Sara Reiner | Contributor
January 23, 2013

How an Open API Transformed Netflix Forever


The journey of Netflix from DVD rental service to video streaming platform and ultimately API powerhouse is a timeless and instructive story of adaptability.

From humble beginnings, Netflix’s API skyrocketed and has remained strong even through the company’s difficulties. By continuing to strengthen its API strategy, Netflix can only increase its momentum going forward.

The company first opened its API in 2008, aiming to “let one thousand flowers bloom” by encouraging the opensource community to create new products and services around Netflix data. At first, API-related growth progressed as expected, as developers equipped mobile apps like Queued with information about DVD waitlists and movie statistics.

But everything changed in 2010. Once video streaming took off, Netflix began receiving more API requests each day. Three years ago, the company averaged 600 million requests per month but now fields about one billion per day with help from Mashery.

In fact, Netflix became the number one source of online primetime traffic in North America because its API allowed developers to equip hundreds of devices from gaming consoles to tablets with video streaming services.

While analyzing this phenomenon, however, Netflix found the vast majority of its API requests came from internal engineers and business partners rather than lone developers. This discovery prompted the company to rethink its “thousand flower” approach.

Netflix eventually adapted its API to better suit the interests of internal programmers and external partners. For example, the company longer supports rental history-related API calls because third-party developers could formerly resell this information or use it to advertise competing products.

"In Netflix's case, the business opportunity is independent from our ability to reach tens of millions of users…,” explained Netflix Director of Engineering Daniel Jacobson.

Once Netflix understood that tailoring its API for the right developers would improve growth, the company applied this lesson to another product: the code it originally built to handle increased API traffic.

Last year, Netflix released homemade tools like Hystrix and Chaos Monkeys so its major API users could better manage content hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Other opensourced tools like Asgard, Edda and Janitor Monkey are also helping Netflix programmers build, host and scale applications in the cloud.

By releasing its AWS code to outside developers, Netflix became more than just a video rental service. It is now a tech company in its own right, poised to transform its fortunes by attracting top talent to Silicon Valley. Chaos Monkeys and other such tools may also contribute to the wider improvement of cloud storage services and applications.

Without first opening and then reassessing its API, however, Netflix may never have experienced such rapid growth or crossed the line from video rental company to tech contender.

Perhaps most powerfully, a “pay-it-forward” move, Netflix aims to inspire other companies by sharing its API experiences just as freely as it shares its code.