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The API-ificiation of software – and LEGOs

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Today everything has an API. Facebook has hundreds of APIs across such social areas as friends, photos, likes and events. Google has thousands of APIs across search/AdWords, Web analytics, YouTube, maps, email and many more. Amazon has APIs that cover the spectrum from Alexa Web traffic rankings to e-commerce product and pricing information and even the ability to start and stop individual machines. I spent a decade architecting and building component and services based software, and another decade after that evaluating and investing in infrastructure software, I believe this mobile and cloud influenced wave of RESTful service-oriented software may finally live up to its initial promise.

Although the majority of API attention has centered on consumer Web services, an emerging cadre of startups are focused on infrastructure and business processes. These newcomers are providing a broad range of critical services neatly packaged as frameworks or APIs. Some of these companies, such as Salesforce and Google Maps, are next generation SaaS providers that have built solutions to serve both end users and developers. Others, including Mailchimp and Twilio, are pure play offerings that solely target developers as customers.

Open source helped to reignite the open systems movement in the late 1990s, which popularized the idea of creating public projects and actively soliciting community feedback and involvement. Tens of thousands of open source projects have been created, but only those projects that built sizable communities have thrived. Most of the large infrastructure software categories were eventually filled by strong open source projects and some spawned successful commercial software companies, including RedHat, XenSource, Sourcefire, MySQL, JBoss, Talend and Alfresco. These companies span a broad range — from operating systems/hypervisors to security to middleware and database/content management.

Developers now expect the same instant gratification as end users. Instead of having to download, configure and manage all the associated software components, more and more of these capabilities need to be packaged “as-a-service” — hence, the move to cloud services. It is also important to remember that software development is an art, and programmers want a very simple and elegant programming interface.

These developer-focused startups provide simply packaged programming interfaces for a wide range of cloud-enabled services — from such basic infrastructure capabilities as storing and retrieving files to much more complex business processes, including invoicing, billing and payment processing. In some instances, startups begin by offering a constrained solution around a key feature/function, but then leverage that starting point to broaden the service into a more complete offering. This is the approach that CloudFlare and Urban Airship took, for example.

Targeting developers is not the only thing these startups are doing differently. Leveraging the inherent distribution of the app economy gives these new companies another intriguing opportunity to disrupt the incumbents. The explosive growth in mobile applications and the associated re-platforming means that developers are rebuilding from the ground up and evaluating new technologies at all layers. In addition, the emergence of so many new languages even further complicates the problems for incumbents. Originally written for the C++ and Smalltalk audiences, one of my favorite programming books of all time, “Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software,” by the famous Gang of Four, has certainly influenced software architects on clean and reusable design abstractions.

Here is a broad, but by no means exhaustive, list of some of the potential infrastructure categories and disruptive companies. (If you want an exhaustive list of APIs check out ProgrammableWeb.) Some of the categories are unfilled by potential disruptors, and other categories include pure cloud services as well as software products. (In a follow-up post, I will share another list that includes a range of higher level business process type services.)

Category/Function Incumbents Disruptors
Compute HP, IBM, Dell Amazon, Rackspace, Joyent, Heroku, Node
Networking Cisco, Juniper Amazon, Pertino
WAN Optimization Riverbed, Cisco, Juniper/Peribit
Load Balancing Cisco, F5, Nginx, Riverbed
Disaster Recovery EMC, Symantec/Veritas
Storage/File Sharing EMC, NetApp Amazon, Dropbox, Box
Email MS Exchange, Constant Contact, Vertical Response MailChimp, Mailgun, Postmark, SendGrid
Telephony Avaya, Nortel 2600hz, ifbyphone, RingCentral, Tropo, Twilio
Chat Microsoft, AOL, Facebook Google Talk, HipChat
GIS/Mapping ESRI, Trimble, MapQuest CloudMade, Google Maps
Anti-malware McAfee, Symantec, Websense Webroot, Zscaler
Web Security Cisco, Checkpoint Cloudflare
Identity Management Active Directory, IBM/Tivoli Centrify, Ping, Symplified
Config/Systems Management BMC/BladeLogic, HP/Opsware, IBM/Tivoli Cfengine, Chef, Puppet, Vagrant
Log Management ArcSight, Splunk Loggly, SumoLogic, Papertrail
App Performance Management IBM Tivoli, HP Openview, BMC Patrol NewRelic, Boundary
Messaging IBM, Tibco Amazon SQS, Urban Airship, Pusher
Data Synchronization Oracle, IBM/Lotus, Symantec/Veritas Couchdb, Simperium
Data Sourcing, Cleansing and Enrichment D&B, Axciom, Radius, FullContact
Database IBM, Oracle, Sybase, MySQL Amazon, Google, Cloudant, MongoHQ,
Data Marketplace D&B, Experian, Axciom Factual, Xignite
Content/Document Management IBM Filenet, OpenText, Sharepoint, Alfresco, Acquia
Testing HP Mercury, CA Gomez, Keynote SOASTA, SauceLabs

In some ways, this isn’t an entirely new approach. During the Web and client server technology cycles, some successful software companies used a similar model of providing libraries (and even DLLs). Crystal Reports made it extremely easy for developers to embed reporting within their applications; Hummingbird and Wollongong offered (TCP/IP) networking stacks; Visigenic provided (ODBC) database libraries/drivers; and Neuron Data and PowerBuilder provided platforms for user interfaces. These examples show that it was possible to build successful businesses at all levels of the software stack.

Consequently, APIs are only the latest packaging as developers transition from objects and class libraries to RESTful services. However, it seems that the promise of service oriented architectures is finally being realized, and it is creating a strong opportunity for innovative business models.

So what does all this mean? Client-server software was replaced by on-premise Web-based apps, which are in turn being replaced by cloud/SaaS solutions. Perhaps the next generation of software will be solutions composed from these APIs/services. All of these exciting startups are proving that developers need — and want — these services. But ultimately, building complete solutions might require a LEGO-like construction kit. Is the future of software about Lightweight Enterprise Gadget Orchestration? Perhaps, there is even an opportunity for someone to provide an Interface Builder (remember NextStep?) that can natively access the myriad of emerging SaaS/APIs.

Robin Vasan, managing director at Mayfield, invests in the cloud, SaaS and mobile themes. Some of his current investments include Alfresco, Couchbase, Marketo, Centrify and Webroot. Past successes include Akimbi, Trigo and webMethods. Mayfield has also been involved in such other leading companies as 3Com, 3PAR, Citrix, Concur, Legato, Nuance, Tibco and Vantive.

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11 Responses to “The API-ificiation of software – and LEGOs”

  1. Chris Haddad

    Organizations applying the Lego metaphor to business capabilities will realize more effective partnerships, increased customer interaction, and enhanced user experience. Software architects and developers can take five actions to avoid common API pitfalls, create business value, and monetize API assets:

    1. Embrace the Managed API
    2. Establish a Monetization Model
    3. Make APIs Easy for Developers to Access
    4. Employ Governance
    5. Monitor API Use

    You can learn more about the five steps by visiting my blog post

    and also learn how to re-invent software delivery with API management

  2. Chris Haddad

    Organizations applying the Lego metaphor to business capabilities will realize more effective partnerships, increased customer interaction, and enhanced user experience. Software architects and developers can take five actions to avoid common API pitfalls, create business value, and monetize API assets:

    1. Embrace the Managed API
    2. Establish a Monetization Model
    3. Make APIs Easy for Developers to Access
    4. Employ Governance
    5. Monitor API Use

    You can learn more about the five steps by visiting my blog post

    and also learning how to re-invent software delivery with API management

  3. Robin,
    Thanks for listing 2600hz as a Telephony Disruptor! :-) We totally agree.

    More important, your comments about LEGOs and APIs are highly relevant. While client/server and some of the API business models may come in waves or circles, on thing that is consistent to me is the speed at which APIs are being released and updated – it seems to be linear and increasing, not a cycle. People were excited when portable DLLs came around but were slow to adopt. Then we got SOAP and people were floored. XML picked up, too. Then REST. Who knows what next. But each time, developers have been able to enhance their products from a user’s perspective much faster and with more significance then ever before.

    It seems like the entire concept of having a “product” is obsolete – it might be completely different a month after an initial announcement or launch thanks mostly to APIs hooking things together in different ways.

    Remains to be seen whether consumer demand will simply continue or will become tired of constant change, but thus far it seems people just want more.

  4. Simon Hartley

    Great post. Seemed to miss the PKCS #11 security API that’s huge for enterprise cloud and mobile.

    Also interesting range of size/viability on the right hand side, from giants with massive revenues and verifiable success to some of the variety better known for PR to investors than success in the markets.

  5. Steven Willmott

    Great article – the trend is definitely there and interestingly while it used to be mainly data that people pulled in remotely by API, it really shifted to processing also.

    Since our aim as a company is to help people open APIs ( we’ve also spent some time noodling on the future directions of some of the this stuff ( – presentation from Gluecon last week) and also some business perspectives (

    The “consumer” side of APIs is definitely emerging as a pain point. Services like IFTTT and Tiggzi are starting to address this, but there’s a lot of pieces left to build both on API provision and consumption!

  6. Max Katz

    What’s interesting is that The Interface Builder already exists, it’s called Tiggzi ( Tiggzi is a cloud-based visual mobile app builder that enables to build apps that consume any cloud API’s. It comes with a powerful JSON to mobile UI mapper — which allows a very fast way to try/use any REST service. Even more, Tiggzi’s Plug-in feature allows to add pre-packaged API’s into your app.

    Max @ Tiggzi