Platform Engineering 101: Supercharging Dev, Sec, and Ops Harmony with Automation

Platform Engineering 101: Supercharging Dev, Sec, and Ops Harmony with Automation

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8 min read

Last month, Gartner released its latest report, "Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends", and platform engineering has made a notable move, climbing one spot from last year to claim the 4th position. The report brings to light Gartner's forward-looking prediction: By 2026, 80% of software engineering organizations will establish platform teams as internal providers of reusable services, components, and tools for application delivery.

What is Platform Engineering?

According to Gartner, platform engineering is the discipline of building and operating self-service internal platforms – each platform is a layer, created and maintained by a dedicated product team, designed to support the needs of its users by interfacing with tools and processes.

It addresses some of the biggest challenges of scaling DevOps, including the burden of managing complex tools and infrastructure networks throughout SDLC. Whether it's infrastructure configuration, pipelines, monitoring, or container management, self-service platforms encapsulate these complex issues, providing developers with all the necessary tools out of the box.

Platform teams automate infrastructure management and empower developers to self-serve reliable tools and workflows from a centrally managed technical platform. By alleviating the cognitive load on development teams, platform engineering marks a significant shift in cloud-native software delivery.

Platform Engineering vs DevSecOps

DevSecOps shifts security to the left in the development process, simplifying deployment, management, monitoring, and security governance using various tools. It ensures the security of software development while gaining the advantages of DevOps agile delivery. Platform engineering borrows from DevSecOps practices by adopting these tools, processes, and best practices, and productizes them as reusable services and tools for use in different development teams and real-world scenarios within the organization.

For example, every product team within an organization may have a certificate rotation requirement. In this case, having a unified service to address this need would save a lot of trouble, emphasizing the need for a repeatable solution. If multiple requirements are similar, it indicates that the organization needs a platform to collectively address such issues, rather than having each team reinvent the wheel.

Platform engineering has emerged as DevOps matures and scales. In the early stages of DevOps (or DevSecOps), each internal development team in the organization creates practices that suit its specific needs. For instance, artifacts can be Terraform templates or modules that engineers can clone and customize with their configurations. However, once cloned, the original templates or modules are often no longer maintained. Consequently, if problems arise, the solutions are typically found within individual teams.

As the organization matures and grows, DevSecOps transitions to a later maturity stage. At this stage, the organization begins collecting data points and understanding the impact of DevSecOps tools and practices. It becomes apparent that different teams are independently solving the same problems, which is highly inefficient. Therefore, internal teams within the organization need to leverage a unified shared platform to avoid duplicating efforts.

As the organization matures and grows, DevSecOps transitions to a later maturity stage. At this stage, the organization begins collecting data points and understanding the impact of DevSecOps tools and practices. It becomes apparent that different teams are independently solving the same problems, which is highly inefficient. Therefore, internal teams within the organization need to leverage a unified shared platform to avoid duplicating efforts.

Key Advantages of Platform Engineering

As mentioned above, platform engineering offers several key advantages for development teams. In this section, we will delve into the primary benefits of platform engineering.

Accelerating Development Cycles

Without platform engineering, many development processes are manual. Tasks, like manually creating and configuring code repositories, managing cloud infrastructure, or setting up CI/CD pipelines, can be time-consuming and error-prone. Many security issues arise from misconfigurations.

Platform engineering places a strong emphasis on process automation. With the help of automated platforms, developers can transfer their code more quickly. Developers can now initiate environments and deliver their software through self-service, significantly speeding up development cycles. A code pipeline integrated with automated testing will deliver business value to your customers without compromising quality or progress. As a result, time to market is reduced.

Eliminating Operational Complexities

Self-service deployment of infrastructure and applications eliminates complexity from the workflow. Platform engineering automates the entire DevOps cycle, boosting productivity and reducing the burden on developers. In the traditional approach, developers rely on DevOps teams to create and maintain software deployments. Today, with the self-service portal, developers can independently and rapidly deliver new versions. This simplifies internal organization development processes.

Elevating Product Development to the Next Level

Consider this scenario: a developer needs to make a minor change to a microservices application, moving it from the staging phase to the production environment in a multi-cluster Kubernetes environment. Only developers with expertise in Kubernetes, Helm charts, and Terraform modules could manage this deployment entirely on their own. However, SMBs may not have the budget to hire numerous seasoned developers for this. With the assistance of platform engineering, developers do not need to offload such tasks to the operations team. A few clicks are all it takes to push the code to any environment without delving into the complex underlying architecture. This enhances feedback iteration among different team members, leading to a more refined product that delivers significant business value to customers.

Automated Environment Scaling for Applications

Most CI/CD configurations primarily focus on updating container images. The CI server constructs images and updates image paths within the configuration. However, tasks can be somewhat complex, such as:

  • Spin up new environments

  • Remove environment images/Change existing environment configurations

  • Rollback of the newly configured environment

  • Add/Remove resources from environments

Platform engineering offers comprehensive environment automation for development environments. Developers can create, duplicate, remove, and update deployment environments without needing to understand the underlying architectural details. This means even entry-level UX developers can independently use an environment fully configured with everything they need to deploy and test. The ability to automate environments enables rapid and efficient business growth.

The advantages of the platform engineering teams mentioned above are quite appealing. But does every organization need to adopt them?

When Does an Organization Need a Platform Engineering Team?

If an organization already has cross-functional teams in place to manage application infrastructure, deployment, and operations, it might already be inadvertently performing some aspects of platform engineering.

Additionally, when an organization has a mature product, a clear development vision, and plans to expand into new markets, it's an opportune moment to consider building a platform team.

Moreover, when business leaders wish to empower development teams to focus exclusively on product development rather than getting entangled in infrastructure configuration, code pipeline setup, or key management, an organization requires a platform engineering team. With this team's assistance, application developers can seamlessly push their code into production environments.

In cases where the number of engineering team members within the organization is growing, and cloud-native applications need to scale, relying solely on technical experts is insufficient. Collaboration between teams becomes crucial. Not all team members in a development team possess equal proficiency in handling scaling operations. A weak link within the team can slow down the entire development cycle. In such scenarios, a platform engineering team becomes an ideal choice.

On the other hand, if the organization is relatively small, with only a handful of developers building a monolithic application, the benefits of a platform team may not be immediately evident. In such cases, it's more critical to focus initially on aligning the product with the market and automating repetitive tasks, allowing developers to concentrate on innovation.

As the application is subsequently broken down into separate services, and when multiple engineering teams are responsible for delivering different values, that's the time to consider introducing a platform team. They can assist in achieving the optimal balance between efficiency and stability.

Principles of Platform Engineering in Practice

The principles and theories of platform engineering can be summarized in one sentence: the real essence lies in putting platform engineering into practice. Platform teams should start small and focus on the technology stack that all teams will use. In other words, a platform team shouldn't build a one-size-fits-all solution but concentrate on a specific technology, such as containers and Kubernetes.

In the initial stages of platform development, it's crucial to establish clear objectives, such as enabling self-service for developers without increasing their cognitive load or reducing the number of operational work orders without forcing developers to learn infrastructure-centric technologies.

The best approach to building a platform is to treat it as a product, following the Platform as a Product methodology. This entails conducting user research, soliciting feedback from users, and obtaining buy-in from relevant internal stakeholders. This way, the platform team can gain a comprehensive understanding of pain points for developers and the common challenges facing the entire organization. These insights determine what features developers need, allowing the platform team to build a golden path that encompasses these solutions.

However, a platform goes beyond this initial effort. Successful platform teams maintain ongoing communication with developers and track key metrics (such as deployment frequency, lead time, stability, etc.) to ensure that developers adopt the platform and experience improved development workflows.

The platform team and the golden path it provides serve as the glue that binds together all the complex configurations. Unfortunately, many organizations mistakenly view the platform team as a cost control center. The platform team should strive to gain internal buy-in from stakeholder groups to ensure the longevity of its internal platform projects.

Last but not least, successful platform teams should strive to avoid reinventing the wheel. The landscape of platform engineering is continually evolving to address a wide range of issues. Platform teams can save time and create more value by customizing existing solutions as much as possible.

Conclusion

In this article, we've provided a detailed introduction to Platform Engineering, an emerging technology. This includes its relationship with DevSecOps, its key advantages, and its practical principles. As a product of the maturation and scaling of DevSecOps, Platform Engineering can help organizations reduce the cognitive and operational burden on developers, avoid reinventing the wheel, enhance development efficiency, and ultimately generate greater business value.