October 9, 2015
18F is shipping products left and right lately. Every Kid in a
have all debuted in the last month, and we’ve got more on the way. Other
teams might ask how we are shipping so many products, so close together,
with enough resilience to stand up to the traffic generated by the
President’s weekly address. Do we have an army of infrastructure people
on each one? Are we compromising on security? The answer is no. Instead,
we’ve had a small team tackling the core infrastructure issues in an
effort to enable our small development teams to improve delivery of 18F
Boat-builders don’t launch ships by backing a trailer down a boat ramp.
Every boat they make is going to get launched, so they use a shipyard to
make it as easy as possible to build right near the water and get it
launched quickly and easily, even at battleship scale.
At 18F, we’ve developed cloud.gov, a shipyard
aimed at ensuring our teams can get even the smallest of boats in the
water in a production-worthy state from day one of development.
Scaling infrastructure expertise and reducing grunt work
Previously, infrastructure meant dealing with data centers, procuring
racks of hardware, flushing out single points of failure, cabling, and
managing baroque networking. Now, providers like Amazon Web Services,
Google Compute Engine, and other cloud vendors have commoditized that
infrastructure into something that you can buy rather than building and
managing yourself. This Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) allows teams
to work more effectively and focus their time on problems that are
unique to the organization.
But even with IaaS in our toolbox, infrastructure experts are needed in
order to best manage, configure, and secure these IaaS resources. Those
experts need to ensure security-hardened operating system versions are
in use, and that vulnerability scans and software updates are happening
regularly. They need to understand how traffic gets routed from the
outside world and balanced across our hosts to deal with surges of
traffic. The government domain further requires them to have compliance
expertise in order to ensure the service being delivered satisfies a
framework, and then
generate a mountain of documentation to prove it to other people.
At 18F, we want our teams to stay small and quick but still deliver
best-practice services that can stand up to punishment. A core challenge
has been reducing the need for those highly-skilled infrastructure
resources to be on every one of our teams. We could have focused on
scaling up a centralized infrastructure team to look after all of these
concerns for all of our development teams, but that is not viable in the
long term. So instead we have focused on enabling people with broad and
shallow development expertise to accomplish things that would normally
require specialized experts.
The magic happens when an infrastructure team encapsulates their
expertise, and then exposes that expertise as a service which can be
used directly by developers. This is what’s known as
“Platform-as-a-Service” (PaaS), and it’s a force-multiplier that bridges
that gap between small service teams and advanced infrastructure
skillsets, while keeping your headcount under control. 18F has built on
the open source project Cloud Foundry
to create our own PaaS that we call cloud.gov.
Creating a feedback loop
Creating cloud.gov has had a tremendous effect for our teams. The job of
the infrastructure team is shifting from “trying to look after all the
detailed infrastructure work on all the teams” to “provide spot
support and consultancy directly when teams run into trouble using
cloud.gov, then use what was learned to increase cloud.gov’s
capabilities.” Meanwhile, the development teams can incorporate advanced
operational capabilities without focusing a big portion of their efforts
This results in a feedback loop where the infrastructure team steers the
development of cloud.gov in the direction of making common irritations
go away. It’s that agile, user-centered iteration loop we strive for in
all our products, only the users in this case are development teams.
Giving those teams more time to work on their boat and less time
worrying about the boat launch allows 18F to keep our teams small, our
products robust, and our launches frequent.
Getting your own shipyard
We’re now exploring whether 18F’s cloud.gov meets the needs of several
federal agencies who are participating in a cloud.gov pilot program. We
plan to see what works, what doesn’t work, and fix any process
bottlenecks that pop up, and then hope to roll the service out more
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