Connecting A to B: APIs or data formats?

By , |  Software, API, data format

Normally in enterprise application integration, when we say "send X to Y", there are two distinct aspects to be ironed out. The first is the "how" part. The second is the "what" part. When thinking of the "how" part, thoughts turn to things like interfaces and APIs and function calls and so on. When thinking of the "what" part, thoughts turn to things like strings and tables and integers and data structures.

All successful examples of interconnecting A and B in EAI feature both "how" and "what". Unfortunately, the two can get terribly inter-twined leading to integration strategies that are difficult to develop, deploy and debug.

A useful pattern exists for combining the "how" with the "what" in a way that keeps the two separate and leads to clean, manageable integrations. It is best illustrated with a worked example.

Imagine that system A has some data that needs to be regularly sent to system B. System B has an API that can be used to send it data -- i.e. it allows the development of custom client applications. The obvious first thing to do is to program right to this API and thereby inject the data from A directly into B. The trouble with this obvious approach is that A and B end up temporally coupled.

This is fine and everything will work fine as long as (a) system B is never down for maintenance, (b) system B never slows down to the point where your injecting program times out and (c) there are never debugging nightmares in which A says it has sent something, B claims not to have got it and you are sitting in the middle scratching your head...

Temporal coupling bites and when it bites it bites hard.

Let us go back to basics for a moment. A sends data to B. Okay. We can split the problem by pumping the data out of A into some persisted file format. We can develop and debug this piece standalone - without having a B running. Now the problem reduces to injecting into B - not from A - but from the data previously serialized out of A. And guess what, by being clever about it, we might find we don't have to inject at all! It could be that we can target a file format that B already understands and use an existing "import" facility to load it up. Now we have successfully sent data from A to B in two, independently debuggable hops.

Now let's imagine that both hops are working fine and we want to go the whole hog - making the two hops behave as one. We write data out of A as before but now, at the end of that process, we also use B's API to invoke the data import into B. We achieve the full effect of seamless integration from A to B but with some major benefits.

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