An API (Application Programming Interface) enables two-way communication between software applications driven by requests. A webhook is a lightweight API that powers one-way data sharing triggered by events. Together, they enable applications to share data and functionality that turns the web into something greater than the sum of its parts.
APIs and webhooks both allow different software systems to sync up and share information. As software applications become increasingly interconnected, it is essential for developers to understand the difference between the two methods to select the tool that best meets the needs of the task at hand.
An API is like a portal through which information and functionality can be shared between two software applications. The word "interface" is key to understanding an API's purpose. Just like a web browser is an interface for an end user to receive, send and update information on a web server, an API is an interface that provides software programs with the same functionality.
APIs are the most common way for different software systems to connect and share information. Currently, we provide a series of APIs that deals with everything within out lead to cash and post service workflow. Each API is a blank canvas waiting for our developers to tie it into other applications and use it in new, creative ways.
A webhook can be thought of as a type of API that is driven by events rather than requests. Instead of one application making a request to another to receive a response, a webhook is a service that allows one program to send data to another as soon as a particular event takes place. Webhooks are sometimes referred to as "reverse APIs," because communication is initiated by the application sending the data rather than the one receiving it. With web services becoming increasingly interconnected, webhooks are seeing more action as a lightweight solution for enabling real-time notifications and data updates without the need to develop a full-scale API.
An important feature of APIs is that they provide two-way communication between different software programs via a request-response cycle, most commonly using the HTTP protocol. In a typical API use case, one software program will ask for a specific set of data from another using an HTTP GET request. Provided the request is valid, the receiving system will respond with the requested data in a machine-readable format, commonly XML or JSON. This is what allows applications to share data regardless of their individual programming languages or internal specifications. The universal nature of API interactions can enable countless scenarios.
In addition to receiving data, APIs can also handle the full gamut of "CRUD" (Create, Read, Update and Delete) operations between two applications. In other words, APIs aren't just for displaying data to a user in an interface--they can also be used to make changes to it in the application where it is stored. This is how APIs allow software systems to expand their services and functionality to integrate with other platforms in a more thorough and meaningful way.
The versatility of APIs makes them powerful tools for developers to extend the capabilities of their applications.
One might think that since webhooks are real-time events that they are technically difficult to implement. Actually, a key advantage of webhooks is that they are easier to set up and less resource-intensive than APIs. Implementing a webhook simply requires setting up a single POST request on the sending end, establishing a URL on the receiving end to accept the data, then performing some action on the data once it is received.
Common use cases for webhooks include sending new email list subscriptions to a CRM system, automatically updating accounting software when invoices are paid, or setting up any type of notifications. In each of these types of events, the information flows in one direction.
The same characteristics that make webhooks relatively easy to implement are also the reasons why they are far more limited than APIs. Updating the data that a webhook delivers requires reconfiguring it entirely to listen for a different event and in most cases, it would be more efficient to create a new webhook. When two systems share data via an API with multiple endpoints, the receiving system has access to a much broader range of data from the sending system. Also, unlike APIs, webhooks do not allow the sending system to add, update and delete data on the receiving end, which is why webhooks alone are too limited to offer full integration between two applications.
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