MuleSoft founder Ross Mason on avoiding API armageddon

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright April 11, 2014
Summary:
Enterprises must streamline internal connection infrastructure to survive the coming explosion of SaaS, digital channels and smart devices

The business imperative of being digitally connected is a recurring theme here on diginomica. So I was looking forward to catching up with MuleSoft founder and VP of product Ross Mason earlier this week on a visit to London.

The open source integration vendor has locked on to APIs as the next big growth area in its market, as enterprises open up connections to new digital channels.

Short for 'application programming interface', API is a technology term that transcends the business-IT divide, Mason told me. Business people recognize the potential of wholesaling services digitally or for taking data to market as a product, he said:

"The term API has become synonymous with creating new digital channels."

MuleSoft's most striking example is Expedia, which earns half its $4 billion revenues from delivering its services to partners through affiliate APIs. Other customers in industries ranging from financial services and logistics to software are exploiting APIs.

A case in point is BskyB, the UK-based satellite TV broadcaster, which is developing an API that will allow it to attach metadata such as titles and scheduling information to content. It then aims to expose that API to partners so that they can put content on its Sky channels more easily. As its solutions architect Mark Lowe explained to the audience at a MuleSoft event in London this week:

"We're finding increasingly that lots of smaller players want to get into TV — and our traditional partners want to give us more content."

A matter of survival

In many industries, opening up digital channels to market is becoming a matter of survival, said Mason. This is forcing organizations to confront an integration challenge they have previously shied away from dealing with:

"People have known for a while they're needed to make this change. They've put it off because it's heavy lifting ...

"The traditional business models are now eroding to a point where the CEO is under pressure to sanction these changes, not to get a five percent increase in resource utilization [but] if the business is going to survive. There's been enough car crashes where people know that if they don't act they're going to fall by the wayside no matter how big you are."

But while they're damned if they don't open up their APIs to the outside world, the necessary first step of bringing order to their internal API infrastructure is equally fraught, warns Mason:

"For hyperconnectivity to happen, APIs need to just work. My biggest concern with APIs — I lived through the SOA days — if enterprise gets it wrong, APIs could fail.

"We're investing very heavily there in people understanding the different roles and how to work together for this to become a reality."

There's some big money backing that mission at MuleSoft: $131 million of venture financing, $50 million of it raised just last month in a round that brought in Cisco as a new investor alongside existing corporate investors Salesforce.com, SAP Ventures and a bevy of storied VC firms.

Reduce friction, improve innovation

Those investors are betting MuleSoft will extend its 100-percent-a-year growth record with the latest iteration of its Anypoint platform, designed to facilitate API creation, sharing and management within an enterprise development context. Moving beyond traditional data integration to a more open API-based approach is essential to realizing the potential benefits, believes Mason:

"The way you're going to start competing is not on the applications you own but in the way you stitch those applications together. That's how you'll gain competitive advantage ...

"One of the reasons people don't innovate much within enterprises: the data is not available to them in a format that allows them to go play with things. APIs in the enterprise help reduce friction and improve innovation."

In many enterprises, however, teams are building APIs without any common guidance or co-ordination. The Anypoint platform therefore encourages a pattern-driven approach to API design that promotes reuse of definitions such as resource types, traits, schemas, and security schemes. Mason explains:

"Having lots of inconsistent APIs is worse than having a bad API — Amazon's API might feel a bit archaic but all their APIs work the same way.

"If you define traits and resources at an enterprise level, you reduce the footprint of what the developer has to think about ...

"In enterprise you have lots of projects all starting at the same time. That's where the major risk is. To be able to offer some guidance in common best practices, at least you can help them start going down the same path."

Bringing collaboration to API design

MuleSoft's API toolset is built on RAML, the RESTful API Modeling Language, which MuleSoft helped develop and was completed last year. RAML retains the simplicity of REST, which is the preferred model for software interactions on the Web, while adding HTTP semantics for capabilities that would have previously needed more heavyweight service architecture functions such as SOAP and WSDL.

Using RAML makes it much easier to bring a more iterative, collaborative approach to API design, which the MuleSoft toolset supports with a built-in portal. In the same way that user interface designers now talk in terms of user experience (UX instead of UI), MuleSoft preaches a gospel of application programming experience — APX rather than API. Mason explains:

"The whole point is you should be able to mock something up and get a very good feel for the developer experience as they start using it."

Alongside its support for APIs, the Anypoint platform also includes toolsets for SaaS integration and for SOA, reflecting MuleSoft's progress since it first launched in 2006 to bring the open-source Mule ESB into enterprise SOA projects. Connections can be deployed either on-premise or hosted on its global CloudHub integration infrastructure.

Connecting to mobile and the Internet of Things

MuleSoft had been focussing on cloud integration in recent years but the company now sees that as merely a subset of the broader enterprise API opportunity. Today, enterprises not only have to connect across an expanding applications landscape and reach out to digital channels, they also have to consider mobile, social and a burgeoning Internet of Things.

Serving mobile applications requires a new set of "experience APIs" that are tailored to specific capabilities and contexts so that data transfers are kept to a minimum. This was why Salesforce.com had to add so many new APIs when it released its Saleforce1 platform last year, said Mason:

"The original Salesforce API was really like a system of record. A lot of our API work the past year has been putting an experience API on top of the system of record API.

The Salesforce API, as was, was too broad. It was a very general-purpose API. What Salesforce1 did was create specific APIs for what people wanted to do with that data."

Mobile-enabling these traditional APIs means adding a layer that filters the data using contextualization within the API and server-side processing of responses. This is a common requirement from enterprise customers, said Mason.

The coming explosion in smart devices and harvesting of information opens up a whole new universe of integration challenges:

"Internet of Things is just another data integration problem. The difference now is that the consumer is a device rather than a person."

In many fields, there will be a need to define shared semantics for understanding what the data means, he said:

"Internet of Things is a motivator for domain models. Because it's connecting to the physical realm, you need to know where data is moving around the building and a way to conceptualize what you have control over.

"Semantics are important for things, especially sensors, which are meaningless until you know what they're attached to ..."

"You're also going to have API brokerages that combine [data sources] in ways that's more useful to people and charge a small fee for delivering that."

Verdict

I've known Ross Mason since before he founded MuleSoft, back in the days when only a few diehards were interested in SaaS and instead I was writing about enterprise adoption of SOA. Now SOA has gone underground and SaaS is back in vogue but there's something very compelling about his conviction that APIs are going to be the next big thing.

For a while now I've taken the view that integration  is the wrong word to use because it carries too much legacy baggage of extended implementation projects that are set in stone once completed. Whereas today's connections are constantly changing and updating so you need to adopt a mindset of managing constant change. I agree with Mason that thinking in terms of APIs makes a much better fit for that mindset.

His warnings on that score provide the kindling for my inflammatory headline. For me, the key takeaways are:

  • Businesses have to connect to survive and thrive in the digital economy. Every enterprise must step up its digital connectivity.
  • That means overhauling the enterprise connection infrastructure to allow for maximum automation, reusability and change readiness. The old integration approaches no longer work.
  • No IT project is an island. API designers should collaborate with prospective users during the design phase, and co-ordination is needed at an enterprise level to make sure APIs stay consistent. 

That leaves us with two alternative API armageddon scenarios. One is when your IT infrastructure melts down because of too many inconsistent and incompatible APIs. The other is when your business melts down because it can no longer keep pace with the demands of digital connectivity. Deal with the first threat and you should find you're in a better position to survive the second.