KubeCon Panel: How Platform Engineering Benefits Developers
If DevOps was about combining the workflows of operations and development, then platform engineering aims to be the solution to the problems that are created. It’s not an either/or proposition between the two, but platform engineering is an evolution of the DevOps movement, said a KubeCon+CloudNativeCon EU panel organized for the media.
“I sometimes struggle with why something has to go and die for something else to exist,” said David DeSanto, chief product officer at GitLab. “To me, there’s a lot more overlap and value with the Venn diagrams that, in essence, platform engineering is making sure your DevOps teams are more effective because they’re working with the platform, and vice versa.”
What’s a ‘Platform,’ Anyway?
In the non-technical sense, a platform is something that supports whatever you’re trying to do, said Sarah Polan, HashiCorp field CTO EMEA.
“So in the case of IT, that’s the pieces that you want to build upon to create your business value and the business problem that you’re trying to solve,” Polan said. “In our case, those are all the little pieces that it takes to deploy and give Terraform as a product, and that’s what our team is reliant on, to consume in order to be able to do that.”
The product can literally be the platform, suggested DeSanto.
“At least for us at GitLab, the platform is the product. Our platform teams are focused on gitlab.com, which is the product,” DeSanto said. “So I think it depends on who you’re talking about — [who] is the customer on the conversation?”
The panel also agreed that platform engineering is a practice, not something to buy — although there are those who will try to sell it to you, they cautioned.
“Platform engineering can be a role that we’re doing, similar to DevOps, and my belief — and talking to my peers — is it really is an outgrowth of it, an extension of what we’re doing. It is evolutionary, not necessarily revolutionary,” said Stu Miniman, director of marketing insights for hybrid platforms at Red Hat.
Why: The Point of Platform Engineering
Platform engineering is about applying best practices and ensuring some control over the development organization and the tools they use, Polan said.
“I was working for a financial institution, at the time running a Go application, so it wasn’t impacted at all by Log4j, but I still got three phone calls in the middle of the night, because … we needed to make sure that everything was properly remediated,” Polan said. “[It’s] making sure that we as organizations have proper control, but also are garnering business value based off this and we’re setting the guardrails in place to say, ‘We want you to be able to do what you want. We want you to follow industry standards, use open source, but we also want to make sure that we have adequate control over these things.’”
By having a platform of approved tool and library options, organizations can onboard developers quicker, the panel noted. Developers naturally like to play with new tools — it’s part of their job, said DeSanto, who previously worked as a developer. The problem is that can lead to tool sprawl as each developer introduces new tools — and integrations to them, he said.
“What you end up hurting is security and efficiency,” he said. “You’re essentially asking people whose specialty is not to manage infrastructure — and all inside the CI/CD pipelines as part of that — to make the decisions for themselves, but that is not going to give them the best outcome.“
That becomes a major headache in a market with a 20-23% attrition rate, Polan said.
“It doesn’t take long for someone to get frustrated and realize they can walk across the street to get another job,” DeSanto added. “So if you’re building something that’s truly working for them [developers], they’re going to stay more engaged. You’re going to have your company get better outcomes. You want happier employees, happier employees also equal more revenue.”
Why Now for Platform Engineering
Platform engineering is a movement that may seem new, but has actually been growing for three years now, Miniman said. Two factors that have changed over the past three years are an increase remote work and now even ‘mom and pop shops’ are becoming technology companies to stay competitive, the panel said. It’s no longer enough to build a monolith application and leave it in place for 20 years.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago, what we were actually building was very different and the pace of change responsiveness,” Miniman said. “I can’t just build a bespoke application and leave it there for a decade anymore because then I’ll be a competitive disadvantage.”
Why Developers Should Embrace Platform Engineering
“Evolution-ability” is the phrase Polan used to describe why companies should embrace platform engineering. Virtualization, 5G, and service-oriented architecture are creating a development environment that requires flexibility and modularity, Polan said.
“That also is going to be reflected within the platform teams… By giving that to a platform team that allows us to go ahead and scale some of these solutions, but then also have the flexibility to move things forward,” she said. “It just it gives me a better option to be more responsive and quicker, which obviously gives me a better return on investment and better security.”
But perhaps the biggest reason developers should embrace platform engineering is that it reduces the cognitive overload of programming these days, Miniman said.
“If we can make things a little bit simpler and allow developers to focus on their primary role and stuff they want to be doing, that that makes it easier,” he said.
CNCF paid for travel and accommodations for The New Stack to attend the KubeCon+CloudNativeConEurope 2023 conference.