Atlassian launches a new way to build and run apps with Forge

A development platform touted as a new way to build and run apps in the Atlassian cloud

Atlassian has launched Forge, which the company has labelled as a new way to build and run apps in the Atlassian cloud.

Speaking with ZDNet about how Forge came about, Atlassian head of platform Mike Tria said the company has a long history of partnering with its community of third-party developers, with many building apps for the company's products and selling them on the Atlassian Marketplace.

The Atlassian ecosystem has grown into a community of more than 25,000 members.

"More than 60% of our customers have an app, it's a huge deal. And our largest ones, 80% of them have an app," he explained. "Very soon we're going to cross the $1 billion threshold for lifetime sales through this marketplace."

There are 4,000-plus apps and integrations available to customers through the marketplace, as well as tens of thousands of private apps built by in-house developers for their own organisations.

Tria said Forge started out as an experiment in response to this; it wanted a way to allow customers to move their apps from the server to cloud or to build their apps in cloud in a cloud-native way.

The Forge platform is composed of three components that Atlassian has touted rethinks cloud app development for the company's ecosystem. The first is a serverless-functions-as-a-service hosted platform with Atlassian-operated compute and storage for app developers.

"The idea is third party developers can write code, and we will run it on Atlassian infrastructure … we will handle storing the data, running the code, securing it, data privacy, GDPR, multi-region data residency -- all of those enterprise concerns," Tria said, noting that Atlassian is leveraging an "extremely hardened" form of AWS Lambda.

See also: Writing serverless code: The programming languages and everything else you need to know

The second Forge component is a flexible declarative UI language -- Forge UI -- that enables developers to build interactive user experiences across web and devices with just a few lines of code.

"Forge UI solves two problems. A declarative markup language that we wrote, that allows a third party developer to write some very light markup -- kind of like HTML in a sense -- and they don't have to then write in iframes," Tria said.

"The app works cleanly on the web and on mobile, and it avoids them having to author things in iframes. It's also more secure because we don't have to have any third party JavaScript or anything running in the app. It's faster, way faster, apps run smoothly, and they feel like an Atlassian product running with Atlassian."

The last component is a DevOps toolchain powered by the Forge command line interface (CLI).

"When you build a lot of apps, in DevOps you have things like development, staging, and production environments … but no third party ecosystem offers this, they just say, 'you write your code', deployed, done," he said.

"So what if we offered that same kind of deployment environment? What if we allow the third party developers to have an app that moved through development and staging and production so that they could test their apps?"

Tria said CLI allows developers to undertake actions that make them feel like building like their own product, even though it's running on Atlassian's infrastructure.

"It feels like them just authoring their own code on their own local system," he added.

A NEW APPROACH TO PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT

In preparing Forge, Tria said the company sent six developers to Australia, isolated them from the rest of the organisation for three months, and left them to come up with a solution.

"We told them no OKRs, no project tickets, nothing -- design the ecosystem that you would want to build apps on and design the best one in the world," Tria told ZDNet.

"It worked, by the way, which I'm super thrilled about because it was a big bet, internally, that you can have innovation just come from people without it being top down, which is so exciting."

Despite Atlassian having a large presence in San Francisco, a large chunk of its JIRA team is still based at its original home in Australia. Tria said it made sense to have the "ecosystem spike" take place down under.

"We told this team, 'Success is not that you will build something and it's something that we're going to bring to market; success is you do the best that you can', and we learn. Learning is far more important, because from that learning, it could develop into whatever that next ecosystem is, even if it did not succeed," Tria said.

"It's very easy to assume that the big decisions, the strategic ones like this have to come from the top, it's easy to do it. And I think the bigger you get, it becomes the comfortable, easy way out."

Tria said insulating developers from the rest of the company helped bring the product to market so quickly.

"Companies that say, 'we're like a startup within a big company' -- 90% of the time, that's a lie. You really need to isolate people from within the organisation so that they actually have room to fail … there's so many assumptions you can make about how people work that are thrown out the window when you look at different startups and how people innovate," he explained.

LIFE IN THE CLOUD

Although Atlassian is only young, the company wasn't born in the cloud.

Speaking previously, Atlassian co-founder Scott Farquhar said his company built software to be shipped, but as the concept of the cloud emerged as more than just a passing gimmick, Atlassian had to adapt -- even though it was merely a startup itself.

In attempting to adapt, Atlassian shifted its entire business to AWS. Tria joined the company to move products from running on-premises.

"We did that in about two years," he said, speaking with ZDNet at AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas last week. "The first two years was a very large migration project, which was to get us to the point where we could be cloud-native, thankfully it worked."

Tria said the last two years at Atlassian have been about leveraging the cloud-native journey; moving into microservices, hardening the cloud for scale and reliability, and building new ways of thinking.

"The last two years was super cool, the next two years ahead are also super exciting because it's about now supporting larger customers in-cloud," he said.

He said when Atlassian went cloud-native, the company was able to move faster internally, mostly because developers were given the ability to use whatever was available to them through AWS.

"People just rebuilding things that may have already been out there. We are now heavy users of -- especially companies like Amazon, what they're building under the covers, rather than reinventing something that already exists," Tria continued. "We don't need to spend a year waiting, that's something we can start to play with now."

NOT WITHOUT SECURITY CONCERNS

Earlier this month, a tweet from SwiftOnSecurity inadvertently uncovered a zero-day detailing how Atlassian Companion was prone to a security-bypass vulnerability.

Responding to the post was Google's Tavis Ormandy, who explained: "You can just grab the private key, and nothing is stopping you resolving this domain to something other than localhost. Therefore, no guarantee that you're talking to a trusted local service and not an attacker."

"An attacker can exploit this issue to bypass certain security restrictions and perform unauthorised actions or conduct man-in-the-middle attack; this may aid in launching further attacks," a blog post from Symantec adds.

Atlassian has since resolved the issue.

Asha Barbaschow travelled to re:Invent as a guest of AWS.

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