Purple white and red flowers.
Our garden is growing. We've raised a Series A funding round.
Read more here

Platform Engineering: What is it and how does it work?

Susannah Brodnitz
Susannah Brodnitz
April 4, 2023

Software development is becoming more and more complex for developers to manage as organizations use more tools and clouds. As a result, many are turning to platform engineering to simplify their workflows and processes.

Software creation often involves a lot of complicated steps to get software into production, like managing repositories and infrastructure components. 

The more manual procedures involved, the more likely it is that human error will occur and slow everything down. The steps for developing applications are also often not well documented which makes it difficult to communicate within an organization and to train new employees.

Platform engineering is a new field that is becoming a popular process for making software development more efficient. It seeks to solve these problems and lessen the obstacles in the way of developers. Platform engineers create and manage self-service tools that software engineers can use to develop and deploy code efficiently. 

This article is here to help you learn what platform engineering is, how it differs from DevOps, what platform engineers do, and the key principles platform engineering is based on.

What is platform engineering?

Platform engineering is the process of creating tools and workflows to help software engineers move applications into production more quickly and consistently. It’s meant to take into account the whole lifecycle of software from initial programming to production. 

What are platform engineering workflows?

Workflows help developers get code into production in an efficient, repeatable way. Platform engineering workflows often include a source control system to track and manage code changes. They also often include a continuous integration system so developers can regularly merge their code changes into a central repository with automated builds and tests. 

These workflows also need to have a method of deploying artifacts, which are byproducts of development like diagrams or setup scripts. Workflows with clear steps and more automated pieces speed up development and are less likely to lead to errors.

What does platform engineering mean for growing teams?

When the number of engineers using a workflow grows, the kind of workflow a project requires might change. The structure of a workflow will also probably need to be different for different engineering teams within an organization. 

One way of addressing this is with self-service infrastructure. This lets developers working on applications set up and maintain infrastructure themselves instead of needing IT operations teams to do it. It’s common for platform engineering to apply self-service infrastructure to workflows for alerting, deployment, and continuous integration/continuous development (CI/CD). 

As organizations grow, platform engineers also need to focus more on facilitating collaboration and communication. They need to educate developers on how to use the platform and best practices for developing applications using the workflows they create. At growing companies platform engineers also need to spend more time creating tools for different engineering teams to collaborate effectively.

Platform engineering responsibilities

Many platform engineering teams maintain an internal developer portal. This is a piece of software that puts together information scattered throughout different tools and parts of an organization so that every engineer can find the data they need to understand and deploy applications they’re working on throughout the lifecycle of these applications, regardless of what cloud they’re using or what team they’re on. 

Internal developer portals are self-service and let developers find the information they need about infrastructure and applications in a convenient place. They also give operations teams easy access to the information they need to do their jobs. 

Internal developer portals let developers choose a level of abstraction for running applications depending on what they need to do and how they’re most comfortable working. Developers can decide if they want an environment that has everything they need to test and deploy their code built-in or they can manually work with the tools their application is on.

What are the differences between platform engineering and DevOps?

The basic description of Platform Engineering, that it exists to make development more efficient, sounds a lot like DevOps. There are some key differences between the two, however, that it’s important to be aware of. 

DevOps vs. platform engineering

Platform engineers focus on helping developers manage the complex processes involved in creating and deploying applications and they create tools and workflows to help with this. DevOps engineers work to bring together development and operations teams, automating more processes and testing code earlier in the development process. 

DevOps is meant to combine development and operations for quick, high quality software development. One of the key principles DevOps is based on is shared ownership so both developers and operations engineers are invested in all aspects of the software development lifecycle. 

Other important DevOps principles are workflow automation and quick feedback. DevOps engineers work to shorten the time from when a developer commits a change to when that change is put into production. 

DevOps includes tools and practices designed for these purposes, as well as a culture of communication between development and operations teams within an organization. DevOps is still an evolving field and new approaches are still being developed.

Why use DevOps?

Organizations that have a microservices based architectural style often use DevOps. This kind of architecture breaks complex applications down into smaller pieces that organizations can deploy independently of each other. Some of the tools DevOps engineers use to automate processes include virtual machines, containers, and CI/CD. 

Virtual machines are computer files that function as physical computers. They can run applications and different operating systems. Containers are software packages that include all the code and dependencies for an application to run in any environment. 

CI/CD is the combination of continuous integration (small changes frequently merged into a main branch rather than infrequent large changes) and continuous delivery (software produced in short cycles with a simple deployment process so organizations can release it whenever they need to). 

It builds automatic processes and tests into the development and deployment of applications, which helps reduce errors. It’s easier to check frequent small updates for errors than infrequent updates that contain many changes, any one of which could have a bug. CI/CD lets organizations find bugs earlier and release software more quickly.

Why use platform engineering?

Platform engineering is based on some of the same ideas as DevOps, like automation and CI/CD. Both Platform engineering and DevOps also focus on creating high quality and secure applications in addition to speed and efficiency. 

The key difference is that platform engineers focus on building tools to help software engineers and DevOps engineers focus on the overall work involved in building and deploying software and don’t often create tools. A platform engineer’s focus also can depend on the organization they work for. 

Some newer companies have systems built natively in the cloud, while other older companies have legacy enterprise systems they are trying to migrate, and platform engineers can help develop workflows for that process that focus on ease, speed, and security. 

Many software development companies are organized differently today than they were a decade ago. Instead of being built up of large departments like development, operations, and release, they have small teams working independently on developing applications. Platform engineering supports these teams and can sometimes fill in where operations did in the past. 

Both DevOps and platform engineering teams can also use commercial and external tools to improve developer experience.

What platform engineers do

Platform engineers create tools and workflows for software developers, usually as part of an organization’s internal developer portal. To create these tools, platform engineers need to have a good grasp of software engineering. They need to understand an organization’s product and goals and how developers like to work. 

In addition to understanding software development at a deep level, platform engineers need to have good communication skills. Platform engineering teams collaborate with many other departments in an organization to create tools and workflows for them and they need to be able to take feedback well and proactively reach out to others to find out what tools they need. 

Platform engineering teams also try to make it easier to work with an organization’s infrastructure. Infrastructure as code is a term for programming solutions to formerly manual infrastructure tasks like managing operating systems, installing software packages, configuring servers.

How platform engineers use internal developer platforms

Internal developer platforms are a key part of platform engineering. They are applications that contain data and tools to help engineers develop and run software. Keeping all of this information in one place simplifies things greatly, especially in an industry where many things are scattered across different clouds and tools. 

The information contained in an internal developer platforms includes documentation, application performance, ownership, and more. This kind of information helps engineers detect vulnerabilities and lets them find dependency information more easily as they work on code changes. It also makes it easier for an organization to track metrics and meet standards and goals. 

Some platform engineering teams add templates for common tasks to internal developer portals to make writing and deploying common types of code easier for engineers.

Platform engineering key principles

Platform engineering is a relatively new field and is still developing. But there are some key ideas that make platform engineering teams successful at achieving their goals for more efficient software development with self-service tools. 

Define goals

One thing that’s important is for platform engineering teams to have a defined role and a clear idea of what they should be doing. If an organization doesn’t articulate what the platform team does from the outset, they can wind up solving problems on an ad hoc basis instead of creating workflows and self-service solutions. 

Platform engineering teams should have plans and projects to work on, they shouldn’t function as a call center fielding requests to create environments.

Collaborate to find solutions

Platform engineers should listen to developers, and there should be a clear pathway for communication and feedback. The workflows and tools platform engineers create are meant to be tangibly useful and the team should always consider how what they’re creating will help software engineers develop applications. 

As platform engineering teams collect feedback they can use it to be strategic in how they address issues. It’s often more efficient to focus on creating workflows for common procedures or ones that are especially complicated.

Automate monotonous tasks

The tools platform engineers create are important and organizations can categorize them as an internal product. It can be helpful to think of the engineers who will use these tools as customers so that the platform engineering team can think like a product team in terms of coming up with a release schedule, creating documentation, and more. 

Overall, platform engineers should focus on making things simpler. Teams should automate processes where possible and try to prevent developers from having to carry out repetitive manual tasks.

Key takeaways

Cloud native software development helps organizations scale applications more easily and increases availability but also leads to more complicated architectures. 

Developers need to work with tons of different tools to test and deploy code changes. Platform engineering is an approach to software development that can help speed up the creation and release of applications. It includes self-service tools for developers and automated infrastructure. 

Platform engineers work to create reusable internal tools and workflows, to help software engineers work on complex problems quickly and efficiently. Automating infrastructure operations also creates a better work experience.

Many platform engineering teams create internal developer platforms. Engineers working at an organization can use internal developer platforms independently in a self-service style to get the information and tools they need. 

The specific needs of different software development teams shape what tools and workflows platform engineering teams create. Platform engineering is meant to make developers more productive by making their jobs simpler.

previous arrow
newt arrow