Internal Developer Portals take off to accelerate innovation

Digital Transformation
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To meet customer needs and stay ahead of their competitors, organizations are continuing to invest in digital transformation to create new user experiences and drive operational efficiency. However, this has become more difficult at a time when rising costs are forcing organizations to drive down spend. As this trend continues in 2024, organizations will need to run leaner and stretch their resources further than ever.

Developers feeling the heat

Software development teams are under particular pressure, as they must accelerate digital transformation without increased budget or extra headcount. To enable success, digital leaders urgently need to reduce toil in development and delivery processes. This has triggered a significant focus on platform engineering, which gives developers a set of reusable tools and components they can use to create software with less manual effort. According to Gartner, 80% of large software engineering organizations will have established platform engineering teams by 2026.

These teams are taking the lead on building an internal developer portal (IDP), often on top of Backstage, that allows self-service for provisioning pipelines, testing and infrastructure, without the headache of building these out for each service or product. This has become a growing burden for engineers as organizations have increased their use of microservices, Kubernetes, and multi-cloud architectures. These ecosystems create complexity, introducing more moving pieces to the technology stack, adding to the number of tools and platforms developers rely on to get code into production, and requiring them to master the configuration of multiple infrastructure types. As a result, developer experience has worsened, and it has become more time-consuming and complex to onboard new team members.

Martin Reynolds

Field CTO at Harness.

A portal to a better experience

An IDP overcomes these challenges, giving developers a single pane of glass through which they can access the tools and capabilities they need to deploy existing and new code, and manage all the services and components they are responsible for. In the same way that a bank’s customers don’t need to think about everything going on in the middleware layer and on the back-end mainframe when they make a deposit, an IDP puts a wrapper around development infrastructure. This means developers can just focus on writing and committing code rather than worrying about building staging environments and dealing with complex deployment processes. As a result, they can spend more time creating new features, and less on writing scripts to get their code to production.

This approach also helps developers to improve the quality and security of their services, without spending significant extra time on testing. Through an IDP, as part of a modern software delivery platform, engineering teams can embed automated testing processes and best practices into the delivery pipeline to ensure all new releases meet strict key performance indicators (KPIs) for performance and reliability and are free from vulnerabilities before they enter production. This helps to boost developer happiness and team morale, as they can get code into production faster and with greater confidence.

With fewer tools and processes to master, it also becomes easier to onboard new team members, as developers can commit, build, test, and promote code with less toil. As these benefits become more widely recognized, Gartner estimates that by 2025, 75% of organizations with platform teams will provide self-service developer portals to improve developer experience and accelerate product innovation.

Getting developers on board

As IDPs have come alive over the past 18 months, developers’ expectations of them have increased dramatically. Developers want a dynamic and fully self-service experience, so they can quickly and easily find the tools and capabilities they need to deploy their code and move onto the next project. Platform engineering teams therefore need to ensure their IDP includes a catalogue of services and documentation that exists within an organization. As developers reach outside their immediate team to leverage other services, this catalogue makes it easier for them to consume existing capabilities without an extensive search for help. As a result, they can stay in the flow of their development project, without being stalled waiting for another team to provide support.

An IDP should also enable automation of simple workflows, such as spinning up a new pre-production environment, and provide software templates that remove the need for developers to raise tickets for repeatable processes, like running tests. These capabilities can be enhanced with scorecards that allow developers to measure the quality of their services against established KPIs, so they can quickly identify any performance issues or vulnerabilities.

Platform engineering teams also need to account for the fact that developers often have entrenched preferences for the tools and processes that they are used to. So, it’s important for an IDP to seamlessly integrate with third-party solutions in the development toolchain. Organizations must also maintain security by ensuring that developers only have access to the functionality and data that they need to complete their work. IDPs should be ingrained with role based access control and centralized governance, to ensure the platform engineering team remains in the driving seat and can maintain oversight.

Laying a foundation for success

As organizations continue to invest in platform engineering, they will need a clear strategy for delivering an IDP that meets the needs of their developers now and in the future. Many have started by building their own IDP from the ground up, using DIY know-how. Whilst they may have worked to begin with, these approaches aren’t scalable in the long-term. What’s more, platform engineering teams risk undermining the efficiency gains they stood to gain due to the effort and costs involved in running, managing, and hosting their own custom-built solution.

Instead, organizations should look to purpose-built, enterprise grade solutions that take the burden out of creating an IDP. This enables developers to focus on building and operating their software, rather than creating delivery pipelines, increasing their happiness, and boosting productivity. Ultimately, this will help organizations run leaner whilst continuing to accelerate their digital transformation, creating the foundation for a lasting competitive edge.

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Martin Reynolds is Field CTO at Harness, the Modern Software Delivery Platform.