GitHub is probably the best-known website for hosting software projects, but it's certainly not the only one. GitLab has become a popular alternative solution for managing Git repositories. And although GitLab and GitHub offer the same basic functionality at a high level, there are critical differences between the two platforms.
Keep reading for a comparison of GitLab and GitHub and tips on deciding which platform is the best for your needs — especially if you're an enterprise that needs to manage software source code on a large scale.
What Are the Most Important Things to Know About GitLab and GitHub?
GitLab and GitHub are similar in the respect that their main service offering is hosting software repositories based on Git, the open-source version control tool. GitLab and GitHub both provide an easy solution for setting up Git repositories and managing source code within them as it changes.
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The two platforms are also comparable with regard to their ease of use. They both provide simple, user-friendly web interfaces for creating and managing repositories. There is no major difference surrounding the skills required to use either platform.
From the standpoint of community and support, too, GitLab and GitHub are similar. They are each popular platforms with strong communities. Users who need help can find community-based support from online forums. Professional support options are also available for both platforms, although they require paid service plans in some cases.
Likewise, when it comes to documentation and related resources, there are no major differences between GitLab and GitHub. Users can find plenty of information about how each platform works, as well as tutorials and guides that offer deep dives into specific features or best practices.
What Are Some of the Key Features of GitLab That Make It Stand Out?
Despite these high-level similarities, there are important differences between GitLab and GitHub.
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The main characteristics that make GitLab stand out include:
- More development tools: In some respects, GitLab's product suite is more expansive because GitLab aims to provide a complete continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) solution, in addition to Git repository hosting. GitHub also offers something approximating CI/CD functionality through the GitHub Actions feature, but its functionality is more limited, and CI/CD hasn't historically been a major product focus for GitHub.
- Project management tools: GitLab also offers built-in tools for agile project management. The GitHub Issues feature, which provides some project management functionality, is somewhat similar, but it's rare to see businesses using Issues to handle all project management needs.
- Branch handling: Unlike GitHub, GitLab encourages users to create multiple branches for each project they manage. The idea is to generate separate branches for stable code and testing code. This makes it easier to separate untested, potentially buggy code from production code, but it also complicates code management in some respects. Testing may be harder, too, because you'll need to test each branch separately. Under GitHub, you typically have just one branch to work with.
- Open source: GitLab itself is an open-source platform. That means the code that powers GitLab is available to anyone who wants it. GitHub, in contrast, is powered mostly by closed-source code (although you can host open-source projects on GitHub, as you can on GitLab). If you believe that open source is more trustworthy or secure than closed-source software, you'll probably prefer GitLab.
- Corporate ownership: GitHub and GitLab were both born as independent projects, but GitHub is now owned by Microsoft, which acquired it in 2018. The acquisition hasn't resulted in any major platform changes to GitHub, but it still means that GitHub is now part of the Microsoft suite of products. In contrast, GitLab remains a totally independent platform, with no signs of an acquisition on the horizon.
Depending on your needs and priorities, you may see these standout features of GitLab as either an advantage or disadvantage. For example, if you already have a CI/CD suite in place, GitLab's integrated CI/CD products may not matter to you. But if you're looking for a one-stop shop for source code management and CI/CD in a single platform, GitLab offers it.
Why Is GitLab Often Considered a Better Option for Enterprises?
By some measures, GitLab is a better source code hosting and management solution for enterprises in particular than GitHub.
One reason is that GitLab, as noted above, offers a full-featured CI/CD suite in addition to code hosting. That's useful for enterprises that want to centralize development operations on a single platform to avoid the silos and administrative burdens that can arise from juggling multiple CI/CD tools within different departments or development teams.
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The fact that GitLab offers an extensive set of integrated security tools is also an advantage for enterprises that seek to prioritize software security. GitLab supports source code analysis, vulnerability scanning, Dynamic Application Security Testing (DAST), and more. GitHub also offers some built-in security services, but they are not as extensive, so enterprises would need to rely on third-party tools to secure all stages of the software delivery pipeline on GitHub.
GitLab's built-in project management features, too, may make GitLab a more attractive solution for enterprises because they don't need to deploy other project management tools, like Jira. Again, GitHub also provides project management features via GitHub Issues, but they are limited mostly to tracking workflows inside GitHub rather than providing end-to-end project management.
The bottom line: Because GitLab offers a more holistic set of services out-of-the-box, it is arguably a better fit for enterprises that want to centralize all aspects of their development operations on a single platform.
How Does GitLab Compare to GitHub in Terms of Pricing?
The pricing for GitLab and GitHub is hard to compare directly because the pricing structures are somewhat different. GitLab's billing models are oriented primarily around feature-based pricing, meaning that the more features you want to access, the more you'll have to pay. In contrast, with GitHub, most core platform features are available across all plans, but pricing increases based on usage.
That said, GitLab and GitHub both charge on a per-user basis, so what you pay will reflect in part in how many developers you have in your organization.
In addition, GitLab and GitHub both offer free plans that provide access to the platforms' software hosting features. There is also no limitation on how long you can use the paid plans on either platform.
However, there are limits on how much data you can store each month under the free plans, and how many minutes you can execute CI/CD pipelines. Currently, GitLab offers more storage but less CI/CD time under its paid plan.
Which Platform Offers More Support for Developers?
Although GitHub is currently the most popular platform for developers, it's not really accurate to say that GitHub offers any more or less support for developers than GitLab does.
Both platforms provide a variety of developer tools, in addition to the project management and security services mentioned above. GitLab's tooling is more extensive in some respects, which may be an advantage for developers who want to stick with just one platform for all of their needs. But GitHub and GitLab are equally capable of powering complex, large-scale development operations, and any functionality that developers find to be missing in the platforms can be filled by integrating them with third-party tools.
So, whether GitLab or GitHub is better for developers boils down mainly to preference. Developers who like one-stop shopping will probably like GitLab a little better. But in terms of meeting developers' functionality requirements, there are not huge differences between the platforms.
What Are the Security Concerns with Each Platform?
From a security perspective, too, GitLab and GitHub are quite similar. They both allow developers to protect their code inside private repositories if they don't want it to be public, and they both provide robust authentication and authorization features.
In addition, as noted above, GitLab and GitHub both offer integrated tools to help developers find security issues in their applications. GitLab's offerings are a bit more extensive in this respect, but GitHub's are broadly comparable.
What Are Some Other Considerations to Keep in Mind When Choosing Between GitLab and GitHub?
Beyond the factors discussed above, other considerations to bear in mind when comparing GitLab and GitHub include:
- Company size: GitHub and GitLab can both work for development teams of all sizes — from single-person projects to large enterprises. But because GitHub's free plans don't offer as many features, GitLab is arguably a little better suited for larger organizations, whereas small teams that don't want to purchase a paid plan may get more value out of GitHub.
- Development toolchain: Teams that already have a development toolchain in place may not get as much value from GitLab because they don't need all of its products and features. On the other hand, GitLab is an attractive solution for teams that want a turnkey way of building a complete CI/CD pipeline.
- Collaboration: While there is plenty of information out there for both platforms, it's a little easier to find other developers who are familiar with GitHub, due simply to the fact that it is more popular. So, if you want to collaborate heavily, GitHub may be a better choice, at least as long as it remains the most widely used source code hosting platform.
GitLab or GitHub: A Tough Choice
GitLab and GitHub are both excellent, widely used platforms for hosting source code. They also both offer features designed to provide CI/CD, project management, and security functionality, although GitLab's product suite is broader and deeper in this respect. Overall, GitLab may be a better choice for large enterprises that want to centralize development operations using a single platform.
That said, deciding between GitHub and GitLab requires weighing a variety of factors that are unique to your organization. It's impossible to say that one platform is objectively better than the other.
About the authorChristopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.