The Emergence of API Middleware: An Exclusive Interview with Webshell.io

Mark Boyd
Oct. 02 2013, 02:30PM EDT

API middleware is emerging as a key new industry segment in the API economy with at least two launch announcements expected today (including one at DataWeek/APIWorld) from services offering middleware tools to API developers. Meanwhile, in an exclusive for ProgrammableWeb, Webshell.io founders share details of their API integration management platform, and discuss why trust is the principal currency in the API economy.

Webshell.io aims to become the go-to middleware layer for API integration developers. Founders Thibaud Arnault, Mehdi Medjaoui and Arnaud Richard originally met over a social media project that created a user-mosiac of Soundcloud, Youtube, Instagram, and other user-generated content on embeddable maps. The project sourced 21 different APIs, giving the team insight into the problems of API integration and maintenance.

"Integrating APIs and maintaining them is difficult, so this was a pain we had, and we wanted to provide our solution to developers who want to integrate more than 3 APIs", explained Thibaud Arnault, CEO and Co-founder of Webshell.io. It is a pain point they believe many API developers share: their recent survey with 100 Parisian startups found 70% are using more than 7 APIs in their code.

Webshell provides a middleware solution that wraps API requests in JavaScript snippets so developers can quickly authenticate, maintain and integrate APIs into their products and services.

"Originally, we were making a specific shell-based language to integrate APIs but we have quickly pivoted to decide that JavaScript is the main programming language for APIs. We need to follow defacto standards, so the ecosystem has grown really fast on the clientside, and this fast growth is from the use of node.js, so there is no barrier with using JavaScript on the server side. So at Webshell we get all APIs and wrap them in JavaScript", said Mehdi Medjaoui, co-founder and COO.

One of the first issues API developers face with integration is authentication, and the integration difficulties this is generating led the team to create a specific OAuth tool.

"We have integrated OAuth inside Webshell, but a lot of developers have said they sometimes just want this authentication layer tool, so we have made a language-agnostic OAuth integration layer. It's open source, and have already had about 15 contributions from external providers to help their developer communities use it. For example, the Chinese Facebook Renren are using it, and it's in the official documentation for Foursquare, for example."

Since its release at the end of July, it has already seen uptake from 5,000 developers. The team expects a similar upsurge as more Webshell services come online.

Webshell believes that for many API developers trying to gain C-level buyin, and startups mapping out a business model that relies on accessing external data via APIs, the biggest issue is trust.

Medjaoui said: "We have a saying in France, money is less important than the people you can trust.' If you look at the Microsoft model and MS-DOS, the biggest part of their strategy was selling trust. They told users that they would maintain the drivers so people knew they could keep using their technology. APIs are the drivers that businesses need to be able to trust.

We sell trust into the API ecosystem, and we sell this trust with a platform. If your supply chain is drawing on data via an API and that API changes, then your whole supply chain can break down. Webshell is focused on risk data supply chain management."

As part of their service suite - in addition to the JavaScript-based middleware service and standalone tools like the OAuth authentication layer - Webshell are also releasing an API Ratings Agency to monitor API providers and key metrics in their trustworthiness: things like how frequently they change their API terms of service, their investment in a develop portal, and the size of their developer ecosystem and community.

"We are already reviewing API terms of service all the time, so it makes sense to us to open this up as an asset. We use APIs - basically we open up data assets from other companies - so it is in our DNA to open up our assets too," Medjaoui said.

Mark Boyd is a ProgrammableWeb writer covering breaking news, API business strategies and models, open data, and smart cities. I can be contacted via email, on Twitter, or on Google+.

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