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APIs

APIs, like other web applications, vary greatly in implementation and design, depending on the situation and the problem the application is solving.

This document provides a mix of:

  • High level design guidance that individual APIs interpret to meet their needs.
  • Low level web practices that most modern HTTP APIs use.

Design for common use cases

For APIs that syndicate data, consider several common client use cases:

  • Bulk data. Clients often wish to establish their own copy of the API’s dataset in its entirety. For example, someone might like to build their own search engine on top of the dataset, using different parameters and technology than the “official” API allows. If the API can’t easily act as a bulk data provider, provide a separate mechanism for acquiring the backing dataset in bulk.
  • Staying up to date. Especially for large datasets, clients may want to keep their copy of the dataset up to date without downloading the entire dataset after every change. If this is a use case for the API, prioritize it in the design.
  • Driving expensive actions. What would happen if a client wanted to automatically send text messages to thousands of people or light up the side of a skyscraper every time a new record appears? Consider whether the API’s records will always be in a reliable unchanging order, and whether they tend to appear in clumps or in a steady stream. Generally speaking, consider the “entropy” an API client would experience.

Using one’s own API

The #1 best way to understand and address the weaknesses in an API’s design and implementation is to use it in a production system.

Whenever feasible, design an API in parallel with an accompanying integration of that API.

Point of contact

Have an obvious mechanism for clients to report issues and ask questions about the API.

When using GitHub for an API’s code, use the associated issue tracker. In addition, publish an email address for direct, non-public inquiries.

Notifications of updates

Have a simple mechanism for clients to follow changes to the API.

Common ways to do this include a mailing list, or a dedicated developer blog with an RSS feed.

API endpoints

An “endpoint” is a combination of two things:

  • The verb (e.g. GET or POST)
  • The URL path (e.g. /articles)

Information can be passed to an endpoint in either of two ways:

  • The URL query string (e.g. ?year=2014)
  • HTTP headers (e.g. X-Api-Key: my-key)
  • The HTTP request body (for POST and PUT requests)

When people say “RESTful” nowadays, they really mean designing simple, intuitive endpoints that represent unique functions in the API.

Generally speaking:

  • Avoid single-endpoint APIs. Don’t jam multiple operations into the same endpoint with the same HTTP verb.
  • Prioritize simplicity. It should be easy to guess what an endpoint does by looking at the URL and HTTP verb, without needing to see a query string.
  • Endpoint URLs should advertise resources, and avoid verbs.

Some examples of these principles in action:

Always use HTTPS

Requirement Any new API should use and require HTTPS encryption. HTTPS provides:

  • Security. The contents of the request are encrypted across the Internet.
  • Authenticity. A stronger guarantee that a client is communicating with the real API.
  • Privacy. Enhanced privacy for apps and users using the API. HTTP headers and query string parameters (among other things) will be encrypted.
  • Compatibility. Broader client-side compatibility. For CORS requests to the API to work on HTTPS websites – to not be blocked as mixed content – those requests must be over HTTPS.

The CIO Council provides two relevant guides:

Use UTF-8

Requirement Just use UTF-8.

An API should tell clients to expect UTF-8 by including a charset notation in the Content-Type header for responses. For example, an API that returns JSON should use:

Content-Type: application/json; charset=utf-8

Even if you do not believe your API will ever return data outside the ASCII character set, you should assume it could and return data encoded as UTF-8.

Just use JSON

Standard JSON is an excellent, widely supported transport format, suitable for many web APIs.

Supporting JSON and only JSON is a practical default for APIs, and generally reduces complexity for both the API provider and consumer.

General JSON guidelines:

  • Responses should be a JSON object (not an array). Using an array to return results limits the ability to include metadata about results, and limits the API’s ability to add additional top-level keys in the future.
  • Don’t use unpredictable keys. Parsing a JSON response where keys are unpredictable (e.g. derived from data) is difficult, and adds friction for clients.
  • Use consistent case for keys. Whether you use under_score or CamelCase for your API keys, make sure you are consistent.

Use a consistent date format

Standard Specifically, use ISO 8601, in UTC.

For dates, that looks like 2022-06-22. For dates with times, that’s of the form 2022-06-22T13:56:38Z.

This date format is used all over the web, and puts each field in consistent order – from least granular to most granular.

CORS

For clients to be able to use an API from inside web browsers, the API must enable CORS.

For the simplest and most common use case, where the entire API should be accessible from inside the browser, enabling CORS is as simple as including this HTTP header in all responses:

Access-Control-Allow-Origin: *

It’s supported by every modern browser.

For more advanced configuration, see the W3C spec or Mozilla’s guide.

API keys

If keys are used to manage and authenticate API access, the API should allow some sort of unauthenticated access, without keys.

This allows newcomers to use and experiment with the API in demo environments and with simple curl / wget / etc. requests.

Consider whether one of your product goals is to allow a certain level of normal production use of the API without enforcing advanced registration by clients.

Pagination

If pagination is required to navigate datasets, use the method that makes the most sense for the API’s data.

Parameters

Common patterns:

  • page and per_page. Intuitive for many use cases. Links to “page 2” may not always contain the same data.
  • offset and limit. This standard comes from the SQL database world, and is a good option when you need stable permalinks to result sets.
  • since and limit. Get everything “since” some ID or timestamp. Useful when it’s a priority to let clients efficiently stay “in sync” with data. Generally requires result set order to be very stable.

Metadata

Include enough metadata so that clients can calculate how much data there is, and how and whether to fetch the next set of results.

Example of how that might be implemented:

{
  "results": [ ... actual results ... ],
  "pagination": {
    "count": 2340,
    "page": 4,
    "per_page": 20
  }
}

Error handling

Handle all errors (including otherwise uncaught exceptions) and return a data structure in the same format as the rest of the API.

For example, a JSON API might provide the following when an uncaught exception occurs:

{
  "message": "Description of the error.",
  "exception": "[detailed stacktrace]"
}

HTTP responses with error details should use a 4XX status code to indicate a client-side failure (such as invalid authorization, or an invalid parameter), and a 5XX status code to indicate server-side failure (such as an uncaught exception).