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Industry insight

How APIs will drive agency PaaS adoption

Many are predicting that 2014 will be the year that platform as a service truly takes off – but why such optimism? For federal agencies, the answer lies in Application Programming Interfaces. 

Early interest in PaaS has been about increasing code reuse and simplifying operations inside agencies, but the long-term success of PaaS will be rooted in more profound changes in how applications are built over the next several years. The advent of Web APIs: those simple, lightweight, Web-based interfaces and standards will make PaaS an obvious choice. 

In the past, it was complex, expensive and difficult to get two programs talking to each other. Today, simple Web services standards and idioms like REST and JSON are available and so creating these services is trivial. Anyone who’s logged into a website with a Google account or used Facebook on a mobile phone has used this kind of API. 

It's increasingly expected that websites will not only provide these APIs to the public, but that organizations will use their own APIs. Famously, Amazon's systems are built entirely on APIs, making it simple for one team of Amazon developers to work with another.

Agencies can benefit from APIs, as well. Today, a government developer who'd like to work with another agency's data must either download it in bulk or arrange for special access to the agency's back office. Instead of negotiating these redundant, ad hoc relationships, APIs can ensure consistency and accuracy while retiring a lot of redundant software. APIs are also great complements to bulk data for open data efforts, which has inspired the administration to mandate API implementations as part of its Digital Government Strategy. The impressive results can be seen at data.gov.

Mobile applications, however, are where APIs really shine. A mobile application relies on external services for data, authentication and so on. APIs make that kind of interaction possible. Agencies are already interested in using mobile applications to enable BYOD policies, citizen services and telework, so it’s clear there’s an appetite for APIs anywhere there’s an agency mobile initiative.

With this wave of demand for APIs, demand for PaaS will follow. Before 2013, the most popular PaaS products, like Heroku and Google App Engine, were only available as public cloud services, which limited their government adoption. The advent of on-premise PaaS software like Red Hat's OpenShift and Pivotal's CloudFoundry in 2013 prompted agencies to seize the opportunity almost immediately: the FAA, DISA, USAID, among others, all floated PaaS projects.

APIs are, at heart, lightweight Web applications that run on very standardized and predictable platforms. They need to be accessible to the public and have narrow dependencies on an agency's back-office systems. They also need to quickly scale to unpredictable demand. PaaS is just what the doctor ordered.

The market sees the opportunity here. Companies are falling over themselves to offer PaaS products that sit between the existing enterprise and the mobile world. These "mobile backend as a service" tools act as a kind of proxy for mobile devices to the back-end enterprise services. That market should be worth about $7.7 billion by 2017.

While 2013 saw on-premise PaaS projects gain a foothold in traditional settings, that was just preparation for the explosion that is sure to take place this year. 2014 will undoubtedly be the year that federal agencies truly embrace the PaaS model, driven largely by mobile, open data and the magic of the API.

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