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How to Treat your Application as an API

Instead of viewing the GUI as a "thing," Alan Richardson tells us it view it as an abstraction.

· Agile Zone

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A phrase I’ve found myself using in various training sessions is “app as API.” I think that I’ve mentioned that in some previous blog posts, but I want to expand the concept here. Some applications provide an API and most applications provide a GUI.

When the application provides an API, I like to take advantage of that. But, sometimes the API doesn’t do everything I want and sometimes the functionality I want to use is only available from the GUI.

Do I let that stop me? No. What do I do? I build the API that I want to use. And I’ll abstract the GUI and API behind that. So, I might have API-I-want-to-use, like:

  • create_user(name, username, password)
  • login_user(username, password)
  • change_password(username, new-password)
  • create_project(username, project_name)

This example is a first draft, so it is pretty crude. As the API grows, I’ll refactor it into different objects and a better hierarchy, but this is a start.

  • create_user: has to delegate to an API abstraction since only the API allows me to create users.

  • login_user: I can log in via the API or via the GUI. Both return a valid session ID, but only the GUI sets the session cookie, so I start by using the GUI automation.
  • change_password: I can change password from the GUI and the API, so I pick the API.
  • create_project: the API doesn’t support creating projects, so I pick the GUI.

Fairly simple. I’m building an abstraction layer that supports what I need to do, but I don’t really care how it is implemented - at least to start with.

Over time, we decide that the GUI usage when we automate is a pain. It keeps spawning browsers and sometimes, because of the work we are doing, the browsers are left open. So we decide to change. We want to stop using a tool that automates the GUI.

But then, I can’t create projects. What do I do?

I could inject projects directly into the database, but there is a risk of referential integrity issues, and we have some sort of painful permissions process to gain write access to the database and yada, yada, yada, the project admin is getting in the way.

(Inspired by actual events.)

What else can I do? I can treat the app as an API. Instead of thinking of the GUI as a thing, I’m going to view the GUI as an abstraction. That abstraction sends HTTP requests to the backend when I fill in a form. Therefore, we could automate the sending of the HTTP requests, rather than automate the GUI? Yup.

How? By using the GUI and passing it through a proxy, we can see what requests the application issues to fulfill its contract as an API when it “creates a project.”

And lo, we discover that it issues a number of HTTP requests: create a project, add the user to the project, create a default context, or add the context to the project.

That explains the database referential integrity issues. It also reveals a risk at the GUI level that we never knew about. What if only some of the requests make it through? Perhaps that explains some of the referential integrity issues we’ve been encountering in the database when the system is used under high load? Regardless, we’re going to replicate the HTTP requests as the iImplementation in our API.

So, I take the session ID from the API login and add that to the headers in the HTTP requests. Now, I no longer need to use the tool that automates the GUI when I use this “app as API” mode.

“With great automating comes great responsibility and potentially increased risk.” I think Peter Parker’s Uncle said something like that.

We have to take responsibility for the fact that we have automated this way, and by responsibility I mean we implement a mitigation strategy.

To mitigate the risk that the GUI changes, and that the HTTP requests change, and our abstraction layer no longer matches the GUI we will have code that uses the GUI library, start up a code controllable proxy (i.e., https://bmp.lightbody.net/), uses our “app as API” in “full GUI mode” to log in and create a project, as it does so, the requests are captured in the proxy, we compare the requests the proxy captures with the requests we encoded in our API, and we assert that the requests are the same.

If we do the above, then our risk mitigation test will fail if the GUI changes, but we haven’t updated our code. Hey, as a side-effect, if we run this often, then we are also covering the risk that the GUI might not be able to create a project. Cool. And that's what I mean by app as API. 

Instead of defaulting to using the APP, given that automating the GUI can be slower than issuing HTTP requests, we start to understand the application more,;we make our automated code less in-your-face (i.e., no browsers popping up); we can use this to support our testing interaction with the app because the API is defined at a task level that we understand for testing rather than the API that the designer wanted to expose; we identified risks that had gone unnoticed because we started testing at a more technical level; and thousands of other benefits that we’ll realize over time (or we might not; the above might be enough).

When we bypass GUI controls and use unofficial interfaces, we might increase risk. In some cases, we can easily automate the continual monitoring of those risks. I often do this when I’m automating third party applications because they either don’t give me an API or don’t expect and end user to want to do what I want to do.

I’ve used this on projects when the automated executions started taking too long or failed because of tool interaction issues. And now you can experiment with your APP as an API.

Remembering that “with great…etc., etc.”

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Published at DZone with permission of Alan Richardson, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

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