A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Setup GitLab Pipeline

In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the world of GitLab CI/CD, exploring its fundamental building blocks and guiding you through the process of setting up and running your first pipeline. Whether you are using a self-hosted GitLab instance or GitLab’s SaaS solution, this step-by-step tutorial will help you understand and implement a basic pipeline for your application.

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • Understand the basic concepts of CI/CD and the benefits of using GitLab for continuous integration and deployment.
  • Learn how to set up a GitLab account and navigate its interface to create a new project.
  • Gain insights into creating and configuring the .gitlab-ci.yml file, which defines your pipeline.
  • Explore the different stages of a pipeline: Build, Test, and Deploy, and how to configure them.
  • Discover advanced pipeline configurations, including the use of variables, conditional job execution, and parallel job execution.

Understanding GitLab CI/CD Pipelines

What is CI/CD?

Continuous Integration (CI) and Continuous Deployment (CD) are practices that enable development teams to deliver code changes more frequently and reliably. CI/CD automates the integration and deployment processes, ensuring that code changes are tested and deployed to production seamlessly.

Benefits of Using GitLab for CI/CD

GitLab offers a comprehensive suite of tools for CI/CD, making it a one-stop solution for your DevOps needs. Some of the key benefits include:

  • Integrated platform: GitLab combines source code management, CI/CD, and monitoring in a single application.
  • Automation: Automate your build, test, and deployment processes to improve efficiency.
  • Scalability: GitLab can handle projects of any size, from small teams to large enterprises.

Key Components of a GitLab Pipeline

A GitLab pipeline consists of several key components that work together to automate the software development lifecycle:

  • Jobs: Individual tasks that run as part of the pipeline.
  • Stages: Logical groupings of jobs, such as build, test, and deploy.
  • Runners: Agents that execute the jobs defined in the pipeline.

Understanding these components is crucial for setting up and managing effective CI/CD pipelines in GitLab.

Setting Up Your GitLab Account

Creating a GitLab Account

To get started with GitLab, the first step is to create an account. Visit GitLab’s website and sign up. You can choose to use the website version or install GitLab on your machine. For installation, refer to the official guide to check the system requirements and installation methods as per your OS needs.

Navigating the GitLab Interface

Once your account is set up, familiarize yourself with the GitLab interface. The main menu at the top bar is your gateway to various features. Here, you can access projects, groups, and other essential tools. Understanding the interface will make managing your projects much easier.

Setting Up a New Project

To create a new project:

  1. Go to the top bar and click on the Main menu.
  2. Navigate to Projects and select ‘View all projects.’
  3. Click on ‘New project’ on the right side of the page.
  4. Choose one of the following options on the ‘Create new project’ page:
    • Blank project
    • Built-in template
    • Custom template
    • Import a project from another repository
    • HIPAA audit template
    • Connect to an external repository

Setting up a new project is straightforward and can be done in a few simple steps. Make sure you have available runners to execute your CI/CD pipelines.

Creating the .gitlab-ci.yml File

developer working on a computer with code on screen, GitLab logo, pipeline diagram

Purpose of the .gitlab-ci.yml File

The .gitlab-ci.yml file is the cornerstone of your GitLab CI/CD pipeline. It defines the jobs and stages that will be executed. Without this file, GitLab cannot run your pipeline. This file should be placed in the root directory of your project.

Basic Structure of the YAML File

The .gitlab-ci.yml file is written in YAML, a human-readable data serialization standard. Here is a basic structure:

  - build
  - test
  - deploy

  stage: build
    - echo "Building..."

  stage: test
    - echo "Testing..."

  stage: deploy
    - echo "Deploying..."

Common Keywords and Syntax

Understanding the common keywords and syntax is crucial for writing an effective .gitlab-ci.yml file. Here are some key elements:

  • stages: Defines the stages of the pipeline.
  • script: Specifies the shell commands to be executed.
  • only: Limits when jobs run.
  • except: Specifies when jobs should not run.
  stage: test
    - echo "This is a test job"
    - master
    - tags

Defining Pipeline Stages

The build stage is the first step in your GitLab pipeline. This stage typically involves compiling your source code into executable binaries. It’s crucial to ensure that your code compiles correctly before moving on to further stages. In this stage, you might have a job called compile that handles the compilation process.

The test stage is where you validate your code. This stage can include multiple jobs, such as test1 and test2, to run different sets of tests. The goal is to catch any issues early in the development cycle. Automated tests are essential here to ensure that your code meets the required quality standards.

The deploy stage is the final step where your code is deployed to various environments. This stage can be divided into sub-stages like staging and production. For instance, you might have jobs like deploy-to-stage and deploy-to-prod. This stage ensures that your application is available to users. If you are using GitLab Ultimate, you can take advantage of advanced deployment features to streamline this process.

Remember, the structure of your pipeline can be customized to fit your specific needs. The key is to ensure that each stage is well-defined and serves a clear purpose in your CI/CD workflow.

Configuring GitLab Runners

What is a GitLab Runner?

A GitLab Runner is an agent that runs CI/CD jobs. It is a crucial component in the CI/CD process, enabling the execution of tasks defined in your pipeline. Without runners, your CI/CD jobs cannot be executed. If you are using GitLab.com, the SaaS version provides shared runners by default.

Types of Runners

There are two main types of runners in GitLab:

  1. Shared Runners: These are available to all projects in a GitLab instance. They are ideal for jobs that have similar requirements across multiple projects.
  2. Specific Runners: These are dedicated to a particular project or group. They are useful for jobs with unique requirements or for isolating jobs from other projects.

Registering a Runner

To register a runner, follow these steps:

  1. Navigate to your project’s settings and expand the CI/CD section.
  2. Under the Runners section, switch Shared runners to off if you prefer using specific runners.
  3. Open a terminal and enter gitlab-runner register. This command will invoke a script that asks for input such as the GitLab instance URL, registration token, and executor type.
  4. After registration, start the runner with the command gitlab-runner run. The runner will now be available in the Runners section of your project settings.

Ensure you have available runners to run the GitLab CI/CD jobs. If you are using GitLab.com, you can skip the installation and registration steps as shared runners are provided by default.

Running Your First Pipeline

Committing Code to Trigger Pipeline

To start your first pipeline, you need to commit and push a change to your GitLab repository. Every commit pushed to GitLab generates a pipeline attached to that commit. If multiple commits are pushed together, a pipeline is created for the last commit only. For demonstration purposes, you can commit and push a change directly using GitLab’s web editor. For example, open the README.md file and add an additional line.

Monitoring Pipeline Execution

Once the pipeline is triggered, you can monitor its execution through the GitLab interface. Navigate to your project, then select Build > Pipelines from the left sidebar. Here, you will see a list of pipelines along with their statuses. You can click on a specific pipeline to view detailed logs and job statuses.

Troubleshooting Common Issues

Running into issues with your pipeline is common, especially when you’re just getting started. Here are some tips to troubleshoot:

  • Check the pipeline logs: Detailed logs are available for each job in the pipeline. These logs can provide insights into what went wrong.
  • Validate your .gitlab-ci.yml file: Ensure that your YAML file is correctly formatted and adheres to GitLab’s syntax requirements.
  • Review GitLab documentation: GitLab provides extensive documentation and community support, which can be invaluable for troubleshooting.

Remember, troubleshooting is a part of the learning process. Each issue you resolve will make you more proficient in managing GitLab pipelines.

Advanced Pipeline Configurations

Using Variables in Pipelines

Variables in GitLab pipelines allow you to customize the behavior of your jobs and stages. They can be defined at different levels, such as project, group, or instance levels. You can also define variables directly in the .gitlab-ci.yml file. Here’s an example of how to define a variable:

  DATABASE_URL: "postgres://user:password@postgres:5432/mydatabase"

Conditional Job Execution

Conditional job execution enables you to run jobs only when certain conditions are met. This can be achieved using the rules keyword. For example, you might want to run a job only on the main branch:

  script: echo "This job runs only on the main branch"
    - if: '$CI_COMMIT_BRANCH == "main"'

Parallel Execution of Jobs

Parallel execution allows you to run multiple jobs simultaneously, reducing the overall pipeline execution time. You can use the parallel keyword to specify the number of parallel jobs:

  script: echo "This job runs in parallel"
  parallel: 5

Efficient use of parallel execution can significantly speed up your CI/CD process, but be mindful of the available resources to avoid overloading your runners.

Integrating with Third-Party Services

Connecting to Docker

Integrating Docker with your GitLab pipeline allows you to build, test, and deploy containerized applications seamlessly. Docker integration can be achieved by specifying Docker images in your .gitlab-ci.yml file. This enables the use of Docker commands within your CI/CD jobs, providing a consistent environment for your builds.

Using External APIs

Leveraging external APIs in your GitLab pipeline can enhance functionality and streamline processes. You can use APIs to trigger jobs, fetch data, or even notify external systems of pipeline events. Ensure you handle API keys and tokens securely to prevent unauthorized access.

Notifications and Alerts

Setting up notifications and alerts helps you stay informed about your pipeline’s status. GitLab supports integrations with various messaging platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Mattermost. You can configure these integrations to receive real-time updates on pipeline events, ensuring prompt action on any issues that arise.

Integrating third-party services with your GitLab pipeline not only enhances its capabilities but also ensures a more efficient and streamlined workflow.

Securing Your Pipelines

Managing Secrets and Credentials

Managing secrets and credentials is crucial for maintaining the security of your GitLab pipelines. Variables marked as protected are accessible only to jobs that run in pipelines for protected branches. This ensures that sensitive information like deployment credentials and tokens are not exposed to unauthorized users. To further enhance security, make sure to assign users the right to merge to protected branches only if they have permission to access this sensitive information.

Implementing Access Controls

A strict security model is enforced when pipelines are executed on protected branches. Runners marked as protected can run jobs only on protected branches, preventing untrusted code from executing on the protected runner. This helps in preserving deployment keys and other credentials from being unintentionally accessed. To ensure that jobs intended to be executed on protected runners do not use regular runners, they must be tagged accordingly.

Auditing and Compliance

Regular auditing and compliance checks are essential for maintaining the integrity of your pipelines. GitLab provides various tools and features to help you monitor and audit your pipeline activities. This includes tracking who has access to what resources and ensuring that all actions are logged for future reference. By keeping a close eye on your pipeline activities, you can quickly identify and address any potential security issues.

Review the deployment safety page for additional security recommendations for securing your pipelines.

Optimizing Pipeline Performance

Optimizing your GitLab CI/CD pipelines is a continuous process that requires attention to detail and a deep understanding of both your software’s needs and the capabilities of GitLab. Here are some strategies to help you get the most out of your pipelines.

Reducing Pipeline Execution Time

One of the most effective ways to optimize your pipeline is by reducing its execution time. Minimize the time each job takes by breaking down complex tasks into smaller, more manageable ones. Additionally, ensure that your jobs are running in parallel whenever possible to speed up the overall process.

Caching Dependencies

Caching is a powerful feature that can significantly reduce the time it takes to run your pipelines. By caching dependencies, you avoid the need to download the same files repeatedly. This not only saves time but also reduces the load on your network and external services.

Optimizing Resource Usage

Efficient resource usage is crucial for maintaining high-performance pipelines. Use resource groups to manage and allocate resources effectively. This helps in preventing resource contention and ensures that your pipelines run smoothly without unnecessary delays.

Remember, optimizing your GitLab CI/CD pipelines is a continuous process. Regularly review and update your configurations to adapt to new requirements and improve efficiency.

Maintaining and Updating Pipelines

Versioning Your Pipeline Configuration

Versioning your pipeline configuration is crucial for tracking changes and ensuring consistency. Always use feature branches and merge requests for any modifications to the pipeline. This practice helps in maintaining a clear history of changes and facilitates easier rollbacks if needed.

Regular Maintenance Tasks

Regular maintenance tasks are essential to keep your pipelines running smoothly. Here are some key tasks to consider:

  • Review and update dependencies: Ensure all dependencies are up-to-date to avoid potential security vulnerabilities.
  • Monitor pipeline performance: Regularly check the performance metrics to identify and resolve bottlenecks.
  • Clean up old artifacts: Remove outdated or unnecessary artifacts to free up storage and improve performance.

Regular maintenance not only ensures the smooth functioning of your pipelines but also helps in identifying potential issues before they become critical.

Updating Pipeline for New Requirements

As your project evolves, so will your pipeline requirements. Be proactive in updating your pipeline to accommodate new features, tools, or processes. This may involve adding new stages, modifying existing jobs, or integrating additional third-party services. Keeping your pipeline configuration flexible and adaptable is key to long-term success.


Setting up a GitLab CI/CD pipeline might seem daunting at first, but with a clear step-by-step approach, it becomes a manageable and rewarding task. By following this guide, you should now have a basic pipeline up and running, capable of automating your build, deploy, and test processes. Remember, the key to mastering GitLab CI/CD is practice and continuous learning. As you become more familiar with the platform, you can start customizing and refining your pipelines to better suit your project’s specific needs. Happy coding!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a GitLab CI/CD pipeline?

A GitLab CI/CD pipeline is a series of automated processes that help in the continuous integration and continuous delivery of software projects. It consists of various stages like build, test, and deploy that are defined in a .gitlab-ci.yml file.

How do I create a .gitlab-ci.yml file?

To create a .gitlab-ci.yml file, place it in the root directory of your project. This file uses YAML syntax to define the stages, jobs, and scripts that make up your pipeline.

What are the benefits of using GitLab for CI/CD?

GitLab offers a comprehensive platform for CI/CD with features like built-in version control, issue tracking, and robust pipeline configuration. It streamlines the development process, improves code quality, and accelerates delivery.

What is a GitLab Runner?

A GitLab Runner is an application that processes jobs from GitLab CI/CD pipelines. It can be installed on various platforms and can run multiple jobs concurrently.

How do I trigger a GitLab pipeline?

A GitLab pipeline is triggered automatically when you push a commit to the repository. You can also trigger pipelines manually from the GitLab interface.

What are the common stages in a GitLab pipeline?

Common stages in a GitLab pipeline include build, test, and deploy. Each stage consists of jobs that execute specific tasks, such as compiling code, running tests, or deploying applications.

How can I monitor the execution of my pipeline?

You can monitor the execution of your pipeline through the GitLab interface, which provides detailed logs and status updates for each job and stage in the pipeline.

How do I handle secrets and credentials in GitLab pipelines?

Secrets and credentials can be managed using GitLab’s built-in secret management features. These include environment variables, secret files, and integration with external secret management tools.

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