Mashing it up - APIs and how the small bits are becoming 'big'

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks August 2, 2016
The combination of Tibco’s recent announcement of Mashery Enterprise and a blog written by MuleSoft founder Ross Mason, point clearly to the practical advantages of using APIs to create business services that could only be dreamed about till now

Mash it up

Back in April, 451 analysts John Abbott and Andy Lawrence talked about the coming of the composable enterprise. The first steps along that road have now appeared, independently, from Tibco and MuleSoft.

The pair have both addressed the role of the API (Application Programming Interface) as the key compositional device, which is, perhaps, only part-way down the road that Abbott and Lawrence predicted, as set out in the diginomica report at the time:

It also maps onto another trend they see coming, the extension of SDDC (Software Defined Data Centre) systems – that whole concept of `Software Defined anything and everything’ – into what they call composable systems. These will be based upon the availability of fluid pools of resources working with software-defined intelligence and unified application programming.

Tibco has followed up its acquisition of API management vendor, Mashery, from Intel by bringing it together with some of its other tools such as BusinessWorks to create Mashery Enterprise. This is designed to allow users to create, integrate, and manage APIs within a single environment, and is available as a SaaS subscription.

The founder of MuleSoft, Ross Mason, has pitched in with a major blog contribution, setting out his company’s position on the composable enterprise, how it can be created and why business managers now need to be heading in that direction with a fair turn of speed.

Micro-services, micro-flows….the name’s not the important bit

His blog references a survey MuleSoft recently conducted with 800 IT professionals from across Europe. Of companies with an API strategy in place, the survey showed a majority using them to ‘free’ data so it can be reused and repurposed. For example, 72% are linking new software with legacy systems and 55% are unlocking data silos. What this gives them is the potential for much greater flexibility and business agility, as Mason writes in his blog:

Agility is also driving much of the growing interest in micro-services. Respondents that are using or thinking of using micro-services identified the ability to add new features or capabilities without rewriting applications as the single most important reason for doing so.

I recently spoke with Rob Zazueta, ex-Mashery man and now director of digital strategy at Tibco, about how micro-services – or micro-flows as he calls them – are about to become one of the key driving forces that gives enterprises the flexibility and agility they will really need to meet business challenges in the future. Indeed, he sees them becoming amongst the prime tools used by business managers themselves, rather than their having to work through the intermediaries of developers as at present.

He predicts that the IT industry will very soon wake up to the idea that APIs really should now move into the domain of the business manager rather than the specialist developer, for they are the people actually at the coalface of what APIs are required, and why. At present there is still the need for business people to go through the developer as intermediary, yet it should now be possible to give them domain-specific libraries of code that are defined in their native working taxonomy.

He pointed to the arrival of new process orchestration tools, such as Tibco’s own Simplr which was announced at the company’s conference in Las Vegas in May, which specifically target this job.

One of the goals here is the development of tools that produce micro-flows – small subsets of established workflows that are packaged up and re-usable.  Over time, he sees these becoming capable of automation and oriented towards business people using descriptors for the micro-flows that are of increasing levels of abstraction away from coding and towards the business processes.

His expectations here go as far as seeing these capabilities extend into smart city, smart home and personal healthcare applications, where the users define the processes themselves.

The arrival of Mashery Enterprise is one of the first steps along that road to allowing enterprise users to compose/orchestrate complex, functionally rich services that specifically tailored to their requirements. Zazueta sees it as the combination of Tibco’s BusinessWorks containers and the button which says 'publish to Mashery'. He explains:  

This helps not only the Tibco customers to build better/richer services, but also helps Mashery customers by providing a management option for them as they realise the need to build enterprise-wide collaboration. Mashery has so far focused on the mid-sized businesses but now it is moving up the chain. We’ve have been looking at businesses with millions of API calls a day, but this can now be scaled up to billions of calls. We are now essentially designed for scale.

That scaling ability is essential as business users look to exploit the value of the data and process-compute capabilities long locked away in legacy applications silos. Now the need is to make them work in previously impossible collaborations with new applications out in the cloud and the world of increasing mobility:

This is the evolution of integration. We are moving to where we say we have some stuff in the data center , some out in the cloud. Users can now leverage their existing IT investments by throwing them out on the bus and, by architecting them correctly and exposing the APIs in ways that make the most business sense  – for example at the right level of abstraction such as `the People API’ – they can then build new agile applications.  These can then be either in-house or out in the cloud, with access that can be set to `everyone’, or some selected set of users. Having the management available to do that is now going to be crucial

And most important of all is that, down the line, if they can get the APIs right they can then rip and replace individual applications within that service and the service continues as an improved entity.

Making a symphony of IoT and business apps

One major applications area that Zazueta sees emerging for Mashery Enterprise and the composability that comes with micro-flows will be in engineering the need for a real-time join between IoT and business management processes. This is an area that Tibco is taking very seriously because any downtime on the IoT side – even if it is for planned/predicted maintenance work – will have an impact on production, which means that the business side needs a real-time connection to that information in order to rejig its plans across its management of sales, marketing, supply chain and customer experience:

There are two problems with IoT. One is to manage the exponential growth in data coming in, and the other is to make sure you are getting the right data and using it accurately in real time – and that is the trick. This process is essential if the ERP systems are then to be updated accurately, and it requires increasing amounts of intelligence operating out at the edge to determine what is the essential data that needs to be processed now and what can wait.

And the APIs that conduct this process also help with issues such as providing enhanced customer experiences. For example, the APIs can automatically fire off a message to a customer that their order is packaged and awaiting shipment, as well as then tracking it through all stages of the shipment process.

This also then plays to depth of customers and partners Tibco has built up over the years. One such is Carvoyent, which is developing tools for a wide range of management tasks in all forms of motorised transport. The current sweet-spot however, is in tracking truck loads and movements, making it a useful adjunct to the combined Tibco/Mashery capabilities.

MuleSoft’s Ross Mason has identified the same opportunities, as his blog makes clear:

The kind of secure access to core business data that APIs allow can be leveraged in myriad ways, but, generally speaking, it enables the central IT function and broader IT functions to quickly and intelligently respond to the demands of internal and external consumers. And by using APIs to securely open up core business data to other organizations, consumers can create a relatively low-risk way for their companies to explore new markets, try out new products or services, and extend their own brand and customer base.

He, too, sees businesses moving direct control of such processes away from the IT department, to the point where it becomes all-but invisible at line-of-business level. As line of business managers start composing their own services IT will have to allow them a growing degree of self-service capability. This will remove the need for line-of-business managers to engage with the IT function at all:

De-centralization of IT will go hand-in-hand with the composable enterprise, and both will contribute to the expanding partnership between business and IT. We are unlikely to see the pressure on IT to deliver new services subside, but we might start to see the business taking partial ownership of the solution. That will be a win-win situation.

My take

Anyone old enough to remember when the department manager’s secretary was also in charge of the office stationery cupboard, and how many pencils one was allowed to have? This sometimes seems like a good analogy for the role of IT in its control position over how information is managed. In both cases it used to be the inevitable operating structure but now it is not; and the possibilities of the fully composable, enterprise-defined enterprise is just starting to open up.