“It shouldn’t matter to an end user where an application resides. What matters is the data, and the access to that data,” says Sohail Chaudhry, CTO, Food and Drug Administration. 

Feb 23 2022

Microservices Help Agencies Streamline Management and Speed Product Delivery

The container-based architecture keeps applications organized and scalable.

In the not-so-distant past, the structure for most of the Food and Drug Administration’s IT applications was “pretty monolithic,” says Sohail Chaudhry, the agency’s CTO.

“Whenever there was a change in the code to meet our current or future needs, it would take on a life of its own,” Chaudhry recalls.

“We conducted this journey of ­implementing a more automated ­infrastructure architecture to resolve the challenges of maintaining and scaling the vast application stack that we have and move toward an agile development methodology. That really starts with microservices.”

In a microservices approach, ­applications are made up of many smaller services, which are only loosely coupled and can be deployed independently of one another.

Microservices, which are deployed in containers, are essential to a ­cloud-native application architecture, and they have quickly become a key component of many organizations’ ­digital transformation efforts, both in government and across industry.

By adopting microservices, agencies can update code more easily, teams can use different stacks (and even different programming languages) for different application components, and pieces of an application can be scaled ­independently, which helps reduce waste and cost.

“I would say all of our new ­applications that are being built, whether they’re on-premises or in the cloud, almost all of them are using our microservices capabilities,” Chaudhry says. “The more we innovate, the more we are moving more holistically to a serverless model for our services.

“The vision is for all of this to be as seamless as it can be for our end user. It shouldn’t matter to an end user where an application resides. What matters is the data, and the access to that data.”

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How Microservices Enable Federal IT Modernization

Jose Arrieta, founder of the Virginia-based consultancy Imagineeer, spearheaded the adoption of microservices architecture at the Department of Health and Human Services, where he served as CIO for 16 months. He sees microservices as a crucial component of federal IT modernization efforts.

“You write little software packages that automate business processes, and it allows you to modernize really quickly,” Arrieta says. “If you build a microservice and you no longer need it, you just turn it off. It gives you a lot of flexibility.”

Arrieta says microservices helped the department build HHS Protect, a public health data hub, in just 10 days at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When you modernize legacy IT, whether you’re moving it to the cloud or not, replatforming everything onto one environment is really expensive,” he says. “It takes a lot of time, and it presents a lot of risk. We can take the pieces of the process that have never been modernized and use microservices to automate those pieces of the process.”

84%

The percentage of microservices users who say the architecture helps organizations attract talent

Source: IBM, “Microservices in the enterprise, 2021: Real benefits, worth the challenges,” March 2021

Although microservices represent a significant shift for IT departments, the results are worth it, Arrieta argues.

“It’s a new way of doing business,” he says. “The massive challenge you have is the education and cultural change piece of it. There are a lot of folks who have been around for a long time who are really comfortable doing things a certain way.”

Arrieta adds: “In terms of the ­problems that a microservices architecture solves — once you can view all your data from disparate systems, you need to analyze it. If everything goes into a cloud platform, your licensing costs would go up. That’s the problem it solves.

“Whenever people talk about ­zero-trust environments and about moving to the cloud, they start to realize they need a microservices architecture,” he says. “It’s absolutely the future of federal modernization — no doubt, 100 percent.”

EXPLORE: How can agencies update mission-critical IT without taking it offline?

Feds Modernize Apps via Containers 

The move toward microservices requires investments in both people and technology, Chaudhry says.

“We had to get the right team in place — a set of mission-driven men and women who are very talented and ­continuously thinking outside the box,” he says. “We needed to ensure we had the right skill sets, adequate tools and appropriate training.”

The FDA is moving to software-defined networking to help pave the path for microservices. “When it came to the network, it was important for us to remove as many manual processes as possible,” Chaudhry says.

The Department of Veterans Affairs developed VA Platform One, or VAPO, a new service designed to standardize the use of containers and eventually microservices as well as help the department optimize for the cloud.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: What are the perils of not modernizing your applications?

“It’s an enterprise-ready container platform,” explains Todd Simpson, ­deputy assistant secretary at the VA. “Think of them like shipping containers on a boat. Each of these containers ­contains an application, and VAPO is the platform we use to access the ­dependencies these applications have.

“Essentially, the containers abstract the underlying infrastructure, which helps us gain efficiencies compared with ­traditional approaches to virtualization,” he says.

The VA has used a range of tech tools to build, operate and maintain its VAPO service. The agency launched VAPO with RedHat OpenShift but plans to leverage additional tools in the future based on customer needs.

“One of the end goals is to make this VAPO platform a model for the future,” Simpson says. “We have 400 legacy applications that we’re tracking, and we plan to modernize about 50 of those by the end of the year.”

DIVE DEEPER: Find out how containers help agencies develop modern applications.

Microservices Yield Tangible Benefits for the Federal Government 

Even for agencies that are leading the way on implementing microservices, the space is still relatively uncharted.

“VAPO is very young right now, and we don’t have depth yet,” Simpson says. “We really just got the wheels on the bus, and it’s probably going to start moving around on its own.”

Still, the early results have been encouraging. Like HHS, the VA has seen dramatic improvements in its time to delivery in teams that have ­containerized their applications.

“We were able to do in less than 100 days what previously took six months to do in terms of development,” Simpson says. “That is one of the biggest benefits that I’ve seen.

“We have dozens of COVID-related applications — how patients check in at VA hospitals, for example — things we never dreamed we would have to develop but were forced to by the new telework world and addressing waiting rooms at healthcare facilities.

“All of that was done leveraging microservices,” he says. “I don’t think we would have been able to respond to the challenges of the pandemic if we didn’t have this architecture in place beforehand.”

Sohail Chaudhry, CTO, Food and Drug Administration
It shouldn’t matter to an end user where an application resides. What matters is the data, and the access to that data.”

Sohail Chaudhry CTO, Food and Drug Administration

For the FDA, one major benefit of microservices has been the ability to make changes to applications without scheduling downtime.

“Our application footprint is global,” Chaudhry notes. “Solving the problems of today requires rapid, frequent changes to an application and making sure it’s done in a secure way. Historically, it used to require a lot of logistical work-arounds to avoid ­downtime for our users. With the ­adoption of cloud and microservices, we are able to make those changes in an agile format.”

The FDA uses automated modular services to support applications that use artificial intelligence for image recognition, which help the agency process forms associated with medical devices.

“In the past, it would have taken a long time to test, code and deploy,” Chaudhry says. “With the power of automation and the integration of cloud services, we are able to test and figure out if a solution really does what we’re expecting it to do, and then go about deploying it seamlessly.”

Chaudhry says that the evolution and expansion of the FDA’s IT environment will drive the agency’s transition to cloud services, and that microservices will play a key role in helping IT leaders continue to make improvements.

“Agile development has been the glue that allows us to keep building a better regulatory IT infrastructure,” he says. “We’ve embarked on this path, but it never gets done. It’s a journey that ­continues to enhance and promote our public health mission.”

Photography by Ryan Donnell

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