GitLab CI/CD vs. GitHub Actions

Kenny DuMez
Kenny DuMez
Graphite software engineer

GitLab CI/CD vs. GitHub Actions

GitLab CI/CD and GitHub Actions are two of the most popular options for setting up continuous integration pipelines in your development workflow.

In this guide, you'll learn more about these tools and how they differ in developer experience, deployment strategies, pricing models, and supported environments.

Originally developed to address the shortcomings of traditional continuous integration, continuous delivery (CI/CD) tools, GitLab CI/CD has become a popular choice for companies looking for an easier, faster, and more integrated solution.

Traditionally, CI/CD tools were often complex, hindered innovation due to slow release cycles, and required significant maintenance. GitLab CI/CD stands out for its ease of use, cloud-native architecture, and seamless integration with other GitLab products. This frees up developers from managing complex tools and allows them to focus on what they do best—creating great software.

GitHub Actions is a built-in automation engine that lets you define custom workflows for your development process in GitHub. These workflows are step-by-step automated processes triggered by events like code pushes or pull request merges.

The beauty of GitHub Actions lies in its flexibility. It goes beyond the typical build-test-deploy routine. You can leverage its vast ecosystem of prebuilt actions (reusable code snippets) to automate most DevOps tasks. Need to run code coverage checks? There's an action for that. Want to automatically send notifications to your team on deployment success? An action exists for that, too.

Furthermore, GitHub Actions boasts a containerized approach. Each step in your workflow runs within a virtual environment, ensuring consistency and isolation. This eliminates conflicts caused by differing development environments and keeps your workflows clean and reliable.

While these two tools offer almost the same exact same functionality, there are a few key differences between them:

  • Deployment strategies: GitLab CI/CD is particularly known for its built-in support for advanced deployment strategies such as canary deployments, blue-green deployments, and rolling updates. While GitHub Actions offers flexibility, these advanced approaches require manual configuration. You can implement these deployment strategies in GitHub Actions using one of the prebuilt workflows from the community, but it requires manual tinkering; in GitLab CI/Cde, it’s available out-of-the-box.
  • Supported environments: GitLab CI/CD currently offers Linux runners and beta versions of macOS and Windows runners. GitHub Actions supports Linux, Windows, and macOS runners, providing a wider range of stable options out of the box.
  • Usability and configuration: GitLab CI/CD offers a visual editor out-of-the-box for basic workflows, but complex configurations require YAML code. GitHub Actions primarily uses YAML, and the thriving community offers prebuilt workflows and tools to simplify configuration. You can also use tools like yml2dot to visualize your GitHub Actions configuration files.
  • Feature set: Both offer core CI/CD functionality, but GitLab CI/CD integrates seamlessly with other GitLab features, such as security scanning and artifact management. GitHub Actions relies on external integrations for these features.

Other than these, both platforms offer a wide range of integration with other popular development tools. However, GitLab CI/CD offers a slight edge in terms of its tighter integration with other GitLab products. Also, both boast large and active communities. GitLab provides extensive documentation and forums, while GitHub Actions offers similar resources alongside paid support options.

Both GitLab CI/CD and GitHub Actions offer free tiers, with GitLab limiting minutes and GitHub limiting storage. Paid plans in GitLab provide unlimited minutes for a fixed cost per user, while GitHub Actions charges per minute used.

If you already use either GitHub or GitLab to host and manage your projects, it makes the most sense to stick to their in-house CI/CD offerings. GitLab CI/CD makes sense for you if you need advanced deployment strategies, such as canary or blue-green deployments out of the box, or have a high build volume or frequent deployments and are looking to opt for a paid plan. For small projects with infrequent builds or a need for a Windows or macOS runner, GitHub Actions might be better.

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