Nowadays, all enterprises must be ready to adapt faster than ever. Usually faster, in fact, than their processes and IT systems can support. Addressing this agility gap is an urgent priority. After all, in an increasingly fragmented and rapidly-changing environment, failing to respond in time means losing market share, relevance and control. This is a massive issue in defence, so no surprise that it was one of the hot topics at the NATO Chiefs of Transformation conference I attended recently.
Denis Mercier, général d’armée aérienne, spelled it out in his opening address, saying “the exponentially growing rate of technologies is undoubtedly the fastest growing and evolving [future threat]… we must… be ready to analyse how these technologies offer opportunities to operate differently and increase our agility and responsiveness.”
The obstacle to increased agility, of course, is legacy. Military organisations have invested huge amounts in their current monolithic IT systems. The problem? They’re expensive to maintain and too rigid to meet today’s information and/or process needs, let alone tomorrow’s. Achieving even small improvements in these legacy systems demands large investments that are simply not possible with ongoing budgetary pressures. And even if these investments could be made, the programs needed to implement change would take several months or even years to complete.
The solution? It’s time IT reassessed its role. In the private sector, we’ve seen IT shift from supporting the business to becoming the business. From products that depend on IT to products that are IT, company-wide performance increasingly hinges on IT. The same dynamic holds for defence. Up to now, IT’s been a vital support process. But in a digital world, it’s becoming a crucial enabler for successful operations.
What’s needed, urgently, is a new approach to IT. Just like many organisations introduced service-oriented architectures 10 years ago to offset the lack of maneuverability in their legacy systems, it’s time for a rethink. The good news? Digital-born businesses provide a great blueprint for what needs to come next.
What companies like Facebook, Netflix and Amazon have in common (along with market outperformance) are systems architectures built round microservices. Loosely coupled collections of modular, API-based services mean they’re able to be infinitely more agile than legacy-based incumbents. And not just agile, but also ready to scale new applications, via the cloud, far faster and much more efficiently.
These are all top priorities for defence organisations. By decoupling their IT systems as part of the move to a microservices architecture, and having a mature DevOps capability in place, defence organisations can reinvent themselves.
The prize? Much shorter development cycles. By using API platforms, or providing standalone functionality for key groups of users, new features can be prototyped, tested and rolled out far quicker than current architectures permit (in days and weeks instead of months).
Outside of defence, we’re seeing enterprises with complex, resource-heavy IT architectures capture crucial benefits through microservices. These include:
- Accelerated speed to market for new features
- Fewer repetitive tasks (and higher quality) through pervasive automation
- Greater flexibility at all architecture levels
- Increased innovation through fail-fast experimentation with new technologies
- Enablement of a true multispeed IT architecture.
To move in the same direction, defence organisations must make sure they’ve got the right foundations in place. From DevOps and rapid provisioning to digital skills and management support, it’s vital to get this checklist right. Microservices architecture bring a lot of advantages. But they come at a cost: more complex systems and more moving parts.
Microservices architectures certainly don’t do away with complexity. But they do split it into more manageable segments. With well-defined context services organised around business capabilities, individual systems become more independent, easier to manage and closely aligned to tactical objectives.
Because they’re independent, each system can move at its own speed (instead of being tied to monolithic legacy IT). Agility and flexibility get hard-wired into the organisation. And because services are independent (and business and IT closely aligned), it’s easier for an innovation culture to flourish, unimpeded by internal politics and/or resistance to change.
From maintenance and logistics to training and command/control, microservices represent an opportunity that I believe defence needs to consider very seriously. Meanwhile, thanks for reading.