API Discovery: The Why, The How, and 4 Tips for Success

Ofer Hakimi
Ofer Hakimi
March 21, 2024
min to read
API Discovery: The Why, The How, and 4 Tips for Success

What is API Discovery? 

API discovery is a process that involves finding and understanding APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that exist in a system or across multiple systems. APIs are an important building block in software applications. They define methods and data formats that a program should use to communicate with other software or with the operating system.

Some organizations take a manual approach to API discovery, where a developer or a team of developers goes through every piece of an application’s code to identify and document the APIs. However, many are turning to automated tools that can scan and detect APIs across various systems in a faster, more efficient manner.

This is part of a series of articles about API security.

Why Is API Discovery Important? 

Here are a few key considerations for API discovery:

Improved Application Development

Many software development projects involve integrating with legacy systems, or have existing software modules that are not well documented. API discovery provides a structured and detailed perspective on the functionalities of an existing application, whether developed internally or by third parties. It allows developers to understand how different components interact with each other, which can be crucial in speeding up the development process. 

Knowing where and how to integrate APIs can save developers from unnecessary coding, thereby reducing the time and effort required to bring an application to life. API discovery can also help in identifying redundant or duplicate APIs. This can lead to the consolidation of these APIs, reducing the complexity and size of the application codebase.

Shadow API Discovery

Shadow APIs are APIs developed or accessed without the knowledge or approval of the IT department. They can pose significant risks to an organization, as they can lead to security breaches, data leaks, and other vulnerabilities.

API discovery can help in identifying these shadow APIs, and bringing them under the control of the IT department. It can provide a comprehensive view of all the APIs that exist in an organization, including those that are hidden or unknown. This can lead to improved governance and security of your APIs, and protect your organization from potential threats and risks.

Access to External Resources and Services

APIs are gateways to external resources and services. They allow an application to connect and interact with other applications, databases, and cloud services. However, without API discovery, it can be challenging to know which APIs to use for which purpose.

API discovery can provide a roadmap to navigate these external resources and services. It can identify the APIs that an application needs to perform a particular task or function. This can lead to better integration and interoperability between different applications and services, thereby enhancing the functionality and user experience of an application.

Compatibility with Existing Systems

API discovery is also essential for ensuring compatibility with existing systems. It can help developers understand the APIs that are already in use, and how they can be integrated with new software or applications. This can be particularly beneficial when upgrading or migrating to new systems, as it can help avoid disruptions and ensure a smooth transition.

The Risks Posed by Insecure APIs 

While APIs can provide numerous benefits, they can also pose significant risks if not properly managed and secured. Unknown APIs with security vulnerabilities pose an even bigger risk, because the organization cannot act to remediate them. Here are some of the risks associated with insecure APIs:

Data Losses

APIs are often used to transmit sensitive data between different systems and applications. If these APIs are not secured, they can become a gateway for hackers to access and steal this data.

API discovery can help in identifying these insecure APIs, and provide solutions to secure them. It can provide a detailed view of the data that is being transmitted through these APIs, and how it is being protected. This can help in preventing data losses, and protecting the confidentiality and integrity of your data.

Service Disruption

Insecure APIs can also lead to service disruptions. If an API is compromised, it can disrupt the normal functioning of an application or system. This can lead to downtime, loss of productivity, and other operational issues.

API discovery can help in identifying these vulnerabilities. It can provide a comprehensive view of the APIs that are critical to the operation of your systems and applications, including information about their security characteristics. This can help in ensuring the availability and reliability of APIs across the organization.

Loss of Reputation

Insecure APIs can not only lead to data losses and service disruptions, but they can also damage the reputation of an organization. If a data breach or service disruption occurs due to an insecure API, it can harm the trust and confidence of customers, partners, and stakeholders, and can lead to compliance violations and legal exposure.

API discovery can help in avoiding these situations, by providing a comprehensive view of APIs and their security measures. Combined with API security tools, it can identify any potential threats or vulnerabilities, and provide solutions to address them.

Types of API Discovery 

Manual Discovery of APIs in Your Organization

Manual API discovery involves a hands-on approach where developers or IT professionals manually inspect and document the APIs within their organization. This process often starts with a review of existing code bases, looking for API endpoints, and understanding how these APIs are structured and interact with other parts of the system.

The manual discovery process can be labor-intensive and time-consuming, particularly in large organizations with complex systems. It requires thorough knowledge of the system architecture and the ability to read and understand code across various programming languages and frameworks. However, this method allows for a deep understanding of the APIs, their dependencies, and potential vulnerabilities.

Automatic API discovery

Automatic API discovery tools are designed to automate the process of searching and finding APIs. These tools scan networks and use intelligent algorithms and techniques to automatically discover APIs based on specific criteria or parameters.

Automatic API discovery can save a significant amount of time and effort, especially when dealing with a large number of APIs. It can also uncover APIs that you might not have found through manual discovery. 

Automated API discovery tools can identify individual API commands, assuming the API was written using OpenAPI or a similar formal command specification. Advanced tools can use dynamic scanning techniques to crawl an API and discover its commands, even if these are not formally defined. 

Best Practices for API Discovery 

While the type of API discovery tool you choose depends largely on your specific needs and circumstances, there are certain best practices that you should follow regardless of the method you choose.

1. Monitor and Analyze Network Traffic to Discover API Calls and Patterns

Monitoring and analyzing network traffic can provide valuable insights into API calls and patterns. This can help you identify which APIs are being used, how they are being used, and by whom. By understanding these patterns, you can optimize your APIs for better performance and security.

Moreover, monitoring network traffic can also help in early detection of any anomalies or potential security threats. This proactive approach can help you mitigate risks and ensure the smooth functioning of your APIs.

2. Perform Static Code Analysis to Discover API Endpoints in Code

Static code analysis is another effective way to discover API endpoints defined in the source code. This involves examining the source code without executing it, allowing you to identify any potential issues or vulnerabilities.

By performing static code analysis, you can discover hidden or undocumented API endpoints, ensuring that they are properly documented and secured. This can also help you understand how different APIs interact with each other, providing valuable insights that can inform your development and integration strategies.

3. Establish API Governance Policies

API governance policies play a crucial role in ensuring the efficient management of APIs. These policies should mandate the documentation, registration, and periodic review of APIs.

Documentation is critical for understanding how to use an API and what it does. Enforcing rules for registration ensures that all APIs are accounted for, reducing the risk of duplicates or overlooked APIs. It is also important to carry out periodic reviews to ensure that your APIs are up-to-date, functional, and secure.

4. Provide Training and Promote Awareness Among Developers and IT Staff

Lastly, it is important to provide training and awareness programs for developers and IT staff on the importance of API documentation, security, and management. This can help ensure that everyone involved in the API lifecycle understands their responsibilities and the importance of adhering to best practices.

Training programs can cover topics like how to document APIs, how to secure APIs, and how to manage APIs effectively. Awareness programs can help instill a culture of API-first thinking, encouraging everyone to consider APIs in their work and decision-making processes.

Boost Your Security Posture With Automated API Discovery

Manual methods can no longer make the cut for companies in 2024.

Leveraging an automated approach to API discovery by using tools, scripts, or platforms, will automatically identify and document all your APIs.

With Pynt's API Security testing autopilot, you will be able to see your entire API inventory, and know where your APIs are - and where they aren't. See which endpoints are in production, and run a gap analysis between production and testing environments. Pynt easily syncs data from AWS, Azure and Kong API getaways and uncovers:

  • New API in development: Devs are working on a new API - FYI!
  • Shadow API:  Endpoints you might not know since we found them only in prod, and not in your tests or documentation.
  • Undocumented API:  There’s an API in prod and testing, however not in API documentation.

Want to learn more about Pynt’s secret sauce?