a water spigot taped shut
PHOTO: Ken Treloar

As companies come to rely more on APIs, they also need plans in place for what to do in the event an API they are relying on shuts down.

Technology companies with large followings will shut down APIs for a variety of reasons. In March, Google shut down its under-performing Google+ platform and its related APIs, forcing developers to switch any existing Google+ Sign-ins to a different option. Over the last couple of years, Facebook, Twitter and much smaller companies have shut down APIs for various reasons. So such an occurrence is not uncommon.

How do you handle such a situation when you have come to rely on these APIs?

Reevaluate Your API Strategy

“When a company shuts down an API you rely on, the questions you should be asking yourself are: What are you relying on this data source for and what is the data you are collecting? Do you consistently utilize this data and if not, do you actually need this API? Often, when people are told that the API they use or have used in the past is being shut down, they panic without giving thought to what they need from the data they are getting,” said Jennifer Bonner, director at Solutions By Design II, LLC. “We see this in things like reporting, where the cost of maintaining and spending time reviewing reports outweighs the time using the information. Companies will often find that the API they thought they needed is not a necessity; in fact, they realize with a little research that other public sources can provide them with the same data set.”

Bonner points out that private companies often shut off APIs when they realize they are spending money on something that could be a fee service. For example, Netflix first locked down its API in 2012, barring any newcomers from gaining access before officially shutting down its public API in 2014.

Clem McDavid, Babel Street vice president of marketing and corporate development at Babel Street, said his company urges users to explore all of the options and sources provided for reasons just like this. “While a single API may be important, it should not have the power to shut down operations or paralyze an organization. Many times, the data you need is still out there but may be living in a different setting. Therefore, it’s important to make sure you’re accessing a variety of APIs.”

Related Article: How API Integrations Help Your Back Office Work Faster, Smarter

React Quickly, Offer an Alternative

While Google, Netflix and others have taken pains to provide long lead times before shutdowns, other times, it happens much more quickly.

“The most extreme example of a disruptive API shutdown that we've seen is the major Facebook API shutdown that happened after the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year,” said Chas Cooper, CEO and co-founder of Rising Star Reviews. “Congress put so much pressure on Facebook that Facebook decided to shut down a lot of its APIs with no warning whatsoever, leaving many developers with broken applications. Then Facebook put a draconian process in place to manually review all applications before restoring API access. And worst of all, Facebook decided not to restore access to many very basic APIs, including some that we were relying on to help our customers.”

When you have a major API shutdown like Facebook's — an API that stops working without warning and is immediately visible to your own customers — then it's "all hands on deck" to restore the customer experience as quickly as possible, according to Cooper. “In just a matter of a few hours, we removed our dependency on the Facebook API and created a new customer experience. It was not as good as the original customer experience, but at least our application started working again.”

The company had to replace the Facebook wizard it had previously provided customers, which simplified the process of finding and generating the url for their company's Facebook review tabs, with a simple field to enter the Facebook URL that identified the business and instructions on how to find the information.

“Once we ‘stopped the bleeding,’ we set about making the customer experience more convenient and less error-prone. We added automated validation checks to detect when the customer entered the wrong information, as well as other tweaks to help customers the best we could,” Cooper said.

Related Article: How to Prepare for a Sunsetting Web CMS

With APIs, Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst 

Typically, an API shutdown happens if a company goes out of business or when the underlying tech becomes obsolete, said Vess Bakalov, CEO of Pliant.io.

“As API-driven systems become a core part of our infrastructure, any time significant API shifts occur, it can send massive ripples throughout the organization and send application owners scurrying to find a solution,” Bakalov said. “If it is simply a change in the API — it may take days or even weeks to update the systems that rely on it. Often this may be custom code built by contractors long gone. If it is a company going out of business, however, the process may be much longer as new vendors will have to be found.” 

In the event of working with new vendors, be prepared to rewrite and retest integration code, which could take a significant amount of time, Bakalov cautioned. “Prepare to spend about as much for the replacement as for the original development.”