Mar 29, 2016 - Kamil Trzciński  

GitLab Runner 1.1 with Autoscaling

Learn more about GitLab Runner 1.1 with Autoscaling for GitLab Community Edition (CE) and Enterprise Edition (EE)

Over the last year, GitLab Runner has become a significant part of the GitLab family. We are happy to announce that GitLab Runner 1.1 is released today; a release that brings major improvements over its predecessor. There is one feature though that we are excited about and is the cornerstone of this release.

Without further ado, we present you GitLab Runner 1.1 and its brand-new, shiny feature: Autoscaling!

About GitLab Runner

GitLab has built-in continuous integration to allow you to run a number of tasks as you prepare to deploy your software. Typical tasks might be to build a software package or to run tests as specified in a YAML file. These tasks need to run by something, and in GitLab this something is called a Runner; an application that processes builds.

GitLab Runner 1.1 is the biggest release yet. Autoscaling provides the ability to utilize resources in a more elastic and dynamic way. Along with autoscaling come some other significant features as well. Among them is support for a distributed cache server, and user requested features like passing artifacts between stages and the ability to specify the archive names are now available.

Let's explore these features one by one.

The Challenge of Scaling

Other continuous integration platforms have a similar functionality. For example, Runners are called "Agents" in Atlassian's Bamboo (which integrates with Bitbucket.) Some services, like Bamboo, charge individually for using these virtual machines and if you need a number of them it can get quite expensive, quite quickly. If you have only one available Agent or Runner, you could be slowing down your work.

We don't charge anything for connecting Runners in GitLab, it’s all built-in. However, the challenge up until now has been the scaling of these Runners. With GitLab, Runners can be specified per project, but this means you have to create a Runner per project, and that doesn't scale well.

An alternative up until now was to create a number of shared Runners which can be used across your entire GitLab instance.

However, what happens when you need more Runners than there are available? You end up having to queue your tasks, and that will eventually slow things down.

Hence the need for autoscaling.

Autoscaling increases developer happiness

We decided to build autoscaling with the help of Docker Machine. Docker Machine allows you to provision and manage multiple remote Docker hosts and supports a vast number of virtualization and cloud providers, and this is what autoscaling currently works only with.

Because the Runners will autoscale, your infrastructure contains only as many build instances as necessary at anytime. If you configure the Runner to only use autoscale, the system on which the Runner is installed acts as a bastion for all the machines it creates.

Autoscaling allows you to increase developer happiness. Everyone hates to wait for their builds to be picked up, just because all Runners are currently in use.

The autoscaling feature promotes heavy parallelization of your tests, something that is made easy by defining multiple jobs in your .gitlab-ci.yml file.

While cutting down the waiting time to a minimum makes your developers happy, this is not the only benefit of autoscaling. In the long run, autoscaling reduces your infrastructure costs:

  • autoscaling follows your team's work hours,
  • you pay for what you used, even when scaling to hundreds of machines,
  • you can use larger machines for the same cost, thus having your builds run faster,
  • the machines are self-managed, everything is handled by docker-machine, making your Administrators happy too,
  • your responsibility is to only manage GitLab and one GitLab Runner instance.

Below, you can see a real-life example of the Runner's autoscale feature, tested on for the GitLab Community Edition project:

Real life example of autoscaling

Each machine on the chart is an independent cloud instance, running build jobs inside Docker containers. Our builds are run on DigitalOcean 4GB machines, with CoreOS and the latest Docker Engine installed.

DigitalOcean proved to be one of the best choices for us, mostly because of the fast spin-up time (around 50 seconds) and their very fast SSDs, which are ideal for testing purposes. Currently, our GitLab Runner processes up to 160 builds at a time.

If you are eager to test this yourself, read more on configuring the new autoscaling feature.

Distributed cache server

In GitLab Runner 0.7.0 we introduced support for caching. This release brings improvements to this feature too, which is especially useful with autoscaling.

GitLab Runner 1.1 allows you to use an external server to store all your caches. The server needs to expose an S3-compatible API, and while you can use for example Amazon S3, there are also a number of other servers that you can run on-premises just for the purpose of caching.

Read more about the distributed cache server and learn how to set up and configure your own.

Artifacts improvements

We listen closely to our community to extend GitLab Runner with user requests. One of the often-requested features was related to passing artifacts between builds.

GitLab offers some awesome capabilities to define multiple jobs and group them in different stages. The jobs are always independent, and can be run on different Runners.

Up until now, you had to use an external method if you wanted to pass the files from one job to another. With GitLab Runner 1.1 this happens automatically. Going one step further, GitLab 8.6 allows you to fine-tune what should be passed. This is now handled by defining dependencies:

  stage: build
  artifacts: ...

  stage: test
  - build:osx

The second most-requested feature was the ability to change the name of the uploaded artifacts archive. With GitLab Runner 1.1, this is now possible with this simple syntax:

    name: "build_linux_$CI_BUILD_REF_NAME"

Read more about naming artifacts.

Improved documentation

With GitLab Runner 1.1 we've also released improved documentation, explaining all executors and commands. The documentation also describes what features are supported by different configurations.

Read the revised documentation.

Using Runner on macOS

We also upgraded GitLab Runner 1.1 to be compatible with El Capitan and Xcode 7.3. You should read the revised installation guide for macOS and FAQ section describing the needed preparation steps.


So far we described the biggest features, but these are not all the changes introduced with GitLab Runner 1.1. We know that even the smallest change can make a difference in your workflow, so here is the complete list:

- Use Go 1.5
- Add docker-machine based autoscaling for docker executor
- Add support for external cache server
- Add support for `sh`, allowing to run builds on images without the `bash`
- Add support for passing the artifacts between stages
- Add `docker-pull-policy`, it removes the `docker-image-ttl`
- Add `docker-network-mode`
- Add `git` to gitlab-runner:alpine
- Add support for `CapAdd`, `CapDrop` and `Devices` by docker executor
- Add support for passing the name of artifacts archive (`artifacts:name`)
- Refactor: The build trace is now implemented by `network` module
- Refactor: Remove CGO dependency on Windows
- Fix: Create alternative aliases for docker services (uses `-`)
- Fix: VirtualBox port race condition
- Fix: Create cache for all builds, including tags
- Fix: Make the shell executor more verbose when the process cannot be started
- Fix: Pass gitlab-ci.yml variables to build container created by docker executor
- Fix: Don't restore cache if not defined in gitlab-ci.yml
- Fix: always use `json-file` when starting docker containers

You can see why we think version 1.1 is fantastic. Go get it, test it and share your feedback with us! You can meet with the CI team in our upcoming webcast.

Live webcast: GitLab CI

Sign up for our webcast on April 14th, which includes an overview and tutorial about using GitLab CI. Meet people from the GitLab CI team and get your questions answered live!

  • Date: Thursday, April 14, 2016
  • Time: 5pm (17:00) UTC; 12pm EST; 9am PST
  • Register here

Can't make it? Register anyway, and we'll send you a link to watch it later!

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