GitLab vs. GitHub – a comparison of the two version control systems

GitLab and GitHub are version control systems for managing source code in software development. When working in a team, developers can use these two platforms to edit source code, make changes, and perhaps most importantly, keep track of all changes they have made. Every single change can be precisely tracked and undone if necessary.

As the names suggest, both GitLab and GitHub are based on the Git versioning software. This software uses repositories into which users can upload source code and collectively edit it in a browser, in code editors, or in a terminal.

If you have no experience with Git, we recommend our Git tutorial for a quick introduction and an overview of the most important principles. If you want to dive deeper into GitLab, you can also take a look at our extensive GitLab tutorial.

GitLab vs. GitHub – key differences compared

Although the two platforms share the important similarity of being based on Git, there are some key differences between GitLab and GitHub. For example, one of the most important factors is GitHub’s huge user base. The platform has gained near-monopoly status as the best-known version control system. It’s no coincidence that GitHub was acquired by Microsoft in 2018.

The size and market share of GitHub also has practical consequences. Thanks to GitHub’s huge pool of users, you stand a greater chance of finding teams for your own projects, especially open-source projects. It’s also easier for other users to integrate repositories. Overall, more developers use this platform and are continuously expanding it. As a result, GitHub is considered a more stable, more powerful platform.

Licenses and installation on a private server

Both GitLab and GitHub have a free version and an enterprise version, which in turn are divided into several subscription models with different features.

In principle, both platforms can be installed on a private server. However, self-hosting is only possible with the paid enterprise version of GitHub. On the other hand, the free community edition of GitLab also allows for self-hosting. The server stability of the hosted version of GitLab is generally slightly worse than that of GitHub, which is why installation on a private server can make sense.

No built-in continuous integration functionality with GitHub

Due to the widespread popularity of GitHub, the service is compatible with numerous applications that make teamwork easier, such as Docker, CI/CD tools, or project management applications. This compatibility is especially necessary when it comes to continuous integration because GitHub does not have its own continuous integration tools. This is where the GitLab tool has the edge, since it comes with free built-in continuous integration functionality.

More user privileges in the free version of GitLab

For a long time, the great advantage of GitLab was that any number of free repositories were available for users. GitHub took notice and now offers this feature as well. Nevertheless, the free version of GitHub has more restrictions.

For example, protected branches, meaning development branches that only selected users can access, can be used in both GitLab and GitHub. However, in GitHub, they can only be used in public repositories, whereas in GitLab this feature is also available for private repositories. GitHub is even more restrictive and allows a maximum of three developers per private repository. If you collaborate in larger teams, you have to switch to a subscription and use the Enterprise version.

GitHub generally offers slightly fewer user permissions: Role-based permission management is only possible in GitHub with a paid team subscription, whereas this option is a standard feature of GitLab. GitLab also offers a container registry where users can store the Docker images created with CI tools and manage them as part of the GitLab repository.

Same function, different terminology

Since GitHub and GitLab are both based on Git, you can migrate from one platform to the other without major problems. Repositories, wikis, pull requests, and issues are usually easy to import. However, there are some terminology differences between GitHub and GitLab, as the following table shows:

GitHub GitLab Meaning
Pull request Merge request Request to integrate a branch into the master
Gist Snippet Snippet of code
Repository Project Container that contains the repository, attachments, and project-specific settings
Organization Group Level at which users are assigned to projects

The term “repository” occasionally causes confusion when switching platforms because many users use “repository” and “project” as synonyms, even though in GitHub the repository contains Git repositories and project assets. GitLab, therefore, calls this container a “project” to emphasize that it contains all important project data.

Usability and user interface

With its tidy graphical user interface, GitLab seems somewhat clearer at first, which is why many users of the platform report that it’s easier and more intuitive to use. For example, issues in GitLab are not only displayed as a list, but they can also be organized and managed in a board view.

Another big advantage of GitLab over GitHub is that its user interface (UI) can be scaled and freely adjusted to the size of the screen, whereas GitHub is limited to a fixed size. As a result, GitLab is often a better alternative to GitHub for viewing on mobile devices.

Editing and creating code is a bit easier with GitLab because the tool offers an integrated development environment (IDE). By contrast, GitHub only has a minimalistic text editor.

However, to be fair, we should note that these differences are not very significant if you use the platforms on a desktop and integrate them into third-party editors or IDEs, since you won’t see much of the actual interface anyway. If you’ve never used either of these tools, both will require similar effort to learn.

GitLab or GitHub? The most important differences at a glance

GitHub GitLab
Issues can be tracked across multiple repositories Issues cannot be tracked in multiple repositories
Private repositories are paid Private repositories are free
No free hosting on a private server Free hosting on a private server
Continuous integration only via third-party tools such as Travis CI, CircleCI, etc. Free continuous integration functionality included
No built-in deployment platform Software deployment via Kubernetes
Comprehensive comment tracking No comment tracking
No ability to export issues as a CSV file Ability to export and email issues as a CSV file
Personal dashboard for tracking issues and pull requests Analysis dashboard for planning and monitoring projects

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