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An application programming interface (API) is a computing interface to a software component or a system, that defines how other components or systems can use it. It defines the kinds of calls or requests that can be made, how to make them, the data formats that should be used, the conventions to follow, etc. It can also provide extension mechanisms so that users can extend existing functionality in various ways and to varying degrees. An API can be entirely custom, specific to a component, or it can be designed based on an industry standard to ensure interoperability. Some APIs have to be documented, others are designed so that they can be "interrogated" to determine supported functionality. Since other components/systems rely only on the API, the system that provides the API can (ideally) change its internal details "behind" that API without affecting its users.

Today, with the rise of REST and web services over HTTP, the term is often assumed to refer to APIs of such services when given no other context (see the Web APIs section).

What is an API? (Application Programming Interface)

Sometimes the term API is, by extension, used to refer to the subset of software entities (code, subcomponents, modules, etc.) that serve to actually implement the API of some encompassing component or system.

Purpose

In building applications, an API (application programming interface) simplifies programming by abstracting the underlying implementation and only exposing objects or actions the developer needs. While a graphical interface for an email client might provide a user with a button that performs all the steps for fetching and highlighting new emails, an API for file input/output might give the developer a function that copies a file from one location to another without requiring that the developer understand the file system operations occurring behind the scenes.
Libraries and frameworks

An API usually is related to a software library. The API describes and prescribes the "expected behavior" (a specification) while the library is an "actual implementation" of this set of rules.

A single API can have multiple implementations (or none, being abstract) in the form of different libraries that share the same programming interface.

The separation of the API from its implementation can allow programs written in one language to use a library written in another. For example, because Scala and Java compile to compatible bytecode, Scala developers can take advantage of any Java API.

API use can vary depending on the type of programming language involved. An API for a procedural language such as Lua could consist primarily of basic routines to execute code, manipulate data or handle errors while an API for an object-oriented language, such as Java, would provide a specification of classes and its class methods.

Language bindings are also APIs. By mapping the features and capabilities of one language to an interface implemented in another language, a language binding allows a library or service written in one language to be used when developing in another language.Tools such as SWIG and F2PY, a Fortran-to-Python interface generator, facilitate the creation of such interfaces.

An API can also be related to a software framework: a framework can be based on several libraries implementing several APIs, but unlike the normal use of an API, the access to the behavior built into the framework is mediated by extending its content with new classes plugged into the framework itself.

Moreover, the overall program flow of control can be out of the control of the caller and in the hands of the framework by inversion of control or a similar mechanism.
Operating systems

An API can specify the interface between an application and the operating system.POSIX, for example, specifies a set of common APIs that aim to enable an application written for a POSIX conformant operating system to be compiled for another POSIX conformant operating system.

Linux and Berkeley Software Distribution are examples of operating systems that implement the POSIX APIs.

Microsoft has shown a strong commitment to a backward-compatible API, particularly within its Windows API (Win32) library, so older applications may run on newer versions of Windows using an executable-specific setting called "Compatibility Mode".

An API differs from an application binary interface (ABI) in that an API is source code based while an ABI is binary based. For instance, POSIX provides APIs while the Linux Standard Base provides an ABI.
Remote APIs

Remote APIs allow developers to manipulate remote resources through protocols, specific standards for communication that allow different technologies to work together, regardless of language or platform. For example, the Java Database Connectivity API allows developers to query many different types of databases with the same set of functions, while the Java remote method invocation API uses the Java Remote Method Protocol to allow invocation of functions that operate remotely, but appear local to the developer.

Therefore, remote APIs are useful in maintaining the object abstraction in object-oriented programming; a method call, executed locally on a proxy object, invokes the corresponding method on the remote object, using the remoting protocol, and acquires the result to be used locally as a return value.

A modification on the proxy object also will result in a corresponding modification on the remote object.
Web APIs

Web APIs are the defined interfaces through which interactions happen between an enterprise and applications that use its assets, which also is a Service Level Agreement (SLA) to specify the functional provider and expose the service path or URL for its API users. An API approach is an architectural approach that revolves around providing a program interface to a set of services to different applications serving different types of consumers.

When used in the context of web development, an API is typically defined as a set of specifications, such as Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) request messages, along with a definition of the structure of response messages, usually in an Extensible Markup Language (XML) or JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) format. An example might be a shipping company API that can be added to an eCommerce-focused website to facilitate ordering shipping services and automatically include current shipping rates, without the site developer having to enter the shipper's rate table into a web database. While "web API" historically has been virtually synonymous with web service, the recent trend (so-called Web 2.0) has been moving away from Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) based web services and service-oriented architecture (SOA) towards more direct representational state transfer (REST) style web resources and resource-oriented architecture (ROA).Part of this trend is related to the Semantic Web movement toward Resource Description Framework (RDF), a concept to promote web-based ontology engineering technologies. Web APIs allow the combination of multiple APIs into new applications known as mashups. In the social media space, web APIs have allowed web communities to facilitate sharing content and data between communities and applications. In this way, content that is created in one place dynamically can be posted and updated to multiple locations on the web. For example, Twitter's REST API allows developers to access core Twitter data and the Search API provides methods for developers to interact with Twitter Search and trends data.
Design

The design of an API has significant impact on its usage.The principle of information hiding describes the role of programming interfaces as enabling modular programming by hiding the implementation details of the modules so that users of modules need not understand the complexities inside the modules.Thus, the design of an API attempts to provide only the tools a user would expect.The design of programming interfaces represents an important part of software architecture, the organization of a complex piece of software.

Several authors have created recommendations for how to design APIs, such as Joshua Bloch,Kin Lane,and Michi Henning.Patterns for the design and evolution of remote APIs are covered in a series of EuroPLoP papers.

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