When they were first developed, application programming interfaces (APIs) were widely regarded as a tool used to plug functionality gaps in software applications. Designed to allow different applications to link and share data, they became part of the technology toolbox for IT managers.
However, as their capabilities have increased, APIs are now being regarded as powerful components that can enhance business flexibility and agility. Far from being just ‘part of the plumbing’ they have become an important feature of corporate IT infrastructures.
Much of this power stems from the fact that APIs are increasingly internet-based tools. Built to comply with recognised industry standards, they can be used to facilitate the secure exchange of data over the internet. This makes them far more useful than earlier versions that could be used only within the walls of the data centre.
In some ways the appearance of this new breed of APIs can be likened to the introduction of the USB connector in the early 2000s. Rather than requiring complex work-arounds to link systems and devices, USB connections made the task simple and cost-effective. APIs have a similar impact when it comes to applications. The vision of plug-and-play application connections can become a reality.
APIs and ERP systems
One of the most powerful ways an organisation can make use of these new-generation APIs is to enhance and extend the capabilities of its installed ERP system. These large and complex applications sit at the heart of many organisations and often need to be enhanced to cope with changes in business practices and direction.
With this in mind, specialist software developers focusing on niche areas are creating new innovative point solutions that can add significant value to an organisation. By connecting these solutions via APIs to an organisation’s existing ERP system, everything from internal processes to customer service levels can be enhanced.
ERP systems represent a significant investment for any organisation and are not something that can simply be ripped out and replaced on a regular basis. However, by adding specialised additional applications and linking them using APIs, the value of that existing investment in the ERP system is further enhanced.
Some of the ways in which additional capabilities can be added to an ERP system include:
- Mobile devices: An increasing number of business functions can now be completed using mobile devices. APIs can allow new devices to be quickly connected to the central ERP system to enhance productivity. Examples include everything from phones and tablets to smart watches. Staff can then use these devices to complete tasks that would have traditionally required a desktop or notebook computer. It also allows them to be more productive when away from the office by enabling remote access to the ERP system.
- Off-line data collection: In some cases field staff will need to collect data while not connected to a network. This could occur when working in a remote location or in a building that does not have reliable wireless network access. Applications that allow this can be installed on a device to store data and then synchronise it with the ERP system once a connection is available.
- Niche POS systems: Some specialty retailers require a point-of-sale system that has very specific functionality. These systems can be readily connected to the central ERP system using APIs to allow POS data to be captured and used in business processes.
- Patient care: In the healthcare sector, providers are constantly implementing new patient care applications. These include everything from tablet-based electronic records to digital scanning and analysis tools. APIs allow each of these to be quickly and efficiently connected to centralised data stores.
- The Internet of Things: Increasing amounts of data traffic is occurring between devices without the need for human intervention. Examples include sensors in networks and infrastructure and monitors checking the function of machinery. By harnessing the power of APIs, data generated by this so-called ‘Internet of Things’ can be captured for analysis and action.
APIs provide a wealth of opportunities for organisations to extend the reach and capabilities of their existing IT infrastructures. Rather than requiring complex and costly bespoke connections to be created, applications can share data in a standard and controlled way.
With the importance of digital technology increasing every day, organisations that embrace the power of APIs to acquire highly specific functionality are likely to achieve a competitive advantage over those that don’t. The ability to improve flexibility, reduce costs and boost innovation without having to compromise a core ERP system, will deliver constant and measurable results to the business bottom line.
About the Author
Cameron Hallmark, Chief Product Officer at Greentree International