In this piece, we cover the matter of API in eCommerce, headless technology and modern headless commerce. We set the focus on business reasoning behind the new approach towards efficient and modular eCommerce systems. Starting from the definition of an API, API-first commerce, its role in forming flexible online services, and the benefits of moving to an API-first approach. Instead of dealing with the technicalities, we took on the business issues that API solves in the blink of an eye. We hope that at the end of this piece you will have a clearer view of API in headless architecture. Let's get digging!

What is API? 

API – Application Programming Interface – is a software intermediary that allows applications to communicate with each other. 

We live in a world of apps, so understanding the essence of API (at least on a very high level) should be relatively simple. Each time we search for the most convenient flight connections via 3rd party services, like Kayak or Skyscanner, we type in a departure and return municipality, dates, and other available options. An online travel service sends requests to the airline database about the availability of options under predefined requirements. The service communicates with airlines’ APIs and delivers back the necessary information via the interface. 

In other words, API enables smooth and efficient communication between various instances. 

The most prominent explanation of the API’s role in any software ecosystem is the restaurant metaphor. A client requests at the front of the restaurant for a selected item from the menu. The chosen position will be prepared and delivered to the client from the restaurant’s kitchen. And all will be served by the waiter. The waiter serves the requests made at the front of the restaurant, delivers them to the kitchen, and brings back an ordered dish. 

To reflect this metaphor to the IT world, a client is a user, a restaurant’s kitchen is a back-end storing all the information and a waiter is an API – the binder of requests made at the frontend and the deliverer of such requests from the back-end.

API in Headless Commerce

The role of an API in headless commerce is to keep running efficient communication between services that form a headless ecosystem. API fills in for one of the paradigms of the MACH approach which is "Future proof enterprise technology and propel current and future digital experiences". 

The MACH Alliance 

When talking about APIs in headless commerce, it's essential to mention the main proponent of a mainstream approach to modern software development - the MACH Alliance. MACH stands for Microservices based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS, and Headless tech ecosystem. Born in 2020 non-profit organization aims to facilitate the accurate spread of knowledge about a new, open, and best-of-breed enterprise technology environment.

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The role of an API and microservices 

API is your top-class waiter that works between microservices in the most efficient way. A headless ecosystem consists of microservices – small, standalone applications designed and deployed individually. Thanks to low coherence, the entire integrity can be developed in parallel.

To each microservice, one can add new functionality like a shopping cart, payment and search functions. Microservices are modular, which means each can be developed and released independently. Loosely coupled (microservices) form a flexible, and efficient ecosystem.

However, to perform together well, all these independent applications must communicate with each other. The exchange of information must be designed accordingly. Hence, APIs are the way to do it. 

So, can we distinguish something like headless API?

A headless API or an eCommerce API is an orchestrator in a headless ecosystem. API in any loosely coupled system (and this includes headless architecture) is responsible for sending and receiving requests of only necessary data. The data is gathered in dedicated to commerce functioning back-end microservices and transformed into a relevant outcome. This outcome is exposed at the frontend layer. 

API specifies how software components should interact. In other words, an API creates an interface framework to deal with the logic without the need to learn anything more about what's underneath the bonnet. API masks the complexity and makes it easy to use in the broader loosely coupled systems (e.g. modern eCommerce architecture).

Why has an API gained traction in eCommerce?

Like microservices, APIs have emerged as a modern approach to performance, flexibility, and extensibility. With decoupled architecture, any implementation at the frontend can happen fast and without interfering with the entire eCommerce system. As a consequence, the API-first approach became a BFF for developers and businesses. 

With modular architecture and APIs, the entire eCommerce ecosystem gains a solid boost, which results in:

The economy of an API

Although APIs are primarily a favorite solution in the hands of developers, the overall impact on the economy of any future-proofed system is tremendous. 

Businesses face a new wave of challenges related to digital transformation. Incorporating technology is one way to innovate. Yet, keeping up with dynamic changes requires continuous improvement and best-of-breed solutions. That’s the other side of a successful digital shift. 

Legacy systems are the backbone of many eCommerce. That however makes leveraging new technologies, behavioral changes, and new digital experiences difficult to implement. To enable quick adoption and innovation, businesses invest in new extensions and 3rd party services. 

The rise of cloud, IoT, big data and mobile has relatively forced a more agile and IT-oriented strategy. To be one step ahead of the competition pushed a breakthrough in the monolithic scene. Nowadays, creating an eCommerce stack is mostly about composing, testing, and tailoring to a brand's capabilities, rather than getting locked into a single platform.

APIs are seen more like a service (or a product) rather than code. They are documented and edited, so users know a certain range of expectations of its maintenance and lifecycle. APIs are designed in a very standardized way. They provide a more powerful domain for security, performance and scale.

This forward-thinking change in shaping technological infrastructure results in APIs broad use. Instead of point-to-point integration modern eCommerce businesses embrace the API-first paradigm. APIs’ flexible connectivity contributes to agility, efficiency, innovation, and expansion.

APIs’ tangible business advantages cover:

API-driven consumer approach

At the end of any elaboration on technology in eCommerce is a customer. API-driven headless commerce embraces omnichannel shopping that meets vast customers’ expectations. Re-thinking eCommerce with customers in mind directs to a headless approach and API-first paradigm. 

API can be described as an orchestrator responsible for proper communication between various components. This is a linking element that enables a pure omnichannel experience in a headless ecosystem. Gathering data from platforms, devices, and channels into one location for further analysis is a dream for every business owner. 

At first, connecting the data together seems a bit overwhelming, however, the outcomes will be surprising. A clearer and more specific view of customers will enable shaping and creating better shopping experiences. APIs keep all of the complexity of the data and deliver the only relevant insight of a customer, a product, and a channel.

Popular APIs in eCommerce 

Modularity and APIs enable connectivity. This unlocks new flexible opportunities and secures the integrity of the decoupled headless commerce. Moreover, the API-first approach saves money and a lot of frustration caused by monolith platforms. The time that was spent on maintenance is allocated to development. Many shopping platforms offer eCommerce APIs built on a serverless architecture, which enables the unification of sales channels.

Catalog API

To create, edit and manage product catalog.

Cart API

Designed to view, create and manage customers’ shopping carts. 

Checkout API

Responsible for checkout experience, modifying the UX, and increasing conversion. 

Payments API

Designed for building an external application (e.g. headless storefront or mobile checkout) that needs to accept credit card payments. 

GraphQL Storefront API

This enables building headless frontend applications on top of a default theme. 

Shipping APIs

To create and automate multi-carrier shipping and logistics solutions. 

Anti-fraud API

Designed to notice fraudsters before any financial crack is done.

API is one of the key pillars of headless commerce 

Embedded in the MACH Alliance approach – Microservices based, API-first, Cloud-native SaaS, and Headless tech ecosystem – APIs serve its best to the headless ecosystem. From combining features that ease the shopping experience to creating true omnichannel commerce. The APIs help businesses overcome their tech debt, streamline their business logic, build customer loyalty and increase ROI.

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What is an API? 

API – Application Programming Interface – is a software intermediary that allows applications to communicate with each other. Thanks to the API one application can expose services to other applications. 

What is the role of an API in headless commerce?

An API keeps running proper communication between headless components. API fills in for one of the paradigms of the MACH approach, to future-proof enterprise technology stack and propel current and future digital experiences. 

What are the examples of APIs in eCommerce?

The most standard APIs take care of basic communication, such as catalog content, order management, pricing information, and customer data. However, APIs are not limited and can be developed in a more sophisticated way.