Aug 05 2021

The Value of Microservices for Federal Agencies

A microservices architecture can make it more efficient for agencies to upgrade to applications.

Last fall, the Federal CIO Council started to explore where reusable technology and microservices could be funded in government, according to Deputy Federal CIO Maria Roat. For several years now, the federal government has been exploring microservices, but adoption of the technology is still limited.

What are microservices, and how can they benefit government? The technology is not exactly new or mysterious and has been in use in the private sector — especially with high tech — for years. Microservices can benefit agencies in numerous ways, including faster updates to applications and citizen-facing services, and more efficient use of IT team members’ time.

The easiest way to understand microservices is that, rather than having a large application that encompasses everything, a microservice architecture enables an agency to strip or break apart the app into smaller segments of software code that are responsible for specific functions.

This approach gives organizations the flexibility to modernize and upgrade in a faster and more modular way. If an agency needs to make enhancements to a specific feature or function, that piece of code for the app can be changed and updated without having to update the entire application. Microservices provide more simplicity in the long run for managing large, complex solutions.

How Microservices Can Benefit Agencies

Microservices do not make a lot of sense for a mom-and-pop store to adopt. However, for an organization with hundreds of thousands of employees, like military service branches or federal agencies, the technology can yield a lot of benefits.

Microservices simplify upgrades and changes to an app’s architecture. The technology reduces complexity and makes it less costly and complex to distribute new features.

With microservices, the time to upgrade is also greatly reduced, because agencies are tinkering with the entire application. This then allows IT leaders to assign smaller software development teams to specific microservices, enabling a more efficient use of IT resources. Also, it limits the impact of a single change to an app or service because the app functions and work on them are segmented. Therefore, a change in one line of code is much less likely to cause some kind of crash for a service.

A downside to microservices is that the skill sets needed to take advantage of the technology are not yet well developed in government. The process is nuanced, and for agencies to benefit from a microservices architecture, they need to either have in-house talent that can use the tools or work with third parties that do.

RELATED: What are the benefits of application modernization?

Making Microservices a Reality for Government

Many federal agencies are currently experimenting with microservices, and some are further along in their exploration than others. The Air Force, for example, via its Platform One and Cloud One initiatives, is using microservices.

The service branch is looking to use microservices for software that can power modern aircraft, partially as a security mechanism. If, for example, one piece of code was to become compromised, an attacker would not be able to take control of an entire plane but would just get control of that one piece of code, and then would need to go after another piece, and another.

The technology and human resources challenge for agencies right now is that microservices are only as good as the people who are writing the code and supporting the infrastructure behind the code. Without that expertise, agencies might be setting themselves up for failure if they were to adopt microservices, since the code needs to be properly secured and maintained.

Agency IT leaders are becoming more educated about microservices, though, and are starting to understand the value of the technology. A challenge is that many of the day-to-day users and coders of government applications are still relatively unfamiliar with microservices. They may find it daunting to implement and sustain such an architecture.

Given this, it may be wise to introduce microservices in small, incremental steps. Agencies should start with something small and easy to demonstrate a clear win with the technology. That pilot can then be used to show leaders the value of the architecture. It also gives users something to tinker with, and a way to become familiar with microservices generally.

It’s likely that within the next three to five years, a microservices approach is going to become mandatory in government and the dominant way that applications are constructed. Agency IT leaders should start familiarizing themselves with the technology now to stay ahead of the curve.

This article is part of FedTech’s CapITal blog series. Please join the discussion on Twitter by using the #FedIT hashtag.

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