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Justin Reock
Justin Reock

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🎙️💥 The Backstage Community Wars Have Officially Begun

In mid-March, the Backstage engineering team at Spotify announced that, along with several other updates in their planned April 30th roadmap webinar, they would unveil a new internal developer portal (IDP) solution called Spotify Portal. Details were sparse, and even nosing around the community a bit, it was difficult to determine exactly what this product would be, who it would be for, and perhaps most importantly, how it might impact users and the IDP community at large.

Concerned members of the platform community have speculated at events and in hallway discussions about what would be in the announcement, but it wasn’t until yesterday, April 30th, that we would get the official word from Spotify. Specifically, at the very end of their webinar. ;)

We now know that Spotify Portal will be a curated, no-code, and turnkey solution for creating Backstage portals, beginning with a hand-selected set of waitlisted limited beta participants. Now the question becomes, how will a commercial play from Spotify Backstage impact or alter the communities they helped to create?

No Surprises Here

The only thing that should surprise anyone about the new direction from Spotify is that they waited this long to plant their flag. Negative feedback about the practicality of the framework from the Backstage community has been near universal, with a host of issues plaguing Backstage deployments at scale.

Expensive rollouts and maintenance with insignificant adoption have resulted in negative ROI for a majority of teams. Much of this friction has come from the fact that Backstage is essentially a repository of Typescript that teams must build, deploy, and maintain on their own.

It’s practically begging for a managed and automated model, which is what Spotify Portal alleges it will provide.

The Players

While Spotify Backstage has been relatively motionless, not monetizing much beyond an anemic set of curated plugins, other companies have already approached the market with a very similar value proposition to Spotify Portal.

Red Hat Developer Hub, an opinionated and supported Backstage service supported by Red Hat’s Enterprise Support, will now find itself directly in competition with the creators of Backstage. This has historically been an uphill battle for Red Hat, especially when the project in question is technically governed by a different foundation, the Cloud Native Computing Foundation., which offers a curated and managed service for Backstage, is likely to be the first major player impacted by this decision. It will be a hard sell to convince potential opportunities, as well as existing customers, that they will be better off in the hands of a third party rather than the original maintainers of the open source Backstage project.

Even Port, whose plucky marketing and developer-friendly branding have promised an “open” experience with building an IDP, will now have to reckon with the fact that they are very much a closed source solution, certainly compared to Backstage’s highly permissive ASF 2.0 open source license. Can that message of openness stand up to an actual open source license?

This is all ahead of the cottage industry of independent and employed consultants who have been building and maintaining bespoke Backstage instances for years. And what will become of the many contributions that have come from Backstage’s large network of core and plugin committers? It would be hard to imagine Spotify being in favor of the open development of plugins that compete with their new commercial functionality.

How will this impact the market?

Though it’s probably time for some of these players to start circling the wagons, it's important to note that there are still major limitations to the Spotify Portal solution. By their own admission, at launch the product will only support GitHub as an identity provider. Limiting the identity provider is a well-known IDP antipattern, and one that Spotify will need to move quickly to address if it wants to be taken seriously in the enterprise.

The beta rollout is also very limited. Teams can apply on a waitlist, and the Spotify team will hand-pick the early beta testers and demoers. We know that Spotify laid off 17% of its workforce back in early December of 2023, not the best company signal to send right before a major pivot and product launch. So, it's entirely possible that Spotify is simply trying to conserve its engineering teams, though I don’t see any reason why Spotify wouldn’t prioritize the “big logos” first.

There’s a lot involved in these rollouts, even with improved deployment automation, teams still have to organize their data and model their software catalogs. To complicate matters further, Spotify doesn’t have enterprise software support in their DNA, so they’ll have to learn about these functions as they drive. These beta rollouts will not be quick, and it will take a long time to clear the waitlist. That means mere mortals will be waiting a long time to sample the product, at a time when interest in IDPs has never been higher. Many teams will not wait, and will look at other existing and trusted solutions.

Where does Cortex stand?

Historically, Cortex has both applauded the awareness Backstage has brought to IDPs, while also keeping an arm's length and a watchful eye. Some increasingly poignant philosophical differences in architecture and language have begun driving a deeper wedge in a once complementary go-to-market motion. The volume of "Backstage-burned" developers we've already spoken to this year even led to the recent release of a "migration helper" to expedite moving work from Backstage to Cortex. We're bracing for even greater volume here in the coming months.

Cortex supports the ability to easily ingest services from Backstage and pull them into the software catalog, greatly easing teams’ ability to offboard Backstage. This has been the case for many teams who have not derived the value from Backstage that they predicted, finding friction in areas such as cultural adoption and poor data modeling from the beginning.

Given that the Backstage-powered solutions are likely to see a significant disruption over the coming months, there’s never been a better time for a truly enterprise-class, supported alternative to Backstage. Cortex can organize your full service catalog, but goes on to provide features such as templated scorecards and initiatives to help drive adoption in cultural change. In a recent case study, BigCommerce reported 96% onboarding of engineers within the first three months, a feat that is typically a significant challenge for IDP adopters.

As we adjust to a swiftly changing landscape, with the Spotify Portal announcement arguably being one of the larger milestones in the relatively short history of IDPs, Cortex will stay its course and roadmap, mindful of new competitive signals, but unfazed in commitment to being the most enterprise-ready IDP for mission-critical developer workflows.

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