Top CI/CD Tools of 2020


03 June 2020 by Dillon Courts

You’ve decided it is time to get on board the DevOps movement and implement continuous integration and continuous deployment of your applications. Or maybe you’ve been doing this for a while but are looking to explore a new tool. The market is saturated right now with different flavors of CI/CD tooling and it can be overwhelming when trying to choose the right tool for your use case. I know I have been guilty of ‘analysis paralysis’ when there are too many options on the table. I’m hoping to lend some clarity by providing analysis of some of the most popular CI/CD tools in 2020 and what the best use case is for each. I’m not looking to crown a winner here, but hopefully I can help narrow down your choices.

 

I am a software engineer with a specialization in DevOps, and I practice CI/CD regularly. I’m hoping to provide a more technical perspective on these tools beyond what you can read on their marketing homepages. My goal is to help you narrow down your choices to a select few products based on your use case. You’ll notice that I did not include pricing in these comparisons. This was intentional because I believe the benefits you gain from embracing CI/CD will far outweigh any cost associated with these tools. In addition, the pricing models for these providers can sometimes be complicated and it will be much simpler for you to do the pricing research yourself once you’ve narrowed it down.

 

Let’s clarify a couple of terms before we get started.

 

  • Continuous Integration (CI) - This is the act of integrating changes made by multiple developers into a single branch of a code base. CI often includes steps to run tests and ultimately produce a deployable build artifact.

 

  • Continuous Deployment (CD) - Continuous Deployment is the act of deploying the build artifacts from the CI step directly into an environment. Some would argue that in order for it to be true CD it would need to go all the way to production. Sometimes people use CD to mean Continuous Delivery, which is the act of being able to deploy a build to production at any time, but not always doing it.

 

  • Software as a Service (SaaS) - A software solution that is entirely hosted for you and all you have to do is sign up. In the context of CI/CD tools we will be discussing whether or not a tool is a SaaS product that requires no setup or a self hosted tool that must be maintained.

CI/CD Tool Comparisons 

 

Swiss Army Knife Solutions

 

These tools try to solve all of your software development lifecycle needs in a single solution. They contain git repositories, kanban boards, issue tracking, backlogs, and CI/CD pipelines. You can use all of or some of the features of these solutions. You can hook into a git repository hosted elsewhere or leverage Jira for your project management while only using the CI/CD provided by these tools.

 

Azure DevOps

 

Azure DevOps is an evolving tool that grew out of Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS). It is a SaaS offering with a self-hosted option that does everything you’d expect a CI/CD tool to do. It has a nice offering of predefined community built pipeline jobs that you can plug and play. There seems to be some oddities related to legacy features from VSTS while Microsoft tries to support those that are making the transition to its new product. Most of this is related to the continuous deployment portion of their service. Much of their deployment documentation is marked as ‘classic’ and they are transitioning to what Microsoft is calling environments instead. This is a work in progress with new deployment targets being added regularly. Passing artifacts between build steps can also be a bit cumbersome as they need to be ‘exported’ and ‘imported’.

 

Bottom Line: Azure DevOps is a full featured tool that will meet your needs. However, it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles associated with some of the continuous delivery tools. If you and your team are already very familiar with Microsoft products and/or VSTS, Azure DevOps will likely be an easy transition.

SaaS
Self Hosted
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers
Pipelines as Code
CI
CD

 

GitLab

 

GitLab started with a self hosted solution only but now offers a robust SaaS product as well. GitLab will do all of the things you’d expect a CI tool to do but also has some nice features in the CD space if you’ve adopted Kubernetes. GitLab supports cluster management and canary deployments to Kubernetes clusters as part of its CD process. GitLab also has a feature called Review Apps that creates environments on demand with each Pull Request. These environments are assigned temporary URLs for access and can be used to validate deployments before they are merged into master.

 

Bottom Line: GitLab is a full featured CI/CD tool that will likely meet the needs of your organization. You will get more out of it if you have adopted Kubernetes but it is not a requirement. Personally, I would choose this over Azure DevOps if I was looking for a swiss army knife like tool unless I was already living in the Azure ecosystem. GitLab is a more mature product and is the core business of the company.

 

SaaS
Self Hosted
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers
Pipelines as Code
CI
CD Kubernetes Only

 

General Tools

 

These tools offer basic continuous integration. You will not get any fancy deployment strategies, but if you are early in your continuous integration journey, or you want to develop your deployment strategy yourself, these tools will get the job done.

 

CircleCI

 

CircleCI has gained popularity over recent years as a low barrier to entry CI/CD tool. You’ll get everything you need here at a reasonable price including pipelines declared as YAML, which seems to be the standard across these tools right now. CircleCI supports continuous deployment with some built in targets for all the major cloud providers as well as Heroku and CloudFoundry. These are fairly limited though and only include a handful of services within these providers.

 

Bottom Line: Good choice for organizations early in their CI/CD journey. Easy to set up and the tool will grow with you as you mature. You may need to adopt additional tooling as your Continuous Deployment needs become more robust.

 

SaaS
Self Hosted
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers
Pipelines as Code
CI
CD

 

GitHub Actions

 

GitHub Actions is the new kid on the block having been released in 2019. GitHub actions is a SaaS product built right into GitHub, no other software needed. GitHub Actions subscribes to a lot of paradigms made popular by other tools, pipelines as YAML, building in containers, etc. A couple of notable features are the build status links you can put into your README to show the current state of the latest builds, and the ability to set up test environments as part of the pipeline to run integration tests. GitHub Actions is lacking in any niceties for Continuous Deployment like Canary or Blue Green, so you’ll be rolling most of that part of your pipeline yourself. Although, GitHub Actions has a marketplace where people can publish commonly used actions so you can pull them into your project. There are already actions available for many common services on the public cloud providers.

 

Bottom Line: GitHub Actions is a great option if you are already hosting your code on GitHub. It has all the features you need and a nice marketplace for pre-built actions. This tool should suit you well until you want to get more serious about your Continuous Deployment strategies.

 

SaaS
Self Hosted x
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers
Pipelines as Code
CI
CD

 

 

Self Hosted & Legacy

 

These tools do not have SaaS models available for their use. This means you will be responsible for setting it up and maintaining the infrastructure that supports it. Consequently these tools have a higher barrier to entry than other tools mentioned in this article.

 

Jenkins

 

Jenkins is one of the original CI tools. Originally developed for the JVM, a plethora of plug-ins are now available to build components for almost any language or environment. You will often find it in established development environments. Someone has probably already figured out how to do whatever you are trying to do with Jenkins because of its maturity and large community. This can be a huge benefit if you are new to the tool.

 

Bottom Line: Jenkins is a bit antiquated and I wouldn’t choose it if I was picking a new tool today. It does everything you need from a CI tool but I believe the other products here are better and I would personally lean toward a SaaS model unless you need to manage things in house for some reason.

 

SaaS x
Self Hosted
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers
Pipelines as Code
CI
CD x

 

TeamCity

 

TeamCity is an older, self hosted, tool from JetBrains. Generally I’m a big fan of JetBrains products, especially their IDE’s, but I would not recommend TeamCity for an organization newly adopting a CI/CD tool. It gets the job done like all of the tools here but its user interface takes some time to wrap your head around. In addition, the self hosting only option makes the barrier to entry pretty high. My biggest gripe with this tool may be a personal one. The pipelines as code feature is not YAML like every other tool out there. It used to be XML but as of recently you can now write your pipelines as Kotlin. However, this feature still feels like it was bolted on and most will use the user interface instead.

 

Bottom Line: I believe there are better options for your organization than TeamCity as a new build tool. I wanted to mention it in this article though as it still maintains a sizeable market share in the space.

 

SaaS x
Self Hosted
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers
Pipelines as Code
CI
CD x

 

 

Jenkins-X

 

Jenkins-X is a deployment CI/CD solution that is completely disconnected from its predecessor Jenkins. The Jenkins-X team has gone all in on Kubernetes and it is a requirement to run the tool. Jenkins-X offers a very opinionated solution for creating pipelines by combining some of the newer tools like Tekton and Prow into a ‘black box’ solution that is abstracted away by the jx command line tool. This is a self hosted solution that may leave you needing to debug portions of other open source tools when things aren’t working properly. Jenkins-X also heavily leverages Kubernetes namespaces to create different environments to deploy applications. This may or may not fit with how your organization is structured.

 

Bottom Line: Jenkins-X is a very opinionated tool and is worth a look if you have adopted Kubernetes. Personally, I find that it is too opinionated for my liking but your mileage may vary.

 

SaaS x
Self Hosted
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers
Pipelines as Code
CI
CD

 

 

CI/CD + Hosting

 

Netlify

 

Netlify is free for small projects. Enterprise can be expensive. Netlify focuses on the front end developer that just wants their code running in production. Netlify will build your static sites and Single Page Applications and host them on their platform. This is a huge selling point as you don’t have to think about infrastructure at all. Netlify provides a Content Delivery Network (CDN) as part of their service as well, making the delivery of your applications blazing fast all over the world. Netlify also offers a preview environments feature that is very handy for testing changes before they are merged into your trunk branch. Environment management can be a bit difficult but Netlify has a feature called banch subdomains that makes this a little more bearable as long as you are willing to devote a branch to each long standing environment you want to use. Finally, Netlify will generate and auto renew SSL certificates for you through an integration with LetsEncrypt, which is awesome!

 

Bottom Line: Netlify is a great choice if you want to adopt some DevOps practices but want a low barrier to entry. You don’t need a lot of infrastructure or shell scripting knowledge to take advantage of their offering. If you can create build scripts with npm you’ll be good to go. If you want to get more sophisticated with your Continuous Deployment strategy you may outgrow this tool.

 

SaaS
Self Hosted
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers
Pipelines as Code
CI
CD

 

 

Continuous Deployment

 

The tools in this section assume you have the Continuous Integration part figured out and are happy with your tooling. The focus of these tools is to enable more complex and sophisticated Continuous Deployment strategies.

 

Spinnaker

 

Spinnaker is Netflix’s Continuous Deployment tool and has been released to the open source community as of 2015. Netflix uses it for managing the infrastructure and deployment life cycles of its applications, not for continuous integration and building. Because of that it offers the most capabilities around deployment. Spinnaker has a lot of its own language for managing these lifecycles and has a large learning curve. It offers a multi-cloud solution with a deployment target list that includes the major cloud providers, Kubernetes, and Cloud Foundry. Spinnaker shines in situations where complex deployment scenarios are needed such as multi-region, multi-cloud, hybrid-cloud, blue green, and canary. Pipelines as code is a grey area here as Spinnaker has made strides in recent years with Pipeline Templates but is still working through adoption.

 

Bottom Line: While this product is awesome and has a lot to offer, this level of sophistication is for very mature organizations and tech giants that have complex deployments. You do not need this for simple websites or smaller application stacks. If you are looking for a mature tool to handle your deployments and don’t mind self hosting this is worth a look.

 

SaaS x
Self Hosted
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers N/A
Pipelines as Code
CI x
CD

 

Harness.io

 

Harness is in the same category as Spinnaker, continuous delivery as a service, but seems to be a slightly more simplified offering while offering a SaaS solution. Harness integrates tightly with newer methodologies like containerization and serverless, making the process a bit more seamless than spinnaker. Harness allows for the complex deployment strategies like canary, blue/green, etc. Not much is offered in the way of Continuous Integration as you are expected to be running a Jenkins server or using bamboo if you want to integrate your build process into Harness. Otherwise you can use any Continuous Integration tool you want and simply leverage Harness for the Continuous Deployment. Harness offers deployment targets across the major cloud providers, Kubernetes, and Cloud Foundry and supports pipelines as code.

 

Bottom Line: Harness is the newer, shinier, simpler version of Spinnaker that requires less ramp up time for your team. It’s SaaS offering is a major selling point, although they do offer an on-prem, self managed deployment as well. If you are considering Spinnaker it is worth evaluating Harness as well.

 

SaaS
Self Hosted
Self Hosted Agents
Build Steps in Containers N/A
Pipelines as Code
CI X
CD

 

 

Honorable Mentions

 

The below tools don’t fit any use cases the other products don’t so I’ve chosen to leave them off the list. I believe one of the above tools would be a better fit for your organization due to ease of use, maturity, or feature set.

 

Travis

Codefresh

Drone.io

Bamboo

Argo

Tekton

 

Closing Thoughts

 

At the end of the day all these tools are exactly that, tools. The success of your organization’s adoption of CI/CD is not going to be significantly hindered by your choice here. Unless you choose a Kubernetes only tool and your organization doesn’t use Kubernetes. It is much more important that you adopt the cultural changes that CI/CD brings, along with other DevOps philosophies. My main consideration for choosing a tool would be based on my organization’s DevOps maturity, and any existing familiarity with these tools among my software team. You can’t go wrong and if somehow you do you can always change it. That’s the great part about software development, we aren’t building material structures like houses with large upfront and change costs.

 

Happy Pipelining!


Dillon Courts
Dillon Courts

Cloud Practice Lead
Dillon has 10 years of professional development experience and a passion for building reliable, highly scalable software systems. He Specializes in DevOps practices, Cloud Native solutions, and microservice architectures. In his free time Dillon enjoys playing sports, video games, board games, and spending time with his wife Alex, and 2 dogs.