Blonk is an international leader in the field of environmental and sustainability research in the agri-food sector. But as a small business without a QA team or a security team, the challenge was figuring out how to deliver professional software with only a few developers.
Blonk used an external company to help set up what Bart Durlinger, product development manager, and software devevloper Pieter van de Vijver envisioned as its platform at the time. “They set up an environment on Amazon, a separate built server, a separate repository, and then some scripts in between to link it all together,” Durlinger recalls. “But when we decided to take more control, that was just too complex. We had too many different parts in many different places. We didn't have the capacity at the time to really oversee how this should all work together.”
That's when the Blonk team started looking for platforms that offered a more integrated approach, with project management, CI/CD, repository, and version control features all in one place.
Mature, with a modern vision of software development
Blonk turned to GitLab after finding that the platform “had a lot of the things you need to have a professional delivery pipeline integrated into one solution," says Durlinger. At the time, the consultancy was using GitHub, which was more expensive, he says.
When Blonk started with GitLab, the platform was free, which was a big factor in its selection, van de Vijver says. “But it was also an up-and-coming startup with a vision of that CI/CD integration built into how you envisioned the whole service itself," he says. “GitHub was more of a repository that might provide you with those things, but it required more manual setup.” Blonk liked that GitLab was a mature and stable solution “but still new enough to have a vision of how software is approached nowadays with easy setup and an integrated pipeline by default, and useful branching strategies by which you could support a multi-level, multi-stage deployment process easily," Van de Vijver says.
At the time Van de Vijver was the only one at Blonk with a background as a software developer, and another bonus was his familiarity with all the tools in GitLab. “By using GitLab, we could hit the ground running, and keep the scale small. You don't have to worry about all kinds of CI/CD operations and integrations and the configuration of that but use it just out of the box,” he says.
How Blonk is utilizing GitLab today
Currently, Blonk has 38 GitLab premium licenses, about half of which are used by software developers. The rest are used by data scientists, consultants, project managers, and others, so there are different ways the platform is utilized within the company; that also means there are different levels of software literacy but that hasn’t been an issue. The software development team has been onboarding very junior developers over the past couple of months, and “never have I had questions of how to do stuff in GitLab, because the platform is very intuitive,” Durlinger says.
The software development team has been integrated further into the core business, which also fits nicely with GitLab’s services, including the milestones Blonk uses as well as its repositories and project management strategies. “Also data scientists and methodology developers are now using GitLab projects for the project planning sometimes,” Durlinger notes.
GitLab provided Blonk with a professional software environment for their developers. GitLab also lets the team use pre-built Docker images and a private Python package repository in their CI/CD pipelines, which means faster build times and easy integration, according to Durlinger. “That's a huge change because then we can distribute the work over multiple teams that can work independently on projects,” he says.
The platform’s automation features have also improved operational efficiency. “We don't need to communicate with external parties, or do any manual steps if we make code changes. We now are in control of managing our software and infrastructure deployment via CDK and gitlab-ci scripts, which makes it fully automated,” Durlinger explains.
In the project planning stage, Blonk is using GitLab issue templates to define issues, “and that also has really improved the quality of how we define issues to start with," Durlinger adds. Blonk has reaped huge benefits from the Agile capabilities of GitLab to plan, manage and monitor their workflows.
Blonk now has improved transparency and collaboration amongst their teams, and they are using the GitLab Wiki to build an internal knowledge base to optimize productivity and accelerate new developer onboarding.
GitLab has supported the scaling of the developer team from 2 to now 16 developers, going from a single team to 3 software teams and a data science team, all using the One DevOps Platform bringing a much needed single DevOps workflow. Blonk is using the package registry, Docker integration with GitLab, and each team now deploys microservices on AWS. Teams are facilitated via GitLab with enhanced communication and a robust feedback loop.
Probably the biggest selling point of the platform is that it offers an integrated environment of all solutions related to code management and deployment – from container services to package registry services – everything Blonk wants to use in a pipeline and be able to manage privately, according to Durlinger. The fact that Blonk no longer has to use multiple tools in an ad hoc manner is another benefit.
“What’s really nice is that our non-code artifacts live together with the code," Durlinger notes. “Our designs, methodology documents, and prototypes developed by data scientists can all be part of our Gitlab projects. This has improved workflow throughout the organization,” he says.
“As Blonk continues its business transformation, GitLab is helping the company maintain its reputation as a reliable and honest company,” Durlinger says. GitLab has added value to their employer brand and makes them more attractive to new developers to join: “It demonstrates that we have a professional environment for software engineers.”
Blonk’s goal is to improve sustainability performance analysis, and ensure that the tools they are building have the same integrity and quality. “GitLab enables us to do this by having a professional project creation pipeline in place," Durlinger says.
“Small businesses can benefit from a DevOps platform too. Here's how #gitlab helped Blonk improve software delivery” – Esther Shein
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