APIs Galore: Understanding the Choices & Challenges

Despite all the buzz around communications platform as a service (CPaaS) and application programming interfaces (APIs), many enterprise communications professionals still don't have a good understanding of the differences between the two, says Mark Winther, group vice president and consulting partner for Worldwide Telecommunications at IDC.

Educating enterprises on these differences, as well as on the challenges and opportunities of both is the goal of the APIs & Embedded Communications track at Enterprise Connect, coming to Orlando, Fla., in just under two weeks. Winther, who will be presenting two sessions in this track, recently took the time to chat with me about some of the challenges enterprises face in working with APIs and CPaaS.

Wrapping Your Arms Around CPaaS vs. APIs

These days, communications platform providers all have APIs, Winther said. "So it's hard to tell what truly is CPaaS versus ... a couple APIs," he said.

Vendor-provided APIs provide the tools, routines, and protocols developers need to customize applications for their business needs and to build integrations between these applications and business workflows. CPaaS simplifies this effort by offering pre-packaged programmable communications components that let businesses add real-time communication capabilities to business applications without needing to customize interfaces for each integration.

APIs are about masking complexity, making it somebody else's headache, Winther said. CPaaS, he added, is about masking telephony. "All the protocols and interconnects, all the rules and regulations of what is permitted and when -- you don't have to worry about it. The CPaaS vendor worries about it."

Enterprise organizations that have internal developer expertise, and understand the rules and regulations, may want to get involved in using telephony protocols, Winther said. And so they'll build their own interconnections for sending voice and messages using vendor-provided APIs.

Others might just want to do quick integrations using pre-packaged CPaaS components with no customization required – "they want the power of telecom, but the ease of integration of CPaaS," he said.

Another alternative comes from vendors that offer the ability to integrate with their primary communications products, usually through APIs. "I think about it kind of like the tail wagging the dog," he said. "Their main focus is going into the finished product, and as a side benefit they have APIs that can help you quickly integrate their product. That's not CPaaS because they're not going to have all the richness of the APIs -- the tutorials, helper libraries, active development efforts. etc."

Companies that want to embed communications need to think about whether they can accomplish their goals with CPaaS, an existing communications solution that offers the ability to integrate through APIs, or an internal build using vendor APIs, Winther added. Different use cases align with each of these approaches, and the direction an enterprise ultimately takes partly depends on what resources are available to it and how much customization it requires.

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How to Manage API Proliferation

A lot of companies tend to leverage APIs for customer interactions -- in the contact center and outside of it -- to improve customer experiences, Winther said. For example, a bank may leverage APIs to feed leads that come in through email to its salesforce in real time via SMS, whereas leads might otherwise typically take a week to trickle out of email and get into the hands of a sales associate to follow up. Even though the API comes into play outside of the contact center, the end result is faster reaction times and better customer experiences, he said.

As companies increase their reliance on communications APIs, a logical step is to spread out use among two or more CPaaS providers. "This can be for failover purposes, and also so a company can play [providers] against one another for competitive pricing," he said. However, sourcing communications APIs from more than one provider will increase complexity and can make management more challenging, as some CPaaS and API vendors will be more responsive than others, he added.

"The broader story here is there's an API for everything," Winther said. "Companies have APIs for connecting solutions together -- it could be external to connect to a partner or internal to connect to applications to create a solution. It's all about how software is being rearchitected into microservices where you use APIs to connect these microservices."

But who's controlling all these APIs floating around? "When do they need to be refreshed? What are the security issues? Who has privileges to use an API and invoke the transactions behind it, which might create costs and be a challenge for governance?" Winther asked. "Communications is part of it, but there are other kinds of APIs -- that's what the issue is."

Moving deeper into 2018 and beyond, activity around API management and security will increase, spurred by the growing prevalence of digital transformation projects, Winther said. "When people talk about digital transformation, in many ways they're talking about using APIs to engage customers, partners, etc., in a digital way. In sheer volume, more and more of the IT environment is going to be structured around APIs. While it's traditionally been monolithic, now it's about microservices; and companies are increasingly dependent on ecosystems."

Learn more about APIs & Embedded Communications at Enterprise Connect 2018, March 12 to 15, in Orlando, Fla. Winther will be presenting the sessions, "Communications APIs: Is CPaaS the Only Way?" on Monday, March 12, and "How to Deal with API Proliferation," on Wednesday, March 14. Register now using the code NOJITTER to save an additional $200 off the Regular Rate or get a free Expo Plus pass.

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