APIs bridge the gap between strategy and innovation for digital business

Two of the most important attributes of a platform-based business are that they are modular and facilitate interconnectivity with third parties. This requires application program interfaces (APIs). Joann O’Brien and Dawn Bushaus explain why APIs are strategically vital to digital businesses.

In September Google announced that it is acquiring Apigee, the enterprise API management company, in a deal estimated to be worth $625 million. It is one of Google’s largest acquisitions.

An article in Forbes claimed, “It will become the crucial bridge between the massive Google developer community and its cloud platform… This move from Diane Greene [Vice President, Cloud Platform, Google] will be remembered by the industry as the masterstroke.”

Why a masterstroke? Because APIs are a fundamental, strategic asset for digital businesses. They are the interfaces used by Google Maps, the New York Stock Exchange, Salesforce, Thomson Reuters Eikon, Twitter, Amazon and others – and by communications service providers (CSPs) around the world – to give external organizations access to selected core resources. Yet they should not be viewed as strategic assets in isolation.

AWS gets APIs

Amazon Web Services (AWS) understands the strategic importance of APIs. The company is one of the best-known platform providers, and the story of how it rose to stardom is interesting. Back in the early 2000s Amazon was just an online bookstore, but then the company’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, mandated that all technology teams within the company expose their data to each other and communicate through specified APIs.

He didn’t allow for any other form of inter-process communication, and he insisted that these interfaces be exposable to the outside world. This enabled new parts of the business to thrive while growing the core business. For example, it gave rise to Amazon Web Services (AWS) – estimates put AWS’ value at $160 billion today. This success has enabled Amazon to invest in other parts of its business (retail, devices, its Marketplace for third-party sellers, producing TV content) that are a longer-term play.

In the digital era, open – that is, publicly available, standardized APIs – have proliferated massively and are used by many companies, including those mentioned above, to encourage external talent to exploit those core assets to everyone’s advantage. TM Forum’s members understand the power of standardized APIs. Together they have created a suite of Open APIs, backed by 11 of the world’s largest CSPs and eight leading technology suppliers.

Years of experience

TM Forum Open APIs are a written set of principles that include architecture, information and data models, and reusable components that can be exposed to external parties and for microservices. They leverage years of experience, because they are built on Frameworx Information Framework (SID) which provides an information model aligned to the Open API Data Model.

This is machine readable and can be implemented directly. Essentially each API has its own data model, that is, a machine-readable definition of the data that is to be passed across the interface.

As George Glass, Chief Systems Architect, BT, explains in this video, “Behind each API there is a set of systems that provide data, processes and business functionality.” For example, the Business Process Framework (eTOM) can be used to design the business process flow which will decide where in the flow an Open API will be called.

It’s important that the APIs are model-driven. Their usefulness rises exponentially because of the consistency this enables across different lines of business – and every one of TM Forum’s APIs is tightly linked to the Information and Business Process Frameworks.

Our research confirms the importance of standard, model-aligned APIs. In a recent survey for our Insights Research report Orchestration: Get ready for the platform revolution, two-thirds of CSP respondents said common information models and APIs are necessary.

Play together nicely

For CSPs, it’s very difficult to deliver services end-to-end when partners don’t “speak the same language”, as Shahar Steiff, Assistant Vice President, New Technology, PCCW Global, explained during a keynote at TM Forum Action Week 2016 in Vancouver. He compared operators’ dilemma to playing with two kinds of children’s erector sets: Lego and Meccano.

“We speak Lego and they speak Meccano, so we have to use barbed wire, duct tape and glue to put it together manually,” he says.

Steiff, who sits on the board of directors of MEF and serves as co-chair of MEF’s Service Operation Committee has been involved in a joint TM Forum-MEF Network-as-a-service Catalyst, which aimed to help develop the common language, definitions, information models and APIs needed to help service providers automatically order, provision, manage and assure virtualized services across partners’ boundaries. (For more about how TM Forum and MEF are cooperating and a look at how companies can monetize APIs.

“Delivering a service today takes one to three months,” Steiff says, explaining that that’s how long it takes to work out the arrangement between partnering providers. “[During the Catalyst] we were able to deliver the service in less than ten minutes.” The goal is to get that down to milliseconds.

During the Catalyst, operators used a master service orchestrator that has complete visibility into other providers’ networks and operational and business support systems (OSS/BSS). But this won’t work in the real world because operators don’t want to allow their partners visibility or control of their networks or OSS/BSS.

A better approach is for partners to agree to use the same information and data models along with APIs such as TM Forum’s Entity Provisioning API to allow orchestrators in different domains to communicate with each other.

Key to the platform

Companies like BT, Orange and Vodafone see orchestration and APIs as key components of their strategies to become platform providers: Multiple orchestrators in multiple software platforms will communicate with each other and with other network and OSS/BSS components to deliver services – through open APIs.

They are also using the APIs to open their network to customers. “Large enterprises are demanding API access to Vodafone because they want to be in control of their services, very dynamically,” says Dr. Lester Thomas, Chief Systems Architect, Vodafone Group.

Vodafone is undergoing major transformation and adopting the platform approach. The company recently made its NFV and SDN transformation, dubbed Ocean, its top priority, as David Amzallag, Head of SDN and NFV, Vodafone, explains in this video.

“We’re not setting out to standardize what’s inside the platform, but open application program interfaces will make them interoperable platforms,” Thomas says.

All divisions within Vodafone are developing solutions that are compliant with this strategic architecture (see graphic), which is why the open APIs are so important. “How do we know if the divisions are complying with our architecture?” Thomas asks. “If they’re exposing these APIs, the platform becomes a black box and you care less what’s inside.”

This article appears in Perspectives 2017: Digital transformation opens new markets. Download the full report free here.


    About The Author

    VP, APIs & Ecosystems

    Joann’s career spans over 20 years in technology, ranging from consumer electronics, telecommunications mobile switching to OSS/BSS and more recently to industry collaboration. Joann is currently the program lead for TM Forum’s Open API & Ecosystems initiative, chair of the API Steering Committee and lead for the Open Hack program. Joann has significant experience leading complex large scale transformation programs for a number of organizations.

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