Gregory Szorc's Digital Home | Modern CI is Too Complex and Misdirected

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2023-01-25 13:30:07

The state of CI platforms is much stronger than it was just a few years ago. Overall, this is a good thing: access to powerful CI platforms enables software developers and companies to ship more reliable software more frequently, which benefits its users/customers. Centralized CI platforms like GitHub Actions, GitLab Pipelines, and Bitbucket provide benefits of scale, as the Internet serves as a collective information repository for how to use them. Do a search for how to do X on CI platform Y and you'll typically find some code you can copy and paste. Nobody wants to toil with wrangling their CI configuration after all: they just want to ship.

The advancements in CI platforms have come at a cost: increased complexity. And the more I think about it, I'm coming around to the belief that modern CI systems are too complex. Let me explain.

At its core, a CI platform is a specialized remote code execution as a service (it's a feature, not a CVE!) where the code being executed is in pursuit of building, testing, and shipping software (unless you abuse it to mine cryptocurrency). So, CI platforms typically throw in a bunch of value-add features to enable you to ship software more easily. There are vastly different approaches and business models here. (I must tip my hat to GitHub Actions leveraging network effects via community maintained actions: this lowers TCO for GitHub as they don't need to maintain many actions, creates vendor lock-in as users develop a dependence on platform-proprietary actions, all while increasing the value of the platform for end-users - a rare product trifecta.) A common value-add property of CI platforms is some kind of configuration file (often YAML) which itself offers common functionality, such as configuring the version control checkout and specifying what commands to run. This is where we start to get into problems.

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