Learning Center
March 10, 2022
5 min read

What are API Gateway Policies?


An API Gateway is becoming an essential part of modern application architecture. It acts as a reverse proxy that routes API requests to appropriate backend services. Along with routing, API Gateways provide capabilities like security, monitoring, rate limiting, and more for your APIs.

A major benefit of using an API Gateway is the ability to implement policies that enforce governance across all your APIs. API Gateway policies allow you to configure cross-cutting concerns in one place that then apply to every API proxied through it.

In this article,  we will provide an in-depth overview of API Gateway policies - what they are, why they matter, the types of policies available, and how to configure them for your API Gateway implementation.

What is an API Gateway Policy?

API Gateway policies are a powerful tool for centrally governing and securing your API landscape. These policies attach to the API Gateway itself rather than individual APIs, allowing you to globally enforce standards across all APIs proxied through the gateway. For example, a single authentication policy can require valid tokens for every API, rather than having to implement authentication logic separately in each one.

Other common API Gateway policies handle cross-cutting concerns like:

  • Rate limiting requests
  • Enabling consistent CORS settings
  • Terminating SSL connections and applying certificates
  • Setting up access logs and traces
  • Transforming requests and responses
  • Executing custom logic

Platforms like Kong Gateway allow configuring a rich array of policies to apply standardized rules. This improves consistency, reduces duplicate efforts for API teams, and streamlines enforcing organizational governance. With just a few policies attached, you can quickly elevate security, compliance and management best practices for all your APIs and services accessed through the gateway. API Gateway policies provide centralized, efficient control for handling repetitive tasks the same way everywhere

API Policies vs API Gateway Policies

API policies and API gateway policies both enforce rules and governance on APIs, but differ in their scope and implementation.

API policies attach directly to individual APIs, allowing you to define functionality like security, rate limiting, or transformations for that specific API. These are typically implemented as code within the API. In contrast, API gateway policies get configured globally at the gateway layer itself. A single policy applies blanket rules and logic across all APIs routed through that gateway, rather than targeting a single API.

For example, you could handle OAuth security for all APIs in one gateway policy, instead of coding OAuth into each separate API. This enables centralized, consistent control for cross-cutting concerns. Anything you can implement programmatically per API, you can move to a wider scope using API gateway policies. This reduces duplicate logic and eases publishing new consistent APIs through the gateway. So API policies govern individual APIs, while gateway policies standardize governance across multiple APIs

Common API Gateway Policies

Authentication Policies: These policies enforce authentication requirements for accessing APIs. Popular techniques include API keys, OAuth 2.0, OpenID Connect, and mutual TLS certificates. These can centralize authentication logic rather than implementing it individually across APIs.

Rate Limiting Policies: Used to throttle requests to prevent abuse and ensure availability. Tactics like requests per second, concurrent requests, and requests per user quotas can be implemented here.

Security Policies: Apply security measures uniformly for all APIs, including configuring VPNs, managing TLS/SSL certificates, enabling CORS for browser apps, etc.

Monitoring and Logging: Attach consistent logging, metrics gathering, and tracing capabilities to all traffic interacting with the API gateway. This provides visibility rather than code per API.

Transformation Policies: Standardize handling of request/response formats, data validation, header manipulation, etc. Avoid duplication of transformation logic.

Extension Policies: Many gateway platforms allow writing custom policies in languages like JavaScript or Lua for unique business logic. This centralizes policies not available out-of-the-box.

Benefits of Using API Gateway Policies

Implementing policies at the API Gateway layer centrally governs APIs for consistency and security. Rather than coding the same authentication logic, rate limits, TLS handling, and validations individually into every API, you can attach policies once at the gateway to automatically apply those rules uniformly everywhere. This reduces duplicate efforts for developers while standardizing compliance guardrails for the entire API ecosystem.

With a single gateway policy change, you can instantly alter security protocols, traffic shaping, monitoring traits and more across all proxied APIs. Ops teams gain a critical control point over the API landscape. Additionally, policies speed up API delivery by giving developers built-in standards and removing policy implementation tasks from their workflow. New APIs created through the gateway inherit governance best practices out-of-the-box.

In summary, Gateway policies allow organizations to codify standards upfront, then reuse those to streamline API development. Consistency improves when policy configurations handle cross-cutting concerns instead of custom code. Centralized policy enforcement avoids API sprawl and shifts left security practices. For rapidly scaling API platforms, reusable policies that standardize integrations, security and operations are essential to maintaining velocity and control.

Best Practices For API Gateway Policies

Carefully planning your API gateway policies upfront establishes a governance foundation for all subsequent APIs built through the gateway.

  • Modular design - Break policies into reusable units of capability by function (auth, rate limiting) for composability
  • Maintain policy code in source control - Enables versioning, change tracking and rollback
  • Separate environments - Have dev, test, prod environments for lifecycle management

Testing policies thoroughly before applying to production prevents unexpected API behavior changes:

  • Automated policy testing pipeline - Unit test policy logic flows
  • Simulation testing - Mock API requests to test policies works end-to-end
  • Canary deployments - Roll out policy increments slowly

Manage policies akin to software products:

  • Semantic versioning - Track major vs minor policy changes
  • Change documentation - Precisely log updates to aid auditing
  • Status dashboard - Central view of attached policies and their configurations
  • Deprecation strategies - Smoothly retire/replace outdated policies

With these practices, you can develop API gateway policies with reliability, recoverability and auditability in mind from the start. Careful policy management yields significant ROI over time as consistency, security and governance scales across all adopted APIs.

In Summary

API gateway policies are a powerful way to centrally govern security, traffic, transformations and more for an entire ecosystem of APIs. Rather than having each API implement its own custom authorization, throttling logic and more, you can attach modular policies at the API gateway layer itself. These then enforce rules consistently across every API proxied through the gateway.

Common API gateway policies handle cross-cutting concerns like authentication, rate limiting, TLS certificates, CORS, and monitoring setup. For example, a single OAuth2 authorization policy could secure all your APIs behind an access token, vastly simplifying the developer experience. Policy-driven APIs remove the need to reinvent governance for each new endpoint.

Benefits include improved standardization, less duplicate logic, easier central management and faster API publishing by baking in governance guardrails upfront. Best practices emphasize modular policy design, testing rigor and managing policies akin to software releases.

As organizations scale up API footprints, relying on API gateway policies minimizes drift, reduces effort, and maintains consistency across providers. Policy-first gateways give developers the guardrails to build secure, compliant and production-ready APIs much faster. With the right abstraction layers, APIs become simpler for customers to consume as well. API gateway policies thus form the bedrock for frictionless yet governed API ecosystems.