The API Management System

The API Management System

architect

Moving to an API-driven and/or microservice based architecture requires more systems to work together. The first step is to have an identity management system in place, as described here. This allows the APIs (Microservices) to pull the identity out from the APIs and manage it centrally.

The API Management System is the logical structure to provide data and service access to the system. It is a slave system to the Identity Management System, and there is a clear separation of responsibilities between the two. The API Management System is the “police” that enforces the access control, whereas the Identity Management System is the Authority that issues the tokens that can grant access, like a passport or a driving license.

API Management System

The AMS contains the following services:

  • The API Security Service

    Responsible for ingress security to the API system.

  • The API Integration Service

    Responsible for higher level API aggregations.

  • The API Management Service

    Responsible for developer management, monetization and monitoring.

The API Security Service

The API Security Service ensures that access to data and capabilities exposed by downstream APIs is secured according to centrally-defined policies. To answer the question of what the caller of the API is allowed to do, it must first determine who the user is. This is done by relying on the Authentication Services, Federation Service, and STS in the Identity Management System. The identity is communicated to the API Security Service as a security token that is minted by the STS. The API Security Service trust only the STS in its own domain to provide it with token-based representations of user identities, and all identity federation and cross-domain trust brokering is performed in the Identity Management System.

Enterprise security policies could be established in an Entitlement Management System. These rules govern access, and the API Security Service enforces these. These policies may be simple role-based rules, but more fine-grained policies are more prevalent for highly regulated and valuable data access. To ensure authorized access to these, the API Security Service will use attribute-based access control that accounts for more than the role of the consumer. The policies consider the end user’s identity, the client (such as a mobile app running on a device that may or may not be enrolled in a Mobile Device Management system), the context (such as the network the device is connected to) and the action being requested.

An API Security Service is almost always implemented as a proxy that stands between the northbound API being exposed to clients and the downstream APIs being protected. It is for this reason that an API Security Service is also commonly referred to as an API gateway or API proxy. With this position and relationship to the Identity Management System, the API Security Service is used to transform the incoming security tokens into some other form of credential or token that can be consumed by the downstream services that are being proxied. This position also makes it ideally suited to perform integration and message shaping which is the other core capability of the API Management System.

The Phantom Token Flow

A common interaction pattern between the IMS and the API Security Service is to use the Phantom Token Flow. This pattern allows for tokens to be opqaue when used on the Internet, and then exchanged by the API Security Service at the Token Service for a by-value token to be used internally.

The Phantom Token Approach

  1. The client retrieves a by-reference token using any OAuth 2.0 flow.

  2. The client forwards the token in its requests to the API.

  3. The reverse proxy looks up the by-value token by calling the Introspection endpoint of the Token Service.

  4. The reverse proxy replaces the by-reference token with the by-value token in the actual request to the microservice.

The API Integration Service

The API Integration Service is not covered in depth, but is mentioned to illustrate its place in the architecture. The integration service is used when there are many backend-APIs that need to be integrated into new services and when orchestration might be needed.

This is similar to the tradition Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) that sometimes still exists. A key point is that the API Integration Service is usually capable of Security, just as the Security Service usually is capable of integration. This doesn’t mean that they should be used for that purpose, a dedicated API Security Service is a much better architectural choice for a scalable API infrastructure.

The API Management Service

The API Management Service is used when the APIs are published internally or externally for developers to request access to, and where there is a need to follow up on the usage of API and sometimes do billing or throttling based on business decisions rather than technical ones.

Since all identity management is delegated to the Identity Management System, the API Management Service should not maintain the master record of applications integrating with the system. Instead it should register new applications as Clients at the Token Service using the Dynamic Client Registration protocol.

Dynamic Client Registration

  1. The developer logs into the portal and requests new application credentials

  2. The API Management Service makes a DCR request to the Token Service to create a new client

  3. The Token Service responds with the client credentials and other properties about the new client

  4. The developer obtains the credentials and can use them in the application


Conclusion

As the API landscape grows it’s important to manage identity and trust centrally. By designing the API Management System in a way that it depends on the Identity Management System for identity removes complexity. Microservice APIs or other types of APIs can be deployed with ease since relying on the presence of JSON Web Tokens in the request makes both authentication and authorization of requests simple. The API Security Service is key to protect the API landscape, and to efficiently leverage opaque tokens on the Internet and by-value tokens internally.


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