Difference Between APIs and Webhooks
APIs and webhooks both allow different software systems to sync up and share information. As software applications become increasingly interconnected, it is essential for developers to understand the difference between these two means of sharing data, and select the tool that best meets the needs of the task at hand.
What is an API?
An API is like a portal through which information and functionality can be shared between two software services. The word “interface” is key to understanding an API’s purpose. Just like a web browser is an interface for a human end user to receive, send, and update information on a web
server, an API is an interface that provides software programs with the same functionality.
There are different types and categories of APIs , but defined broadly, APIs are the most common way for different software systems to connect and share information.
What is a webhook?
A webhook can be thought of as a type of API that is driven by events rather than requests. Instead of one application making a request to another to receive a response, a webhook is a service that allows one program to send data to another as soon as a particular event takes place.
Webhooks are sometimes referred to as “reverse APIs,” because communication is initiated by the application sending the data rather than the one receiving it.
With web services becoming increasingly interconnected, webhooks are seeing more action as a lightweight solution for enabling real-time notifications and data updates without the need to develop a full-scale API.
APIs enable robust integrations
An important feature of APIs is that they provide two-way communication between different software programs via a request-response cycle, most commonly using the HTTP protocol.
In a typical API use case, one software program will ask for a specific set of data from another using an HTTP GET request.
Provided the request is valid, the receiving system will respond with the requested data in a machine-readable format, commonly XML or JSON. This is what allows applications to share data regardless of their individual programming languages or internal specifications.
The universal nature of API interactions can enable countless scenarios, from an iPhone user checking the local temperature via the AccuWeather API to an Uber driver navigating to their next pickup location via the Google Maps API.
In addition to receiving data, APIs can also handle the full gamut of “CRUD” (Create, Read, Update and Delete) operations between two applications. In other words, APIs aren’t just for displaying data to a user in an interface,they can also be used to make changes to it in the application where it is stored. This is how APIs allow software systems to expand their services and functionality, and integrate with other platforms in a more thorough and meaningful way.
The versatility of APIs makes them powerful tools for developers to extend the capabilities of their applications. Most modern web services include APIs that allow their data and functionality to be incorporated into other tools,in fact, it would be rare to encounter an enterprise web service that does not leverage an API from at least one other application to some extent.
Webhooks offer lightweight data sharing
One might think that since webhooks are real-time events that they are technically difficult to implement. Actually, a key advantage of webhooks is that they are easier to set up and less resource-intensive than APIs.
Creating an API is a complex process that in some cases can be as challenging as designing and building an application itself, but implementing a webhook simply requires setting up a single POST request on the sending end, establishing a URL on the receiving end to accept the data, then performing some action on the data once it is received.
Common use cases for webhooks include sending new email list additions and removals to a CRM system, automatically updating accounting software when invoices are paid, or setting up any type of notifications. In each of these types of events, the information flows in one direction, and no request is necessary to receive updated data.
The same characteristics that make webhooks relatively easy to implement are also the reasons why they are far more limited than APIs.
Updating the data a webhook delivers requires re-configuring it entirely to listen for a different event, and in most cases it would be more efficient to create a new webhook.
When two systems share data via an API with multiple endpoints, the receiving system has access to a much broader range of data from the sending system. Also, unlike APIs, webhooks do not allow the sending system to add, update and delete data on the receiving end, which is why webhooks alone are too limited to offer full integration between two applications.
APIs fall under different categories depending on the protocols and architectures that define how they send and receive data.
Historically, the most common architectural pattern for API design has been REST, especially for those servicing web-based applications.
REST stands for “Representational State Transfer.” This pattern, defined by Roy Fielding in 2000, allows for two applications to communicate over HTTP in a way similar to browsers and servers. REST is not an official standard,rather, it is a set of suggestions about how to design APIs and other web services.
An API is considered “RESTful” if its design abides by the following recommendations:
Client-Server: Just like a browser requesting a webpage from a server, in a RESTful API, application A makes a request to a URL hosted on application B over HTTP. Application B then evaluates the request and returns either the requested data or an error message.
Stateless: The responding system does not need to know anything about the application state of the system making the request to provide an appropriate response. The request alone should contain all the information necessary to deliver the response.
Cacheability: The response should state whether the receiving system is allowed to cache it or not.
Layered systems: The API does not rely on a particular system to make the request in order to deliver the response. This means the requesting system could either be a client, a proxy, or any other intermediary.