What's the difference between platform engineering and DevOps?

Taylor Bruneaux


DevOps has been a reliable compass for decades, guiding software development with its principles and practices. It’s been a steady hand, disrupting traditional methods, breaking down long release cycles, and forging connections between development and operations.

Enter “platform engineering,” a newcomer quietly gaining ground in the landscape. With software development organizations seeking improved quality and developer efficiency at scale, it’s becoming a subtle force, garnering attention and interest.

But how do platform engineering and DevOps navigate together? In this piece, we’ll explore their complementary nature, tracing their shared path and offering strategies to improve both within your organization.

What is DevOps?

DevOps is a set of practices that unite development and operations in a unified process. Rather than managing software development and release/maintenance as separate operations, DevOps encourages both disciplines to work together as a single team to ensure fast and stable releases.

Before DevOps, software development generally followed a “waterfall” approach that had the following characteristics:

  • Release cadences would last anywhere from three months to two years. Developers often needed more say in scheduling or estimation.
  • Teams would work through the phases of the software development lifecycle—requirements, design, development, testing, and release—in strict order, not entering the n+1 phase until they finished the n phase.
  • Developers would develop in their environments and then hand their work to the Operations team to deploy.
  • Systems engineers would work to stabilize the release provided by Development in a production environment.

Teams repeatedly ran into multiple issues with this approach. Release cadences were slow and subject to delays as work estimates proved inaccurate. Due to the long cadences, projects couldn’t quickly adapt to changing requirements. Finally, deployments to production were largely manual and error-prone.

DevOps seeks to address these issues by including engineers as more active participants in the software development lifecycle. While DevOps doesn’t have a single, definitive set of practices, the following are hallmarks of many DevOps implementations:

  • Release cadences run between one and four weeks using a planning method such as Agile sprints or Kanban boards. Engineers are closely involved in the planning and estimating and commit to what they feel they can reasonably deliver.
  • The team works through all phases of the software development lifecycle rapidly, focusing on delivering a limited set of features in a single release.
  • Developers and systems engineers bundle applications with dependencies using infrastructure-as-code and containers to reduce deployment issues.
  • All engineers work closely to ship a release through carefully tested stages, using tools such as Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) pipelines to automate testing and release.

The benefits of DevOps

DevOps seeks to improve the software development process along several vectors:

Improve software quality

As its name suggests, “DevOps” seeks to eliminate the separation between development and release by building automated release procedures into the development process. This relationship reduces the disconnect between the two processes and eliminates errors introduced through manual deployments.

Deliver software rapidly

DevOps emphasizes the continuous integration and delivery (CI/CD) of software, allowing teams to deploy minor, well-tested updates to production frequently. This approach minimizes the risk of significant errors and enables quicker adaptation to market demands or user feedback. DevOps facilitates rapid and reliable feature deployment by automating and optimizing the development pipeline, keeping the product development cycle agile and efficient.

Deal quickly with change.

It’s hard to adjust to change when you’ve planned a software release 18 months in advance. DevOps teams can adjust their feature plans as market conditions change thanks to their short, rapid deployment cycles.

Improve developer satisfaction

Hard-to-understand and hard-to-use deployment processes make onboarding and retaining engineering talent harder. Better deployment tooling improves developer satisfaction, boosting overall productivity and making retaining top talent easier.

What is platform engineering?

Platform engineering is a specialized field that focuses on creating and maintaining robust, scalable, and automated platforms for software development. Whereas DevOps creates a set of processes and tools at the team level, platform engineering universalizes the best practices across a company’s teams.

Platform engineering aims to answer the question, ‘how do I build software at my company?’

More often than not, this question has a complicated answer, as most companies have procedures and tools for managing cost, security, and compliance. Without a unified approach to answering this question, new developers may find it takes months to learn - and, in some cases, find - all of the tools and processes required to ship software correctly.

Companies often need to create a platform engineering team when there are too many developers and teams to manage this educational process via traditional onboarding and training methods.

The tools and processes that a platform engineering team builds out may include:

  • Service registration and onboarding tools for creating and registering a service, tracking its source code repositories for compliance, and provisioning cloud accounts with centralized cost tracking.
  • Infrastructure-as-code templates enable the creation of common infrastructure patterns in an organization’s cloud or on-premises computing infrastructure. Platform engineers can use them to set up the virtual servers, networks, storage, and permissions to initialize a new REST API service.
  • CI/CD pipeline templates that teams can use to build application changes on source code check-in and stand-up environments and automatically test them through the various release stages. The templates include organizational best practices for ensuring quality and security, such as a test automation framework, binary security scanning, credential scanning, and secure dependency management.
  • Observability infrastructure tools for shipping logs and metrics to a centralized location so DevOps teams can receive alerts on potential issues, perform root cause analysis, and ship fixes to production quickly to minimize application downtime.
  • Security and compliance infrastructure can include standard tooling to manage authentication and authorization centrally across all apps and customers. It also includes dashboards and toolkits that enable teams to label their data, designating which data represents potentially sensitive information, such as a customer’s personally identifiable information (PII).
  • Application health and productivity metrics about the state of a team’s application and the overall health of their development process. They may include DORA metrics such as the number of successful deployments, the lead time to push changes, the time to restore service, and the change failure rate.

Benefits of platform engineering

Here are a few ways a platform engineering function can positively impact your business.

Improves overall developer experience

By centralizing best practices, platform engineering significantly improves developer experience by saving individual teams from having to reinvent the wheel regarding foundational tools and services.

Platform engineering prevents teams from sinking time into developing CI/CD pipelines, allowing them to focus more on their app’s core business logic, thereby improving their productivity and satisfaction. As creating and modifying these tools is the core responsibility of the platform engineering team, it possesses the bandwidth to respond to feedback and continually make improvements.

Manage and monitor costs centrally

A platform engineering function centralizes and optimizes costs by standardizing tools, cloud resources, and processes across an organization. Standardization reduces the need for separate resources and infrastructure for each team, leading to economies of scale and more efficient use of human resources, significantly lowering overhead and operational costs. Centralizing also improves security and compliance, mitigating risks that can lead to costly penalties.

Provide a uniform approach to governance

Platform engineering standardizes tools and infrastructure across development teams, ensuring consistent governance through automation, orchestration, and enforced security protocols. It integrates robust monitoring and compliance checks, maintaining continuous oversight and adherence to regulatory requirements.

Improved collaboration and communication

When all teams in an organization utilize the same set of tools—including unified source code repositories, shared data infrastructure, and consistent CI/CD (Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment) pipelines—it facilitates smoother collaboration on joint projects.

This shared toolset ensures that all members are on the same page, boosting efficiency and minimizing integration issues that arise from using disparate systems. Moreover, platform engineering catalyzes the sharing of knowledge and expertise across teams by introducing them to best practices and proven tools. This approach not only streamlines processes but also accelerates innovation, as teams can learn from each other’s experiences and adopt solutions that have already demonstrated success in similar environments.

DevOps vs. platform engineering

It might seem like there’s some overlap between DevOps and platform engineering. That’s not a coincidence.

You can think of DevOps as a process and platform engineering as its implementation. In other words, platform engineering implements DevOps at scale.

Developing a DevOps practice can be time-consuming, involving developing toolsets and changing a team’s culture. Platform engineering enables teams to shorten this ramp-up process by providing tools and best practices that other teams at the company already use.

How platform engineering and DevOps are different

That said, there are some critical differences between the two practices. The following table summarizes how the two practices are distinct:


Platform Engineering

A method of software development

A formalization of software development best practices

Implemented at the team level

Implemented at the organizational level

Enables teams to pick their tools

Creates a standard toolkit to build applications and more domain-specific tooling

It provides the freedom to experiment and innovate at the micro level

Provides consistency, scalability, and accountability at the macro level

How platform engineering and DevOps work together

DevOps and platform engineering can exist together as complementary practices within a company. Teams can use DevOps to improve their approach to software development from the bottom up, experimenting with various practices to discover what works for them. Meanwhile, platform engineering can work from the top down to create centralized tooling. They ensure a stable and adaptable infrastructure that improves software delivery.

Platform engineering complements DevOps by enhancing the tools and infrastructure to make DevOps practices more effective. When working together, the two practices can transform organizational structures and processes.

The result? Improved team productivity, faster development cycles, and higher-quality software.

Here are some ways that DevOps and platform engineering both improve the developer experience.

Standardizing development environments

DevOps and platform engineering teams collaborate closely to create standardized development, testing, and production environments by defining and implementing uniform configurations and toolsets across all stages of the software development lifecycle.

This standardization helps reduce inconsistencies arising from different teams using varied tools and practices, thereby enhancing the predictability and stability of the development process. By aligning on common platforms and automation tools, such as Docker for containerization or Jenkins for continuous integration, they ensure that code behaves consistently from one environment to another.

Identify common pain points.

DevOps and platform engineering teams can improve the developer experience by collaborating to identify pain points through developer feedback and metrics and then centralizing tooling and processes to address these issues efficiently.

For example, a developer portal that simplifies the initiation of new services can significantly reduce setup times and errors. Additionally, platform engineering can tackle broader organizational issues like cloud spend by implementing cost-effective policies and tools, ensuring developer-centric and economically beneficial solutions.

Emphasize automation and self-service

Platform engineering can significantly conserve developer time by implementing essential but time-consuming tooling, such as CI/CD pipelines and metrics collection. By providing self-service tools that streamline application development, platform engineering allows development teams to focus on their core mission of feature writing with minimal overhead.

This approach speeds up the development process and fosters a collaborative relationship where development teams see platform engineering as a trusted enabler and partner.

Foster communication between platform engineering and DevOps teams

Platform engineering aims to enhance the daily work experience of software developers, making it crucial to maintain clear communication and feedback channels between platform engineering and DevOps teams. Platform engineering teams should proactively engage with DevOps to understand their best practices, successes, challenges, and needs for improving job performance. They can utilize various methods such as surveys, office hours, and one-on-one meetings to directly gather feedback from developers, helping them pinpoint what is effective and, critically, what needs improvement.

Comprehensive operational excellence

DevOps and platform engineering teams collaborate to establish robust monitoring tools and feedback loops. This enables continuous assessment and improvement of applications and infrastructure, which boosts performance and reliability.

They integrate security measures early in the development lifecycle through DevSecOps practices, safeguarding applications against potential threats. Additionally, these teams work together to optimize cloud resources and infrastructure, streamlining technology utilization and reducing operational costs.

Platform engineering and DevOps are distinct but complementary practices. DevOps is a software development method, while platform engineering implements DevOps best practices at scale. By leveraging both, companies can enhance software development at the team level while simultaneously encoding best practices and reducing redundancy through centralized tooling.

April 17, 2024

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