How to Choose the Right API Gateway for Your Business
Modern organizations rely on APIs to power their digital customer experiences. This can lead to stronger brand loyalty and higher revenues — if they play their cards right.
The driving factor in delivering personalized content is connectivity to more applications, systems, and data sources. That takes APIs. As such, API gateways — which determine how you manage, control, and expand your API and microservices architecture — have become an essential component in any digital organization.
But with many API gateway options available, how do you know which gateway is right for your business?
In this blog post, we'll look at the defining features to keep an eye out for when searching for an API gateway — and explore the most popular API gateways on the market.
An API gateway is a service that acts as an intermediary between customers and backend services, allowing organizations to streamline their API management processes. Ultimately, API gateways help organizations simplify their development process and control access to their APIs.
For organizations that offer a variety of services or have split up their products into microservices, using an API gateway to direct API traffic is essential because it offers features like request/response transformations, authentication, rate limiting, and caching.
The best API gateways have numerous competitive benefits, including:
The speed and performance needed to easily support millions of calls — with sub-millisecond latency and high throughput
Improved security through authentication mechanisms, access control, and encryption
Scalability to handle increasing traffic volumes and distribution across backend services
Reliable performance with high availability, faster response times, and fault tolerance features
Extensibility — or the ability to extend the functionality of the core gateway by simply enabling value-add plugins
Reduced complexity for users with a unified interface and protocol translation
Streamlined API management, including versioning, documentation, analytics, and developer portal functionalities
Integration capabilities with existing infrastructure and automation through APIs or command-line interfaces
Legacy and monolithic app extension through enablement of cloud-based microservices interaction
Evaluating your business requirements
Before you start seriously shopping around for an API gateway vendor, you need to get your ducks in a row by assessing the unique requirements of your business.
Your unique requirements are contingent on the number and complexity of APIs, granular security requirements, integration capabilities, expected traffic volume, and budget constraints. Nailing down your needs helps you identify suitable API gateway solutions and informs your understanding of their various features.
Let's go over some popular API gateway features to consider based on your needs.
API gateway features to consider
Strong API security is paramount because an API security breach can lead to a data breach.
To minimize the risk of breaches and to enhance API performance, your API gateway should centrally implement security practices like access control, bot detection, cross-origin resource sharing (CORS), and threat protection.
It should also authenticate all incoming requests at the level of the API gateway, rather than in each of the microservices, and use Transport Layer Security (TLS) across all communications for an added layer of protection.
Rate limiting is another crucial feature that helps to prevent bots and users from abusing your services and reduce the risk of denial-of-service (DoS) attacks. For applications with sensitive data, the API gateway should use encrypted data for services to protect from unauthorized access.
Your API gateway should be easily scalable to support the surges you see during peak traffic times — without sacrificing performance. If your gateway can't ensure consistency while balancing loads, your APIs can become unavailable and your application offline — impacting user confidence in your platform.
One of the most essential API development practices is ensuring your APIs won't crash during failures or malfunctions. As such, you should choose an API gateway that offers configurable high availability to reduce downtime when a zone or instance becomes unavailable.
The platform should also offer fault tolerance on hardware or software for your API data so that APIs can continue to run despite malfunction.
A combination of logging tools, alerts, and monitoring systems will provide you with helpful information to troubleshoot, secure, investigate, or debug problems that arise.
Your API gateway plays a hand in API lifecycle management — from easy discovery and management of services and customized application registration to API versioning, documentation generation, analytics, and developer portal capabilities. These features facilitate collaboration, monitoring, and maintenance of APIs.
As you adopt a cloud-based approach for developing and deploying your application, the API gateway you use should support the functioning of applications in diverse environments like public, private, and hybrid clouds. This attribute provides your application development teams with architectural flexibility to operate in the environment that best suits their application requirements.
Integration, automation, and compatibility
An API gateway should be compatible with the tech stack of your application and able to integrate with existing infrastructure and tools.
It should also support the features you need to ensure optimal API performance. After all, API gateways range in complexity — from HTTP servers that merely serve APIs to those that provide innovative features for handling cross-cutting concerns.
Broad support for API protocols and patterns
Excellent API gateways are capable of processing requests and responses across commonly used protocols and API patterns (such as REST, GraphQL, and gRPC). If your use case revolves around IoT or microservices ensure that your gateway supports asynchronous API protocols like WebSocket, WebHooks, and Kafka. You may want to avoid platforms that don't mention this capability.
To ensure that APIs perform optimally, make sure you can define an upper limit on the size of requests and responses that can be received or sent via the API gateway.
Configurable via code
Infrastructure as code (IaC) offers an automated way to gather and manage the entirety of existing infrastructure. Instead of manually configuring the API gateway for each of your application's environments — an inconsistent, time-consuming, and error-prone approach — you should configure it broadly using a file that runs on IaC principles and onboard teams to the platform in a fully automated manner.
Availability of support and documentation
Don't forget about the quality of support you can expect from your API gateway vendor and its existing community. Consider whether the platform's available documentation is thorough enough for your team to get the gateway up and running without major issues. If you lack access to sufficient resources, you may find troubleshooting your new API gateway to be a thorn in your side.
Choosing the right API gateway
Now that you’re familiar with the gateway requirements and features to watch out for, it's time to consult with potential vendors. However, it can be daunting to decide which API gateway is capable of providing the best, most reliable services to meet your needs.
To start, ask your prospective API vendor about the return on investment of their platform, and request that they provide performance benchmarks conducted by a reputable and independent industry consultancy. You can ask for specific proof points about how long the gateway takes to address different use cases, like integrating a new authentication method, and how many IT resources it requires to maintain.
Remember that the performance of your API gateway is not solely based on its processing speed, but also on how adaptable it is in supporting new functionality, use cases, and custom requirements in business.
Infrastructure cost reduction
When selecting an API gateway, you should inquire about a vendor's installation footprint and whether it takes significant memory or additional servers to operate. If an API gateway requires additional integration costs — like a separate application load balancer, network load balancer, or ingress controller, for example — then you should be wary that the platform may not allow you to operate in the IT environment of your choice.
If your organization runs a monolith API program, consider using a robust, lightweight API platform that can support varied use cases across diverse deployment environments.
Your API gateway should be flexible so it can automate your platform to build applications faster while maintaining consistent standards and high quality. Make a point to investigate whether an API vendor can support an entire API lifecycle while repeatedly testing and deploying code to reduce risk and increase velocity.
Also, quiz them on their integration abilities with leading industry tools to support the deployment of pipelines of services, as this is key for gateway success.
Productivity tools for the IT org and API developers
An API gateway should lower the operational burden on your Shared Services and DevOps teams through automation so they don't have to worry about deployment and maintenance tasks or system updates.
Research prospective API vendors and their capacity to be deployed across heterogeneous platforms like public clouds, hybrid environments, and containers. This pool also includes support for API protocols (REST, gRPC, etc.) and architecture (microservices, serverless, and service mesh).
Inquire with vendors about how they can support the federated API management deployment model — this will enable your developers to spend more time writing code and less time maintaining infrastructure.
Security protocol standards
Broken, exposed, or hacked APIs are a leading cause of data breaches, which can have serious consequences for any company's reputation, financial health, and customer confidence.
As you're evaluating API gateway vendors, ensure their platform supports security protocols like OpenID Connect (OIDC) in combination with advanced security and authentication policies. Similarly, investigate their identity and access management (IAM) capabilities to comply with corporate governance standards.
The API platform you select should provide administrators with operational insights into security-related events and consumer-usage patterns. This is also a good time to find out whether the API vendor offers a development kit that your developers can use to extend the platform's functionality and address your security requirements.
Call us biased, but we tend to think Kong is the best choice. And it seems a few people agree with us: Kong is the world's most adopted API gateway — handling over 400 billion API calls a day.
Kong's cloud native API platform unifies API gateway and service mesh. It's easy to use, offers unparalleled performance (up to 470x faster than the competition), and works in any environment.
Kong Konnect is a SaaS offering that builds on Kong Gateway to offer a full API lifecycle management platform with enterprise-grade features and support and is the fastest and easiest way to get started with Kong Gateway.
A robust API gateway is worth the investment because it pairs a centralized environment across all your APIs with invaluable features like authentication, rate limiting, documentation, analytics, and logging and monitoring.
An effective API gateway can save your application development teams hours of manual taskwork so they can focus more on building innovative applications and delivering compelling customer experiences to drive your business.
Want to learn more about how the right API gateway can streamline your workflows? Get a demo and discover what Kong can do for you.