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DevOps / Platform Engineering

The Secret to Successful Developer Portals: A Tailored Fit

Bring your workflows into your developer portal through custom Backstage plugins.
Oct 3rd, 2023 6:22am by
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Every engineering organization has unique challenges. For Zalando, the online fashion powerhouse, there are special events, like CyberWeek, that require alignment from everyone on board. For Lunar Bank, the online bank making waves in Scandinavia, providing Danish regulators with live compliance reports of its systems is critical.

These examples require extensive collaboration across teams, which is best done through a finely tuned internal developer portal. However, no developer portal will offer out-of-the-box solutions for these kinds of niche use cases. Zalando and Lunar Bank, as well as hundreds of other companies, use custom plugins to simplify workflows through their Backstage-based developer portal.

What Is a Plugin in Backstage?

Backstage uses a plugin-based architecture for all functionality, including core features like the software catalog or the self-service mechanism. These plugins effectively act as building blocks that you can put together to assemble a developer portal that fits your use cases.

There are more than a hundred open source plugins in the Backstage ecosystem. You’ll find a dozen different ways to authenticate your users, integrations with most source control systems, and countless plugins to connect your portal with tools such as Argo CD or Jira.

On a technical level, Backstage plugins are JavaScript packages that can be divided into backend and frontend modules. The backend is implemented with Node.js and the frontend with React. Plugins can be standalone pages in your developer portal, tabs in your catalog or widgets for your services or homepage.

When you’re self-hosting Backstage, you’ll need to install the plugin’s packages using npm or Yarn, then register them in your instance with code, but this is a process that will be improved in the near future. If you use Roadie, which provides no-code Backstage instances, you use plugins by toggling them on from an admin UI.

What are Custom Plugins in Backstage?

When organizations adopt Backstage, they first set up a production proof of concept using open source plugins and start gathering feedback. Having a one-stop shop for all things development sparks lots of interesting conversations and ideas to improve developer experience. Soon enough, the convenience of onboarding a workflow into the developer portal is self-evident.

For example, early on its internal developer portal journey, American Airlines identified that Backstage was a great place to implement a solution for its intricate permissions requests challenge. Due to the scale of the company and its tight security practices, access to systems is strictly controlled. Therefore, developers had to roam around to figure out how to get the right access to the services they needed.

After aligning the relevant teams, American Airlines put together a centralized permissions requests workflow implemented as a custom Backstage plugin. This simplified the process for developers, freeing them up to focus on shipping features instead of figuring out bureaucracy.

On a technical level, custom plugins are implemented just as open source plugins. You can use Backstage’s APIs to power up your custom plugin, which can prove useful given the sheer amount of information you already have in your internal developer portal.

If you’re self-hosting Backstage, you can deploy your plugin’s packages along your instance or service it through your registry. When using Roadie, you push your custom plugin’s code to our secure pipeline, which will process it and show your plugin running in production in a few seconds.

Make Your Developer Portal Truly Yours

What you can do with custom plugins in Backstage is up to you. Whether you’re integrating an internal tool into your developer portal or simplifying a special workflow for your developers, you can extend Backstage’s functionality with repeatable patterns.

At Spotify, the original author of Backstage, the internal plugins are owned by different teams. For instance, the analytics team implements and owns the Backstage plugins related to its services, which other teams can use freely. This cultivates an inner source culture where the platform belongs to everyone, leading to a 99% voluntary adoption of its developer portal.

Extending Backstage with custom plugins is possible for self-hosted instances, and also for people using no-code Backstage through Roadie. For a more in-depth comparison of these two ways of adopting Backstage, check out our white paper.

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