Acronyms, Abbreviations and APIs
Posted by Steve Lay
As Questionmark’s integrations product owner, it is all too easy to speak in acronyms and abbreviations. Of course, with the advent of modern day ‘text-speak,’ acronyms are part of everyday speech. But that doesn’t mean everyone knows what they mean. David Cameron, the British prime minister, was caught out by the everyday ‘LOL’ when it was revealed during a recent public inquiry that he’d used it thinking it meant ‘lots of love’.
In the technical arena things are not so simple. Even spelling out an acronym like SOAP (which stands for Simple Object Access Protocol) doesn’t necessarily make the meaning any clearer. In this post, I’m going to do my best to explain the meanings of some of the key acronyms and abbreviations you are likely to hear talked about in relation to Questionmark’s Open Assessment Platform.
At a recent presentation (on Extending the Platform), while I was talking about ways of integrating with Questionmark technologies, I asked the audience how many people knew what ‘API’ stood for. The response prompted me to write this blog article!
The term, API, is used so often that it is easy to forget that it is not widely known outside of the computing world.
API stands for Application Programming Interface. In this case the ‘application’ refers to some external software that provides functionality beyond that which is available in the core platform. For example, it could be a custom registration application that collects information in a special way that makes it possible to automatically create a user and schedule them to a specified assessment.
The API is the information that the programmer needs to write this registration application. ‘Interface’ refers to the join between the external software and the platform it is extending. (Our own APIs are documented on the Questionmark website and can be reached directly from developer.questionmark.com.)
APIs and Standards
APIs often refer to technical standards. Using standards helps the designer of an API focus on the things that are unique to the platform concerned without having to go into too much incidental detail. Using a common standard also helps programmers develop applications more quickly. Pre-written code that implements the underlying standard will often be available for programmers to use.
To use a physical analogy, some companies will ask you to send them a self-addressed stamped envelope when requesting information from them. The company doesn’t need to explain what an envelope is, what a stamp is and what they mean by an address! These terms act a bit like technical standards for the physical world. The company can simply ask for one because they know you understand this request. They can focus their attention on describing their services, the types of requests they can respond to and the information they will send you in return.
QMWISe stands for Questionmark Web Integration Services Environment. This API allows programmers to exchange information with Questionmark OnDemand software-as-a-service or Questionmark Perception on-premise software. QMWISe is based on an existing standard called SOAP. (see above)
SOAP defines a common structure used for sending and receiving messages; it even defines the concept of a virtual ‘envelope’. Referring to the SOAP standard allows us to focus on the contents of the messages being exchanged such as creating participants, creating schedules, fetching results and so on.
REST stands for REpresentational State Transfer and must qualify as one of the more obscure acronyms! In practice, REST represents something of a back-to-basics approach to APIs when contrasted with those based on SOAP. It is not, in itself, a standard but merely a set of stylistic guidelines for API designers defined by an academic paper written by Roy Fielding, a co-author of the HTTP standard (see below).
As a result, APIs are sometimes described as ‘RESTful’, meaning they adhere to the basic principles defined by REST. These days, publicly exposed APIs are more likely to be RESTful than SOAP-based. Central to the idea of a RESTful API is that the things your API deals with are identified by a URL (Uniform Resource Locator), the web’s equivalent of an address. In our case, that would mean that each participant, schedule, result, etc. would be identified by its own URL.
RESTful APIs draw heavily on HTTP. HTTP stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol. It was invented by Tim Berners-Lee and forms one of the key inventions that underpin the web as we know it. Although conceived as a way of publishing HyperText documents (i.e., web pages), the underlying protocol is really just a way of sending messages. It defines the virtual envelope into which these messages are placed. HTTP is familiar as the prefix to most URLs.
Although arguably simpler than SOAP, OData provides an even more powerful platform for defining APIs. For some applications, OData itself is enough, and tools can be integrated with no additional programming at all. The PowerPivot plugin for Microsoft Excel is a good example. Using Excel you can extract and analyse data using the Questionmark Results API (itself built on OData) without any Questionmark-specific programming at all.
For more about OData, check out this presentation on Slideshare.