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Developer Portals — A Primer

Over the next few years, we expect developer portals to become a key piece of infrastructure for developers. A developer portal unifies all infrastructure tooling, services, and documentation with a single consistent UI. We highlighted developer portals in our “Introducing Redpoint’s SRE Landscape,” and since then the category has blossomed. Below we discuss the trends catalyzing developer portal adoption, explain its benefits, and categorize 18 offerings in the space.

Historically engineers used service catalogs like ServiceNow to identify the resources available to them. However, these solutions have been challenged by the movement to microservices, the cloud, and Bring Your Own Tool (BYOT). Many legacy solutions are unable to support these new resource types, and these trends have also led to tool sprawl creating confusion. We have heard that teams really start to feel the pain at about 50 microservices.

Developer portals emerged to solve infrastructure complexity by helping developers discover, access, and use services, regardless of how and where they are running. There are a few components including a service catalog, software templates, documentation, workflow engine, plugins, and alerting. Simply, it is one frontend for all infrastructure.

When speaking with developer portal users, they highlight the service catalog as the power feature. Individuals like it because it gives them a view of resources across the team or company, improving discoverability. Additionally, catalogs are helpful for identifying overlapping tools in order to reconcile them to decrease spend and improve standardization. While it may be hard for a solution to auto-identify all infrastructure resources, it is crucial that microservices be auto-discovered to make adoption frictionless. Importantly, the catalog helps teams track service ownership to better understand who is responsible for the service. Ownership visibility can help resolve production incidents faster. According to one VP of Engineering at a growth-stage startup, “The most painful use case is getting paged at 3AM. A service catalog can help understand how my service is doing, how are those I depend on doing, and how are those that depend on me are doing. Knowing the owners here is key.” Some solutions also provide service health information.

Developer portals offer different benefits to various personas, and we agree with the benefits underscored by Backstage, one of the open source offerings in the space:

“For engineering managers, it allows you to maintain standards and best practices across the organization, and can help you manage your whole tech ecosystem, from migrations to test certification.

For end users (developers), it makes it fast and simple to build software components in a standardized way, and it provides a central place to manage all projects and documentation.

For platform engineers, it enables extensibility and scalability by letting you easily integrate new tools and services (via plugins), as well as extending the functionality of existing ones.”

When speaking with operators, they also noted that developer portals improve service monitoring, help with service reuse vs. rebuild, and prevent developers from needing to know the fine details of specific systems — enhancing developer productivity.

During our research we often found platform, DevOps, and SRE teams implemented developer portals, and product developers were end users. Some offerings in the space allow developers to write their own plugins to connect their service to the catalog. We heard platform teams particularly liked this approach because it creates a distributed incentive structure. For example, if an engineer can only use a tool or deploy their service if it is in the catalog, it encourages them to write the plugin. In turn, the effort to build a full catalog is dispersed across the entire team versus making the platform team or vendor fully responsible.

We heard developers use portals on a daily basis. It can be a key part of a developer’s workflow. According to an SRE manager at a unicorn startup, “Our goal is to make it the only place developers need to go. At least 95% of all functionality available to them should be displayed through the portal. By having people use it every day, people will look at stuff frequently and fix it.”

Over the past 18 months, we have seen an incredible rise in developer portal offerings. Within the ecosystem, there are three different approaches to solving this pain point: 1) universal service catalogs, 2) API catalogs tied to an API gateway or service mesh, and 3) microservice-focused catalogs. Below we classify 18 offerings across the space including startups Cortex, Effx, Moment.dev, and OpsLevel as well as open source projects Backstage and Clutch (workflow engine) and Roadie, which offers a hosted Backstage platform.

Catalyzed by the movement to the cloud and service-oriented architectures, developer portals are quickly becoming a core piece of developers’ workflows, taking over the role of traditional IT service catalogs. We are excited to watch as the ecosystem evolves. If you or someone you know is working on a developer portal startup or adjacent offering, it would be great to hear from you. Comment below or email me at amyers@redpoint.com to let us know.

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