How APIs Can Reshape the Defense Department Enterprise

Maksim Kabakou/

By leveraging APIs, Defense stands to realize substantial increases in productivity and reductions in costs.

With more than 3 million employees and posts all over the world, the Defense Department has a tremendous reach and is as seemingly endless as the information technology systems that make it work.

The department’s enterprise network includes 10,000 operational systems, hundreds of data centers, tens of thousands of servers and more than a million users across over one million devices. A system this big is sure to be complex, so complex in fact that, according to a strategic plan published in August 2016, defense leaders wrote, “The number of organization-specific networks and computing systems used to execute DOD missions, and the systematic manner in which IT is developed through a highly regulated process, has resulted in a sub-optimal situation.”

API-Led Connectivity: A Path Forward

While Defense technology leaders have worked to put new processes in place, such as the Joint Information Environment, to consolidate the department’s expansive IT infrastructure, the agency still struggles with interoperability between remaining legacy and on-premise systems. The department has an opportunity to address this challenge through API-led connectivity.

By connecting applications, data and devices using APIs in an application network, the department can unlock its underlying data and services for broader consumption. While the department has taken some positive steps in this direction, making public data sets available through APIs in response to the White House’s 2013 Open Data Policy, more work must be done.

By following the path tread by leading civilian departments such as the Agriculture Department and Federal Communications Commission and by leveraging APIs to scale connectivity across internal systems, Defense stands to realize substantial increases in productivity and reductions in costs.

Realizing API-Led Connectivity within the Department

Unlike unwieldy top-down service-oriented architecture approaches, API-led connectivity can emerge as a bottoms-up approach. As a given program office seeks to build a new application, instead of wiring together different data sources with point-to-point custom code, they can use APIs to expose access to the underlying systems’ data. After the initial project is completed, each successive project can utilize the APIs created during the original project to access data from those source systems. Business logic, too, can be abstracted as an API, allowing for further opportunities for reuse.

An approach centered around reuse holds particular value for Defense. For example, what if the department could drive reuse across its components that conduct many of the same core IT processes, such as payments and employee onboarding? Rather than reinventing the wheel each time one of these processes needs to be modified or extended, API-led connectivity allows for the department to drive more scale and reuse from the investments that are driven within each of its constituent organizations.

Leveraging APIs to Support More Secure Data Sharing

Maintaining security has grown increasingly complex due to the proliferation of applications entering Defense IT ecosystem. All too often, users inside and outside the organization may have access to data and the ability to expose it without the knowledge of central IT.

Traditionally, government IT teams have had to balance the desire for increased agility with the need to maintain security. API-led connectivity allows the department to have the best of both worlds: increasing speed, while improving data security. APIs serve as a standardized, well-defined entry point that is easy to visualize and secure. What emerges out of an API-led connectivity approach is an application network where security practices are built in at the point of design. This enables Defense agencies to provide federated access to mission-critical data within and outside the agency.

The Defense Department has, perhaps, the most important job in all of government; keeping citizens safe. Doing so effectively requires the department to continually innovate. APIs provide a foundation for accelerated project delivery, enabling the department to innovate faster in service of those it keeps safe.

Chris Aherne is a regional vice president of federal at MuleSoft.