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Introduction to APIs

Whenever two pieces of code communicate they do so with a prescribed format. The two pieces of code need to agree on:

  • What is the input that needs to be sent?
  • What is the format of the input?
  • What is the name/location/identity of the code to be run?
  • What is the output that will be returned?
  • What is the format of the output?

All of this together describes an Application Programming Iinterface, or API. The secret is that as we've been writing methods we've already been writing and using APIs!

Simple example

Let's look at a simple example:

int AddTwoNumbers(int firstNumber, int secondNumber)
{
return firstNumber + secondNumber;
}

Let's apply our list above:

  • What is the input that needs to be sent? firstNumber and secondNumber
  • What is the format of the input? firstNumber is an integer and secondNumber is an integer
  • What is the name/location/identity of the code to run? The method is called AddTwoNumbers
  • What is the output that will be returned? The sum of the two numbers we gave
  • What is the format of the output? A single int

These same questions apply any time two pieces of code communicate in some way. Even our simple use of C# language features adhere to this rule. It also applies when the code we are asking to run isn't logically or physically located inside our own application, or even on our own computer!

Remote APIs

The most interesting use of APIs is when we can use an existing API that we do not need to incorporate directly into our code. These APIs are typically hosted on other computers, maintained by others, and provided to us for free or with a cost. We will typically access these APIs over the internet and thus the answer to our five questions gets slightly more complicated.

Using our first simple API

I'm a fan of the TV Show "Parks and Recreation" and the character Ron Swanson. He is known for his funny sayings and expressions. Luckily for me, there is an API on the internet that can show me funny quotes of his. The project's homepage describes how the API works. We'll be looking at all the different options, but let's take a look at the simplest option, one that just gives us back a single quote.

  • What is the input that needs to be sent? None
  • What is the format of the input? None
  • What is the name/location/identity of the code to be run? http://ron-swanson-quotes.herokuapp.com/v2/quotes
  • What is the output that will be returned? A list containing a single quote from Ron
  • What is the format of the output? A JSON array (of length 1) of strings

Soon we will learn how to access APIs via the command line, however, for now we will use a few tools that allow us to interact with APIs directly.

The first of which is httpie which you should have installed as part of your developer setup. If not, please visit that lesson and return after installing it.

Let's run the http command (for httpie) and supply it the location of our API.

http --verbose http://ron-swanson-quotes.herokuapp.com/v2/quotes

Your output will be similar to the following:

GET /v2/quotes HTTP/1.1
Accept: */*
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflate
Connection: keep-alive
Host: ron-swanson-quotes.herokuapp.com
User-Agent: HTTPie/2.0.0
HTTP/1.1 200 OK
Access-Control-Allow-Origin: *
Connection: keep-alive
Content-Length: 56
Content-Type: application/json; charset=utf-8
Date: Wed, 22 Apr 2020 15:24:46 GMT
Etag: W/"38-8d39bb7c"
Server: Cowboy
Via: 1.1 vegur
X-Powered-By: Express
[
"Crying: acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon."
]

Let's break down all of the information that the http command output. All the lines before the first blank lines represent the headers that the tool sent to the server. When earlier we said that there was no information the API required, there are still inputs that the webserver needs. For instance, the first line GET /v2/quotes HTTP/1.1 indicates which URL on the server we are looking for and what version of HTTP we are speaking. Also included is the Host to indicate which host we are speaking to. There is more detail about how all this works on THE LESSON ON HOW THE INTERNET WORKS.

All the lines after the first set of blank lines and before the second set of blank lines are the response headers. This is information the remote web server sends back to us to tell us about the kind of information it is returning to us. One of the most interesting is Content-Type: application/json; charset=utf-8. This line indicates that the body of the response should be considered as JSON data. utf-8 means use the utf-8 standard for representing characters. This would allow the response to use a wide range of characters, such as an emoji!

Everything after the blank line following the headers is the information the remote API returned to us. From the LESSON ON JSON, we see that this is an array [] containing a single string "" and that string is a quote from Ron.

An analogy

Let's make an analogy to our understanding of methods. This API above is similar to a method in C# named:

List<string> GetOneQuote()
{
// Body of code here
}

and our http command line is like running this code with

GetOneQuote()

Except here we are using a tool that knows how to make API requests across the internet and show us the response.

Soon we will learn how to write our own APIs and how to use APIs that create, update, and delete data as well as just retrieve it.

Ok, but what about if we need to send the API some input?

If we need to send the API input there are several ways of doing so. We will investigate some here and visit the rest when we discuss how to create, update, and delete data.

The first way is to provide input as part of the URL itself. Looking at the documentation for the Ron Swanson API we see that if we tack on /<count> where <count> is a number we can receive more than one quote.

This is called a URL parameter. That is, the parameter is part of the URL itself.

URL parameters

To use this we might do:

http --verbose http://ron-swanson-quotes.herokuapp.com/v2/quotes/5

The answers to our API questions are now:

  • What is the input that needs to be sent? Count of quotes
  • What is the format of the input? as part of the URL
  • What is the name/location/identity of the code to be run? http://ron-swanson-quotes.herokuapp.com/v2/quotes/<count>
  • What is the output that will be returned? A list of quotes from Ron
  • What is the format of the output? A JSON array of strings

And the result of calling the API will look like:

[
"Breakfast food can serve many purposes.",
"Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Don't teach a man to fish… and feed yourself. He's a grown man. And fishing's not that hard.",
"Crying: acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon.",
"Keep your tears in your eyes where they belong.",
"Friends: one to three is sufficient."
]

The same style of URL parameter applies for searching. See if you can write the answers to the API questions and generate an http command line to search for a word Ron may have said.

Query Parameters

The second way to send input to an API is by using what is called a URL query parameter. These work similar to the URL parameters we've seen but they go after the URL and a ? character. You may have seen this when looking at the URL bar for a google search. Your URL might look something like this: https://www.google.com/search?q=API. The ? indicates that the URL has ended and the list of query parameters is beginning. Each parameter is of the form key=value. So in this case the name of the parameter is q and the value of the parameter is API. This is how Google knows which term you are searching for. Try it now. Put https://google.com?q=Breakfast in your browser URL bar and press enter. You'll see google will have identified your search query!

The Ron Swanson API does not use this mode for specifying its inputs but if it had, those queries would look like this:

http://ron-swanson-quotes.herokupapp.com/v2/quotes?count=5 http://ron-swanson-quotes.herokupapp.com/v2/quotes?term=Breakfast

What is this GET we keep seeing everywhere?

In addition to the URL we send, and any parameters we send, the HTTP protocol also specifies a verb, the kind of request this is. Every request you make by typing a URL into your browser is known as a GET request. A GET request indicates to the remote server that we wish to fetch information and we are not sending it any data that it needs to keep. You'll see that these kinds of requests fit that style:

  • Give me a Ron Swanson quote
  • Give me 12 Ron Swanson quotes
  • Give me any Ron Swanson quotes where he mentions work

However, it would not fit a style of:

  • Here is a new Ron Swanson quote I want you to keep around.
  • Please remove the 4th Ron Swanson quote.
  • There is a misspelling in the 12th Ron Swanson quote, here is the corrected quote.

All of those requests modify information and thus a GET request is not sufficient. Luckily there are other verbs we can use.

PUT, POST, DELETE

These are the next most common verbs. They are typically used to CREATE, UPDATE, and DELETE information.

If we need to supply additional information, say a POST request to create data, we will put the information in the body of the request. We will see some examples when we try a few APIs that allow us to create and modify data.

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