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What are APIs?

Application programming interfaces are becoming increasingly popular at UCLA.

One of the many acronyms we use in information technology is “API,” which stands for “Application Programming Interface.” Like acronyms, APIs accelerate communication, especially within the realms of software development and the Internet.

APIs are sets of requirements that specify how programs interact. They enable different types of applications to communicate with one another and transfer information back and forth. Your smart phone uses APIs whenever it accesses Internet-dependent mobile apps. Thousands of “mashup” applications—which gather information from more than one source and serve it to you in an interesting format—rely on APIs provided by various websites to perform their magic. One fun example is “Wheel of Lunch,” an app that uses the Yahoo Local Search API to provide an entertaining way to pick a place to eat.

APIs can be public and open to the world, or private with secure access control. Many of your favorite websites, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, offer APIs that tell developers how to build applications that will work correctly with their sites.

The API is not a new concept, but its current definition has broadened to include services on the Web with well-defined and easy-to-use programming interfaces. Using the modern API, departments on campus that are responsible for “book-of-record” and enterprise data sources can serve data through fine-grained APIs, as opposed to direct database SQL query connections that are slow and cumbersome to extend and modify. This practice enables other departments and application owners to build composite applications and services based on these APIs.

Applications, both internal and external to an organization, can access and exchange data using APIs. APIs can be managed, secured, and monitored through a shared central platform that is agnostic to programming language, message format, and security protocol.

In the higher education community, APIs have become increasingly popular. During the last two years, UCLA’s Common Systems Group (CSG) formed a task force to inventory and catalog University Web services that might be of interest to the campus community. UCLA Student Affairs IT has become a campus leader in developing and using APIs. In conjunction with the UCLA Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) Team, they released a broad set of APIs, which includes access to course, class and student data for select campus departments. On Feb 8, 2017 IT Services launched a campus pilot Web Service Registry site, which is intended to be the hub for the discovery of UCLA Web Services and APIs.

Over the next few years APIs, and the availability of a centralized campus API management platform, will be crucial to meeting UCLA’s integration needs, including the planned modernization of student and financial systems as well as UC system-wide initiatives, such as UCPath and Cross Campus Enrollment.