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If there’s a difference between platform engineering vs. DevOps, it’s not immediately obvious. The terms have been thrown around in conversation for long enough that it’s tempting to think of them as either the same thing or as competing concepts. So what is the difference between platform engineering vs. DevOps?
Are you “doing DevOps” when you create a developer platform? Is it called “platform engineering” if developers use self-service to work with the folks in operations? In this blog, we’ll zero in on definitions and what really differentiates platform engineering vs. DevOps. We'll also provide examples to illustrate the ways your team can improve software development and deployment with both platform engineering and DevOps.
Table of Contents
DevOps and platform engineering seem similar, but they're different in a few important ways. First off, DevOps is a broad philosophy, while platform engineering is a specific implementation tactic.
DevOps is a conceptual mindset for defining the ways development and operations collaborate. Platform engineering is the creation of a centralized platform with defined sets of tools and workflows.
The need to collaborate among areas of an organization requires new tools for breaking down siloes. DevOps teams are historically in charge of making those choices, which means putting effort into finding and maintaining tools and workflows. We call that extra effort and responsibility “cognitive load”.
Platform engineering reduces cognitive load by giving DevOps teams a central platform of tooling and workflows. The platform team chooses those tools after extensive communication with members of the dev and ops teams. That way, devs don't need to build and maintain a whole set of tools and workflows. They can just use the tools they’re given because they know they were chosen with their needs in mind.
Platform engineering is often implemented after a DevOps initiative has already been put in place. For that reason, platform engineering has sometimes been called a replacement for DevOps, but that’s not quite right.
Remember that catchphrase, ‘you build it, you run it’? By design, DevOps engineering forces developers to become experts in a tool if they want to use it correctly. That shouldn't be part of their core activities and responsibilities because it adds to cognitive load.
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Platform engineering helps developers manage that load with structured toolchains and workflows. That way, they’re getting consistent, reliable tools (a platform) they can use to self-service and collaborate (i.e., DevOps). That helps teams avoid the confusion, frustration, and development bottlenecks that can come from too much choice.
You could say platform engineering helps teams do the deployment, operation, and monitoring elements of a DevOps cycle. Without the product focus of platform engineering, DevOps initiatives can flounder. Platform engineering tools built without DevOps collaboration in mind can lose focus. That leads to wasted investment, developer frustration, and unclear ROI.
The teams that do platform engineering and DevOps also have distinct responsibilities and audiences. Consider these examples of platform engineer vs. DevOps roles:
DevOps teams often choose tools and workflows for things they aren't necessarily specialized in, like building and maintaining infrastructure. Organizations use platform engineering to reduce the number of decisions like those that DevOps teams have to make.
Particularly in larger organizations, individual teams often don’t have the breadth and depth of knowledge to pick the right tools. To use platform engineering, they hire product managers (or find them in the organization) to build a platform. Building a platform means finding and choosing the right tools and workflows based on what the organization needs and the technical feasibility of each tool.
Platform product managers should understand their internal users (devs) so they can choose the right tools and workflows based on what they actually need. Otherwise, it’ll be hard to encourage platform adoption. Those product managers also evangelize the platform and explain how it works. They'll also keep a finger on the pulse of stakeholders throughout the organization (like a product manager would) to better drive future customer needs.
Like DevOps, platform engineering success can be hard to measure. But the latest research shows a correlation between platform adoption and DevOps success. In fact, 94% of respondents to the 2023 State of Platform Engineering survey agree that the concept is helping their organizations better realize the benefits of DevOps.
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Those benefits range from improvements in system reliability (60%) to greater productivity/efficiency (59%) and better workflow standards (57%). And it goes beyond making developers’ lives easier: 30% of respondents stated that platform engineering best serves the needs of the entire company – not just a single department.
For all the ways they’re distinct, platform engineering and DevOps both exist to streamline development and delivery of software. That’s why automation is vital to both initiatives.
Automation is a fundamental aspect of a DevOps initiative. It takes a lot of manual work out of humans’ jobs. It also helps them deploy updates to production faster and creates more effective feedback loops between teams.
Platform engineering goes one step further by automating tasks like infrastructure deployment from a central platform. That way, developers can focus on their own core work instead of building their own tooling and processes.
Puppet’s IT automation capabilities are essential for creating a platform engineering initiative to get the most out of your DevOps at scale. Find your starting point – or take your DevOps to the next level – with Puppet Enterprise.
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Senior Solutions Architect
David Sandilands is a senior solutions architect.