API Gateways: What do they mean for cloud operations and for you?


By: Ashish Kumar, Head of Field Engineering Team at Solo.io

Digital transformation index for India has moved beyond infancy and large number organisations have achieved a certain level of DT maturity. Combined with government campaigns like “Digital India”, most organisations will achieve a mature level digital transformation. As a result an increasing number of enterprises are shifting to cloud-native operations, as consumers become more tech savvy and sophisticated. A report by IDC finds that public cloud services are expected to grow from USD2.8 billion in the first half of 2022 to USD13 billion by 2026.

With hybrid and multi-cloud now central to enterprise operations, applications have become smaller and more distributed. Application programming interfaces (APIs) being the most common language for application communication are key to transformation. Enabling connectivity between operational applications and business applications      to increase operational efficiency using APIs has become a common practice and thus, APIs are fundamental to better customer experiences in multiple ways. With modern apps boasting numerous and distributed API servers, gateways allow organisations to manage data traffic and safeguard services from disruption.

History of API Gateways

API gateways have been around, in some form or another, since the early days of the Internet and web applications. In the 1990s, services relied on hardware and software load balancers to direct data traffic from two or more servers to enable efficient operations. When Web 2.0 and JavaScript came into the technological picture, organisations were able to harness higher volumes of data transfer. However, it also attracted threat actors looking to steal data for malicious purposes. To address this issue, vendors then integrated security features on their application delivery solutions beginning in the early 2000s.

The modern iteration of API gateways first emerged in the 2010s as web applications transformed into microservice architectures and the need for interconnectivity became crucial in enabling key features. Further contributing to its development was the rise in mobile apps and cloud platforms, which allowed for easy configuration and scalability to meet clients’ needs. With the mainstreaming of Kubernetes and Istio technologies, API gateways were necessary in managing the highly dynamic environment of modernised services.

Peering Behind API Gateways’ Functionalities

API gateways are designed to serve as a single point of access for service requests while allowing for integration with other tools to extend its capabilities. These can range from request routing, identity verification, observability while maintaining flexibility, scalability, and security. Typically, API gateways deliver these functions     :

  • Request Routing i.e. routing of incoming requests to the correct cluster,     data centre, backend application or database. During this process, gateway configurations and request information act as instructions on its intended destination within the architecture.
  • Authentication and Authorization of requests through measures such as multi-factor authentication      and source      address verification, to name a few. This is an essential principle of zero-trust security which verifies each and every incoming access request.     .
  • Caching of fixed and semi-dynamic data and assets by storing them locally      instead of having them load from application servers. This is crucial in delivering a positive experience as users demand smooth-running services with minimal disruptions.
  • Logging and monitoring of requests which can be used to determine the performance and health of their API servers. Specifically, developers should focus on the four golden signals which are latency, traffic, errors, and saturation to determine if there are issues present in the application.

Importance of API Gateways

Both service development and service operations can benefit from API gateways in numerous ways. One of the main benefits is decoupling of architecture and components between client and server. This creates a modular approach and allows for independent evolution of client and server applications by providing or translating to a common language and defining a consistent way to implement security Developers can make adjustments to any part of the architecture without modifying the gateway configuration or impacting other components     .

Another key benefit is that as a service connectivity tool, API gateways provide a consistent mechanism for organisations to enforce security policies that safeguard services from disruption. By acting as a barrier between client and backend servers, service traffic will not be exposed to the outside world and to malicious actors. Authentication measures is one of the many mechanisms of an API gateway that provide additional protection by verifying user identities and preventing unauthorised access.

Last but not least, API gateways are crucial in optimising service performance, which is part of building a positive user experience. This is achieved through caching and smart routing configurations. They also perform rate limiting on incoming traffic, which keeps servers from being flooded with requests and reducing the risk of downtime.

In the face of the complexities, inconsistencies, and overheads that stem from deploying microservices applications onto a cloud platform like Kubernetes, organisations need API gateways that are built for declarative configuration, decentralised ownership, and self-service collaboration. A purpose-built, modern, Kubernetes-native API gateway overcomes these issues by improving scale, operational resiliency, and security. This then translates into frictionless user experiences that enable agile business performances in the face of challenging market conditions.



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