The term platform engineering is enjoying a surge in popularity.
Yet the value of the term risks collapsing under the weight of its own popularity, hugged to death by over-eager marketing folk keen to jump onto the latest trend. The risk was apparent to me during a panel session on Platform Engineering at KubeCon EU on Thursday this week.
“Platform Engineering is really about giving the piece of infrastructure that you need to your teams, but more as a product,” said Sarah Polan, Field CTO for EMEA at HashiCorp. “For the past couple of years, I think the previous trend was very much DevOps.”
Indeed the DevOps trend has been so strong that Ops became the go-to suffix, applied to almost any other term as marketers competed to define a new category all for themselves. SecOps, DevSecOps, GitOps, FinOps, MLOps. Anything to try to make whatever was already happening seem new and different and fresh.
Of course, this behavior is nothing new; we saw it play out with previous hot trends. Agile, cloud, SRE, all these terms were eagerly applied to situations with nebulous connections to the original intent at best. Instead of helping customers understand how to solve their actual problems, new labels were slapped on old things. A magic bullet will definitely work, this time for sure.
“DevOps isn’t something you buy, but many companies have tried to sell it to you,” said Stu Miniman, Director of Market Insights and Hybrid Platforms at Red Hat. Many of them succeeded, and plenty of invoices were paid.
Those deeply involved in the industry are sure they understand what platform engineering is, but it’s not clear to me that they agree with each other. Nor is it clear that customers understand the term. With 58% of attendees at KubeCon attending for the first time, there are many customers that are still learning what cloud native is about. It’s unclear to me if they are able to quickly arrive at a clear understanding of what platform engineering actually means.
“Platform and product can literally be the same thing, depending on what you’re talking about,” said David DeSanto, GitLab Chief Product Officer at GitLab. “For us at GitLab, the platform is the product.”
This drive to call any product a platform has been prevalent across the industry for some time. While GitLab can more credibly lay claim to be one than many, the term platform has itself been devalued by every venture-funded startup selling a feature masquerading as a product that claimed to be one. Do we really want to be engineering more of them?
The question for us as an industry is whether we are willing to let yet another useful term get so over-hyped that it loses all value and becomes yet another empty buzzword. I think platform engineering—far more than DevOps or even cloud—is too useful a term to let that happen. Not without a fight.
HashiCorp’s Polan provided what I think is a good first draft of a clear definition for what platform engineering is, and what it is not.
“For me it’s something that supports other infrastructure or business logic,” said Polan. “Anything that would be business logic or solving a business problem probably falls outside of platform engineering and would be more on the application side of things.”
I’d like to see this extended to create something that customers can use to quickly evaluate vendor claims about what they’re being sold. If it’s too difficult to determine if something is or isn’t platform engineering, or if consensus on what the term means can’t readily be found, perhaps we can cut to the chase and declare platform engineering dead already and move on to the next shiny toy.
I hear generative AI is all the rage.
In recent years, platform engineering has become increasingly important as more businesses, from enterprises to startups, look to build platforms to better facilitate customer experiences. Platform engineering, which focuses on building ecosystems that integrate different components and technologies, is often seen as a key factor in achieving the modern business’ technological objectives. In this way, it is no wonder that platform engineering has become so sought-after.
However, as platform engineering becomes more and more in-demand, there is a growing concern that it could soon be “loved to death”. As the field becomes increasingly popular and more and more engineers look to specialize in it, the cost of platform engineering services could start to rise and the industry could be under threat of becoming saturated. This could limit the options available to businesses and make it hard for them to find a platform engineering provider that meets their requirements.
There are ways that businesses can mitigate the risk of platform engineering becoming “loved to death”, however. They can start by looking to engage freelancers or contractors who have the skills and knowledge to provide platform engineering services. These experts can be recruited remotely, or tapped into if they are already employed by the business, which can mean lower costs and more expertise.
Businesses should also investigate the use of open source components, platforms and frameworks for platform engineering. Open source technologies offer a great degree of flexibility and customizability and there is no need to hire expensive engineers to build from scratch. Additionally, businesses should research more efficient and cost-effective methods of deploying their platform technologies, such as through the cloud, which can reduce the need for heavy investments into on-premise server and software infrastructure.
Ultimately, platform engineering is an important and highly sought-after skill. It has the potential to create amazing customer experiences, which is why businesses should not let it become “loved to death”. By making smart investments, utilizing freelanders or contractors, and leveraging open source technologies, businesses can ensure that their platform engineering services are cost-effective, practical and provide the necessary level of flexibility.