Why Open Source is right for your business

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This month we feature a guest post by the editor of the excellent API Developer Weekly: James Higginbotham who talks about the benefits of Open Source API Management for your organisation – Take it away James!


Over the last 5 years, we have seen tremendous growth and options available for API management. While some are closed source, many vendors, such as Tyk.io, are choosing to launch as open source API management solutions. Companies are now asking the question, “Is an open source API management layer the right choice?” Let’s examine some of the advantages of open source API management, to help us through the decision-making process.


Advantage #1: Avoid the “DIY” API Management Solution

I have spoken to some groups that have rolled their own API management solution. While your team may be the unique snowflake that needs to build your own API management layer, doing so requires considerable time, resources, and expertise. Instead, start from an open source API management layer.

Dave Koston, VP Engineering for Help.com, agrees: “There’s simply no way we could internally build the feature set of many of the OSS products we use as it would take 10-20 times longer than learning their product and the cost would be many times higher as well.”

A good open source API management layer should offer ways to customize the solution, either via clearly defined APIs or plugin-architecture. Your focus should be on delivering value to the market, not becoming experts in API management.

Advantage #2: Code Reviews Create Confidence

Open source solutions allow the API provider to perform a code and security review – perhaps pairing someone from the API provider with an engineering resource from the vendor. However, Mr. Koston recommends caution when factoring code reviews into your OSS selection: “We reviewed other solutions which were wrapped into other web servers like nginx but having multiple levels of software inside the gateway made it hard to determine where problems arose. Being able to simply read the source of a single product and talk to a single vendor makes the product, and any issues much easier to reason about and deal with.”

Keep in mind that your API management priorities may not be the priorities of some vendors. API management layers must offer a breadth of features. Not every vendor will focus on the ones most important to you. Being confident in the code that is protecting your APIs is important.

Advantage #3: Jumpstarts Your API Management Early

API monitoring and security should start early, not after experiencing growth. Too often, I have seen companies deploy without an API management solution, only to realize that they have no insights into how it is consumed, who is consuming it, and if any security compromises have occurred. The most often cited reason is due to one of limited time, limited/no budget, or uncertainty if the API program will succeed. Once the API program experiences growth, the impact of installing an API management layer is much greater and can have a negative impact on existing API consumers due to changes in account and API token management. Open source API management layers make this an easy and affordable option, even if your API is only used internally or to power web and mobile apps.

What About Technical Support?

When adopting an open source development tool, technical support may vary from Github tickets to mailing lists and Slack groups. However, choosing an open source API management layer doesn’t mean you have to go without vendor support. Many vendors, including Tyk.io, and others offer technical support packages that address the needs of the enterprise, mid-size companies, and growing startups. Be sure to evaluate how your API management layer will be supported long-term as part of your assessment.

Getting Started

Many open source vendors offer distributions of their API management layer that are easy-to-install on a laptop, on-premise, or in the cloud. Start by building a prototype API that mimics your needs, then try out each API management layer to make sure it meets your needs. Your evaluation should include the following considerations:

Authorization – can you implement your desired authorization mechanism (e.g. API tokens, keys, OAuth 2, etc) to meet your needs?

Performance – how much overhead does the layer require for each request? Measure the performance of your API endpoints before and after installing the API management layer. Expect some reduction in performance, but also ensure that the management layer doesn’t cause a drastic decrease in performance that may require additional server capacity

Security – perform some basic penetration testing to verify that the layer is catching common attack vectors. Attacks such as SQL injection, denial of service attack prevention through rate limiting, and other attacks can often be simulated with some simple scripts

Onboarding – how easy or hard will it be for your developers to get onboarded? Does the onboarding process support the business, product, and technical needs of your company?

Reporting – does the management layer provide the information you will need on a day-to-day basis to better serve your developers? Can you export data via an API or push it into an external reporting solution easily, for integration into other daily/weekly reports?

Part of any API program’s responsibility is to select a great API management layer. Make the time to do a proper evaluation to ensure that the one you select will meet the needs of your company.