GitHub and GitLab allow you to manage and host your source code, either individually or as a team, for free or through a subscription. We will show you the key differences and why you should use one platform over the other.
Both GitHub and GitLab offer similar services, just like their names suggest. However, if you are not involved in software development and merely know GitHub as a source for downloading software, then the differences between the two platforms may not matter to you. Both platforms excel at providing the foundation for Source Code Management (SCM) using Git. You can work on both platforms directly in your browser, through the terminal using Git, or with various Git environments such as IDEs and code editors.
Both platforms allow for free private and public repositories. They also offer tools for team collaboration, third-party software integration, and hundreds of advanced features available through different pricing models. If you are looking for the best platform for a large-scale project with hundreds of developers, global infrastructure, and predefined conditions, you will need to conduct a comprehensive evaluation. The differences between the platforms are numerous and distributed across complex subscription models. GitLab provides a detailed feature comparison, which can serve as a good starting point.
However, it’s important to approach this information with caution. GitLab is fair enough to list features that are exclusive to GitHub. On the other hand, if you only want to host your private tools and scripts or run public projects without extensive IT management, you can reasonably compare the free offerings of both platforms. As typical for market leaders, GitHub has a vast selection of add-ons.
The Major Differences
The most obvious difference lies in the size and operator of the platforms. GitHub is virtually a monopoly, especially when it comes to free repositories. It is by far the most well-known SCM platform. Additionally, GitHub is now owned by Microsoft, while GitLab.com is operated by GitLab Inc. The sheer size of GitHub provides advantages such as a higher likelihood of finding users and contributors, easier integration of third-party repositories with your own projects, growing trust in the longevity of the platform (considering the discontinued Google Code), and a larger developer community working on the platform and specific third-party software.
Overall, this positions GitHub as the more stable and performant system. However, GitLab offers features that counterbalance this advantage. For a long time, unlimited free repositories were a unique feature of GitLab, with GitHub only recently following suit. Even now, GitHub imposes more restrictions in this regard compared to GitLab. For example, both platforms have a concept of protected branches, where only assigned users can work on them.
However, GitHub only allows this for public repos, while GitLab also supports it for private repos. The limitation of a maximum of three developers per private repo is even more impactful. If, for example, you want to manage an application for your sports club with four colleagues in a private repo, you would already have to upgrade to GitHub’s minimum subscription plan for $7 per month (which would also enable protected branches). Both platforms offer graphing capabilities, but GitLab’s implementation tends to be more visually appealing.
On a professional level, one example is Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD), where GitLab provides built-in tools while GitHub requires the use of third-party software. Another prominent difference is user management. GitHub only allows role-based access control starting from the Team plan, which costs $9 per month per developer, whereas it is standard in GitLab.
It is not accurate to say that GitLab performs better overall than GitHub, but this tendency is clear when considering the free tier offerings. GitLab can be installed on your own hardware or a virtual server through the freely available Community Edition, which serves as an open-source alternative to GitHub. GitHub only allows this if you purchase their enterprise version.
Many sources claim that GitLab’s web interface offers better usability. However, this is subjective, as the differences are not that significant. One notable exception is that GitLab’s interface scales well and provides a larger workspace, while GitHub’s interface is more slimmed down and wastes a lot of desktop space.
Another advantage of GitLab is that it provides a full-fledged integrated development environment (IDE) for creating and modifying code directly in the browser, whereas GitHub only offers a minimalist text editor. However, if you prefer to use IDEs or editors on your desktop instead of the browser, the landscape changes significantly. Both platforms can be easily integrated into various IDEs using a URL and user credentials.
Once integrated, GitHub and GitLab simply become storage locations with minimal visibility, especially when it comes to the basics of Git functionality. However, GitHub is more commonly offered as the default option in third-party software, benefiting from its popularity.
If you are new to Git, SCM, and GitHub/GitLab, you will need to get accustomed to both systems equally. Usability alone shouldn’t be a major deciding factor. GitLab’s interface fully utilizes the width of your monitor, which is a positive aspect.
Making a Decision
To keep it brief, we need to generalize and express a biased opinion when comparing the two platforms. In the free tier, GitLab offers more features and a more comprehensive out-of-the-box package, as well as cheaper enterprise contracts. On the other hand, GitHub excels in terms of infrastructure/performance and its enormous market influence. Whether a larger GitHub community or GitLab’s additional out-of-the-box tools are more important for beginners is a personal decision.
For larger-scale projects, a point-by-point comparison between both providers will be necessary, considering third-party software and integrations. Both platforms can be extended with hundreds of features, allowing you to accomplish almost anything you can imagine.
Finally, it is worth noting that both platforms are constantly evolving. For example, GitLab’s built-in container registry is often considered a major advantage over GitHub. Although this is true, GitHub also offers the same concept as a beta feature, albeit with its own registration system. The choice between the two platforms is likely to be clear in two cases: GitLab, if you want to operate a free private repository with minimal restrictions, and GitHub, if you want to drive a global open-source project with the widest possible reach.