Navigating the Maze: Understanding API Sprawl and Its Implications

APIs serve as the building blocks that connect applications and enable data exchange. However, when the growth of APIs outpaces management, control and security, it leads to a phenomenon known as API sprawl.

This uncontrolled proliferation of APIs can create a tangled web within an organization’s infrastructure, hindering efficiency, increasing security risks, and jeopardizing compliance efforts. In fact, Traceable’s 2023 State of API Security Report reveals that the majority (48%) of organizations cite API sprawl as their top challenge.

Let’s break down the details of API sprawl and the impact on organizations.

What is API Sprawl?

API sprawl goes far beyond simply having a large number of APIs in your organization. It describes the uncontrolled growth and decentralized management of these interfaces.  This leads to a chaotic and fragmented landscape where APIs multiply without centralized oversight, causing confusion and increased risk.

New APIs are often deployed without proper coordination or documentation. Without visibility into each API’s purpose, organizations struggle to manage and secure their digital assets.

Ultimately, API sprawl jeopardizes your organization’s ability to effectively manage, secure, and optimize its digital infrastructure. It leads to complexity, increased security risks, and operational inefficiencies. To regain control, robust governance frameworks and centralized management practices are essential.

When evaluating your security posture, you should be able to answer the following questions about your API ecosystem:

  1. How many APIs do you have?
  2. Where do those APIs reside?
  3. What are those APIs doing?
  4. Do you know which new APIs have been recently introduced?
  5. Which APIs are external-facing vs. internal-facing?
  6. What applications do I have? Where/which cloud?
  7. What services are in each application and what APIs do they implement? What dev team owns what service?
  8. What are the policies for the API lifecycle?
  9. What APIs are not policy compliant?
  10. How does the risk and accepted use differ between prod and pre-prod?
  11. What is acceptable risk for each API endpoint and how can I monitor the risk to stay acceptable?

What the Data Tells Us About API Sprawl: Insights from Traceable’s State of API Security Report

Data from Traceable’s 2023 State of API Security report sheds light on the prevalence and impact of API sprawl within organizations:

  1. 48% of organizations report API sprawl as their top challenge: The majority of organizations cite API sprawl as a significant hurdle, highlighting the widespread nature of this issue across industries and sectors.
  2. 39% struggle with maintaining an accurate inventory of APIs: The lack of visibility and documentation surrounding APIs contributes to the challenge of inventory management. Without a comprehensive understanding of their API landscape, organizations struggle to assess risks, track dependencies, and ensure compliance with internal policies and external regulations.
  3. 30% face challenges in managing third-party access to APIs: Third-party APIs play a crucial role in extending functionality and integrating with external services. However, managing access permissions and security controls for these APIs presents a significant challenge. Organizations must balance the benefits of third-party integration with the need to mitigate security risks and maintain control over their digital ecosystem.

These statistics underscore the urgent need for organizations to address API sprawl and its associated challenges. 

What Are the Different Types of APIs and How Do They Contribute to API Sprawl?

It’s important to understand the different types of APIs that exist within an organization’s ecosystem. These APIs can be categorized based on their visibility, governance status, and usage. Let’s explore some common types:

  1. Known APIs: These are the APIs that are officially documented, approved, and actively managed by the organization. Known APIs undergo rigorous testing, documentation, and version control, making them transparent and well-integrated into the organization’s architecture.
  2. Unknown APIs: On the flip side, unknown APIs are those that operate outside the purview of official governance and documentation. These APIs may have been introduced into the organization’s ecosystem without proper authorization or oversight, posing significant security and compliance risks.

Now, let’s explore the specific subtypes of unknown APIs:

Rogue APIs: Rogue APIs are unauthorized and undocumented APIs that are introduced into the organization’s ecosystem by individuals or teams without proper approval. These APIs often bypass established security protocols and governance mechanisms, creating vulnerabilities and potential points of exploitation for malicious actors.

Shadow APIs: Shadow APIs refer to those that are used by employees or departments for legitimate business purposes but are not formally recognized or managed by the organization. While these APIs may serve specific needs or enhance productivity, their unregulated usage can lead to fragmentation, security risks, and compliance issues.

Orphaned APIs: Orphaned APIs are once-approved APIs that have been abandoned or neglected over time. They may still be active within the organization’s ecosystem but lack proper documentation, maintenance, or support. Orphaned APIs pose risks in terms of security vulnerabilities, outdated functionalities, and compatibility issues.

Zombie APIs: Similar to orphaned APIs, zombie APIs are deprecated or obsolete APIs that continue to operate within the organization’s infrastructure. Despite being officially retired, these APIs may still receive requests or transactions, potentially exposing sensitive data or causing operational disruptions.

Legacy APIs: Older APIs, often created with outdated technologies or security standards, can become unknown over time. As systems evolve, legacy APIs might be overlooked or their maintainers might leave the organization, leaving them vulnerable and unsupported.

Partner and Third-Party APIs: When working with partners or third-party providers, organizations may integrate with external APIs not under their direct control. Lack of clear visibility into these partner APIs can create security blind spots and compliance risks.

By understanding the different types of APIs, organizations can identify and mitigate risks associated with unknown or unauthorized interfaces. Establishing comprehensive API discovery mechanisms, and fostering a culture of transparency and accountability are essential steps in managing and securing the organization’s API ecosystem.

The Impact of API Sprawl on Organizations

The ramifications of API sprawl reverberate throughout an organization, affecting its agility, security, and efficiency:

  1. Operational Inefficiencies: With APIs proliferating unchecked, organizations face increased complexity in managing their digital infrastructure. Developers may struggle to navigate the maze of APIs, leading to longer development cycles, higher maintenance costs, and decreased productivity. This operational overhead hampers innovation and agility, hindering the organization’s ability to respond swiftly to changing market demands.
  2. Security Vulnerabilities: API Sprawl expands an organization’s attack surface, providing cybercriminals with more opportunities for exploitation. Without API discovery, governance and oversight, unauthorized or undocumented APIs may lack robust security measures, making them susceptible to data breaches, unauthorized access, and other cyber threats. Additionally, inconsistencies in security protocols across APIs further compound the security risks, leaving the organization vulnerable to exploitation.
  3. Compliance Challenges: In regulated industries, such as finance, healthcare, and e-commerce, API sprawl complicates compliance efforts. Organizations must ensure that their APIs adhere to industry regulations and standards, safeguarding sensitive data and protecting consumer privacy. However, the decentralized nature of API sprawl makes it difficult to maintain compliance, increasing the risk of regulatory violations, fines, and reputational damage.

The challenges posed by API sprawl necessitate a comprehensive and integrated solution that goes beyond traditional API discovery and management tools. This is where Traceable’s cutting-edge API security platform excels.

How Traceable Can Help – Proactive Steps to Solve for API Sprawl

While API discovery, API management, and API governance are all essential components of combating API sprawl, they alone cannot solve the complexities of this issue. A comprehensive API security platform specifically designed to address the unique challenges of sprawling API landscapes is crucial. This is where Traceable excels.

Traceable’s API discovery and security posture management capabilities offer a powerful solution to the challenges of API sprawl:

  1. Unmatched API Discovery: Your API security journey begins with Traceable’s API discovery and security posture management. Traceable continuously collects more API data from more ingestion points than any other API security platform in the market. This broad and deep dataset is stored in the Traceable API security data lake, and provides the foundation for the behavioral analysis platform to operate.
  2. Our API catalog automatically and continuously discovers and builds an inventory of every API in your organization, including internal, private, public or externally exposed, rogue, shadow, partner, and 3rd party APIs. Traceable discovers and tracks APIs via on-premise, cloud, in-code components, integrations with API management, out of band via network traffic endpoints, and even within workloads via eBPF – Traceable’s data collection capabilities are unparalleled. We provide a comprehensive view, cataloging every API, associated API data, sensitive data flows, and risk posture – even as your environment changes.
  3. Comprehensive API Catalog: Traceable automatically creates and maintains a detailed inventory of your entire API ecosystem. This central catalog tracks all API details, sensitive data flows, and associated risk posture, providing essential insights, even in a dynamic environment.
  4. In-depth Security Posture Analysis: Traceable also provides a detailed API security posture analysis of the inherent risk of each API, allowing you to understand which APIs (or the sensitive data in the flow) are most vulnerable to attack or abuse. This helps you understand which APIs present the greatest risk and need immediate attention.
  5. Sensitive Data Exposure Prevention: Traceable also prevents sensitive data exposure by identifying API endpoints that handle sensitive data without appropriate authentication or encryption implemented. This helps you continuously monitor your security posture to reduce risk quickly. 

Use Cases

Traceable empowers you to:

  • Build a centralized and continuously updated API catalog.
  • Discover and manage rogue, shadow, and orphaned APIs.
  • Differentiate internal, external, and 3rd party APIs.
  • Conduct in-depth risk analysis of each API.
  • Detects sensitive data flows and potential exposure points.

The end result is a comprehensive view of your API attack surface designed to help your security and development teams quickly discover, prioritize, and fix the wide range of API risks that must be addressed.

The Bottom Line

The challenges posed by API sprawl highlight the importance of proactively managing the complexities of modern digital ecosystems. Organizations that prioritize comprehensive discovery, in-depth risk analysis of each API, and security posture management, will gain a strategic advantage.

By transforming their API ecosystem into a well-structured and secure asset, businesses can streamline operations, mitigate risks, and confidently embrace the opportunities of an API-driven world.

Let Traceable help you chart a course towards a more secure and scalable API future.