Microservices vs. APIs: What Are the Differences?

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The difference between microservices vs. APIs continues to be a frequent inquiry to the curious but well-intentioned novices of the software development industry.

Both microservices and APIs are relatively modern technical concepts, the present-day versions of these abstractions emerging in the early 2000s. And they both play a fundamental role in how software is built today.

Yet — for the most part — this is where the similarities end between microservices vs. APIs. To learn more about microservices vs. APIs, keep reading!

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What Is an API?

An application programming interface, or API for short, is an intermediary connecting different software technologies.

Essentially, APIs facilitate a means of communication when two or more distinct software platforms need to work together.

This happens via a set of protocols or subroutines written in code. These protocols define the calls from one software to another, how to respond to these calls, standards to follow, data formats to implement, and other details of that nature.

You can think of an API as a user interface (UI) for software. If you’re familiar with the basics of front-end and back-end development, then you know that end-users typically interact with the UI of any software application or product; data and business logic exist on the server-side, invisible to the untrained eye.

For instance, on this website, you’re likely seeing some deep blues and a mass of text. But the back-end is just a bunch of code instructing the browser and the UI how to react to your interactions.

In this way, the UI is your point-of-contact bridging the visual elements of this blog to the integral components that run it.

Similarly, APIs are the point-of-contact for interacting software. APIs bring together unrelated software systems or applications.

A non-technical example of an API would be a waiter, who serves as the liaison between customers who order food and the kitchen staff that prepares it.

What Are APIs Used For?

APIs are used for API integrations. To clarify, API integrations leverage APIs to share data between software. 

The most convenient way to illustrate what APIs are used for is through common day-to-day examples, many of which you likely use yourself.

Booking a flight for your summer vacation? Surely, it was easier to just Google flights from point A to B than going directly to the site of a certain airline.

However, Google’s ability to present this information to you indicates that the search engine is pulling data from the specific airline sites you tried to avoid. APIs powered this exchange.

Similarly, when you’re too lazy to type in your entire credit card number on an online site at checkout and opt to use your PayPal account instead, you’re using an API integration.
APIs are what made it possible for you to access PayPal outside of the official PayPal website.

Illustration of two browser windows, one displaying a generic website interface and the other showing an online payment page, highlighting web interaction.

In reality, you’re using APIs all the time. But if you don’t have a great idea of what APIs are, then at least half the time you’re unaware of just how helpful they are.

It goes without saying that if, “What are APIs?” draws a blank in your head, then up until now you were completely ignorant of the difference between microservices vs. APIs. But don’t worry, you’re on your way to finding out.

What Are Microservices?

Microservices are an architectural approach to building software. Alternatively called microservice architecturemicroservices describe a method of software development that involves building modular services to address specific functions.

To better familiarize yourself with microservices, and thereof microservices vs. APIs, you’ll first need to understand the normative architecture for software development.
Again, this requires a base comprehension of front-end development, back-end development, and altogether full stack development.

The full stack development of monolithic applications, the opposite of an application that utilizes microservices, implies a layered stack of software structures with a singular orientation.

To elaborate, a monolithic application has a UI and its corresponding business logic which are tethered together in a linear fashion. That is, there is no modularity in this design.

Microservices fill in the gaps that monolithic applications miss. Modularity is desirable as modular organization extends reusability and easier maintenance.
To that end, microservice architecture operates by aligning particular functions to singular, self-contained services.

Naturally, at some point, these services connect with one another so a software application can still function as its own entity.

In perceiving applications as a combination of distinct, independent pieces, you gain unparalleled flexibility.

What Are Microservices Used For?

Microservices are used for building software applications with service-oriented architecture (SOA).

SOA is simply a reference to any software design or architectural style where services represent activity towards a specified outcome.

By this definition, microservices fall under the category of SOA. In other words, microservices are used for any software application where functionality can be programmed via services.

Admittedly, most or all software applications can take advantage of microservice architecture. Thus, whether or not a business decides to implement microservices is based on the resources they can spare to maintain it.
That said, many software professionals will maintain that migrating to a microservice architecture will be worth the trouble.
Netflix, one of the more popular companies using microservices to optimize their software, attests to using microservice architecture to “maximize their delivery velocity”.

A diagram with a central gear connected to multiple servers labeled with code snippets, and the Netflix logo to the side, representing a network or a distributed system architecture.

With microservices in action, companies can designate small, goal-driven development teams to focus and scale targeted services.

In the process, tech companies can diversify their tech stack and pave the way for continuous delivery and deployment.

What Are the Differences Between APIs and Microservices?

The main differences between APIs vs. microservices are mostly categorical; APIs connect software whereas microservices are a method of developing software in the first place.

Given that microservices and APIs do not fall under the same category, they have vastly different undertakings in the context of software development.

In fact, you can be sure that nearly every up-to-date or contemporary software relies on APIs in one way or another. Even if not PayPal or Google, most businesses build internal APIs to integrate the software within their own organization.

It follows that next to all or quite literally every software application running on a microservice architecture engages APIs in some way. The same hypothesis applies to monolithic applications as well.

Here’s a breakdown of what you can expect from microservices vs. APIs:

‣ Microservices are:

  • an architectural approach to designing software
  • a collection of services where each service represents a situation-specific function
  • different processes where communication takes place over a network

‣ APIs are:

  • software liaisons consisting of structured cod
  • facilitates interactions between software
  • inclined to work with multiple software products by definition, acting as an interface

As you can see, the differences between microservices vs. APIs are rather obvious, at least once you know what each technical concept brings to the table.

How Do APIs and Microservices Work Together?

For many of the aforementioned examples of APIs, APIs are used to integrate contextually unassociated software, like Google searches and airline information.

Although the examples in question provide a certain convenience for establishing the use of APIs to those who lack general knowledge of the concept, they are not the only uses for APIs.

Within the composition of a microservices application itself, APIs are present. Microservices and APIs work together by drawing on the integration capacity of APIs to link the services of a microservice architecture. 

Developers leverage APIs within the microservice architecture of a software product to ensure that the independent services making up the software remain interconnected.

Although these services belong to the same essential software, their self-sufficiency keeps them at length, figuratively and in actuality. Therefore, APIs bring them together.

Related reading: Know The Top 7 API Integration Tools

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Microservices and APIs often work together, but they are entirely different software entities and should be treated as such. Microservices delineate an architectural style while APIs are software liaisons.

The difference between microservices vs. APIs demonstrates that the complexity of software development goes further than knowing which programming language or framework to use to complement your software development project.

For a software development partner to consult on all the intricacies of software development that may very well be critical to your software development process, consider using Trio Senior developers.

Trio Senior Back-End Developers have several years of experience and applied expertise when it comes to comprehending not only the difference between microservices vs. APIs, but all the nuts and bolts of software development in general.

Get in touch with Trio today to see what Trio can do for you!

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With over 10 years of experience in software outsourcing, Alex has assisted in building high-performance teams before co-founding Trio with his partner Daniel. Today he enjoys helping people hire the best software developers from Latin America and writing great content on how to do that!
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