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Open Source / Platform Engineering

Thinking about an Internal Developer Portal? Think Open Source

Proprietary solutions can’t come close to accommodating the range of functionality and support that open solutions naturally offer. And the speed of evolution with community-based software is typically hard to beat by a single vendor.
Dec 12th, 2023 10:00am by
Featued image for: Thinking about an Internal Developer Portal? Think Open Source
Image by Denis Fomin from Pixabay.

As modern software architectures become increasingly complex, platform engineering has emerged as a valuable practice to support the needs of software developers and provide the tools they need to manage their evolving infrastructures.

Platform Engineering teams keep technological complexities at bay, unlock potential, and serve as the glue to create clean interfaces and contracts between teams.

In parallel, there has also been a rise in internal developer portals, or IDPs, as one of the tools created to serve as a front door to platform engineering.

IDPs are centralized systems that provide developers with the tools and resources to build, deploy, and manage software. They often act as a single source of truth on all metadata and project ownership for each piece of software across an organization, aiding discovery and enabling seamless cross-team collaboration.

IDPs can also facilitate automatic solutions for repetitive tasks by standardizing the development workflow and streamlining the team’s ability to ship high-quality code without compromising autonomy.

Today, as companies scale and deal with a rise in distinct infrastructure components and dispersed resources, developer portals have become an essential strategy, enabling companies to retain the speed of product development.

Organizations have two major choices when it comes to spinning up their developer portals — they can assemble and configure it themselves, leveraging the building blocks available in the cloud native open source landscape (with the potential of layering more value and features as needed) or they can use a proprietary solution.

As with any decision, there are pros and cons, so let’s dig into why we at Spotify think an open source foundation is the best course of action when it comes to starting an internal developer portal initiative for your team. Here are some of the considerations you might want to take into account:

Better Flexibility

When companies begin to grow and scale, they turn to IDPs to help standardize how software is built at their organization. Pre-built IDP software seems like an easy option because it offers an immediate solution to their mounting complexities.

But adopting those solutions could cause challenges in the long run, as they offer limited customization and scalability. Proprietary software relies on one vendor for building and advancing the technology behind it and creates ceilings on how far you can take the solution.

Open source models on the other hand, avoid vendor lock-in and can continue to expand without outgrowing solutions that only address immediate needs. While ready-to-use models may provide more initial guidance, open source models offer a foundational framework with adaptability that companies and teams need to scale.

Additionally, leveraging an open IDP template equips platform engineer teams with an extensive portfolio of plugins — self-contained software functions that can be integrated into an open platform — to serve and match whatever infrastructure and software development needs your company has. Built and maintained by passionate engineering experts, plugins allow for unparalleled customization and functionality as an organization evolves.

The best way to take advantage of this flexibility is to first determine your team’s biggest issue or barriers that are slowing you down.

Once that initial challenge is identified, building your IDP around a solution becomes easier, and the roadmap for expanding it to fit connected and successive issues becomes clearer. It also provides clearer insight into your ROI and ensures your teams are rolling it out effectively.

More Ecosystem Support

When you adopt an open source solution, you gain access to the contributions of not only your own team of internal developers but the entire open source ecosystem. This means that you have access to a vast pool of expertise and knowledge that exists outside of your company.

Engaging with open source technologies allows you to gain critical knowledge of how the tech you depend on works and how to contribute to its improvement.

For example, Backstage, Spotify’s IDP that it donated to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation in 2020 has over 1,200 contributors worldwide. These contributors regularly submit bugs, add new features, and build valuable plugins that benefit each adopter.

Proprietary solutions can’t come close to accommodating the range of functionality and support that open solutions naturally offer. And the speed of evolution with community-based software is typically hard to beat by a single vendor.

Continued Investments in the Open Source Community

Open source contributors donate their time to build and maintain the technology that so many organizations depend on, so it’s also important to give back to the open source community. Fostering an environment where open projects can be supported and maintained ensures the resources and health of the open source community can continue to thrive. Not only does this allow for better products, but it also promotes diversity. Every new contributor brings unique perspectives and experiences to the challenges of improving developer experience and effectiveness.

At the end of the day, all IDPs require a cultural shift to achieve technical alignment, so it is important that you approach your developers with empathy and work side by side to create solutions that matter to them. Open source portals encourage this because they allow flexibility to build and adapt the platform to fit your developers’ needs, rather than the other way around.

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