Platform engineering is a developing trend causing a flurry in the DevOps community. Without a doubt, this technology has recently seen a surge in both popularity and adoption.
However, there are certain fundamental questions that need clarification: What exactly is platform engineering? How does it differ from DevOps? And will it eventually replace DevOps, as predicted by many industry professionals?
In this article, we’ll take a look at DevOps and some of its problems that have been identified over the years. Then we’ll see what platform engineering is and how this technology can address these problems. Finally, we’ll cover a few of the best practices to keep in mind when deciding to implement platform engineering.
What Is DevOps and the Challenges of Implementing it in Organizations
Let’s first define what DevOps actually means and understand the principles and terminology associated with it. A common definition is that DevOps is the collaboration between developers and operations teams, where it can be considered a culture or mindset aiming to release features faster to production. In the application development process, there are several stages involved. A typical workflow includes coding, building, pushing, deploying, releasing, monitoring, and testing. Each stage can be performed by different individuals or divided into separate pipelines. Automation and tooling play a crucial role in creating a seamless pipeline. For example, Git is used for code management, Gradle for building, Docker and Kubernetes for deployment, Grafana for monitoring, etc.
Various roles, such as DevOps engineers, SRE engineers, ops engineers, etc., are involved in this process, each with similar goals. However, in some organizations, DevOps is solely focused on automation. The complete CI/CD pipeline is set up for a specific project, where developers write code that includes embedded testing, and various tools are used throughout the pipeline until the feature is released. DevOps concepts have been adopted by organizations of different sizes, including startups, medium-sized companies, and large enterprises, to streamline workflows and improve productivity. DevOps encompasses cultural best practices, specialized tools, and collaboration between developers and operations engineers to accelerate feature delivery to production.
However, implementing DevOps is not always straightforward. Standardization may be lacking, and different teams within an organization may have varying mindsets, preferred tools, and use cases. Multiple DevOps teams may coexist, making it challenging to establish uniformity. Automation plays a significant role in achieving an efficient CI/CD pipeline, and the adoption of additional tools is encouraged.
When it comes to tooling, different teams may have their preferences and stacks, leading to a lack of standardization. This can result in duplicated efforts and resources as teams build their pipelines repeatedly. Additionally, the vast landscape of CI/CD tools available for different purposes further complicates the decision-making process. It requires careful analysis of the problem and evaluation of suitable tools based on the specific use case. This summarizes what DevOps is, along with the challenges it brings and its continued practice across organizations.
What is Platform Engineering?
Platform engineering is a discipline that aims to enhance developer productivity by reducing complexity and uncertainty in software delivery. It involves the creation of a centralized platform equipped with tools and workflows which developers can readily access and utilize. Unlike DevOps, which emphasizes collaboration between developers and operations, platform engineering focuses on providing developers with a self-service solution. This approach offers a collection of reusable services, similar to internal products within an organization, enabling developers to leverage them independently.
The platform engineering team is responsible for building, packaging, and monitoring these tools as reusable services. They ensure that these services adhere to service-level agreements for developers. The resulting platform, known as the internal developer platform (IDP), becomes the primary product of the platform team. The IDP's reliability and performance are continuously tracked, aligning it with the organization's development patterns and business objectives.
The overarching goal of platform engineering is to build the necessary infrastructure and systems to support applications throughout their software lifecycle. Developers are treated as valued customers, and the Internal Developer Platform (IDP) serves as a dedicated product for them. The IDP acts as a streamlined layer that sits atop the organization's toolchain. It standardizes processes and assists developers in deploying their applications into production, freeing them from the complexities of the underlying infrastructure, toolchain upgrades, and other platform-related challenges. By providing a cohesive and simplified deployment experience, developers can focus more on developing their applications rather than being burdened by infrastructure complexities.
Platform engineering is particularly beneficial for large organizations with distributed applications that require scalable deployment. If an organization has a mature application with a clear growth vision or foresees the need for scalability, implementing an IDP can be advantageous. On the other hand, if an organization has a single monolithic application and a small development team, an IDP may be excessive. Similarly, if an application requires scaling but lacks repeatable processes, platform engineering and a development platform can provide significant benefits.
Best Practices For a Successful Platform Engineering Implementation
Many organizations these days are talking about implementing Platform Engineering, but one common mistake is treating it as just another type of DevOps. Creating an Internal Developer Platform (IDP) in an enterprise is a genuine requirement, and there are good reasons for it. These platforms enable IT professionals and teams from different business departments to be more independently productive while maintaining centralized governance and security. It's not just about the cloud or DevOps; it also presents a perfect opportunity to develop additional internal platforms on top of it. For example, in the era of artificial intelligence, every organization will soon implement large language models on their proprietary data sets. When that happens, we need to think outside the box, as the previous DevOps principles will not suffice. Platform Engineering is essential to address these new challenges and opportunities.
The strategic importance of investing in a platform may seem obvious, but from a business perspective, the focus is not on platform engineering or artificial intelligence. The ultimate concern is the outcome. Therefore, it is crucial to implement platform engineering in the best possible way to deliver value. In this section, we'll cover best practices that you should follow to be successful in the area of platform engineering within your organization.
Firstly, it is important to prioritize the actual users of your internal platform. The users are the key stakeholders, and their needs should be represented through a range of requirements. To ensure the success of platform engineering, the engineers building the internal platform should regularly meet face-to-face with the users or teams. A product manager, who is part of their team, can facilitate these meetings. This involvement and specification of consumption needs are essential for the success of platform engineering. If this cannot be achieved, it is necessary to revisit your approach.
Secondly, it is crucial to assign the right people to the right tasks. While everyone can offer opinions and advice, the real work lies in execution. The team responsible for building the platform must be capable and aligned with the project goals. Failing to approach this in a proper manner can lead to struggles along the way. Remember, this is not about individual egos or positions; it is a partnership where all key stakeholders play a vital role. Start by creating a platform team that addresses the users' needs and then proceed accordingly. An ideal platform team is small, dedicated, and cross-functional. It is better to have three to five engineers working full-time on your platform rather than dividing their attention.
Lastly, measuring progress is essential. If your platform is not on scope, on time, or within budget, it cannot be considered a success story. Measure your platform team's success through project Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These KPIs should include metrics such as the time it takes for users to achieve their goals using the platform, the number of users utilizing the platform, its scalability, and user satisfaction. Monitoring these factors will help you evaluate and improve your platform.
Is Platform Engineering Replacing DevOps?
Is platform engineering fundamentally different from DevOps, and will it replace it? Not exactly. In fact, platform engineering can be seen as an evolutionary progression of DevOps. It emerges when an organization reaches a pivotal point where its processes demand significant scalability and there is a substantial team collaborating on a distributed application. At this advanced stage, platform engineering acts as the convergence point, where various elements seamlessly integrate.
In platform engineering, you automate processes and create repeatable steps that make services easily accessible to developers. These services become handy tools that developers can grab and use confidently to deploy their applications. The goal is to ensure that everything works smoothly, even on a large scale. It's all about making things simpler and more efficient for everyone involved.
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