Image: iStockphoto/RossHelen

The Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) market keeps heating up, with a variety of approaches to support the burgeoning enterprise interest. Analyst Lawrence Hecht pegs enterprise adoption of CI/CD at roughly 50%, but that just means a sizeable chunk of enterprises have dipped their toes into the shallow end of the DevOps tooling pool. Deep (and broad) adoption has yet to happen.

To help stoke demand, GitLab has gone to market with a “single application” approach, trying to wring complexity out of the developer’s journey. More recently, GitHub announced Actions to much fanfare (and enthusiastic reviews by folks in the know like Chef founder Adam Jacob, who pointed to GitHub Actions as the easiest way to tie together a complete DevOps toolchain into one’s code repository). Where does this leave a company like CircleCI and its best-of-breed approach for CI/CD?

To find out, I talked with CircleCI CEO Jim Rose.

The importance of focus

Automation isn’t exactly new to the software development process. Roughly 15 years ago, Jenkins (née “Hudson”) came to life within Sun Microsystems as a way to automate the building and testing of Java-based software projects. This nice-to-have automation has become imperative in the last few years, Rose posited, because of broad adoption of cloud (instantaneous access to compute) and Git (developers hacking on their own repositories, accelerating software development beyond the serialized approach of yesterday). New tooling was needed because, “All that old tooling designed for a slower moving world was falling down.”

So far, so similar the arguments for all DevOps tooling. Where CircleCI diverges from its peers, however, is in its belief that the complex (and fast-paced) nature of modern software development demands focus.

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According to Rose, there are (at least) two approaches to CI/CD. There are those who “basically say there are too many systems and you should only have one system,” Rose said. This is the integrated approach mentioned earlier. He continued, “They basically tell you that integration is the problem and, so, let’s put everything in one place.” By contrast, Rose stressed, “We believe software development is becoming harder and more complicated, so we focus on the time from when software is written to when it reaches the user.” Namely, CI/CD, while leaving other areas of the DevOps pipeline (where the code sits, i.e., the repository, and where it runs, i.e., a private or public cloud) to someone else.

“You can’t just moonlight in our space,” he concluded. “The two value points for our users are speed to results (knowing whether a change you’ve made to the code worked or not) and confidence in those results (feeling sure you’re not seeing a false positive when something passes or fails).”

Partnering on the pipeline

One of the intriguing aspects of this approach is that it means CircleCI must partner with its erstwhile competitors. Despite GitHub Actions, for example, CircleCI maintains a strong partnership with GitHub, as it does with others that both compete and collaborate.

When I asked if CircleCI runs the risk of being out-integrated by GitHub and GitLab, Rose was nonplussed: “In an API-driven world, the cost of integration is basically zero.” That is, developers can pick and choose aspects of their software delivery toolchain and easily connect them through APIs.

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This leaves CircleCI confident in its ability to compete head-to-head with GitHub and others in its focus area, CI/CD. According to a press representative, “We see GitHub’s Actions as a starter pack and a way for their dev users to get into the CI/CD game. GitHub is great at version control, but CI/CD is too important to trust to a team that doesn’t specialize here.” The risk to CircleCI, of course, is that developers raised on GitHub will be content to entrust their CI/CD pipeline to the same organization that hosts their code. Indeed, much like GitLab, developers who use such holistic on-ramps to CI/CD may elect never to leave them.

CircleCI’s Rose is confident that its approach can continue to win over developers. “At the end of the day, CI/CD is a hard problem to solve. We have over nine years of experience helping teams move from idea to delivery, and in that time we’ve seen many teams enter and leave the CI/CD market, as well as entrants from all of the big cloud players. Over half a billion builds later, we’re in this space for the long haul, and we’re here to build the best product, team, and service for our customers.” After all, he concluded, “Developers want to run as fast as they can with the highest degree of confidence.”