What Is API Sprawl? How to Prevent API Sprawl?

Zhihuang Lin

Zhihuang Lin

May 6, 2024



API sprawl refers to the rapid increase in the number of APIs within an enterprise due to independent development and management by multiple teams. These APIs often become redundant, complex, and challenging to unify.

As APIs rapidly expand and become more scattered, managing these interfaces becomes increasingly difficult, requiring enterprises to invest more resources in API development, testing, deployment, and maintenance. According to a report released by F5, it is predicted that by 2031, the number of public and private APIs in use may exceed 1 billion, exacerbating the urgency of the API sprawl problem.

Not only large enterprises but also small and medium-sized enterprises face this issue as they pursue digital transformation. Addressing API sprawl has become an urgent task for enterprises, requiring not only technical attention but also strategic planning and layout to ensure the sustainable development and management of APIs.

Causes of API Sprawl

API sprawl is primarily caused by several factors:

  1. Lack of unified API design and planning within the enterprise, leading to the development of a large number of similar or duplicate APIs by various teams based on their own needs and understanding.

  2. Inadequate communication between teams and a lack of mechanisms for collaboration often result in different teams unknowingly developing similar APIs.

  3. In the pursuit of rapid functionality implementation, teams may overlook the maintainability of APIs, leading to increased maintenance costs.

  4. With continuous technological updates, some outdated APIs may not be timely updated or retired, coexisting with newly developed APIs, thus increasing management complexity.

Impact of API Sprawl

The uncontrolled growth of API numbers significantly increases the development and maintenance costs for enterprises. Each new API requires resources for full API lifecycle management, including development, testing, deployment, and maintenance, substantially increasing operational costs. Moreover, the abundance of APIs complicates system interactions and dependency relationships, increasing the likelihood of errors and the difficulty of resource allocation, which may affect overall system performance. Security risks also increase as each API could potentially serve as an attack point, with the difficulty of security management growing in tandem with the number of APIs.

Ultimately, developers spend more time mastering numerous APIs, resulting in reduced development efficiency due to high onboarding costs. Additionally, different developers using different APIs to accomplish similar functions lead to code redundancy and difficulties in team collaboration.

In summary, API sprawl not only increases enterprise operational costs and security risks but also affects system performance and team collaboration efficiency. To address these issues, enterprises need to establish unified API management and planning mechanisms, enhance communication and collaboration between teams, retire outdated APIs in a timely manner, and prioritize the maintainability and security of APIs.

api sprawl

Practical Case Study and Analysis

The user data breach incident encountered by Twitter in 2022 provides a real-world example of the potential hazards of API sprawl. In this incident, data of at least 5.4 million users, including phone numbers and email addresses, were illegally accessed. The emergence of this security vulnerability highlights the inadequacies in API security management for many enterprises, especially in the context of rapid API growth and scattered distribution.

In the case of Twitter, the rapid growth and distribution of APIs have increased the complexity of security management. Different teams may independently develop their own API interfaces without unified security standards and monitoring mechanisms, providing opportunities for attackers. Due to a lack of unified monitoring and management of API interfaces, security vulnerabilities are difficult to discover and rectify in a timely manner, leading to this serious data breach incident.

Preventing API sprawl

To effectively prevent API sprawl, enterprises can take the following measures.

1. Establish and enforce unified API standards

  • Develop clear API design and planning principles to ensure that all APIs follow a unified structure and format.

  • Establish a dedicated API management team responsible for overseeing the enforcement of these standards to ensure API consistency and usability. This not only helps reduce redundancy and complexity but also enhances user experience and system stability.

2. Strengthen internal communication and collaboration

  • Promote information exchange between different teams through regular team meetings and collaboration tools to avoid redundant development due to poor communication.

  • Establish a developer portal as a platform for resource sharing to encourage teams to reuse existing APIs, thereby improving development efficiency and resource utilization.

3. Prioritize the maintainability and scalability of APIs

  • Implement version control to track and manage the change history of APIs.

  • Introduce automated testing and monitoring to ensure the quality and performance of APIs. These measures help to timely identify and rectify issues, ensuring reliable API operation and reducing long-term maintenance costs.

4. Implement API gateways

  • Introduce API gateways as single entry points for all API requests, facilitating centralized management and monitoring of API usage.

  • API gateways can provide functionalities such as authentication, rate limiting, logging, and security, enhancing control and management capabilities over APIs.

5. Enhance API security protection

  • According to F5's 2021 Application Protection Report, nearly two-thirds of API security incidents are caused by complete API exposure. Therefore, strengthening API security protection is crucial.

  • Implement strict authentication and authorization mechanisms to ensure that only authorized users can access specific APIs.

  • Conduct regular security audits and vulnerability scans on APIs to timely discover and rectify potential security risks.

6. Regularly review and optimize API resources

  • Evaluate the usage and performance of existing APIs through regular API governance activities and retire outdated or inefficient APIs in a timely manner.

  • Merge APIs with similar functionalities to reduce redundancy and improve reusability. This not only reduces management costs but also enhances overall system efficiency.

7. Cultivate developers' API design and management capabilities

  • Provide relevant training and guidance to enhance developers' understanding of excellent API design.

  • Encourage developers to participate in API design and planning to increase their sense of responsibility and ownership. Advocate for an "API First" design philosophy to ensure that API needs and usability are fully considered in the early stages of system design.

8. Establish feedback mechanisms

  • Encourage developers and users to provide feedback on API usage to timely discover and improve API issues and shortcomings.

  • Establish dedicated channels to collect and analyze feedback data for continuous optimization and improvement of APIs.


With the continuous development of technologies such as cloud computing, big data, and artificial intelligence, enterprises' dependence on APIs will become increasingly profound. In this context, effectively managing and utilizing APIs to ensure their stability, security, and efficiency has become an important task that enterprises cannot afford to ignore.

In this larger context, enterprises need to keep pace with technological developments, continuously strengthen API management system construction, and enhance the professional capabilities of technical teams to cope with increasingly complex and changing business requirements and market environments. Only in this way can enterprises stand undefeated in fierce market competition and achieve sustainable development.

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