DevOps vs. Platform Engineering

by alex_gaynor

If I put 10 people in a room and asked them what "DevOps" was all about, I think I'd get 17 different answers. As my colleague David Reid says though, "DevOps is something you do, not something you are." So what practices are associated with DevOps?

Database as a Service is to Database as Load Balancer as a Service is to Load Balancer as Platform as a Service is to ____________. If you answered "platform", a) your elementary school teachers can be very proud, b) it's not clear that you're right.

When Heroku launched, something interesting happened: they gave people a Platform as a Service before most people had a platform. That's not what they said they were selling of course, they said they were selling "easier Rails deployment", but they were a platform. Which is pretty unusual, most of us used a database or a load balancer before using their as-a-service variants.

When I originally read the "The Twelve-Factor App", my thought was "Hmm, these are some pretty ok ideas about how to build a website". I re-read it a few months ago, and this time something clicked.

Twelve factor isn't a set of ideas about how to build web apps. It's a description of a platform.

What's a platform? A platform is a suite of functionality that offers a consistent contract to the applications that run on it. Viewed in this light, I began to understand much of twelve factor more deeply. For example I originally thought the declaration that "The twelve-factor app stores config in environment variables" was wrong, because I didn't like environment variables. Now I understand that it means: "The platform will make available any configuration values stored with it in the application's POSIX environment".

This was a fundamentally different way of looking at it, and I didn't recognize it at first, because almost no one deploying a web application has a platform built for that purpose today, unless you use Heroku's or work someplace large like Twitter or Google. The platform most people are building on is "Linux" and that's not designed to solve their problems.

This brings us back to DevOps. How does DevOps compare to a platform? DevOps is all about ad-hoc. And the way I know this is that no two organizations on the planet use the same Chef cookbook for deploying a Django application. Your deployment is encoded in software, and that's good, but it's ad hoc and varies from project to project. You can't write the "web app" side, without knowing what the "Chef" side is as well. Chef does not provide a consistent contract to the application, what it provides is defined by the cookbook of the day — the only thing an application could assume is "Linux".

DevOps was progress, now we have the same people writing the web app and the Chef cookbook, which is way better than those being two unrelated groups which hate each other.

A platform is about having a strict contract, an API if you will, which it offers to applications, and which they then consume.

Having a platform scales better than taking the "DevOps" approach, because a platform means that deploying a new application does not require any new coordination between teams or responsibilities. It also means a clear division of responsibilities: the people who maintain the platform care about system load, availability, and resiliency. The people deploying something on top of it worry about bugs in their application or the performance of their application.

Giving each side clear responsibilities makes applications easier to write, easier to deploy, and easier to maintain.

Hi, I'm Alex. I'm currently at a startup called Alloy. Before that I was a engineer working on Firefox security and before that at the U.S. Digital Service. I'm an avid open source contributor and live in Washington, DC.