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GitHub vs GitLab: Which program should you go with?

Both GitHub and GitLab are based around the overarching Git distributed control system, but they do have different development approaches. For your own content tracking, which works better? Let's find out.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor
Reviewed by Christina Darby
gettyimages-coworkers-discussing-computer-program-in-office.jpg
Image: Getty Images

People often ask me: "Which distributed version control system should I use for my programming project, GitHub or GitLab?"

For starters, If all you're doing is building an in-house program, all you need is a local Git instance that you can use by itself on your own server. You can also use Git as a centralized VCS on your own servers or cloud. There's no need to subscribe to a VCS service when you can build your own. With this model, you can easily run a project with your team and partners scattered throughout the world.

If you do need the bells and whistles of a hosted Git service, however, then let me break it down -- from the differences in software services to similarities in interfaces and core values.

Differences

The core difference is GitLab has Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) and DevOps workflows built-in. GitHub lets you work with the CI/CD tools of your choice, but you'll need to integrate them yourself. GitHub users typically work with a third-party CI program such as JenkinsCircleCI, or TravisCI

Another important difference is GitHub prioritizes speed, while GitLab focuses on reliability. 

Branches: merge or separate?  

Specifically, GitHub advocates merging new branches (your new and unique changes) with the master (main) branch. That way, you're set up to quickly deploy, and you can speedily reinstate your old version if something goes awry. 

In GitLab's workflow, you create multiple yet separate stable branches beyond that of the master branch for each set of changes you make. At a minimum, you'll have production and pre-production stable branches. The multiple branch approach does require a multiple-step testing process. A single code review upon the merge request isn't enough. 

Of course, you can make either one work the way you want, but there's a clear difference between the two systems' advocated approaches.

Software services 

Another core difference is that GitLab offers you a complete software development solution. They advertise themselves as a complete DevOps platform for a reason. That said, GitLab does offer integrations with some third-party programs and platforms such as Jira, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Gmail, and numerous other apps and platforms.

GitHub, on the other hand, offers fewer services within its own program but offers ways to integrate with many outside programs and services. These include software that GitHub has worked on to integrate with the service and hundreds of other programs via GitHub Marketplace.

Similarities

Still, they look more like each other than not. Both run on Linux servers, come with issue trackers and offer a wide range of third-party integrations and import tools. 

Interfaces

They also both have command-line interfaces (CLI) for advanced developers, and they also offer web-based interfaces for new programmers. 

In GitLab's case, the user interface uses GitLabs' own Pajamas design system and is written in Vue.jsGitHub's user interface, Desktop, is available as a Windows or macOS program. You can also now use Visual Studio with GitHub

Open-Source 

While both support open-source, the repositories themselves use a mixed programming model. GitLab used an open-core business approach. In this model, the GitLab Community Edition remains free and open-source, while the GitLab Enterprise Edition has more features and comes with support. 

As for GitHub, while its code contains some open-source code, it's not an open-source project

Still, fundamentally, both offer web-based repositories with open-source, Git-based code management and local file changes with a remote repository. So, if all you want is basic Git functionality but with someone else to worry over keeping Git up and running, either service will do well for you.

Microsoft and GitHub 

When Microsoft acquired GitHub in 2018, many expected a mass exodus of its users. To some, Microsoft will always be the Evil Empire, despite Microsoft's constant showing its support for open-source methods and software -- or how often Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says he loves Linux. While some users did flee GitHub for GitLab and Atlassian BitBucket at the time, Microsoft taking over was never truly a huge factor for most. 

That said, GitHub is clearly the 800-pound gorilla of the VCS world. According to the programming tools company JetBrains, 77% of developers use GitHub regularly compared to 40% for GitLab and 25% for BitBucket.

See also: GitHub enables two-factor authentication mechanism through iOS, Android app

Pricing

Both services offer free plans. These come with unlimited public and private repositories. That may be enough for you if you're a solo programmer or have a small team. But, if programming is your company's living, you'll need more. 

It's difficult to compare GitHub and GitLab's pricing. It's apples and oranges. I suggest starting with their free plans to get an idea of how your workflow operates on each platform and then look into subscribing to the one that works best for you. 

The costs of subscriptions should be the least of your concerns. I've used both, and, for my small-time programming purposes, they have worked extremely well. 

That said, GitLab's Premium plan costs $19 a month per user, while the full-featured Ultimate plan is $99 a month. As for GitHub, the Team plan is $40 a year per user, and the Enterprise plan is $200 a year per user. But, the devil is the details. You may well find you'll need to pay for extras no matter which service you finally subscribe to. 

However, don't let price be your guide. What really matters is which Git VCS will give you the tools and services you need to best develop your software. 

FAQ

Why a VCS (aka Source Code Management system)?

A VCS makes it easy for multiple developers, designers, and team members to work together on the same project, ensuring that everyone has the same access to the latest code and can track all modifications. 

Why Git?

All of that seemingly smooth cross-communication is easier said than done. That's why Linux software engineer, Linus Torvalds, thinks of Git as his other great invention. 

Git is free, open-source (publicly accessible), and fast. It also works better than its predecessors, such as Apache Subversion, Concurrent Versions System (CVS), Perforce, and Rational ClearCase. So, there's a reason why so many VCS services have "Git" in their names. 

Who created GitHub?

GitHub is the oldest of the services. It was developed by Chris Wanstrath, P. J. Hyett, Tom Preston-Werner, and Scott Chacon using Ruby on Rails in February 2008. Because of its first-mover advantage, GitHub became the home base of many open-source code repositories.

Also: GitHub calls for contributions to new cybersecurity Advisory Database

Who created GitLab?

GitLab came later; Ukrainian developers Dmitriy Zaporozhets and Valery Sizov created GitLab in 2011. From day one, GitLab was designed to be a set of collaboration tools as well as a code repository service.

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