Notes from API Strat

Back in November I had the pleasure to attend API Strat for the first time. It was 2 days of short (20 minute) sessions running in 3 tracks with people discussing web service API design, practice, and related topics. My interest was to get wider exposure to the API Microversions work that we did in OpenStack, and get out of that bubble to see what else was going on in the space.

Events on the Web

Event technologies being used by different web services
Event technologies being used by different web services

There were lots of talks that brought up the problem of getting real time events back to clients. Clients talking to servers is a pretty solved problem with RESTful interfaces. But the other way is far from a solved item. The 5 leading contenders are Webhooks (over http), HTTP long polling, Web Sockets, AMQP, and MQTT. Each has their boosters, and their place, but this is going to be a messy space for the next few years.

OpenAPI's version 3 specification includes webhooks, though with version 3 there is no simultaneously launched tooling. It will take some time before people build implementations around that. That's a boost in that direction. Nginx is adding MQTT proxy support. That's a boost in that direction.

Webhooks vs. Serverless

Speaking of webhooks, the keynote from Glenn Block of Auth0 brought up an interesting point: serverless effectively lives in the eventing space as well.

Webhooks are all fine and good to make your platform efficient and scalable. If clients now have to run their own redundant highly available services to catch events, that's a lot of work, and many will just skip it. The found that once they build out a serverless platform where they could host their clients code, they got much more uptake on their event API. And, more importantly, they found that their power user customers were actually building out important features of their platform. He made a good case that every online service should really be considering an embedded serverless environment.

API Microversions

I was ostensibly there to talk about API Microversions, an approach we did in OpenStack to handle the fact that deployments of OpenStack upgrade at very different cadences. The talk went pretty well.

20 minutes was a challenge to explain something that took us all 6 months to get our heads around. I do think I managed to communicate the key challenge: when you build an open source system with a user facing API, how do users control what they get?  A lot of previous "good enough" rules fall down.

Darrel Miller had given a talk "How to never make another breaking API change". His first 5 minutes were really similar to mine, and then, because this was about Azure, with a single controlled API instance, the solution veered in a different direction. It was solid reinforcement for that fact that we were on the right path here, and that the open source solution has a different additional constraint.

One of the key questions I got in Q&A is one I'd been thinking about. Does GraphQL make this all obsolete? GraphQL was invented by Facebook to get away from the HTTP GET/POST model of passing data around, and let you specify a pretty structured query about the data you need from the server. On paper, it solves a similar problem as microversions, because it if you are really careful with your GraphQL you can ask for the minimum data you need, and are unlikely to get caught by things coming and going in the API. However, in practice, I'm not convinced it would work. In OpenStack we saw that most API usage was not raw API calls, it was through an SDK provided by someone in the community. If you are an SDK writer, it's a lot harder to make assumptions about what parts of objects people want, so you'd tend to return everything. And that puts you right back with the same problem we have in REST in OpenStack.

API Documentation

There were many talks on better approaches for documentation, which resonated with my after the great OpenStack docs migration.

Taylor Barnett's talk "Things I Wish People Told Me About Writing Docs" was one of my favorites. It included real user studies on what people actually read in documentation. It turns out that people don't read your API documentation, they skim hard. They will read your code snippets as long as they aren't too long. But they won't read the paragraph before it, so if there is something really critical about the code, make it a comment in the code snippet itself. There was also a great cautionary tale to stop using phases like "can be easily done". People furiously hunting around your site trying to get code working are ramping up quick. Words like "easy" make them feel dumb and frustrated when they don't get it working on the first try. Having a little more empathy for the state of mind of the user when they show up goes a long way towards building a relationship with them, and making them more bought into your platform.

Making New Friends

I also managed to have an incredible dinner the first night I was in town setup by my friend Chris Aedo. Both the food and conversation were amazing, in which I learned about Wordnic, distributed data systems, and that you can loose a year of research because ferrits bread for specific traits might be too dumb to be trained.

Definitely a lovely conference, and one I hope to make it back to next year.

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