API vs. Flat-File for Data Transfers – Which Method Is Better?

Kent Gigger
June 20, 2022
API vs. flat-file for data transfers - which method is better? Fishbowl Blog

Making the ebb and flow of data as efficient as possible is a priority, especially if you’re dealing with large volumes of information that are crucial to productivity levels in your business. A number of methods are available to achieve this, and it’s common to have to choose between a flat-file architecture and an API integration.

If you’re struggling to decide, or you’re entirely new to this concept, we invite you to join us as we go over the basic principles of each, and the benefits they bring to the table.

APIs Explained

Short for application programming interface, an API is basically a tool which lets different software solutions share information with one another.

If you’ve got two separate services, you can use APIs to transfer the data that one requires to function efficiently from the other, without the need for complete interoperability.

APIs bridge the gap between apps in different ecosystems, and can automate data transfer without needing manual intervention from human users.

Flat-File Databases Demystified

Few database architectures are simpler than flat-file, which is a method for storing information within a single table in an alphanumeric format, with columns and rows delineated by commas and tabs.

The simplicity is the main selling point, and it’s a relative breeze to create, manipulate, and harness flat-file systems, both in their own right and as part of a wider infrastructure.

CSV and XML are common examples of flat-file types, and these are transferred via FTP, based on requests made by the programs that need them.

Picking a Process for Data Transfer

Generally speaking, there are a few ways to work out whether you should opt for flat-file or APIs when shifting information from A to B.

First, you have to consider how the data is going to be used. For handling lots of requests in real time, an API is your best bet. If you’re looking for bulk data transfers, the flat-file method should take the cake.

Then there’s the matter of how frequently the data has to be moved. As mentioned, APIs are all about facilitating moment-to-moment interactions between different software systems, with requests flying to and fro in quick succession. Because of this, they’re well-equipped to take on transfer operations that need to take place constantly.

Conversely, flat-file is preferred for lower-volume work that doesn’t need to be completed particularly often. Irregularity applies more appropriately to its design and feature set.

Exploring the Hybrid Method

As you might have gathered if you have gotten this far, there is a place for both flat-file and API-based data transfer in many modern infrastructures. This means that you don’t necessarily need to select just one of them, but can implement a hybrid configuration that delivers the best of both worlds in terms of performance, reliability, accuracy, and cost-effectiveness.

It’s always a good idea to expect to invest in a degree of customization when you’re working with data transfer technologies. There may be complexities to overcome at first when going the hybrid route. But once you reach your destination, you’ll be amazed by the results.

Another point to make is that you don’t just have to use one API when building an app or augmenting an existing software solution. Plenty of platforms today pull down data from several APIs in order to offer the functionality that end users expect of them, and this is within your grasp, too.

Thinking About Integration Options

The last point to discuss here is the source of the data you are dealing with. For a flat-file method, you’ll typically be taking this from one in-house system to another, which is advantageous in a lot of contexts. Meanwhile, although you can develop APIs internally, they are also just as commonly used as a means for businesses to access data offered up to them by third parties.

There are costs to bear when developing your own API to enable data transfer between two internal software platforms. But as mentioned, if this is the option that best aligns with your aims, then there’s no point compromising.

Of course, if you find a third-party API that ticks all the boxes, then you’ll not have to worry about in-house development expenses. There may be fees for making requests of it, but plenty are open source and free to use.

Final Thoughts

The rise of the API in the past few years has somewhat sidelined discussions of the other data transfer methods that are out there, and arguably there’s a good reason for this. Allowing apps to talk to one another rapidly and consistently is a game-changer.

That said, you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. So if you’ve got the flat-file approach down pat, it can be combined with API integration.