The Emergence of Platform Engineering: What You Need to Know

by Vijay K

Digital application development is continuously evolving. Today, it involves complex tools, more clouds, and workflows. Thus, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for DevOps teams to write robust, secure, performant, and capable digital applications. Forward-thinking companies have begun to build operating platforms that sit between the developers and the backing services they rely on to enhance productivity and reduce the complexity of digital application development. Enter platform engineering. 

Platform engineering is an emerging technology in response to the increasing complexity of modern software architectures. This technology also improves the developer experience and productivity by providing self-service capabilities with automated infrastructure operations. 

Here, we have discussed platform engineering, how it differs from DevOps, principles and best practices, and everything in between to help you stay ahead of the technological curve.

In particular, we have outlined the following in detail:

  • What is Platform Engineering
  • How Did Platform Engineering Evolve
  • How Does Platform Engineering Compare with DevOps
  • What Problems Does Platform Engineering Solve
  • Best Practices and Principles
  • The Future of Platform Engineering

What is Platform Engineering

Platform engineering is the process of designing, building, and maintaining workflows and toolchains that enable self-service capabilities for application development teams. Platform engineering aims at enhancing developer productivity by reducing the complexity and uncertainty of modern software delivery. 

How Does it Work

Usually, platform engineers create an abstraction layer— the platform (aka internal developer platform)—that is easy to use and requires minimal infrastructure knowledge from developers. Whether it is container management, infrastructure provisioning, monitoring, or code pipelines, the internal developer platform removes the complexities and offers DevOps teams all the operational necessities of the entire life cycle of the application. 

In addition, the self-service platform consolidates knowledge and data fragmented across teams, clouds, and tools. This way, development teams can easily access all essential data about their infrastructure, services, and applications in one self-serve place. 

The Main Benefit of Platform Engineering

Platform engineering addresses some of the greatest challenges of doing DevOps at scale, including aligning development practices with business priorities and reducing the burden of managing a complicated web of tools and infrastructure across the application lifecycle.

To say the least, platform engineering drives consistency, speeds up common tasks, and enhances the faster release of digital applications.

How Platform Engineering Has Evolved

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, most setups used to have SysAdmin as the sole gatekeeper. If developing teams needed anything to run their apps, they had to rely on the system admins.

This resulted in the infamous “throw-over-the-fence” workflow leading to poor experiences on either side of the fence. As cloud computing gained popularity— with AWS launching in 2006— the concept of DevOps was established and became the new standard for software development teams. 

Although cloud native enhanced significant improvements in scalability, availability, and operability, installation, and management of setups had become considerably complex. This marked the end of running a single script to deploy monolithic applications that use a single relational database. 

Also, developing teams faced a new challenge. They need to master up to 10 different tools, Terraform modules, Helm charts, and more just to test or deploy a simple change of code to one of the multiple environments in a multi-cluster microservices setup. 

Emergence of Antipatterns

A series of antipatterns (as documented in the book Team Topologies by Manuel Pais and Matthew Skelton) emerged as regular development teams strived to implement true DevOps.

A common example of an antipattern that occurs as organizations try to implement true DevOps is that skilled developers take the responsibility of managing infrastructures, environments, and such. This results in a setup where “shadow operations” are run by talented developers whose experience and expertise are invaluable to product development and coding. 

As senior and skilled developers take charge of the setup and solve requests from less skilled colleagues, the organization fails to fully utilize its most talented and expensive resources and cannot ship features fast and reliably.

Thus, platform engineering is seen as a response to these antipatterns. Platform engineering also ensures that development teams within an organization can run applications and services without the constant need for help from experienced and senior developers. 

Today, platform engineering’s growing adoption is no longer a flight of fancy. From serving as the foundation of GitHub’s infrastructure growth to powering Starbucks and Nike projects that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, platform engineering is the new golden standard for thriving at scale.

How Platform Engineering Compares to DevOps 

DevOps emerged well over a decade ago and is more established than platform engineering. It brought a change in culture and aims to demolish the silos between development and operations in software delivery by automating manual tasks and enhancing cross-functional collaboration. 

On the other hand, experts see platform engineering as a natural evolution or extension of DevOps. It borrows its craft from DevOps, including principles such as continuous delivery, continuous integration, as well as automation.

The results of successful platform engineering and DevOps implementation are largely the same—less time spent on manual tasks and a smoother path to software delivery. However, the means of achieving the goal are slightly different.

DevOps improves coordination between development and operations. On the other hand, platform engineering creates a self-service platform that development teams can use to build software without necessarily coordinating or collaborating with the operations teams.

What Problems Does a Platform Engineer Solve

A platform engineer’s role varies depending on your company, product, and stack (and will likely continue to evolve with time). However, they are primarily responsible for deploying and maintaining the internal development portal—to enable DevOp teams to work better. Thus, an alternative name for platform engineers would be “developer enablers” or enablement teams.

Platform engineers also understand what your organization is trying to achieve and then develop the necessary tools and workflows to achieve these goals. Following are some of the common responsibilities of a platform engineer:

Building and Maintaining IDPs 

One of the major roles of a platform engineer is designing, building, and maintaining an IDP, a centralized collection of services, automated workflows, as well as tools that enhance the faster development and release of digital applications.

IDPs help development teams to self-serve the necessary resources for building, testing, deploying, and monitoring applications quickly and without friction.

Standardizing and Securing Key Delivery Processes

Platform engineering allows your organization a unified system for managing, standardizing, and scaling typical workflows and DevOps processes. Platform engineers vet and curate a catalog of resources, thus creating paved roads which streamline and accelerate the development of digital apps while also allowing DevOp teams to leverage their own tools where need be. 

In big organizations, a lot of autonomy may lead to knowledge silos, tool sprawl, burnout, and runaway costs. Paved roads give a clear, reliable “golden” pathway to software delivery that minimizes operational complexity while allowing an organization to set stronger compliance, security, and budget controls.

Platform engineer using a tablet device to monitor performance metrics.

Setting and Maintaining Internal Service Level Agreements

Another critical part of a platform engineer’s job is maintaining a stable and secure internal platform. Platform engineers set high standards for the performance and reliability of the internal platform and hold themselves to account through SLAs.

Internal systems failure means that development teams will likely not follow the golden path to software production and will disrupt the value chain. Thus, platform engineers are tasked with actively monitoring the performance and health of IDPs. This, in turn, helps ensure developer productivity and customer satisfaction.

Monitoring Performance Metrics

Platform engineers also track key development performance metrics. This can include workflow durations, incident recovery time, and throughput, to remove problems and tailor a platform to developers’ needs. For instance, if the incident recovery time of a platform exceeds the threshold, platform engineers can boost the monitoring and alerting capabilities of the IDP or increase automated tests in the pipeline. 

By tracking developer performance and productivity data, platform engineers ensure that IDPs support an organization’s business goals and development patterns.

Other Responsibilities of a Platform Engineer:

  • Reviewing code written by others to ensure it meets the standards for quality, security, and performance
  • Developing new technologies to support existing digital applications or creating new applications using new technologies
  • Analyzing all platform-level changes and monitoring their impact
  • Creating good interfaces for various teams and offering technical support to teams working on different platforms
  • Collaborating with software development teams in designing and implementing scalable, reliable, as well as high-performance solutions according to company needs
  • Identifying areas where process and efficiency can be improved within the platform, recommending solutions, and helping in the implementation of the solutions
  • Fast and efficient troubleshooting of simple and complex issues while providing appropriate solutions
  • Ensuring all important operational processes and procedures are performed with keen attention to detail, expediency, as well as timelines
  • Researching and staying up to date on methodologies, new technologies, and industry trends so as to continuously improve the platform to meet the changing needs of the company

Platform Engineering Principles and Best Practices

Here are some basic principles that are popularly used by successful platform engineering teams:

Clear Role and Mission

From the word go, clearly define the roles of the platform team. Ensure that platform engineers clearly understand your goals and objectives as well as what works best for your organization.

Platform engineering must not look like another help desk spinning environments on demand. It must be a dedicated product team that serves developers and other end users.

Platform as a Product

Platform engineering also focuses on a product mindset. This is to say platform teams are driven by what offers real value to development teams and internal customers based on their feedback.

As such, platform engineers should also ship features based on the feedback loop instead of getting lost playing around with new shiny technology.

Platform engineering concept - two developers strategizing platform performance in an office.

Fix Common Problems

Platform engineering must also ensure that DevOp teams do not reinvent the wheel by solving common problems over and over. Platform teams can identify common problems by understanding developer pain points and friction areas that slow down development. 

This information is obtained quantitatively and qualitatively by analyzing development KPIs and evaluating developers’ feedback. 

Glue is Key

Platform engineering is like sticky glue that holds the toolchain and workflows together, ensuring smooth self-service for development teams. In fact, this can only be achieved if platform teams design golden paths and pave roads for development teams.

Features of a Good Platform

In addition to the above principles, good platform engineering aims to create a platform that satisfies the following bare minimums:

  1. Designs a platform that developers and internal customers love to use. A platform that:
    • Has an excellent API 
    • Has Good CLI (command line interface)
    • Has an Intuitive user interface. The user interface should offer a relationship between services, observability, and guide and teach new users, but it must be possible to do everything and anything in code
    • Is easy to apply changes using simple manifest files
    • Focuses more on serving developers than on serving operations
    • Teams can seamlessly contribute to its extensibility 
  2. Centralizes documentation, standards, infrastructure, and templates without making it into a rigid process
  3. Offers implicit security and compliance implementation in all services and infrastructure you create with it
  4. Gives many options for developers to choose from and makes it easy to add additional ones to support edge cases and future business needs
  5. Removes complexity while reducing the cognitive load
  6. Can define role-based access control (RBAC) for users for different levels of permissions
  7. Provides for extension of capabilities with community-driven plugins to suit organizational needs and expand the functionality and observability of services
  8. Allows developers to get an end-to-end environment quickly for a new service

The Future of Platform Engineering

More and more organizations are adopting cloud systems, and architectural patterns are constantly evolving. The success of any organization will depend on its ability to enhance productivity and developer experiences. Therefore, the demand for IDPs and engineers who build and maintain them will increase significantly.

Gartner projects that 80% of software engineering organizations will require platform engineering teams as internal providers of reusable services, components, and tools for digital application delivery. Ultimately, platform engineering will solve the main problem of collaboration between development and operations. 

Team of software developers collaborating in an office.

Take Away

Platform engineering is unequivocally a must-have for organizations seeking to scale up digital application development processes without compromising on security, efficiency, or quality. It is also the surefire way to reap the full benefits of DevOps.

If you are serious about improving your organization’s performance and app delivery outcomes, think of platform engineering.

How We Can Help

At Practical Logix, we are a premier software development company headquartered in Pasadena, CA. We love writing best-in-class software that offers practical solutions to real-world problems. The technological ecosystem is fast-paced and constantly evolving, and we truly understand the need for software support and maintenance to remain competitive and agile.

Our mantra is simple and on point: to contribute to an improved digital lifestyle for all by developing useful and life-changing digital apps that transform clients’ lives. For information on platform engineering or inquiries on how we can help, feel free to contact us. We will be more than willing to assist!

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