Every good government program manager or acquisition officer knows that every large mission application purchase should be preceded by an analysis of alternatives that includes build vs. buy analysis. Traditionally, this has meant the acquirer had a choice between a purpose-built technology, developed by either in-house or by contract personnel, or a general off-the-shelf commercial technology. In practice, few commercial technologies completely address all the requirements of an acquisition and build becomes the popular conclusion. This is costly, both in terms of the initial purchase cost and in terms of the maintenance tail that a purpose-built technology incurs. Yet missions are unique and so the price is borne.
Fortunately, as application development practices have become more modular, a new alternative emerges: build and buy. Acquirers can opt to build the core of their mission-specific application and buy the application plumbing that handles the “goesintos” and “goesoutofs” as a commercial technology or service. Modules that connect the application to data sources, that manage access controls and permissions, that manage compute resources, that display results, that perform many other repeatable functions, can be acquired and used with multiple mission payloads. For this strategy to be effective, the plumbing provider must expose clean and powerful Application Program Interfaces that make the reusable technology easy to deploy, and mission developers must have the discipline to handle their plumbing needs in standard ways.
Large integrators are not likely to embrace this strategy since as much of 80% of their billable code deals with plumbing. Buy once and use often kills their profits. However, this is an excellent space for the startup community to disrupt government acquisition. “Plumbing as a service” matches the startup development culture. It is time to make it part of the government acquisition culture as well.