Platform.sh in a nutshell
Hello, and welcome to “Platform.sh from Scratch”. In this prologue to the series, I’ll go over some of the very highest level concepts of Platform.sh so that you’ll have a clearer understanding of what this product is and why it came to be. If we’re successful here, by the end of this post you’ll find it easier to reason about some of the design decisions that we’ve made in building the product.
Platform.sh is a “Platform as a Service”, commonly referred to in this age of acronyms as a “PaaS”. The platform that we provide is essentially a suite of tools to make developing and hosting software applications a smoother end-to-end process. In order to understand what this means though, I’m going to have to go into some detail in this first sidebar. Skip this if you’re comfortable with this post so far.
Sidebar - PaaS
Everyone has heard of Salesforce. Salesforce has come to be the poster child for what is now referred to as “SaaS” - Software as a service. Prior to the SaaS era if you wanted a piece of software, be it a video game or Quickbooks or anything else, you had to drive to a store and buy a box with some disks in it. Once the internet reached a level of market penetration into people’s homes though, those stores went out of business. This is an obvious evolution in hindsight. SaaS is a high level thing - it’s a runnable piece of software providing a service that you can access over the internet (via a URL, an API, etc). You might be able to modify/config it a little bit, but will never be your entire business. It’s not your product. It’s someone else’s and will likely play some fractional part in your overall business plan.
Almost everyone by this point has heard of Amazon Web Services - AWS. AWS is basically what people are talking about when they say “The Cloud”. AWS is a suite of products that emerged from Amazon when they figured out that they needed a huge amount of datacenter capacity to be able to withstand massive retail events like “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday”, and that for most of the rest of the year they had tons of excess capacity sitting around draining money from their wallet. What to do with all that excess capacity? Sell it to someone else.
This relatively simple premise has evolved over the last 10-12 years into numerous products from S3 (basically a giant, limitless hard drive in the sky) to EC2 (basically a giant, limitless hosting server farm in the sky) to Redshift (basically a giant, limitless database that can be used for data warehousing) to SES (a simple service that sends emails) to an ever growing host of other services that always seems to come out just before your start-up figures out that it needs them.
AWS and “the cloud” in general is often given the acronym “IaaS” - infrastructure as a service. They’re selling you the low level hardware abstractions that you can assemble into an infrastructure on which to run your software and by extension your company. It requires a decent bit of specialized knowledge for how to use the individual pieces as well as how to plumb them together, but for all intents is infinitely flexible.
In the middle of these two is what’s called “platform as a service” - PaaS. This is what Platform.sh is - a suite of software and hosting services that lets you efficiently build and develop your software application, and then deploy your software application to a hosting environment that doesn’t require as much specialized knowledge on how to plumb all the pieces together. Nor does the hosting environment require you - and this is a most important detail - to set up monitoring and alerting for when something goes wrong in the public environment.
The PaaS takes elements of both IaaS and SaaS so that you benefit from the huge flexibility offered by a IaaS, without the burden of maintaining services, keeping them running 24/7, secured, up to date, and so on.
So, back to the program. The development tool set of Platform.sh is entirely based around Git. Just in case the reader is not already familiar with Git, I should explain this a little bit.
Sidebar - Git
Software projects are typically composed of lots of files. If you want to add a new feature, you might be required to make changes in more than one of those files. Of course, before you get started you’ll want to make some kind of backup just in case. If it turns out that the change was buggy or unneeded and you want to revert back to a previous state, you’d just restore those few files back to their previous versions.
What if, however, you’re working with a bunch of different people and more than one person is working on that change (an utterly common scenario)? How do you manage those backups between all those people? Saving copies of files is basically impossible to manage after a very short while, so out of this need SCM (source code management) was born. It’s been through several different iterations by this point, and at this point in time the version of SCM that is leading the market is called Git.
Git is pretty cool. It basically takes snapshots of your entire project codebase whenever you tell it to. It then keeps track of all those snapshots and lets you share those snapshots among a team of developers. Any snapshot can be reverted, and you can see the full history of every change to the codebase so you can keep track of “what happened when”. But wait! There’s more!
This is not an exclusive feature of Git, but it has a feature called “branching”. Branching is intuitively named, and is basically the concept of taking a specific snapshot and making changes based off of that one snapshot while other work continues on down the main code line. This is the recommended way to work if you’re going to make any kind of significant change to the software, and this method of working allows you to keep the main code line (almost always referred to as the “master branch”) in 100% working order. It can be thought of as having a furniture workshop away from your house where you can work and keep the house clean for company to come over at any moment, as opposed to working in the house and risking having a wreck to present should company decide to drop by.
In essence branching is making a complete copy of your project at a point in time that you can hack on all you like without disturbing anyone else. If and when the change is ready, you “merge” the code back in to the master branch, test it out to make sure everything is still groovy and then you can release the feature or bug fix to the public.
# time, generally (but not absolutely) speaking ---> --main--branch--always--in--a--working--state \ / -hacking--over--here--freely-
You can read more about the super basics here if you wish. For now, all you really need to know is that Git
- Makes it easier to develop software as a team
- Makes it very cheap and easy to try out new features without breaking anything
- Makes it easier to manage changes to your software and to revert back to a known non-broken state
Platform.sh has taken this branching and merging workflow and extended it out into the entire application stack. When you’re building a software project of any size, there are considerations beyond just the code your team is writing.
Most applications of any size connect to some kind of database in the background, this is where they save “data stuff”. User uploaded images are also a very common thing in the web app world, so if those images aren’t there the app will look busted.
You can branch your code all you like, but you need these other supporting resources to really do your job. Platform.sh makes branches not just of your code, but the entire infrastructure that your project runs on. This allows you to use the common branching/merging workflow with the complete support of everything else that your application depends on.
This may seem like an obvious feature, since how can you develop a new feature without being able to run it (?), but no other service that I know of actually does this. A branch in Git triggers (for all intents) an exact and isolated copy of your production site in a couple of seconds without requiring you to set up any new servers, copy databases over, copy images and everything else, etc, etc, etc. It’s a significant hassle to do all this stuff and it slows the team down every time you have to do it. Removing this need removes a major friction point in the workflow for building new features on your software product.
But wait! There’s more!!!
This is where it starts getting really, really good. In case you’re not aware, there’s a website called GitHub. It’s where a whole lot of folks have decided to host their “git repos” - repo being short for “repository”, which is basically that series of snapshots of the state of your project/codebase back to the beginning of time. If I were working on a project with a buddy, we could both use this same repository and work on the same project, whether I’m in Germany or New Jersey or wherever. I can pull his changes over and he can pull mine and this is basically how open source software gets written these days.
The same workflow applies though - if you want to make a new feature or even if you just want to fix a bug, you’d make a new branch and do your work and then “submit a merge request”. This basically pings the person who runs the project and says “hey, I would like to suggest making this change. Here’s the code I’m changing, maybe you could look it over and if you agree with this change you can merge it in”. By way of an example, here’s a list of “pull (aka merge) requests” for the codebase that comprises the documentation for Platform.sh.
Again, this is how software gets written and it’s pretty mind blowing if you think about it. We software developers are so used to it our minds cease to be amazed, but not because it’s not amazing. I mean, currently participating in that list of PRs are folks from France, Chicago, Hong Kong, the UK, and so on. Amazing. It is also, however, a pain in the neck.
It’s a pain in the neck because it’s typically impossible to tell if something works or not just by looking at the code, so you have to pull their changes over to your computer and test them out somehow. I bet you can see where this is going! Platform has a GitHub integration (BitBucket too) that will automatically build a working version of any merge request that someone opens against your project. That let’s you go visit a working copy of the project and test it out without having to do a thing. Now, I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this, that is mind blowing.
The net effect is that you no longer need to waste time manually setting up an environment to test one little change, then waste more time tearing it back down again. Platform.sh does all of that for you, so you can test changes out and keep right on moving.
This GitHub integration is only one of the really cool and unique features that Platform provides, but this post has gotten absurdly long already. Fortunately, this is intended to be the prologue to this series, so I’ll touch on as many of those features as I can as the series progresses.