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SDK vs API: Choosing the Right Documentation Approach

Category: API Documentation

APIs (Application Programming Interfaces and SDKs (Software Development Kits) are essential components in modern software development, often used in conjunction to enhance efficiency and capabilities.

What is the difference between an API and an SDK?

Before we dive into the differences between SDK and API documentation, let’s take moment to define SDK vs. API.

What is an SDK?

SDKs are software developer kits that contain libraries, resources, and pre-built functionalities, simplifying complex tasks and accelerating development. They enable developers to focus on unique features by providing solutions for common challenges.

An SDK is a “kit” because it includes a package of tools and resources developers can utilize. It typically includes:

  • Libraries: Pre-built code modules that provide specific functionality and features for developers to integrate into their applications.
  • Documentation: Detailed guides, reference materials, and tutorials effectively explain using the SDK and its various components.
  • Sample code: Ready-made code snippets or sample applications demonstrating how to use the SDK in practice.
  • Development tools: Additional software tools, such as debuggers, emulators, or code editors, assist developers during the development process.

SDKs provide a comprehensive solution with APIs, libraries, and tools. A business may use an SDK over an isolated API when integrating an entire platform or ecosystem. They simplify the integration and utilization of platform functionalities.

What is an API?

In contrast, an API (Application Programming Interface) is is a set of defined protocols and tools that allow separate software systems to communicate and interact. APIs define how various software components should interact, allowing them to exchange data and functionality seamlessly. APIs serve as bridges, facilitating interoperability and data exchange between different systems, regardless of their underlying architectures or programming languages. They offer a standardized way for developers to access specific features or data from external services, platforms, or systems.

A business may use an API instead of an SDK when extracting data from a specific service or system. By making API requests, you can retrieve and process the required data.

Also read: 6 Best API Documentation Tools for 2023

How are they different?

A critical difference between APIs and SDKs is that SDKs are programming-language-specific, whereas APIs are language-agnostic.

For example, Twilio provides server-side SDKs for numerous programming languages:
Service side sdk
In contrast, APIs are designed to be language-agnostic, allowing different programming languages to interact with them.

By being language-specific, SDKs provide developers with tools, resources, and pre-built components tailored to a particular programming language.

How are SDKs and APIs related?

The relationship between APIs and SDKs can be understood as follows:

APIs within SDKs

Many SDKs include one or more APIs that allow developers to interact with the system or platform. These APIs define how developers can request and exchange data or services from the system. The SDK provides the tools and libraries to access these APIs seamlessly, simplifying the integration process.

For example, the Google Maps SDK provides developers the tools and resources to integrate interactive maps and geolocation services into their applications. Within the SDK, some APIs allow developers to embed maps, customize map markers, and enable location-based functionalities.

For example, the Maps API lets you create a map-based wearables app within the Maps SDK for Android.

Maps API

SDKs Enhancing API Utilization

SDKs often go beyond just APIs by providing additional resources such as libraries, sample code, documentation, and tools that help developers effectively utilize the provided APIs. These resources guide developers in incorporating the APIs into their applications, enhancing the overall development experience.

For example, the Maps SDK mentioned previously provides “End-to-end tutorials and codelabs that demonstrate how to display maps with specific features”.

Streamlining Development

SDKs streamline the development process by offering a cohesive set of tools and resources that work together. Developers can leverage the APIs within the SDK to access specific functionalities while benefiting from the SDK’s overall structure, best practices, and guidance.

sdk VS api

Platform-Specific Features

SDKs are often designed for specific platforms or frameworks, allowing developers to harness the native features and capabilities of that platform. The included APIs enable interaction with those features in a standardized manner.

In essence, APIs provide the communication layer that allows different software components to interact. SDKs bundle APIs along with tools and resources to aid developers in effectively using those APIs to build applications. This combination accelerates development, promotes consistency, and ensures developers can make the most of the available functionalities.

What topics does SDK documentation cover?

SDK documentation is a comprehensive set of written materials accompanying an SDK. It is a detailed guide for developers on effectively utilizing the SDK’s tools, libraries, and resources to build applications.

SDK documentation is essential for developers to understand the capabilities and integration points of the SDK, enabling them to leverage its features efficiently and effectively.

SDK Documentation Example: AWS Javascript SDK

The AWS SDK for JavaScript is a comprehensive toolkit provided by Amazon Web Services (AWS) that empowers developers to interact with AWS services using the JavaScript programming language. This SDK enables seamless integration of AWS functionalities into web applications running in a browser environment.

The SDK docs guide developers seeking to utilize AWS services in their browser-based applications.

sdk docs

Developers are presented with a step-by-step tutorial on using the AWS SDK for JavaScript in a browser environment. The guide outlines the prerequisites, including setting up an AWS account, creating an Identity and Access Management (IAM) user, and configuring the AWS SDK.

It then walks developers through creating a basic web application that interacts with AWS services such as Amazon S3, Amazon’s cloud storage solution.

The tutorial demonstrates how to configure the AWS SDK for JavaScript, initialize the necessary AWS service objects, and perform operations like uploading and retrieving files from an S3 bucket. The guide also highlights critical concepts like IAM credentials, error handling, and handling asynchronous operations in JavaScript.

How is SDK documentation different than API documentation?

SDK documentation and API documentation serve different purposes in the software development process.

API documentation provides information about how to use an Application Programming Interface (API). It aims to provide developers with the necessary information to interact with an API directly, usually at a lower level than SDK documentation.

On the other hand, SDK documentation provides developers with a comprehensive SDK guide. It aims to simplify the integration process and accelerates development by offering developers a higher-level view of building applications using the SDK’s components.

Here’s a summary table showing the differences:

  SDK Documentation API Documentation
Scope and Detail Encompasses the entire development environment, including setup guides, libraries, code samples, and resources. Focuses on API endpoint usage, request formats, parameters, authentication, and error responses.
Use Cases and Workflows Guides through complex application features, integrating multiple SDK functionalities. Demonstrates everyday tasks with the API.
Implementation and Code Offers detailed SDK component integration, including code examples for initialization and methods. Provides code snippets for API calls, including curl commands and HTTP libraries.
Platform-Specific Features Highlights platform-specific optimizations, including guidance on platform libraries and UI components. Offers a uniform interface across platforms and abstracts platform-specific complexities.

Now, let’s dive more into these differences.

Difference #1: Scope and Detail

API Documentation

API documentation clearly explains how to use the API endpoints, including details about request and response formats, authentication methods, parameters, and possible error responses. It aims to guide developers in effectively integrating and utilizing the exposed functionalities.

For instance, the Twitter API documentation outlines the steps and required parameters for posting a tweet.

SDK Documentation

SDK documentation goes beyond API documentation by encompassing the entire development environment. It includes guides on setting up the SDK, using provided libraries, understanding code samples, and utilizing additional resources like plugins or tools. SDK documentation facilitates the overall application development process.

An example is the Google Maps JavaScript SDK documentation, which explains API endpoints and provides JavaScript code samples and usage scenarios for embedding maps in web applications.

Difference #2: Use Cases and Workflows

API Documentation

API documentation often focuses on specific use cases and demonstrates how to achieve common API tasks. It may provide examples of integrating payment gateways, accessing user data, or posting content to social media platforms.

For example, the Stripe API documentation explains creating a payment charge using various programming languages.

SDK Documentation

SDK documentation covers broader use cases and workflows beyond individual API requests. It guides developers through integrating multiple functionalities provided by the SDK to achieve complex application features.

The AWS SDK for JavaScript documentation offers guides on creating a web application that utilizes various AWS services like S3 for storage, DynamoDB for database, and Lambda for serverless functions.

Difference #3: Implementation and Code

API Documentation

API documentation generally emphasizes the technical details required to make API calls, providing code snippets for making requests and handling responses. It might include curl commands or HTTP libraries in multiple programming languages.

An example is the GitHub REST API documentation, which provides sample API requests using cURL and other languages.

SDK Documentation

SDK documentation delves into integrating SDK components into the application’s codebase. It offers detailed code examples for initializing the SDK, using provided classes and methods, and handling callbacks.

For instance, the Microsoft Azure SDK documentation provides code snippets in different programming languages for interacting with Azure services using the SDK.

Difference #4: Platform-Specific Features

API Documentation

API documentation focuses on providing a uniform interface for communication across various platforms and languages. It abstracts platform-specific complexities.

SDK Documentation

SDK documentation highlights platform-specific features and optimizations. It may include guidance on using platform-specific libraries, UI components, or capabilities.

For example, the Facebook Android SDK documentation provides instructions on integrating Facebook authentication and sharing features into Android applications.

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SDK Documentation best practices

Here’s a list of SDK documentation best practices:

  • Getting Started Guides: Provide clear step-by-step setup guides to help developers quickly integrate the SDK into their projects.
  • Installation Instructions: Incorporate information regarding installing the SDK’s libraries and dependencies, utilizing package managers such as npm or pip.
  • Sample Applications: Offer complete sample applications demonstrating the use of various SDK features in real-world scenarios.
  • Code Snippets: Provide concise code snippets showcasing how to initialize the SDK, use classes, and handle callbacks.
  • Tutorials and Use Cases: Create tutorials that guide developers through everyday use cases and workflows using the SDK’s functionalities.
  • Usage Patterns: Describe recommended patterns and best practices for effectively structuring code and utilizing SDK features.
  • Platform-Specific Guidelines: Include instructions for platform-specific optimizations, libraries, or UI components when applicable.
  • Integration with External Libraries: Explain how the SDK can be integrated with third-party libraries for enhanced functionality.
  • Troubleshooting and FAQs: Address common issues, error handling, and frequently asked questions to assist developers in problem-solving.
  • Sample Projects: Provide sample projects that showcase more advanced implementations and integrations with other services.
  • Migration Guides: If there are SDK updates, offer migration guides to help developers smoothly transition between versions.
  • Community and Support: Provide links to community forums, support channels, and resources where developers can seek assistance and share knowledge.
  • Debugging and Logging: Offer guidance on debugging techniques, error logs, and how to diagnose issues within the SDK.
  • Use of SDK Tools: Explain any tools or utilities bundled with the SDK that assist in development, testing, or deployment.
  • Real-time Examples: Include real-world examples of applications that successfully utilize the SDK to achieve specific functionalities.
  • Security Best Practices: Recommend implementing security measures when using the SDK, including authentication and data protection.
  • Performance Optimization: Offer tips for optimizing application performance when utilizing the SDK’s functionalities.
  • Release Notes: Keep developers informed about updates, enhancements, bug fixes, and new features in each SDK release.
  • Feedback and Contribution: Encourage developers to provide feedback, report issues, and contribute to improving the SDK.
  • Learning Resources: Point developers to relevant documentation, tutorials, and external resources that can help them learn more about the SDK and related technologies.

Wrapping Up

Understanding the nuances between SDK and API documentation is essential for harnessing the full potential of these tools in your development journey. While both are invaluable resources, SDK documentation offers a holistic approach, guiding you through the application development process.

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Mark Wentowski

Jul 25, 2023

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