Platforms vs. Applications: What’s the Difference?

Platform, application, software, hardware. These terms interlink and crossover. In this article, we define what applications and platforms are. We also explain what this means for software developers.

What Is an Application?

An application, or software application, is a computer program that aims to complete a specific task separate from that of the operating system. Some applications have a single, narrow focus. Others contain several programs within them.

Enterprise applications are delivered in a three-tier architecture:

  • The presentation tier is provided by a browser.
  • The application tier contains the business logic that supports the application’s core functions.
  • The data tier provides access to the data the application needs.

Applications run locally on a server or computer system. They use application programming interfaces (APIs) to talk to other applications.

Applications cover many functions. At one end, they are complex database systems or deployment tools. On the other, they are simple programs like word processors or image editors.

What About Modern Applications?

Too many businesses still depend upon siloed architectures tied to legacy systems. These are difficult to change – and expensive to maintain. More and more businesses seek to evolve these systems to meet present-day requirements.

Simply put, modern software is marked by its flexibility and scalability. It is created with Agile methods that break down barriers between IT and Line-of-Business teams. The result is software that is created more quickly, and that can be iterated on a daily basis. This means applications can evolve to meet rapidly changing end-user needs.

Software-as-a-Service is becoming the dominant delivery model. This is due to the flexibility, efficiency, and scalability it provides. Software is hosted on the cloud and accessed remotely by users. This means businesses don’t have to invest in hardware. It also ensures that software updates can be installed seamlessly.

The most popular cloud platforms include AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud. So, what is a platform?

What Is a Platform?

A platform runs on both hardware (e.g., a server) and software (an operating system). It is the foundation on which applications run. A platform is there to be built upon and connect with external systems.

This means that any smartphone is a platform because it includes hardware (form factor), an operating system, and connects with other systems.

Can an Application Also Be a Platform?

An application can also be called a platform in the sense that a platform’s function is to perform meaningful work within an organization.

Take, for example, a Relational Database Management System (RDBMS). This is a type of software application. It is used to store, manage, query, and retrieve business data stored in a relational database. RDBMSs communicate with CRM and ERP systems. So, although RDBMSs are applications, they also function as platforms.

Another example is web server apps. It is increasingly common for businesses to operate through web app platforms such as partner portals.

Platforms and Software Development

Developers have choices to make. They can:

  • Develop software to be platform-specific: the application is developed for a single platform.
  • Design their software to be cross-platform: the application works on pre-defined platforms.
  • Create platform-agnostic applications: the software runs on any platform. In this case, it is usually accessed via a web browser.

Many organizations want to write software on different platforms. However, they can’t afford the costs of housing multiple platforms. So, many employ a form of cloud computing called Platform as a Service (PaaS).

Platform as a Service (PaaS)

PaaS is a type of cloud computing. Gartner defines it as delivering application infrastructure from a third party to a business. PaaS is delivered over the internet and can be provider-managed or self-managed. It can also be multitenant or dedicated.

PaaS can enable companies to take advantage of streamlined development and new automation capabilities.

These tools are especially valuable for application development. With PaaS, developers are freed from any need for local infrastructure. This is very convenient. It also streamlines development and other internal processes that can get in the way of application development.

PaaS is a step in the right direction for the evolution of applications. No one can predict the needs of end-users five or ten years from now. PaaS creates a foundation for adaptive applications that can be rapidly changed to meet new expectations or market conditions.

If you want to learn more about the world of PaaS, take a look at our articles What Is PaaS and What Is aPaaS.