SRE Vs. Platform Engineering: What’s the Difference?

Site reliability engineering (SRE) teams and platform engineering teams share similar goals—like maximizing automation and reducing toil—and similar methodologies. But they have different priorities, and use somewhat different tools to achieve them.

What are SREs? What are platform engineers? How is each role similar and different? This article will answer all your questions.

Responsibilities of SREs and Platform Engineers

The main responsibility of site reliability engineers is ensuring that IT systems are reliable, which means that the systems meet performance requirements. Part of their job includes working with developers and IT operations teams to maximize the reliability of applications as they move down the software delivery pipeline.

Meanwhile, platform engineers focus on managing and optimizing the software delivery process. You could think of this role as one that translates DevOps principles into practice by finding ways to implement continuous delivery, continuous improvement and other DevOps priorities.

Thus, both SREs and platform engineers play a role in managing the software delivery process and finding ways to make it as smooth and efficient as possible. They also share a common enemy—toil—in the sense that both groups seek to avoid manual, inefficient processes by automating as much as possible. SREs automate complex incident response operations using tools, for example, while platform engineers might deploy methods like GitOps to automate some aspects of software delivery.

Differences Between SRE and Platform Engineering

That said, SRE and platform engineering are distinct roles. The key differences boil down to:

  • Goals: The main job of SREs is maximizing reliability, which is different from optimizing the speed and efficiency of software delivery operations. Theoretically, you could have a highly reliable system even if your software delivery chain is manual and slow.
  • Scope of role: Software delivery operations are the main focus of platform engineers. SREs care about software delivery, too, because the way applications are created plays a role in reliability and fixing issues. But SREs also have many other responsibilities, like incident response and helping to manage infrastructure, which fall beyond the scope of software delivery.
  • Tools: SREs rely on tools that help them discover and solve Various types of reliability issues. In contrast, platform engineers leverage tools like source code managers and continuous integration (CI) servers to help automate software delivery.

So, although SREs and platform engineers may use similar methodologies and possess similar skills, their day-to-day operations tend to look quite different.

Should You Pursue an SRE or Platform Engineer Career?

Given the skills overlap between SRE and platform engineering, some engineers are a good fit for either role. But which one is better, from a career perspective?

Salary-wise, there’s not a whole lot of difference. Glassdoor pegs the average salary of platform engineers at about $115,000 compared to $127,000 for SREs. SREs may earn a little more (and it’s worth noting that SRE salaries can vary widely), but the difference in pay is not as great as that between, say, IT operations engineers (who make a mere $77,000, according to Glassdoor) and SREs.

The roles are also similar in terms of demand. Unlike software engineering or even DevOps engineering, SRE and platform engineering are both roles that have begun to become popular only in recent years. SRE as a concept has been around for a while—it originated at Google in the early 2000s—but it wasn’t until recently that most companies began seeking SREs for their teams. Likewise, platform engineering didn’t become a thing until the advent of microservices and cloud-native everything pushed companies to devote more engineering resources to manage their complex software delivery processes.

What this means is that, at least for now, it’s easy to find jobs in SRE and platform engineering as long as you have the right skills. Many companies are eager to hire for both types of roles.

Choosing the role that is right for you, then, mostly depends on your preferences and how you like to work. The life of a platform engineer is likely to be somewhat more predictable than that of an SRE because platform engineers don’t have to take the lead in managing incidents when something breaks at 2:00 am on the other hand, SREs enjoy a more diverse set of responsibilities, which can make the job more exciting—especially if software delivery tools like Git or Jenkins don’t make you excited to get out of bed in the morning.

Conclusion

Platform and SREs play central roles in automating complex processes and engineers eliminating toil. But they tackle these issues from different angles and they use different tools. The right role for you depends on what you enjoy doing most.

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