The stand-alone, executable packages can help make agencies more efficient by cutting staff costs and enabling faster development.
Agency interest in containers is growing, according to a new study in which 44 percent of public sector IT respondents ranked the technology as their most important priority for 2018. That number is up from only 16 percent the year before.
Containers are still a relatively new technology. “It’s basically a stand-alone executable package for software, and then you can use orchestration software to manage those multiple executable packages,” said Paul Parker, chief technologist for SolarWinds’ federal and national government sector. “Everything that’s necessary to run that code is contained inside the container.”
That brings several benefits. For one, containers are easier to work with because they don’t necessarily depend on other functions to operate. Isolating software applications from one another via containers eases the interoperability problems and conflicts that often arise with traditional app development.
“With containers, it’s really just about making sure everything is a self-contained module,” Parker said. “You can reference it, you can call it, you can launch it, but it doesn’t necessarily have dependency on other functions.”
But there are challenges to using containers, the survey found, including optimizing, maintaining and troubleshooting IT environments. Managing those issues sometimes leaves little opportunity for innovation.
Nevertheless, containers can help agencies save money by trimming the 80 percent of IT budgets that typically goes to operations and maintenance, said Dave Egts, chief technologist for Red Hat’s North America Public Sector.
“Really, the cost driver is people,” Egts said. “If you could make more efficient use of your staff, that can help lower that 80 percent to allow you to innovate. It’s not really the software that’s the most expensive part, it’s the people.”
Containers were a hot topic at the recent Red Hat Summit, Egts said. His company and Microsoft announced an alliance to create the first jointly managed Red Hat OpenShift Container Platform in the public cloud: Red Hat OpenShift on Azure.
Cloud, along with automation, are container enablers, Egts added. Cloud lets employees shift their focus from running hypervisors to applications, while automation and machine learning ensure that what's on-premises is consistent with what’s in the cloud. Containers then become the abstraction layer that developers can standardize to get to the cloud faster, he said.
“If they develop something in a container, they could run it on-premise, they could run it on your laptop, they could run it out in the cloud -- and that experience would be the same,” Egts said.
Additionally, containers mesh well with the DevOps and agile development processes that many IT departments are using to boost efficiency. “You can have your developers working very, very quickly on focusing solely on the application, and by using DevOps and agile principles on a container platform, you can get that application into production a lot faster than provisioning virtual machines and doing it the old-fashioned way,” he said.
Government agencies are already using containers. Homeland Security Department officials say containers have accelerated their DevSecOps -- which adds a security element to the process -- by creating a safe space to innovate, Egts said. At the state and local level, California’s Innovation Lab is using the OpenShift platform, on which developers can innovate using open source principles.
The uses for containers are limited only by the creativity of the application designer, Parker said. “It really is like giving you a box of crayons and letting you decide what picture you’re going to color with it,” he said. “There’s not a standard way that containers are getting deployed because it’s all about what’s contained inside.”
Agencies considering containers should start small, impress managers and grow support from there, Egts said. “Find a low-hanging-fruit project where you can get that win and build upon that success,” he said. Those projects include web servers and front-end applications such as websites and blogs.
Parker said he expects the priority on containers to grow. “Think of it like a migration to a modern-day architecture,” he said. “It’s only going to get bigger and better.”