What is a Unified API?

Written by Gertjan De Wilde

A Unified API (also called Universal API) aggregates many APIs in the same software category, making integration easier with a standard endpoint, authentication, and normalized data. This results in a consistent developer experience with less integration hassle.


The Problem With API Integration

There are many problems with your typical one-off API integration. To start, onboarding takes time and effort. You must research documentation, learn the HTTP methods, and handle custom objects and fields. You must figure out security schemes, ensure the API meets all requirements, test the API, and resolve errors (REST APIs are notorious for handling errors in different ways).

Once integrated, the work is just getting started — maintaining connections introduces several more hurdles. APIs are continually evolving, and developers must routinely adapt their integrations to new versions to avoid breaking changes. Documentation may be out of date, and the API may not offer SDKs in your preferred programming language.

All these headaches are amplified when aggregating multiple APIs from different providers. The APIs could utilize entirely different API styles (REST, RPC, SOAP, GraphQL, etc.). They may send payloads in various data formats (JSON, XML, etc.) and use different data models. Also, opaque rate limits could shut lights out for unsuspecting applications. As the number of integrations increases, ensuring regulatory compliance becomes exponentially more difficult.

The API economy is exploding with an increasing number of APIs across all sectors. While standards like OpenAPI and AsyncAPI exist, the API industry is still largely fragmented, and each API has its own quirks. This makes it difficult for middleware, like finance, ERP, or CRM applications, to make reliable connections with multiple providers to meet their customers' integration requirements. Instead, they must repeat a cumbersome process for each unique integration.

problem with API integration

Introducing Unified APIs

A Unified API is an abstraction layer that easily handles communication with many different APIs and backend data models. You can think of a Unified API as an airport hub that maintains relationships with airlines and helps route passengers to their destination of choice. The beauty of a Unified API is its ability to offer a consistent API design and developer experience on par with Stripe and Twilio.

Unified APIs and Universal APIs aggregate cloud providers in specific software categories, offering a single endpoint to areas like banking, accounting, CRM, leads, calendar, or email. By standardizing resources and data models across a single vertical, Unified APIs combine many services into a single integration — significantly decreasing redundancy.

A Unified API can also augment the data in transit and introduce PII (personal identifiable information) masking, field-level encryption, and an additional security gateway. This could provide a standard OAuth and scope management mechanism while allowing the flexibility to use unique Client IDs and secrets. Such an abstraction layer could also generate valuable support materials, such as libraries and SDKs, to streamline consumption. It could even convert a REST API to GraphQL without you doing any of the heavy lifting. Imagine, being able to query all your Salesforce and Stripe data through a GraphQL API!

Within the finance world, Unified APIs are typically called API aggregators. If you think about it, many of today's financial SaaS are essentially Unified APIs under the hood. Stripe, for example, connects with many payment providers to offer a single, seamless payment integration. Similarly, Plaid and Truelayer provide integrations with thousands of bank accounts.

Examples of Unified APIs

Unified APIs are becoming a popular way to integrate specific software categories. Some Unified API examples include:

  • Cloud Storage: Apideck provides a unified Cloud Storage API to access File Storage providers like Box, Google Drive, Sharepoint, and OneDrive.
  • Calendar: Nylas offers a unified Calendar API to synchronize gCal, iCloud, Outlook, and other popular calendars.
  • CRM: Apideck provides a normalized CRM API to instantly expose CRM connectors like Salesforce, Zoho, Airtable, Hubspot, and many others.
  • Open Banking: API Aggregators like Plaid, Tink, Ibanity, Truelayer, and many more, provide API aggregation to access to consumer banking, transactions, and other financial data from banks and non-bank financial institutions.,
  • Travel: Duffel provides an Airlines API to search, book, and sell flights across a variety of airlines.
  • Accounting: In Commerce and Accounting data you have Codat and the Apideck Accounting API integrating QuickBooks, Xero, Sage, Exact Online, MYOB, and others.
  • Energy: Enode allows energy apps to connect to EVs, solar panels, batteries and other smart energy hardware through one single API.
  • HRIS and Payroll: For HRIS data you have Finch and the Apideck HRIS API integrating Workday, BambooHR, Gusto, Rippling, Hibob and others.
  • More Unified APIs: Unified APIs are emerging for virtually all software categories, from team messaging, chat, email, shipping, and others.

Unified APIs market map

Benefits of Unified APIs

There are many benefits to utilizing a Unified API:

  • No integration pains: Unified APIs lower integration hurdles and makes the painful process of debugging APIs a thing of the past.
  • Consolidated docs: No more reading a gazillion developer docs to make integrations. We all know the feeling. 🕵🏻‍♀️
  • Solve compliance issues: A Unified API layer could help transform or mask potentially sensitive data (Personally Identifiable Information) to meet regulatory standards like HIPAA, PSD2, GDPR.
  • Centralized logging: Unified APIs can centralize logging, increasing visibility and getting full observability out-of-the-box.
  • Resource aliasing: Traditional integration development faces a fragmented taxonomy. A Unified API layer can create aliases to standardize terminologies across organizations, enabling you to use a common name per resource type.
  • Normalized data: Unified APIs normalize data into a consumable format for easier ingestion.
  • Domain model discovery: By mapping domain models across API vendors, it's much easier for developers to grasp specific APIs' scope and potential.
  • Virtual webhook events: Some Unified APIs create virtual webhook events through polling APIs that don't support webhooks natively.
  • Proxying requests: The ability to have a gateway that allows you to perform validation upfront and capture traffic going through all APIs.
  • Simplifying webhooks: By standardizing events, a Unified API can make event-driven architecture more seamless.
  • Standardized pagination and filtering: You know what you're going to get. Unified APIs make pagination, filtering, and sorting more consistent. They could also help avoid under-fetching and over-fetching.
  • Lower maintenance cost: A unified API takes care of versioning downstream APIs to facilitate ongoing maintenance.
  • Future-proofing: A Unified API could help future-proof connections, especially for AI use cases. Through machine-readable standards like schema.org, an aggregator could extract helpful metadata and even pinpoint real-life objects.
  • API Augmentation: With common libraries and SDKs, Unified APIs can support more developer preferences and programming languages.

Potential Downsides of Unified APIs

Unified APIs could significantly improve the overall integration experience. However, if implemented incorrectly, unified APIs present some potential negatives. Thankfully, most can be mitigated with the right setup:

  • Latency: Adding an extra hop into the mix will introduce extra milliseconds.
  • Vendor lock-in: You're adding another dependency to your stack. Conversely, a single API integration could decrease future migration concerns.
  • Data privacy: Adding another data processor increases liability, especially if sharing confidential data with a third party. Unified APIs must be GDPR-compliant and encrypt data in transit to meet PSD2, CCPA, and other regulations.
  • Lowest common denominator effect: If you're choosing commonalities across many APIs, you lose intricacies of downstream payloads. A robust unified API should enable access to the full payload for power users and support custom fields.
  • Data standardization qualms: To support the Unified API concept, you need a smart abstraction layer. Common data models for specific software categories must be impeccably designed.
  • Reliability: According to Postman's 2020 report, 71.6% of developers say reliability is the most important factor of API integration. Abstraction layers upon APIs must not introduce outages.
  • Cost: An abstraction layer could cost money. However, you gain velocity and time to market, equatable to revenue.

Unified APIs do admittedly present some drawbacks, namely increased latency, added costs, and data compliance concerns. Thus, to offset any potential disadvantages, Unified APIs must expose an open, robust, encrypted platform where the time saved on integration dramatically outweighs the cost.

A Unified API Movement is Underway

Let's face it; integration is a skill in its own right. That's why Unified APIs are so intriguing — by unifying many tailored integrations in one endpoint, developers can offset the integration pains and free up time to work on their core business.

By augmenting the consumption experience, Unified APIs can normalize data models, bake in compliance and security models, and increase developer experience with standard documentation and support libraries. Even though the concept is relatively new, many unified APIs already exist, underscoring their market validity.

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