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Cloud Industry  / Cloud Management  / PaaS

What is Platform Engineering? A Simple Guide For Beginners

As app development becomes more complex, a new trend has emerged. In this straight-forward guide, we explore what platform engineering is and how it works.

Lois Neville A photo of Lois Neville, a writer and SEO expert

Lois Neville

Marketing

Application development is incredibly complex, especially as we build more—and thus depend more—on the cloud. Innovation and uptake means new trends appear constantly in the digital transformation space. One of these is a process called platform engineering. The name itself suggests the creation of something brand new—but that’s not really the objective with this process. Rather, the goal with platform engineering is to lay a sturdy, usable foundational architecture for an organisation’s developers, ops teams, data scientists and other IT users.

In this guide, we’ll be going through exactly what platform engineering is, how it came about and how it works. This has been written for beginners and anyone new to platforming engineering.

This is what we’ll be covering:

  • An introduction to platform engineering

  • What’s the goal of platform engineering?

  • How platform engineering works

  • The role of platform engineering teams

  • Conclusion

An introduction to platform engineering 

As we’ve mentioned, platform engineering is a process. This is a process focused on improving an organisation's cloud infrastructure so software developers can write and ship code more quickly. Basically, it’s a new step in cloud development best practices. As applications become more complex and more demanding, and digital teams grow in size, processes need to be implemented to keep projects on-track, reliable and efficient. Otherwise, things can get jumbled and muddled, and eventually impossible to unpick. The phrase ‘too many cooks’ definitely comes to mind. Platform engineering works to centralise all of the key requirements of an application, sort of like the head chef of the kitchen.

What’s the goal of platform engineering?

The purpose behind the process of platform engineering is to speed up software development delivery, especially on anything with prominent business value. This in turn improves and optimises the development experience of an application. This is achieved by refining the visibility of the relationship between the app’s services and its documentation, as well as making it clearer who manages them. Essentially, the bottom line of platform engineering is to make software development more efficient and reliable. It places emphasis on building (as well as maintaining) a sturdy foundation that can then be built upon.

How platform engineering works

Platform engineering focuses on consolidating tools, services, and user requirements into a system that meets a range of needs. A platform itself is a system made from software and hardware that offers specific services. An application’s architecture may be based on a number of these different platforms, as well as complementary tools and other services. The goal of the platform engineering team is to provision, create, and maintain an overarching platform that pulls all of these components together.

This platform can include reusable and common tools, as well as particular functionalities. It may exist in the cloud, or in some cases, be on-prem. You might see the platform be referred to as an ‘international developer platform’, or IDP. Along with tools, the IDP also contains essential data, as well as important documentation, application information, and infrastructure details. Think coding languages, pipelines, repositories and so forth—basically all the things needed to keep the application up and running. This information is purposefully combined in one place so it’s easy to access, as opposed to being fragmented into different places. This makes it much easier, and quicker, to find.

The IDP therefore acts as an abstraction layer for all of these components, which are all integrated into it. It also provides an interface for developers and other users to access, develop and ship their code. It should also be noted that guardrails are put in place too, as determined by the platform engineering team. Compliance and regulation is integrated at this level too.

So what tools can you expect to find in an IDP? Pretty much anything that is part of toolchains and workflows. Runtime services, monitoring tools, Kubernetes, and so on. Basically anything needed to cover operational necessities and common tasks. However, an IDP is highly customizable, and can be developed to include components that are specific to individual organisations and their requirements.

Notably, all of the tools and their implementation prioritise a ‘self-service’ approach. This means that users (specifically devs) don’t have to wait for permissions, access provisions, or details on how something works. They don’t have to wait on other teams to complete their tasks—they can work autonomously. This really speeds up processes as well as productivity. An IDP also removes many manual procedures, particularly when it comes to shipping code. This includes making and configuring repositories, continuous integration/delivery (CI/CD) pipelines and just managing key infrastructure elements. Such procedures done manually can significantly slow processes down, as well as be prone to resulting in errors.

On the topic of speed, an IDP is designed to be easy to use. Developers shouldn’t need a deep knowledge of the application’s architecture to be able to use it. This is because it can slow down their productivity and code shipping. It’s for this reason that the abstraction aspect of the IDP is very important. Application infrastructures are notorious for being complex. However, the abstraction of an IDP standardises tools and services. This means that, no matter how developers like to work, the services and tools they use will be more consistent.

The role of platform engineering teams

The platform engineering team behind the IDP are in charge of creating a product that bridges the hardware and the software of an application. They plan, design, and manage the cloud platforms an application is using. The goal is to allow for software to be deployed and operated both efficiently and reliably. They also keep an eye on availability, security, and cost.

When approaching a new IDP, the platforming engineering team first looks at the whole application lifecycle, from software development to production, and sees where the workflows can be improved. The platform they create is therefore designed to meet the needs of multiple teams.

The key here is the understanding that different teams need variations on workflows, and that these need to be integrated into the IDP. And, importantly, these workflows need to be self-service. The chain goes: platform engineer (making things easier for) software developers (making things easier for) end users.

Platform engineering teams also provision new instances for platforms that are being used. This involves deploying infrastructure resources, such as virtual machines and network components. They’re also responsible for the installation of new software needed to run key services, as well as CI/CD tools and automation.

Conclusion

Platform engineering is an emerging new process in application development. As the adoption of cloud-native technology continues to grow, finding ways to manage the development of cloud-based applications is becoming more important and more important. Software is complex, so prioritising a solid foundation for an application to be built upon will prove to be more-and-more beneficial in the long run. Platform engineering creates an abstracted layer that IT teams can access, with all the resources they need. This means that they can focus on shipping their code, rather than other tasks surrounding an application’s infrastructure. This speeds up productivity, efficiency and delivery.