Version control systems allow developers to track changes to code over time and collaborate with others on projects. GitLab, GitHub, and Bitbucket are three of the most popular options available today. Choosing between them can be difficult, as they have overlapping features but also some key differences. This article examines the pros and cons of each service to help you determine which is best for your needs.
Popularity and Market Share
In terms of popularity, GitHub has the largest user base by far. As of 2024, GitHub claims over 73 million developers working across more than 200 million repositories, making it the largest host of source code in the world.
Bitbucket comes second, with over 12 million registered users. However, Bitbucket is owned by Atlassian, which also makes the popular Jira software project management tool. This means many Bitbucket users are part of organizations that use Atlassian products.
Finally, GitLab has around 5 million registered users. However, GitLab is experiencing rapid growth as developers look for alternatives to GitHub.
Core Features and Functionality
All three platforms provide the following core features:
- Version control using Git for tracking changes to code
- Source code hosting for storing code in the cloud
- Collaboration tools like code reviews, task tracking, wikis for documentation
- Access controls for setting permissions on who can view/edit code
However, they differ in some additional functionality:
- GitHub has a very clean, user-friendly interface optimized for software collaboration. It lacks some project management features.
- GitLab aims to provide an all in one DevOps platform with baked-in CI/CD pipelines, container registry, auto deployment, and monitoring tools.
- Bitbucket focuses more on business teams. It offers native Jira integration, pipeline templates, and cloud deployment tools.
When it comes to reviewing code, testing pull requests from teammates, all three platforms have made big strides to improve the developer experience.
GitHub pioneered code reviews with features like line comments, customizable pull request templates, and statuses to track CI test runs.
Bitbucket recently launched a markup editor that makes it easier to comment on code changes. It also has Smart Commits that use AI to suggest code quality improvements.
GitLab has put a big focus on security. Static and dynamic analysis testing can automatically scan new code for vulnerabilities during code reviews.
Project Management Features
For organizing software projects, GitHub provides lightweight task tracking through issue tickets and project boards.
Bitbucket ties in natively with Jira for full fledged project planning and work tracking. Everything from bugs, tasks, specs, and docs can be managed together from one dashboard.
GitLab builds project management into its platform with issue boards, milestones, labels, weightings, and time tracking right next to the source code.
CI/CD and DevOps Capabilities
Continuous integration and deployment (CI/CD) are practices where code changes get automatically built, tested, and deployed to production through pipelines. As DevOps becomes more widespread among engineering teams, CI/CD and Git tools are merging together into one ecosystem.
For CI/CD pipelines, GitLab has an integrated registry, auto build/test features, deploy templates, and configuration tracking built-in that works right out of the box. Configuring custom pipelines can take some expertise, but pipeline templates require little coding.
GitHub Actions provides flexible YAML automation for creating custom CI workflows. There are publicly shared actions and templates to choose from the GitHub Marketplace, or you can code your own.
Bitbucket Cloud supports pipelines through integrations with Atlassian CodePipeline, AWS, Azure, and third parties. For fully managed CI/CD, it relies more heavily on Bitbucket Pipelines which requires additional licensing.
To support deploying containerized apps, GitLab and GitHub both offer native container registries for storing Docker images. These integrate seamlessly into their CI pipelines.
For container workflows, Bitbucket provides integrations to external registries like AWS ECR, Docker Hub, ACR but lacks bundled registry storage of its own.
Collaboration Tools and Social Coding
Beyond git repository hosting, these platforms aim to foster collaboration throughout the software lifecycle. Developers can discuss changes right alongside their code, share documentation, publish releases for deployment, and track metrics after launch.
Here are some key highlights around community and collaboration features:
- GitHub Discussions is essentially a developer forum built around open source repositories for asking questions and driving projects forward through conversation.
- Bitbucket has an Answers knowledge sharing portal for posting help content, documentation, videos, and community forums.
- GitLab offers Merge Request Discussions to collaborate on lines of code directly in a merge request.
- All services have social networking capabilities through commenting, mentions, follows, favorites/likes, user profiles, activity feeds, @-replies.
- For community management, GitHub has more granular access and permissions for outside contributors compared to GitLab and Bitbucket. External developers can submit changes through forks and pull requests in GitHub without needing direct commit access.
Wikis and Documentation
For creating and publishing project documentation, wikis are built into each platform:
- GitHub wikis are version controlled along with code changes in the Git repository. Pages are written in Markdown making them easy to update.
- GitLab wikis can be public or internal facing. Groups have separate wikis for providing docs across multiple projects.
- Bitbucket wiki lives inside the Bitbucket UI. There is WYSIWYG editing with links, formatting, images, videos embedded. Recent updates in 2024 also allow wikis to be written in Markdown.
Releases and Insights
Managing software releases and measuring project impact involves:
- Packaging up installable binaries and files
- Tagging versions like v1.3.5 in sync with commits
- Tracking download counts and usage metrics
- Displaying badges and buttons embedding on other sites
GitHub Releases centralizes packages, notes, metadata that can be referenced via API and downloaded through the UI. It also provides traffic graphs and clone graphs.
For releases, GitLab offers customizable entry pages showcasing software to visitors. Release managers can approve milestones before making public. Analytics embedded in GitLab Pages helps track popularity through views, clones, and explore section.
Bitbucket Pipelines takes artifacts from build processes and can publish them to different endpoints. Atlassian Marketplace offers app install counters and ratings for Bitbucket.
Access Controls for Security
Code security is a top priority for engineering teams relying on hosted version control. Access controls and software composition analysis are essential for keeping source code and pipelines safe from compromise:
- All platforms support two-factor authentication (2FA) using apps like Google Authenticator.
- GitHub Enterprise Cloud takes it further enforcing 2FA and credential rotation for all accounts to prevent password reuse attacks.
- GitHub allows granular user, team, and role permissions down to the branch level plus blocks for fork & PR authorization.
- GitLab has inherited, project, and group level roles with customizable rule based permissions.
- Bitbucket permissions can be granted per repository, branch, pipeline, etc. Jira project level permissions also carry over for visibility.
- GitHub generates detailed event logs when changes occur to repositories plus has tools like CodeQL to detect secrets.
- GitLab records administrator actions like user changes through Audit Events to keep history.
- Bitbucket can integrate with Bitbucket CloudTrail though needs improvement in non Atlassian tooling and storage services.
- For handling API keys and credentials securely throughout the pipeline, GitHub Actions and GitLab CI/CD obscure secrets and automatically redact logs. Special environments provide access only at runtime.
- Bitbucket Pipelines relies on third-party secret management or manually securing variables. Best practices still recommend avoiding directly injecting credentials into repository code.
- GitHub Advanced Security will scan package manifests and identify vulnerabilities in third party libraries. License compliance and usage graphs provide insights into open source dependencies.
- GitLab offers license compliance, license violation alerts, and remediation guidance through integrations with FOSSA and WhiteSource.
- For Bitbucket, vendors like SourceClear or Synk provide SCA tools as add-ons to analyze dependencies though may require custom setup.
Integrations and Extensibility
While core platform features continue improving, custom integrations are what enable specialized team workflows. GitHub, GitLab, and Bitbucket embrace ecosystem partners and offer APIs for building on their platforms:
For custom pipeline jobs, all three services support integrating external runners:
- GitHub Actions has self hosted runners for on-prem infrastructure plus cloud runner machines. Extensions use Docker containers to encapsulate environments.
- GitLab offers the broadest Docker integration options spanning Kubernetes, serverless FaaS platforms, assembly lines with Auto DevOps.
- Bitbucket Pipelines flexible YAML lets you launch multi stage pipelines integrating with practically any language or cloud provider.
Tickets and Planning Integrations
In terms of project planning, GitHub keeps it lightweight as a code first platform:
- Extension apps can add task management through GitHub Issues API with 300+ integrations on the Marketplace. Native Jira integration is in beta.
Conversely, Bitbucket and Jira work hand-in-hand:
- Bitbucket Smart Commits auto link pull requests with Jira tickets. Full data syncing ensures tasks status continually updated across both tools.
While GitLab straddles both code collaboration and planning aspects:
- GitLab Issue Boards offer best of breed agile features for planning work from within DevOps lifecycle. Integration ecosystem bridges 200+ external apps.
Third-party integrations are just one aspect of extensibility. Underneath, APIs and configuration hooks enable modifying default behaviors:
- GitHub promotes an open source ethos with GraphQL API plus Octokit libraries in multiple languages to build custom apps and CLIs on GitHub.
- GitLab API and webhooks make GitLab highly extensible. Pre-packaged integrations exist or you can code new automations using GitLab CI and shared Runners.
- Bitbucket REST APIs and Python/JS SDKs provide programmatic control to pull data out of Bitbucket into other systems or trigger actions on Bitbucket events.
Hosting Options and Scalability
Software teams differ widely in shape and size from solo coding side projects to massive enterprise DevOps practices. Depending on needs, options range from free tiers for public repositories up to hosting private codebases at massive scale.
Shared Public Hosting
For public open source projects, all vendors offer free tiers with unlimited collaborators but may restrict private repositories or team features. Happy developers == more stars!
- GitHub Free offers unlimited public/open repositories with up to 3 collaborators per repository. Other features like wikis, pages, actions have monthly usage quotas.
- GitLab Free allows unlimited public/private repositories and collaborators with up to 400,000 CI pipeline minutes per month. Shared runners help distribute jobs.
- Bitbucket Free has unlimited private repositories with up to 5 user accounts on a single repo. Pipelines and storage are limited to 50 builds & 1 GB each month.
Private Code Hosting
Going private avoids exposing intellectual property publicly. Team and enterprise plans provide:
- More collaborators per repository
- Greater storage limits
- Faster builds and test execution
- Enhanced security scanning
- GitHub Team and Enterprise Cloud offer flexible scaling. Monolithic architecture means all users share same infrastructure.
- GitLab Premium and Ultimate tiers add monitoring, auto scaling, high availability configurations. Works as single tenant with managed namespaces.
- Bitbucket Data Center delivers enterprise scale performance supporting over 5000 developers in one cluster. Multi datacenter configurations provide redundancy without third party tools.
For air gapped networks or application security requirements like FedRAMP compliance:
- GitHub AE is the on-premises version with role based access, SAML/SSO integrations, extended retention policies to comply. Licensing fees apply.
- GitLab EE self managed package includes security scanning, load balancing, geo replication, and disaster recovery out of the box.
- Bitbucket Server comes in two offerings Server (perpetual license) and Data Center (subscription) each available to host on internal infrastructure.
Pricing and TCO Comparison
Pricing involves tradeoffs balancing features, scale needs, cloud spend, and labor costs over time. Here is a look at pricing models:
GitHub uses a mix of flat monthly rates for teams and per seat pricing that ramps for larger organizations. Free for open source.
- Team plan = $4/month/user. Goes up at ++ scale
- Enterprise plan = starts at $21/month/user
The all in one nature of GitLab means steeper pricing tiers as functionality increases. Volume discounts negotiate lower rates.
- Starter = Free
- Premium = $19/month/user
- Ultimate = $99/month/user
Bitbucket published transparent pricing with free and flat monthly tiers. Data Center adds high availability capabilities and greater scale.
- Free plan = Free for up to 5 users
- Standard plan = $3/month/user
- Premium plan = $6/month/user
True cost savings come from developer productivity. Shortened debugging cycles, easy collaboration, and releasing better code reduces costs elsewhere. Be careful hyper-optimizing hosting costs in the short term at expense of long term dev productivity and innovation gains.
Use Case Suitability
The best platform depends heavily on the type of audience and use case:
GitHub tends to attract more hobbyist developers and open source communities given free public repos and focus as a social coding platform. Larger enterprises use GitHub for open standards development and marketing developer brands.
GitLab appeals to tech companies with advanced DevOps practices looking for end-to-end toolchain coverage. The single application architecture with issue tracking, code hosting, CI/CD, monitoring avoids tool sprawl.
Bitbucket serves small businesses and enterprises (with on-prem options) that want straightforward Git repos with built-in Jira issue management. Integrated view reduces context switching between tools.
When evaluating GitLab vs GitHub vs Bitbucket, consider your team’s primary goals and which platform aligns closest with the stage of maturity in their DevOps practices. Often using a combination of vendors makes sense depending on use cases. For example, hosting inner source code on GitHub Enterprise Server for IP protection while maintaining open source presence on github.com for community contributions.
If collaborating broadly with decentralized teams of external contributors, GitHub provides the most seamless fork & merge request workflows. Bitbucket makes sense for tightly coupled development teams invested heavily in Atlassian stack. While GitLab takes an opinionated approach aiming to consolidate the entire toolchain into a centralized platform.
Depending on scale needs and preferences for customizing vs configuring out of box solutions, different tradeoffs emerge. Evaluate free tiers first before upgrading based on must have priorities like CI minutes, support response times, etc.
Can I migrate or mirror repositories across GitHub, GitLab, and Bitbucket?
Yes, all platforms provide import and export tools to facilitate migration. Third party tools like GitMigrator by Unity also exist to streamline moving repositories. Using CI/CD integrations you can mirror changes bidirectionally.
How much engineering support is available?
GitHub and GitLab both offer 24/7 customer support via online tickets for paid plans. Bitbucket supports business hours through Confluence or offers premium dedicated Technical Account Managers (TAMs).
What mobile apps are available?
Official mobile apps for iOS and Android exist for GitHub and Bitbucket. GitLab is lagging behind with only third-party mobile clients available.
Can I try before buying?
All vendors offer unlimited free tiers. GitLab and Bitbucket enable certain enterprise features on small teams for short pilot duration. Formal proofs of concept with GitHub cover architecture planning with Solution Architects.
How does licensing work for IP and ownership of code?
You retain full ownership. The services operate on an IP neutral model not claiming rights via hosting as seen in previous generations of closed source platforms. Check ToS for specifics.
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