unnecessary or duplicative APIs.
Establishing a system for approving and publishing new APIs is necessary to guarantee that only needed APIs, which are properly documented, are made available to developers. This should include a review process for fresh APIs and rules for naming, versioning, and documenting APIs.
Monitor Your API Activity.
Keeping watch over API usage can provide insight into which APIs are being utilized and by whom, aiding in the identification of any APIs that are no longer necessary.
Harness the Power of API Gateways.
API gateways also referred to as multigateways, are powerful software systems that offer centralized control for an organization’s connection points. Such gateways are used to manage, secure, and provide additional features for APIs such as routing, load balancing, and caching, enhancing API performance and reducing the strain on backend systems.
Among the advantages of API gateways: is centralized management. They offer convenient centralized control for all APIs within an organization, allowing it to be easier to manage and document those connection points, set up security controls, and monitor API usage.
API gateways can also enforce security measures such as authentication, authorization, and encryption to protect against any unauthorized access to APIs and confidential data.
Perhaps best of all for developer productivity, API gateways grant devs a single point of access to use and access APIs, making it easier for teams to collaborate.
‘Shift-Left’ Applies to API Testing, too
You’ve heard of the “shift left” philosophy when it comes to security: it means putting more responsibility for application security onto the shoulders of developers, at the start of the app-building process, instead of relying entirely on operations engineers to keep code safe. But “shift left” can also apply to API testing and quality assurance (QA) tasks.
Here’s how to do that:
Establish a Process for Continuous Testing.
Shift left entails testing early and often, so it is essential to create a system for constant testing of your APIs during development. This could involve setting up automated tests that run whenever you modify the API, or perhaps manually testing the API frequently.
Implement Unit Tests.
Unit tests are an automated form of testing that verifies the behavior of distinct units of code. By generating unit tests early in the development process, you can detect issues earlier and decrease the hazard of unexpected problems in subsequent phases of testing.
Use Mock APIs.
By using simulated versions of real APIs, you can test the behavior of your connection points without depending on external dependencies or actual data.
Carry Out User Acceptance Testing.
User acceptance testing is the process of testing an API to guarantee it fulfills the needs and desires of the target users. By conducting user acceptance testing at the beginning of the development process, you can spot any issues with the API’s usability or operation and address them before deployment.
Specify Clear Acceptance Criteria for the API.
Before you commence building an API, make sure you have a clear knowledge of what the API is expected to do and how it should appear. This will help you design and construct better APIs from the start.
Use Automated Testing Tools.
Automated testing tools can help you test your API more quickly and effectively. Take into consideration the use of tools such as Jenkins, Postman, or SoapUI to automate your testing procedure.
Include QA Staff in the API Development Process.
Make certain your QA team is involved in the API development process from the beginning. They can help detect potential problems and provide important feedback on the API design and implementation.
Overall, the purpose of shift left is to detect errors as early as possible in the development process, so they can be cured before they cause major problems downstream. By implementing these testing activities early in the development process, you can raise the quality and dependability of your pre-production APIs.