GitLab as a Tool for CI/CD in Embedded Systems Development: A Step-by-Step Guide

Continuous Integration/Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) emerges as a critical modern practice in the realm of software development, particularly benefitting the niche of embedded systems development. This approach, fostering the automation of software building, analyzing, and testing, paves the way for swifter integration of code from various team members and the seamless transition to deployment phases with minimal human intervention. The adoption of CI/CD methodologies in embedded software engineering not only facilitates faster time-to-market and boosts product quality but also significantly enhances collaborative efforts across teams.

GitLab emerges as a formidable ally in this landscape, offering a versatile and scalable platform that encapsulates the entire DevOps lifecycle under its umbrella. GitLab can be tailored specifically for the demands and intricacies of embedded development. From facilitating a unified management system for code repositories to automating the build, test, and deployment processes, GitLab stands out for its comprehensive suite of features for embedded software development. It supports a broad spectrum of embedded systems development activities, including but not limited to, automated cross-compilation, firmware updates, and hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) tests, thereby addressing the unique challenges of software-hardware integration.

Understanding CI/CD Fundamentals

Understanding the fundamentals of CI/CD in the realm of embedded systems development is pivotal for streamlining the software development lifecycle. This section delves into the core components and processes that constitute the CI/CD pipeline, highlighting its significance in enhancing efficiency, security, and collaboration in embedded software engineering.

Core Components of a CI/CD Pipeline:

Code Repositories: Serve as the foundation for version control, enabling developers to manage changes and collaborate effectively.

Automated Build System: Automates the compilation of code into binary artifacts ready for deployment, leveraging tools like Make and CMake.

Static Code Analysis: Ensures code quality and detects potential vulnerabilities early in the development cycle.

Automated Testing: Incorporates various levels of testing (unit, integration, system) to ensure software reliability and performance.

Deployment Mechanism: Facilitates the delivery of software to production environments. While the traditional CD approach of delivering new software to production/customers might not make sense for an embedded system, deploying to a production test environment does. A production test environment allows developers and the quality assurance team to verify things before delivering new firmware to customers. While this may not be fully in line with the spirit of the typical Continuous Delivery process, it works well for many embedded systems development teams.

CI/CD Process Flow:

Continuous Integration (CI): Involves the frequent integration of code changes into a shared repository, where every push is automatically built and tested. This approach helps in early detection of integration errors and enhances code quality.

Continuous Delivery (CD): Extends CI by automatically deploying all code changes to a testing or staging environment. It aims to make releases predictable and deployable at any time with minimal manual intervention..

Continuous Deployment: Takes CD further by automatically deploying every change that passes through the pipeline to production, enabling a faster feedback loop and ensuring that the software is always in a deployable state.

Setting Up Your Project in GitLab

Implementing GitLab for effective CI/CD in embedded systems development requires a structured approach, focusing on version control, team collaboration, and continuous integration and deployment. The process can be broadly categorized into initial setup, version control implementation, and CI/CD pipeline configuration:

Initial Setup and Project Configuration

Prerequisites: Before diving into GitLab, ensure you have a solid understanding of Git and version control systems, a GitLab account, and familiarity with embedded systems development tools and languages. Access to your embedded systems hardware for testing and deployment is also crucial.

Creating Your GitLab Project: Start by creating a new project in GitLab. This involves cloning the repository to your local machine and setting up your embedded systems development environment. This initial step lays the groundwork for subsequent activities involving code management and collaboration.

Implementing Version Control

Organizing Your Repository: Keep your repository well-organized by committing your code regularly. This practice helps in maintaining a clean and efficient development environment conducive to embedded systems development.

Branching and Merging: Utilize branching for developing new features or fixing bugs. Merging helps in integrating these changes back into the main branch, facilitating a seamless development process.

Collaboration Tools: GitLab enhances team collaboration through its issue tracking feature and merge requests (MRs). Setting up pipelines to automatically build and test your code on various target devices further streamlines the development process. GitLab’s merge requests are particularly critical in embedded systems development, where software closely interacts with hardware, necessitating thorough review of changes to prevent bugs or performance issues.

Configuring Your CI/CD Pipeline

GitLab Runner Setup: Configuring the GitLab Runner is a pivotal step in implementing your CI/CD pipeline. This involves setting up GitLab for SSL and downloading necessary lab materials, ensuring that your CI/CD pipeline is secure and has all the required resources for execution.

Designing Your CI/CD Pipeline

Designing an efficient CI/CD pipeline for embedded systems development in GitLab involves a multi-faceted approach, focusing on automation, scalability, and comprehensive testing. The following steps outline the core components and strategies to achieve a robust CI/CD setup:

Initial Pipeline Design:

Version Control and Workflow Strategy: Choosing a version control tool and defining a workflow and branching strategy are fundamental. GitLab serves as both, offering a unified platform for version control and CI/CD.

CI/CD Server Setup: Configuring the GitLab Runner is crucial for automating your pipeline. It ensures the execution of your pipeline’s jobs on the appropriate environments.

Build Automation: Automate the compilation of your code into executable binaries or firmware images. This step should be the first in your pipeline to catch any compilation errors early.

Pipeline Stages and Automation:

Static Code Analysis, Unit Testing, and Hardware-in-the-Loop Testing: Implement these testing phases to ensure code quality, functionality, and compatibility with hardware. Static code analysis can catch potential vulnerabilities, while unit and hardware-in-the-loop testing validate the software in both isolated and integrated environments.

Deployment: Automatic deployment can range from updating firmware on a single device to rolling out updates across multiple interconnected devices. GitLab’s CI/CD facilitates these processes, ensuring a smooth transition from testing to deployment.

Advanced Features and Scalability:

Cross-Platform Compatibility: GitLab CI/CD can be configured to build and test across various targets, simplifying the development process for embedded systems that need to operate on multiple hardware platforms.

Utilizing GitLab’s Advanced Features: Leverage features like Auto DevOps, code quality analysis, and security testing to further streamline your pipeline. These tools can significantly reduce the setup time and provide deeper insights into the health and security of your code.

Scalability: GitLab can scale with your project, accommodating the needs of small teams or large organizations. This scalability ensures that your CI/CD pipeline remains effective regardless of project size or complexity.

Integrating Testing and Deployment into Your Pipeline

Integrating testing and deployment into your GitLab CI/CD pipeline for embedded systems development involves several critical steps, each designed to ensure the reliability and efficiency of the software being developed. The process can be broadly categorized into automated testing, hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) testing, and deployment strategies.

Automated Testing

Automating Builds: Commits made to branches trigger automated builds, using Static Code Analysis (SCA) tools to identify potential vulnerabilities and employing frameworks like CppUTest for writing unit tests.

Continuous Testing: This provides an automated, unobtrusive method to obtain immediate feedback on the software release candidate, crucial for maintaining software quality and performance.

Test Execution: GitLab CI/CD facilitates the automation of the build, test, and deployment processes, including running unit tests, integration tests, and deploying firmware updates for testing or production.

Hardware-in-the-Loop (HIL) Testing

Implementation: HIL testing involves executing tests on the physical embedded device itself, which can be automated within the GitLab CI/CD pipeline, ensuring the software operates as expected in its intended environment.

User-Specific Configurations: For users looking to execute only the testing part of the pipeline locally, configuring GitLab runners accordingly is essential. This involves building software, executing custom scripts for testing on machines connected to the embedded device via a USB connection for example, and running the testing script multiple times with different parameters.

Deployment Strategies

Containerization: Testing and deployment in GitLab for embedded systems involve learning how to containerize the build environment using container technology like Docker. The major advantage that Docker provides is that it separates the application from the infrastructure by building the environment in a container. The container can then be executed on nearly any development platform to provide the developer with an identical environment. This approach can seamlessly integrate build processes, ensuring a streamlined deployment phase

CI/CD Process Stages: The CI/CD process using GitLab can be structured into compile, load, and test stages. This structured approach ensures that each phase of development is thoroughly tested before moving on to the next step, helping to generate a reliable deployment.

Best Practices for CI/CD in Embedded Systems

Adopting best practices for CI/CD in embedded systems development is pivotal for ensuring that quality software is delivered on time, development cycles are reduced, and software bugs are discovered and resolved swiftly. The integration of GitLab CI/CD plays a crucial role in this context, offering automation for build, test, and deployment processes, and supporting large binary files. Furthermore, GitLab’s built-in CI/CD system, coupled with its flexibility, scalability, and advanced features such as Auto DevOps, code quality analysis, and security testing, provides a robust framework for embedded developers.

Version Control and Workflow Management: Utilize GitLab for comprehensive version control, supporting collaboration, issue tracking, and documentation. Implement a team workflow and branching strategy that aligns with your project requirements

Automation and Testing: Automate builds, tests, and deployments to ensure consistency and efficiency. Employ continuous testing to provide immediate feedback on the software release candidate. Integrate hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) testing within the GitLab CI/CD pipeline to validate software in real-world scenarios.

Security and Compliance: Leverage GitLab’s Static Application Security Testing (SAST) and Dependency Scanning to enhance software security. Utilize GitLab tools for managing compliance with industry standards, ensuring traceability of changes and automated compliance checks.

Leveraging GitLab’s Advanced Features: Explore Auto DevOps, code quality analysis, and security testing features to streamline your pipeline and enhance software quality. Document your project thoroughly using GitLab’s integrated wiki, ensuring detailed documentation for development and maintenance.

Scalability and Multi-Platform Support: Scale your CI/CD pipeline with your project, from small teams to large organizations. Configure GitLab CI/CD to build and test across various targets, ensuring compatibility and simplifying cross-platform development.

By implementing these best practices, embedded systems development teams can leverage GitLab CI/CD to not only automate and enhance their development process but also to foster innovation, improve software quality, and ensure security and compliance. The integration of modern DevOps processes, including shift-left security and containerized development platforms, further empowers teams to deliver high-quality embedded software efficiently and securely.

Key Benefits and Challenges:


Reduced Development Cycle: CI/CD enables more frequent releases, accelerating the time-to-market for new features and updates.

Improved Software Quality: Automated testing and continuous feedback loops ensure high-quality software and quick resolution of bugs.

Enhanced Collaboration: The automation of build and test processes fosters better team collaboration and efficiency.


Handling Hardware-Software Co-Development: Integrating software with hardware requires specialized tools and testing environments to simulate real-world conditions.

Limited Resource Availability: Embedded systems often operate with constrained storage, memory and compute resources, necessitating efficient code and resource management.

Testing Across Diverse Hardware Platforms: Ensuring compatibility and performance across different hardware setups can be complex and resource-intensive.

Incorporating CI/CD in embedded systems development not only streamlines the software development process but also can enhance product quality and team collaboration. By understanding the fundamentals of CI/CD pipelines and their application in the embedded domain, developers can leverage automation and integration to overcome traditional challenges and drive innovation in embedded software engineering.

Next steps?

Explore GitLab’s capabilities with the support of 321 Gang. For specialized support in embedded software development, requirements management, model-based systems engineering, test management, and ensuring traceability, reach out to us at 321 Gang. Our expertise can provide valuable guidance and support in navigating the complexities of embedded systems development and optimizing your CI/CD pipeline with GitLab.

By implementing these steps, you can maintain a robust, efficient, and highly effective CI/CD pipeline that supports the dynamic needs of embedded systems development. These practices not only enhance the development process but also ensure that your projects benefit from the latest advancements in CI/CD technologies and methodologies.

by Tom Hollowell – 321 Gang

321 Gang | 14362 North FLW | Suite 1000 | Scottsdale, AZ 85260 | 877.820.0888

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