What’s the Difference Between DevOps and Platform Engineering?

BY: BILL DOERRFELD ON MAY 18, 2023

The DevOps space is buzzing with a new trend—platform engineering. Platform engineering has been gaining steam over the last few years but has really peaked in interest lately. In fact, according to a study conducted by Puppet Labs, 51% of organizations have adopted platform engineering or plan to do so in the next year. But what exactly is platform engineering, and how is it different than DevOps?

Below, we’ll explore the nuances between these two concepts. We’ll review what DevOps and platform engineering are and see how they’re similar and dissimilar. We’ll also outline the benefits of platform engineering and suggest some best practices to make the most of this emerging discipline.

What is DevOps?

DevOps is a broad topic, but it generally involves efforts to increase software release efficiency and frequency. Some of the hallmarks of the DevOps discipline include reducing siloes between teams and increasing collaboration. DevOps is often directly associated with various tools that automate the process of moving code from a local environment into production, also known as continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD). Monitoring, incident management and configuration management tools also support the DevOps process.

“DevOps reflects more of a philosophy and a way of working,” said David Sandilands, senior solutions architect for Puppet. DevOps enables more of a shift left mentality. Instead of having operations teams “guarding the gates,” developers work in partnership with Ops. In doing so, groups can decrease build time significantly, he said. This style helps engineers incrementally and rapidly release new features, replacing old waterfall development cycles.

The ultimate goal of DevOps is to automate the software life cycle and shorten the feedback loop. Thus, DevOps takes a life cycle approach to shipping applications more efficiently, streamlining phases such as build, release, configure, monitor, plan, create and verify. Microservices architecture and containerization also often play a crucial role in enabling DevOps.

What is Platform Engineering?

Platform engineering is all about developing a self-service internal platform that serves the needs of developer consumers. Although DevOps opened things up and empowered individual developers with advanced automation, it left organizations with scattered tooling and processes, especially at large enterprises. For example, various infrastructure-as-code (IaC) configurations might exist for similar functions within the same organization but be unknown to engineers in different departments. Not to mention, overseeing a growing DevOps pipeline means added responsibilities around continual updates and security.

Platform engineering places more control in the hands of a central platform team rather than individual developers. These teams typically treat the platform as a product. They do so by evaluating the needs of developers across an organization, building out internal self-service tools that suit the needs of most consumers and maintaining the platform.

The 2023 State of DevOps Report found that this self-service approach typically handles areas like deployment, operation of infrastructure, monitoring production applications and security and compliance. Other capabilities, such as abstracting Kubernetes or overseeing secrets management, may also play a role in these efforts.

Benefits of Platform Engineering

  • Improve developer experience: Platform engineering can enhance the experience a developer has with their software build and release systems. A better developer experience can do loads to improve morale and create a more productive engineering atmosphere.
  • Standardize DevOps practices: By bringing together common DevOps approaches into a shared platform, organizations can begin to standardize with reusable build processes and automated infrastructure. This can unite an organization on common runtimes, observability methods and deployment processes. This can streamline the introduction of DevOps practices to an organization.
  • Secure the DevOps pipeline: Various vulnerabilities exist within tooling that comprises modern CI/CD chains and cloud-native open source software. By outsourcing DevOps responsibility to a shared platform team, the organization can coalesce around more secure practices and avoid overlooking important updates or holes.
  • Supply additional guardrails: Platform teams might also assist in the acquisition of new tools as well as outlining and enforcing policies for software infrastructure. While this may come at the cost of customization, additional guardrails can help avoid shadow IT and governance around internal development. Letting platform teams handle it could make maintenance easier across an organization.

Platform Engineering: Under the DevOps Umbrella

I don’t see platform engineering as replacing DevOps. Instead, I view platform engineering as falling under the umbrella of DevOps since platform engineering takes DevOps processes and makes them more reusable and self-service. Both use a lot of automation and share many of the same end goals.

However, there are nuances between the two approaches that reflect the recent trends in the IT market. With DevOps, the market was more interested in shifting responsibility left and empowering individual developers to oversee the entire software life cycle. Now, as sprawl and shadow IT emerge, the pendulum seems to be shifting back toward a bit more centralization and governance with platform engineering.

Platform engineering is typically more of an in-house development initiative. So, what are some best practices IT divisions should remember to get the most out of platform engineering? Hope Lynch, senior director of platform at Cloudbees, shared some great strategies to consider that revolve around treating the platform as a product. Doing this involves accepting feedback from developers, not controlling everything and always maintaining a focus on developer experience.

Hopefully, by following these tips, organizations should have a better grasp of the emerging discipline of platform engineering and have the confidence to begin introducing platform-based concepts within their own environments.

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