The Emergence of Platform Engineering as a Solution to Cloud Complexity

Named as a strategic tech trend for 2023 by Gartner, Platform Engineering is gaining traction as an answer to cloud-native complexities. By investing in internal developer platforms, organizations aim to tame the intricacies of their cloud-native stacks, boosting developer experience (DevEx) across the spectrum.

What is Platform Engineering

Platform Engineering is rapidly emerging as a potent antidote to the complexity induced by cloud-native environments.

Platform Engineering aims to abstract away much of the infrastructural complexity that developers face by providing a simple and standardized developer experience, automating repetitive tasks, and handling underlying infrastructure so that developers can focus on what they do best - writing code.

Platform Engineering alleviates the cognitive load on developers by encapsulating best practices, maintaining toolchain consistency, and streamlining workflows, improving their productivity and morale.

Some see platform engineering as the successor to DevOps or SRE, a subset of the two, or a distinct discipline. In fact, platform engineering blends the best of DevOps and SRE, aiming to enhance DevEx and delivery.

By abstracting away cloud-native infra, platform enginering equips developers with self-service capabilities, creating an optimized, streamlined platform - the so-called internal developer platform. In this article, you can dive deeper into the differences between platform engineering, DevOps, and SRE.

What is an Internal Developer Platform

In platform engineering, an Internal Developer Platform (IDP) is a self-service portal that combines all the tools and services devs need for app development. It's like your own private PaaS but built with your organization's specific requirements and workflows in mind.

At the heart of an IDP are three key components:

  1. Infrastructure Abstraction: This layer wraps your infra resources, whether on-prem or cloud, creating an easy-to-consume interface for your devs. Think of it as a language translator, converting infra-speak into dev-speak.
  2. Automation and Tooling: This engine automates provisioning, deployment, and scaling tasks. It hooks into your CI/CD pipeline, security, and other tools to create a seamless and consistent flow.
  3. Self-Service Portal: This is the UI or CLI where devs interact with the platform. It empowers developers to spin up environments, deploy applications, and manage resources, minus the back-and-forth with ops.

An effective IDP should be built around your team's needs, align with your existing tech stack, and ultimately amplify your devs' productivity. It's not about a complete overhaul; it's about orchestrating your tools and processes to propel your DevEx to the next level. We’ll be taking a closer look at the concept of an IDP later in this series.

The How and Why of Platform Engineering

Before dissecting how Platform Engineering can address the bumps of cloud-native adoption, let's unpack its underlying principles and their role in smoothing delivery.

Let’s break down Platform Engineering's six core tenets, highlighting their function and benefits to organizations. Plus, you'll find practical examples of how these principles come to life in an internal developer platform context.

Abstraction

Platform engineering paves a golden path to the core system, minimizing direct encounters with infrastructure. This approach lets devs do what they do best - write code, innovate, and ship products faster. Real-world applications of this principle can be seen in devs leveraging PaaS interfaces, effectively offloading server and database chores to the platform.

Standardization

The secret sauce of platform engineering is its unwavering emphasis on standardization, whether that's tools, interfaces, or procedures. The aim is to curb the chaos caused by configuration drift and to steer clear of "works on my machine" blunders. This can be seen in practice through Docker base images or Helm charts shared across teams to ensure the same environment and minimize hiccups.

Automation

At its heart, platform engineering is all about automating the mundane – provisioning, scaling, deploying – you name it. More automation equals less human error, better resource utilization, and snappier delivery cycles. An example that fits the bill is the use of CI/CD pipelines, which automate deployments and significantly slash error rates.

Developer Self-service

Self-service portals come as standard in platform engineering. Devs can pull in resources or spin up environments quickly sans ops help. This autonomy supercharges agility, giving devs the power to fill their resource cup on demand. A prime example of this is a Heroku-like platform that empowers devs to spin up resources and environments without leaving the organization's golden paths.

Governance and Compliance

In the platform engineering world, compliance isn't an afterthought. It's baked right into the platform DNA. Applications born on such a platform are compliant by design, upping security, reliability, and trust levels. To illustrate, consider CI/CD pipelines integrated with tools like Open Policy Agent, which enforce policies and halt non-compliant changes in their tracks.

Collaboration and Knowledge Sharing

Platform engineering champions component reuse and knowledge transfer, effectively nudging a collaborative culture. Reuse trims redundant efforts and enhances code quality. Plus, teams can piggyback on each other's progress. This can be realized through sharing code libraries or microservices across projects. For instance, an authentication service built once can be used multiple times.

Recap: How Cloud-Native Degrades the Developer Experience

Dilbert on Cloud Apps

Adoption of cloud-native principles brings along numerous benefits, no doubt. However, it has its fair share of hurdles, especially regarding DevEx. Let's quickly recap some of these cloud-native adoption pain points we previously discussed.

  1. Navigating Complexity: The complexity of cloud-native technologies can be daunting. We're dealing with intricate tech stacks, Kubernetes, service meshes, and serverless, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Mastering this complexity can eat up developers' time and cognitive capacity, significantly impacting DevEx.
  2. Avoiding Fragmentation: In the cloud-native world, a multitude of tools are available for every task. But the resulting fragmentation can lead to inconsistencies, learning overload, and decision fatigue. Not to mention, the desire to chase the latest, greatest tool can lead to the infamous "shiny object syndrome", further exacerbating the complexity.
  3. Managing Learning Curve: As new languages, frameworks, and paradigms continue to proliferate in the tech landscape, the learning curve can become a major hurdle. Onboarding new hires or getting devs up-to-speed with these can slow down velocity and frustrate the team.
  4. Balancing Operational Responsibilities: More than just coding, developers often find themselves handling operational tasks. Think manual infrastructure management, deployment, scaling, and fault recovery. These necessary but low-value tasks distract from their core mission - delivering great software.
  5. Addressing Increased Dependencies: Distributed systems and microservices come with their own set of complexities. The web of dependencies between services makes troubleshooting akin to finding a needle in a haystack. This only escalates as systems scale and evolve.
  6. Keeping Up with Tech Landscape: The cloud-native landscape is ever-evolving, almost at a breakneck pace. Trying to stay on top of new developments, best practices, and innovative tools is a full-time job in itself. This could leave developers overwhelmed and distracted.

These pain points pose significant challenges to DevEx in the era of cloud-native. Platform engineering emerges as a beacon of hope in this context, providing tools and practices designed to alleviate these issues. Next, let's examine how platform engineering can turn the tide on these challenges.

How Platform Engineering Improves the Developer Experience

Enforcing Compliance and Boundaries

At the core of Platform Engineering, you'll find a hard focus on enforcing compliance and boundaries. The approach is twofold - standardization and automation. These twin tactics serve to insulate your devs from any compliance missteps while also providing a clear pathway to follow, saving time and confusion.

End-to-End Software Lifecycle Management

Equipping your developers with DIY tools for end-to-end software lifecycle management is another cornerstone of platform engineering. It's a strategy that goes a long way in fostering innovation and speeding up product delivery. The key is to provide tools that simplify, not complicate. Tools that help developers manage their applications, from inception to deployment and beyond, with less friction, fewer handovers, and minimal bottlenecks.

Shrinking Infrastructure Complexity

One of the major challenges developers face is wrestling with the intricacies of infrastructure. Here, Platform Engineering's role comes to the fore, sculpting a top-notch DevEx by shrinking infrastructure complexity into approachable abstraction layers. The goal is to liberate developers from the infrastructure management quagmire and let them focus on what they do best – writing stellar code.

Now, let's look at how Platform Engineering provides solutions to specific issues developers often face when adopting cloud-native technologies.

Tackling Increased Complexity

In a cloud-native landscape, the complexity can be overwhelming. Developer platforms are designed to cut through this complexity, allowing developers to focus on their app logic rather than getting tangled up in writing YAML for Kubernetes manifests. This is the essence of driving a productive DevEx – minimize the distractions and let developers get on with developing.

Countering Fragmented Tooling

One of the common challenges is dealing with a plethora of tools - a clear symptom of "shiny object syndrome." Platform Engineering counters this by providing a standard toolset that promotes consistency and curbs the chaos. By enforcing tooling consistency, we ensure a less cluttered, more streamlined, and ultimately more effective development process.

Flattening the Learning Curve

With every new technology, there's a learning curve. Platform Engineering addresses this by providing an intuitive PaaS interface, making it easier for developers to navigate unfamiliar tech. It's all about making the unknown less daunting and more accessible, catalyzing a faster uptake of new tech.

Reducing the Operational Burden

Handling cloud infrastructure chores, managing CI/CD pipelines, and other operational tasks can be a drain on developers' time and energy. By automating these operational burdens, Platform Engineering frees developers for the high-value work of coding and problem-solving, driving productivity and innovation.

Managing Increased Dependencies

The trend towards microservices increases inter-service dependencies. Without the right tooling, troubleshooting can turn into an arduous detective job. Platform Engineering provides the right dependency management tools, untangling the web of microservices and making life significantly easier for your developers.

Handling Diverse and Constantly Evolving Technologies

Technology keeps evolving, and staying on top of the latest trends is a challenge. Platform Engineering teams shoulder this responsibility, ensuring developers are shielded from the fatigue of constant change. They manage tech trendspotting, keeping the dev teams focused on their core tasks rather than perpetually chasing the next shiny new tech.

By addressing these areas, Platform Engineering acts as the antidote to the complexity that cloud-native can bring, resulting in a significantly enhanced developer experience.

Benefits of Improving DevEx with Platform Engineering

Leveraging platform engineering to tackle the cloud-native adoption challenges significantly amps up DevEx. It not only helps manage complexity but sets the stage for increased productivity.

  1. Speed: Abstracting infrastructure complexities and standardizing tools shaves off valuable time in development cycles, allowing devs to ship faster. It's less 'reinvent the wheel', more 'build and ship'.
  2. Productivity: With less cognitive load, developers can focus their energy on writing code and creating instead of juggling infra tasks. It’s about moving devs from being ‘jacks of all trades’ to masters of one.
  3. Learning curve: Platform engineering eases onboarding for new team members, offering a consistent and intuitive environment. This reduces time-to-value for new hires.
  4. Autonomy: The self-service capabilities of an internal developer platform empower devs to provision and manage resources independently, reducing dependency on ops teams.
  5. Compliance and Security: Embedded governance ensures built-in compliance without compromising agility. It's like having a safety net while trapezing through your cloud environment.

Overall, improved DevEx translates to happier developers, shorter time-to-market, and robust, high-quality software. It's a win-win for both business and tech teams.

Up Next: Getting Started with Platform Engineering

Now that we’ve established an understanding of the core principles of Platform Engineering and the benefits they provide for improving delivery overall and DevEx, we’ll be jumping into how to get started. In the next part of our series, we’ll take a closer look at how to find the right entry point for adopting Platform Engineering inside your org.

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