How Real-Time APIs Power Our Lives

The other day I went to dinner and it made me appreciate the need for fast application programming interfaces (APIs)

Confused? Let me explain.

To get to dinner I used an app to hail a car from my smartphone. While you’re waiting for the driver to pick you up, the map updates in real time to indicate the location of the car on approach. But on that day, the app did not update the map. After 10 minutes, I got frustrated and switched to an alternative ride-hailing app! This time I was successful and watched in real time as my driver approached and picked me up.

Let’s look at another example. I recently checked out an Amazon Go store in San Francisco. With the Go app downloaded, you just approach the door and it unlocks automatically. As you walk around the store, any item you pick up is automatically added to your virtual cart, and automatically removed if you put it back on the shelf. When you are done, you just walk out!

Yet again, we see real-time information is critical to a good experience.

APIs Are the Connective Tissue of Good Digital Experiences

What’s the technology powering such convenient, and thus satisfying, consumer experiences? APIs! Specifically, real-time APIs. There’s a lot riding (pun intended) on consumers having good, real-time experiences. The barrier to switching to a competitor in the digital world is very low.

What Does “Real Time” Mean?

Research suggests real-time must be less than 30 milliseconds (ms). Consider these proofpoints:

– 13 ms for humans to process images. According to a study by neuroscientists at MIT, the human eye can process and identify entire images in as little as 13 ms.

– 20 ms to synchronise video. An IEEE paper about using ‘Media fingerprinting’ technology to prevent loss of synchronisation between image and sound when delivering video content states that the tolerable limit for latency is between 6 and 20 ms.

– 30 ms to deliver wireless data. Ubiquitous connectivity is on the horizon with the introduction of 5G technologies, which promises peak speeds of up to 1 Gbps and latency of less than 30 ms. Why such low latency? Because 5G needs to be that fast to replace in-home WiFi and wireline broadband like fiber and cable modems.

Real-Time Experiences Require Real-Time APIs

Real-time experiences rely on API connectivity. Uber retrieves Google Map data via an API call. Amazon connects in-store Go infrastructure with sensor, vision, and analytics capabilities via API calls. That means your API infrastructure needs to process API calls in 30 ms or less. For some use cases, you need as little as 6 ms!
That might not sound difficult, but let’s consider that API infrastructure has to:

– Route APIs. Ensure the API consumer – like your ride-hailing app – is correctly directed to the right backend resource, like the mapping service.

– Authenticate APIs. Is this API consumer a valid user allowed to access this backend resource? You have to authenticate the user to ensure it is.

– Secure APIs. APIs are arguably the gateway to your most critical application capital, so they better be secure.

– Shape APIs. Not all API calls are equal. You need a way to shape the traffic to avoid resource contention, provide proper bandwidth, and prioritise certain API calls.

– Cache APIs. Many companies process billions of API calls per day. How do you handle that volume? Caching API responses is one way to boost performance.

Everyday Use Cases for Real-Time APIs

There are plenty of activities in the digital world that harness the benefits of real-time APIs, including:

Fraud detection

The financial services sector employs fraud detection technologies on credit card transactions at the point of sale. These enterprises process large amounts of data and use predictive/forensic analytics to detect any outliers. All this needs to happen in real time, when the customer is at the point of sale.


Low latency for your chat apps is a crucial factor in the customer experience. Without real-time API calls you will lower customer satisfaction, which can impact revenue and decrease your net promoter score (NPS).


IoT is changing our lives at incredible speeds! Let me illustrate a few examples where APIs are used in our everyday lives, and must be done in real time:

Home automation

Do you have a remote that you can talk to? What about a home-automation device powered by Alexa or Siri? A good experience requires real-time voice calls to control everything from streaming video to smart blinds that automatically adjust for optimal sunlight and privacy depending on the time of day.

Medical device monitoring

IoT is increasingly being used to monitor patient health – from cancer to diabetes. A variety of vital parameters such as glucose levels or blood pressure are recorded on a daily basis. Updates are then sent to the patients’ physician who administers appropriate treatment. Accomplishing this in real-time is paramount for improving patient outcomes.

Driverless cars

They’re coming! This technology uses a variety of sensors and software to control, navigate, and drive the vehicle. Key decisions about the best route to take and when and where to stop to avoid or minimize collisions all have to be taken in an instant by analysing large amounts of data collected by the sensors.

Managing APIs

A lack of real-time APIs can prevent adoption of disruptive services like voice-controlled smart devices, in-home medical care, and driverless cars. Preventing these new services from reaching potential stalls revenue and market expansion. Delivering transformative experiences inevitably requires a high-performance API management solution. This will enable infrastructure, operations and DevOps teams to define, publish, secure, monitor, and analyse APIs, without compromising performance.

Ultimately, APIs play a central role in both enabling digital business and powering modern, microservices-based application architectures. No organisation can afford to ignore their pivotal role APIs in application and business modernisation. Indeed, those delaying on placing APIs at the core of their IT strategy will soon face substantial challenges to transform their technology and business foundations.

About the Author

Micheál Kingston, Technical Solutions Architect, NGINX at F5. F5 powers applications from development through their entire life cycle, across any multi-cloud environment, so our customers – enterprise businesses, service providers, governments, and consumer brands—can deliver differentiated, high-performing, and secure digital experiences. To learn more about F5, go to

Featured image: ©DragonImages