I’m often asked which API management layer is the best one available today. The answer is always that it depends. Whether you are considering an open-source or closed-source API management layer, the number of vendors and options available today is astounding. Many API management solutions focus on delivering specific capabilities, while others strive to cover a breadth of features but don’t go very deep in all areas. This article will shed some light on how to approach the decision-making process for managing your API so that you can ensure that the needs of your business, product, and development teams are met.
Why Do You Need API Management?
For those unfamiliar, API management layers accelerate the deployment, monitoring, security, versioning, and sharing of APIs. They are often deployed as a reverse proxy, intercepting all incoming API request traffic and applying rules to determine if requests should be routed to the API. In addition to traffic management, they commonly offer:
- Token-based authorization support through API-key based authentication and/or OAuth 2.
- Deployment and versioning support for redirecting incoming requests to the current or newly deployed release of an API.
- Rate limiting to reduce the impact of greedy API clients and denial of service (DoS) attacks.
- Developer portals for hosted documentation and self-onboarding by developers.
- Administrative portals for viewing usage reports.
- Billing and payment support for selling subscription-based access to your API.
- On-premise, cloud, and hybrid hosting deployment options.
API management layers may be offered as purely closed-source, purely open-source, or in a hybrid model using a combination of open source components and closed source offerings.
Factor #1: Self-Hosted and SaaS Deployment Options
Your deployment requirements are a huge factor in API management layer selection. While most vendors offer managed cloud-based options, some choose to do so only during the early stages of your API, requiring you to move to an on-premise solution as your traffic increases. Knowing how you need to deploy your API management layer, including the resources available to monitor and maintain it is important to the selection process. Look for a vendor that offers the kind of deployment you require: on-premise or managed cloud services. If you are unsure, select a vendor that offers a seamless transition from one to the other, such as Tyk.io.
Factor #2: Simple Installation Process
If your API management layer will reside within your own cloud environment or data center rather than hosted, then installation needs to be simple. Evaluate the installation process to ensure that standing up new instances and new environments (i.e., staging, UAT, integration) will be easy (and, preferably, automated. If you prefer containerization, consider vendors that offer a container-based distribution to reduce the effort required to support your deployment process.
Factor #3: Meets Feature Requirements
Part of your selection process should include an evaluation. We covered this in a previous article, but I’ll repeat it here for reference. Your evaluation should include the following considerations:
- Authorization. Can you implement your desired authorization mechanism (i.e., API tokens, keys, OAuth 2, etc.) to meet your needs?
- Performance. How much overhead does the layer require for each request? Measure the performance of your API endpoints before and after installing the API management layer. Expect some reduction in performance, but also ensure that the management layer doesn’t cause a drastic decrease in performance that may require additional server capacity
- Security. Perform some basic penetration testing to verify that the layer is catching common attack vectors. Attacks such as SQL injection, DoS attack prevention through rate limiting, and other attacks can often be simulated with some simple scripts
- Onboarding. How easy or hard will it be for your developers to get onboarded? Does the onboarding process support the business, product, and technical needs of your company?
- Reporting. Does the management layer provide the information you will need on a day-to-day basis to better serve your developers? Can you export data via an API or push it into an external reporting solution easily, for integration into other daily or weekly reports?
Factor #4: Customization Should Not Be Required
I was recently discussing the abundance of infrastructure tools available to development teams today. With every tool comes the burden of understanding it and getting it integrated into your environment. Some tools choose to offer a variety of options, but require considerable effort to get running. Be sure to evaluate the effort required to start using the API management layer. Customization options are great, but if you can’t get started easily or without installing lots of plugins, then you need to know this ahead of time.
Factor #5: Easy Upgrades
Whatever solution you select, you will need to keep it upgraded to ensure you have the latest improvements and available features. Evaluate the upgrade process by reading past release notes to better understand the process that will likely be required. If there are no release or upgrade notes, then that should generate a concern. Just keep in mind that some commercial offerings only supply these details directly to customers or via a customer portal. If you don’t find anything, contact the vendor to ensure that they are available to paying customers.
Factor #6: Vendor Viability
We all want API management vendors to experience growth and success. However, not everyone will be around in the long term. Consider the vendor’s viability by understanding their revenue model. For open-source solutions, take into consideration the companies backing the solution, along with the community that is supporting it. If there isn’t much activity, then the solution may become abandoned in the future.
Factor #7: Management Automation
Finally, consider the automation options available to configure, manage, and integrate the solution into your operations processes. Vendors that offer APIs for every feature available in their configuration APIs, along with reporting APIs and webhooks for important events ensure that you can easily automate changes and integrate it into your deployment process.
As you have likely realized, it isn’t easy to select an API management layer. However, your decision will have ramifications for months or years to come. It may offer tremendous flexibility or severely limit your options in the future. Take the time to properly evaluate the API management layer that best fits your needs.