What is an API? In English, please.

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Before I learned software development, API sounded like a kind of beer.

Today I use the term so often that I have in fact recently tried to order an API at a bar.

The bartender’s response was to throw a 404: resource not found.

I meet lots of people, both working in tech and elsewhere, who have a rather vague or incorrect idea about what this fairly common term means.

Technically, API stands for Application Programming Interface. At some point or another, most large companies have built APIs for their customers, or for internal use.

But how do you explain API in plain English? And is there a broader meaning than the one used in development and business? First, let’s pull back and look at how the web itself works.

WWW and remote servers
When I think about the Web, I imagine a large network of connected servers.

Every page on the internet is stored somewhere on a remote server. A remote server is not so mystical after all — it’s just a part of a remotely located computer that is optimized to process requests.

To put things in perspective, you can spin up a server on your laptop capable of serving an entire website to the Web (in fact, a local server is what engineers use to develop websites before releasing them to the public). you type www.facebook.com into your browser, a request goes out to Facebook’s remote server. Once your browser receives the response, it interprets the code and displays the page.

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