Venting machines and APIs

In our office we have a venting machine that offers free sodas. What the vending machine does is simple: Keep contents cool, wait for someone to request a soda and then serve it.

But then again this is just a fridge. Why have a machine over there to do what a fridge is doing all this time? It would be simpler to put the sodas in the fridge. Everyone could just pick up what he likes. Right? … wrong…

One needs only to open one of the two fridges to see how this would end. At first things are put nicely and in place. But a couple of days later the contents of a publicly accessible fridge look really really bad. You may end up having open or spilled sodas in there, expired cans and even things that should never be in there. All of this can happen by a small minority of its users. And it can be either on purpose or not. At the end you may have to dig on a pile of cans and other left overs to find a coke zero which would make the mess even worse. Requiring so much time to find something could also cause queues. The whole thing would become unusable after a couple of months. Even if there was a fridge access policy clearly stated at the front door someone would ignore that at the end.

All of this justify a venting machine that keeps things in place, always looks shiny and serves people well. Everyone is happy and at the end it costs less since it doesn’t need constant maintenance and doesn’t brake because of bad usage.

This is the same thing as data access. In theory you may allow direct access to data but it will always end up in disaster. Your stored data may become a mess and may even be used to store other things. People will do things they way they see fit (and this guarantees that most of them will be wrong). Even worse, when people are in a hurry and want to do something quick and dirty they will not pay that much attention to access or storage rules.

The solution is exactly the same. Introduce an interface between the user and the contents. Either a venting machine that will return the contents of the fridge or an API that will return the desired data. Direct data access will only be granted to few people and will only be needed to fix random issues.

But it gets even better!

Our venting machine doesn’t have predefined locations for different kinds of sodas. Any soda can be stored anywhere and the user just have to find the proper row and column to get it. For example, one needs to type C2 on a keypad to get a soda from row C, column 2. Of course this could be changed and sodas could be put in predefined places. Then a different venting machine could accept a request for ‘Pepsi Max’, locate it and serve it. There are pros and cons on this: It will be easier to get something, it will allow the machine to know when a kind of soda is finished, etc. It also adds a lot of complexity and makes adding more sodas of a kind harder since it will need to be reprogrammed.

Something similar happens with APIs: An API can either get a raw request and process it (e.g. insert these data to table) or get a higher level request (e.g. create a new user). The first requires less complexity and the second allows the API to perform clever tricks like keeping statistics, updating other tables, changing internal representation without changing the API, etc…

Obviously there’s no 1-to-1 mapping but things are really similar: Using a venting machine to serve sodas or an API to serve data will result in nice and clean stored contents and will last longer. Oh.. and users will be happier.

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