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Best Practices For APIs: Consuming (3)

About These Documents

This document is 3 of 3 which describe best practices for consuming APIs provided by others.

Clarifying Issues

Certain issues should be clarified before use of an external API. The two key matters for elucidation are data ownership and costing. You should be clear on which items will be owned by the institution or Web author and which will be owned by a third party. You should also be clear on what the charging mechanism will be and the likelihood of change.

These matters will usually be detailed in a terms of use document and the onus is on you as a potential user to read them. If they are not explained you should contact the provider.

Understand Technology Limitations

API providers have technical limitations too and a good understanding of these will help keep your system running efficiently. Think about what will happen when the backend is down or slow and make sure that you cache remote sources aggressively. Try to build some pacing logic into your system. It's easy to overload a server accidentally, especially during early testing. Ask the service provider if they have a version of the service that can be used during testing. Have plans for whenever an API is down for maintenance or fails. Build in timeouts, or offline updates to prevent a dead backend server breaking your application. Make sure you build in ways to detect problems. Providers are renowned for failing to provide any information as to why they are not working.

Write your application so it stores a local copy of the data so that when the feed fails its can carry on. Make this completely automatic so the system detects for itself whether the feed has failed. However, also provide a way for the staff to know that it has failed. I had one news feed exhibit not update the news for 6 months but no one noticed because there was no error state.

You will also need to be weary of your own technology limitations. Avoid overloading your application with too many API bells and whistles. Encourage and educate end users to think about end-to-end availability and response times. If necessary limit sets of results. Remember to check your own proxy, occasionally data URLs may be temporarily blocked because they come from separate sub-domains.

Other technology tips include remember to register additional API keys when moving servers.

Keep it Simple

When working with APIs it makes sense to start simple and build up. Think about the resources implications of what you are doing. For example build on top of existing libraries: Try and find a supported library for your language of choice that abstracts away from the details of the API. Wrap external APIs, don't change them as this will be a maintenance nightmare. The exception here is if your changes can be contributed back and incorporated into the next version of the external API. APIs often don't respond the way you would expect, make sure you don't inadvertently make another system a required part of your own.

When working with new APIs give yourself time. Not all APIs are immediately usable. Try to ensure that the effort required to learn how to use APIs is costed into your project and ensure the associated risks are on the project's risk list.

Some Web developers lean towards consuming lean and RESTful APIs however this may not be appropriate for your particular task. SOAP based APIs are generally seen as unattractive as they tend to take longer to develop for than RESTful ones. Client code suffers much more when any change is made to a SOAP API.


This document is based on advice provided by UKOLN's Good APIs project. Further information is available at <>.

About The Best Practices For APIs Documents

The Best Practices For APIs series of briefing documents have been published for the cultural heritage sector.

The advice provided in the documents is based on resources gathered by UKOLN for the JISC-funded Good APIs project.

Further information on the Good APIs project is available from the project's blog at <>.

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