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March 22, 2024

What Is Platform Engineering? The Concept Behind the Term

What is platform engineering? It consists of removing obstacles between developers and production. Learn more about it in this post.

Enabling Platform Engineering in the Enterprise

Enterprises have many different types of platforms - COTS tools, PaaS, SaaS, cloud service providers, on-premise infrastructure, AI/ML, big data, application security, etc. The rate of platform growth and complexity involved in integrating these platforms isn’t slowing and is why the focus on Platform Engineering has become an important strategy for enterprise IT organizations. 

Platform Engineering reduces the friction in software delivery by providing standardized tools and services to enterprise delivery teams allowing them to focus on creating business value rather than getting bogged down by the platform complexity. This leads to faster innovation, higher quality software, and improved delivery lead time. 

As described in the CNCF Platforms Whitepaper, platforms provide enterprises with the following benefits:

  1. Reduce the cognitive load on product teams and thereby accelerate product development and delivery
  2. Improve reliability and resiliency of products relying on platform capabilities by dedicating experts to configure and manage them
  3. Accelerate product development and delivery by reusing and sharing platform tools and knowledge across many teams in an enterprise
  4. Reduce risk of security, regulatory and functional issues in products and services by governing platform capabilities and the users, tools and processes surrounding them
  5. Enable cost-effective and productive use of services from public clouds and other managed offerings by enabling delegation of implementations to those providers while maintaining control over user experience

Gartner states: “By 2026, 80% of large software engineering organizations will establish Platform Engineering teams as internal providers of reusable services, components and tools for application delivery.” 

Most enterprises see this focus as a natural extension of DevOps practices and are reorganizing efforts with Platform Engineering as the goal. Let’s break down what Platform Engineering is and what it means to build modern platforms and platform teams in the enterprise.

What is Platform Engineering?

Platform Engineering is fundamentally about building and maintaining robust, scalable, and efficient platforms that enable software teams to deliver high-quality products rapidly and reliably. These platforms are designed to break down barriers between developers and their products reaching production by accelerating delivery through automation and self-service capabilities. 

Platform Engineering brings a product mindset to internal platform teams, allowing them to offer their platforms as a product. This focus provides a compelling offering to internal development teams as well as other platform teams who are building capabilities to accelerate delivery. 

From Martin Fowler: “A digital platform is a foundation of self-service APIs, tools, services, knowledge and support which are arranged as a compelling internal product. Autonomous delivery teams can make use of the platform to deliver product features at a higher pace, with reduced coordination.”

Why is Platform Engineering Important?

At its core, Platform Engineering is about improving product delivery and developer experience (DevEx). We're talking about creating platforms that act as force multipliers for development teams. This involves providing a set of tools, services, and capabilities that developers can self-serve in a reliable, secure, and efficient manner. There are many capabilities that must exist for enterprise teams to deliver - Infrastructure as Code, CI/CD pipelines, security, governance/compliance, monitoring, and logging. All of these are capabilities within the domain of Platform Engineering designed to streamline the path from development to production.

As Platform Engineering has matured, Internal Developer Platforms (IDP) have become much more important. Products like Backstage by Spotify have helped formalize how platforms can help onboard, accelerate, and provide visibility into the delivery system for development teams. IDPs focus on integrating and providing access to platform capabilities mentioned above. Platform Engineering focuses on providing all of these capabilities to development teams to help reduce cognitive load and improve flow and time to market.

What does a Platform Engineering Team Do?

Platform Engineering or platform teams are not a new concept by any means, but the focus on building platforms has really matured over the past few years. DevOps methodologies and SRE practices have been where many of these capabilities have been focused but if teams have been built around them, they are likely not set up as platform teams today. Let’s look at some of the differences and how a modern Platform Engineering team should be built. 

Platform Engineering vs. DevOps

While DevOps and Platform Engineering share common goals of streamlining software delivery, they really should be very different. DevOps is a cultural shift that promotes collaboration between development and operations teams to break down silos. Platform Engineering, however, provides specific tangible outcomes in the form of self-service platforms and tools that developers can use without needing direct intervention from operations. 

Think of DevOps as part of a mindset that enables team collaboration and communication, while Platform Engineering equips those teams with the tools they need to be efficient. 

Many enterprises have created DevOps teams to deliver the capabilities in Platform Engineering but that has led to an overloading of tools and a need for these teams to be experts in many different areas. Platform Engineering allows these teams to scale and organize around capabilities that can be built as separate products rather than “one team” focused on everything.

Platform Engineering vs. SRE

While both Platform Engineering and Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) aim to enhance the reliability and efficiency of software delivery, they approach it differently. SRE is more about applying software engineering principles to solve operational problems, ensuring systems are scalable, reliable, and efficient. Platform Engineering is about providing foundational tools and services that enable developers to quickly and safely deliver their applications. SRE can be seen as maintaining the car's engine, while platform engineering focuses on building the roads and navigation tools.

Building a Modern Platform Team

Team Topologies introduces the concept of how platform teams should provide a compelling internal service that other teams in the organization can use to accelerate their work. Platform or Platform Engineering teams need to think like product teams, where their product is the platform itself. Their success is measured by how well they enable stream-aligned teams to deliver value to the end customer without getting bogged down in infrastructure or process complexity.

In this model, while stream-aligned product delivery teams retain complete responsibility for developing, operating, and troubleshooting their applications in production, platform teams supply internal services that these teams can leverage. Platform teams develop capabilities accessible to multiple teams, reducing their workload and cognitive overhead. 

The product mindset in platform teams is critical. Treating your platform as a product means it needs to solve real problems for its users - your developers. If the platform doesn't make their job easier, safer, and more efficient, it's missing the point altogether. This requires creating a culture of communicating continuous feedback and being able to adapt. The platform must evolve based on the needs and pain points of its users, ensuring it remains helpful rather than creating more roadblocks for them.

Building modern platforms really means building better methods of communication for platform teams and their products. Platform teams will avoid becoming a “catch-all ops team” by defining clear domains and contexts for their products. This is where APIs define the lines between teams and platforms, creating intentional boundaries and enabling a modular architecture where teams can operate independently yet cohesively. By leveraging APIs, Platform teams ensure that dev teams can access the infrastructure and tooling they need without unnecessary delays, driving autonomy and enabling rapid iteration.

Accelerating Cloud Modernization via Platform Engineering

Platform Engineering is about creating a foundation for development teams to accelerate the delivery of dynamic, resilient, and scalable solutions. Platforms combine comprehensive tooling, bespoke automation, and a culture that enables feedback and continuous learning. Platform Engineering equips teams with the capabilities to innovate at speed, adapt to changes fluidly, and overcome technical challenges with much less friction. 

We can’t ignore that at the heart of this transformation is the empowerment of development teams. With the right platforms, tools, and practices in place, these teams can focus on what they do best: building great software. Platform Engineering doesn't just pave the way for modernizing infrastructure; it reshapes how organizations approach product development, delivery, and operations in a more cloud native or cloud-centric way.

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