What is an API and How do APIs Work?

April 30th, 2020

If you are reading this article, you probably heard about APIs and know they are valuable in some way, but you may not be sure what they really are and how they are valuable. I totally understand. Neither did I before I starting working for shopVOX.

You may have also heard of APIs from someone at shopVOX or from our tutorials since shopVOX has its own API. In addition, when you use shopVOX, you are also using APIs. Here are some ways:

These are just a few examples of how you are using an API with shopVOX.

What is an API?

API technically stands for Application Programming Interface. This doesn't give the light bulb moment of what API truly means though, right!? So, let me explain.

Connectivity is an incredible experience. We need it in business for so many layers of what we do. Connectivity allows us all to work together. We send and receive massive amounts of data, but how does this data actually get from one place to another?

We send quotes, place orders, approve graphics, order materials, and have the information automatically sent to our accounting software. How do different devices and applications connect to one another so that we can do these tasks in just a few clicks on a keyboard?

The unproclaimed hero of our connected world is API.

API is behind the scenes.

API is the middleman.

API is what we all take for granted.

API is why we are all connected.

API is humble and does not demand attention, but it's always there quietly working to connect us.

API is the channel for applications to talk to one another.

API allows different apps and services to exchange information.

API takes your request and tells another system your request. That system responds and then API returns the response back to you.

What is an API similar to?

A common way to explain what an API is to liken an API to a waiter. When you order food in a restaurant, you tell the waiter what you want. If you want to know the ingredients in an item, you don't have to go to the kitchen to ask. Instead, you ask the waiter and the waiter acts as the API communicating for you.

Then, the waiter forwards your order to the kitchen while you enjoy your company or work on your computer. The kitchen works to fulfill your order without bombarding you with the details it took to complete your order. Finally, the waiter delivers your order.

Waiters work between you and the restaurant to supply you with all of the services that restaurants offer. APIs are just like waiters as they take requests, sends them to another system, then delivers them where they need to go.

How do APIs Work?

Like I explained above, APIs operate in the background as the middleman between two apps, software, and/or machines that want to connect to each other for a specified task. APIs communicate through a set of defined rules so these tools talk to each other.

Think about when you log into the shopVOX Go app from your smartphone. You are requesting that you want to access your shopVOX account. The software connects with an API to receive your shopVOX account and credentials. The mobile application makes a call to an API to retrieve your shopVOX account and credentials. ShopVOX would then access this information from its servers and return the data to the mobile application.

APIs can only retrieve information that is available. If you did not have an account in shopVOX, the API would not be able to retrieve it for you.

APIs have many more functions than retrieving information. In the next article, I will explain the different functions of common APIs in our next article.

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