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Cells 1.0

This document describes a technical proposal for a Cells 1.0.

Cells 1.0 is a first iteration of the cellular architecture. The Cells 1.0 target is to deliver a solution for internal customers only, and be a foundational step for next iterations, to be able to deliver something with a smaller scope.

Cells 1.0 is a complete working feature that is meant to be deployed to SaaS.

Read more about Cells 1.5, which is meant to provide a mechanism to migrate existing customers and is built on top of the Cells 1.0 architecture.

Read more about Cells 2.0, which is meant to support the public and open source contribution model in a cellular architecture.


A Cells 1.0 is meant to target internal customers that have the following expectations:

  1. They want to use our multi-tenant SaaS solution ( to serve their Organization.
  2. They accept that they may receive updates later than the rest of Note that when GitLab does a patch release, the Delivery team makes sure that production (every cell) runs the patch release version before making the release public. This does not mean that outside of a patch release, all the cells run the same version of GitLab. See this private discussion for more information.
  3. They want to use an environment with higher degree of isolation to rest of the system.
  4. They want to control all users that contribute to their Organization.
  5. Their groups and projects are meant to be private.
  6. Their users don’t need to interact with other Organizations, or contribute to public projects with their account.
  7. Are OK with being unable to switch Organizations with their account.

From a development and infrastructure perspective we want to achieve the following goals:

  1. All Cells are accessible under a single domain.
  2. Cells are mostly independent with minimal data sharing. All stateful data is segregated, and minimal data sharing is needed initially. This includes any database and cloud storage buckets.
  3. Cells need to be able to run independently with different versions.
  4. A cluster-wide service is provided to synchronize state between all Cells.
  5. A routing solution that is robust, but simple.
  6. All identifiers (primary keys, user, group, and project names) are unique across the cluster, so that we can perform logical re-balancing at a later time. This includes all database tables, except ones using schemas gitlab_internal, or gitlab_shared.
  7. Because all users and groups are unique across the cluster, the same user can access other Organizations and groups at in Cells 2.0.
  8. The overhead of managing and upgrading Cells is minimal and similar to managing a GitLab Dedicated instance. Secondary Cells should not be a linear increase in operational burden.
  9. The Cell should be deployed using the same tooling as GitLab Dedicated.

This proposal is designed to cut as much scope as possible but it must not make it impossible to meet the following long-term goals:

  1. Users can interact with many Organizations.
  2. Cells can be re-balanced by moving Organizations between Cells.
  3. The routing solution can dynamically route requests.


The following statements describe a high-level proposal to achieve a Cells 1.0:

  1. Terms used:

    1. Cell: A single isolated deployment of GitLab that connects to the Topology Service.
    2. Topology Service: The central service that is the authoritative entity in a cluster. Provides uniqueness and routing information.
  2. Organization properties:

    1. We allow users to create a new Organization on a Secondary Cell. The chosen Cell would be controlled by GitLab Administrators.
    2. The Organization is private, and cannot be made public.
    3. Groups and projects can be made private, but not public.
  3. User properties:

    1. Users are created on the Cell that contains the Organization.
    2. Users are presented with the Organization navigation, but can only be part of a single Organization.
    3. Users cannot join or interact with other Organizations.
    4. User accounts cannot be migrated between Cells.
    5. A user’s personal namespace is created in that Organization.

The following statements describe a low-level development proposal to achieve the above goals:

  1. Application properties:

    1. Each secret token (personal access token, build token, runner token, etc.) generated by the application includes a unique identifier indicating the Cell, for example us0. The identifier should try to obfuscate information about the Cell.
    2. The session cookie sent to the client is prefixed with a unique identifier indicating the Cell, for example us0.
    3. The application configuration includes a Cell secret prefix, and the location of the Topology Service.
    4. User always logs into the Cell on which the user was created.
  2. Database properties:

    1. Each primary key in the database is unique across the cluster. We use database sequences that are allocated by the Topology Service.
    2. We require each table to be classified: to be cluster-wide or Cell-local.
    3. We follow a model of eventual consistency:
      1. All cluster-wide tables are stored in a Cell-local database.
        1. All cluster-wide tables retain unique constraints across the whole cluster.
      2. Locally stored cluster-wide tables contain information required by this Cell only.
      3. The cluster-wide tables are restricted to be modified by the Cell that is authoritative over the particular record:
        1. The user record can be modified by the given Cell only if that Cell is the authoritative source of this record.
        2. In Cells 1.0 we are likely to not be replicating data across cluster, so the authoritative source is the Cell that contains the record.
    4. The Topology Service serves as a single source of truth for the uniqueness constraint (be it ID or user, group, project uniqueness).
      1. All Cells use gRPC to claim usernames, groups or projects.
      2. The Topology Service holds metadata information that allows to know on which Cell the username, group or project is.
      3. The Topology Service does not hold source information (actual user or project records), only references that are indicative of the Cell where that information is stored.
  3. Routing properties:

    1. We implement a routing service that performs secret-based routing based on the prefix.
    2. The routing service is implemented as a Cloudflare Worker and is run on edge. The routing service defines a set of rules, and uses Topology Service to classify how to route data.
    3. Cells are exposed over the public internet, but might be guarded with Zero Trust.

Architecture overview


The following technical problems have to be addressed:

  1. All secrets are prefixed as this is required by a simple routing layer to perform secret-based routing.
  2. All usernames, Organizations, top-level groups (and as result groups and projects) are unique across the cluster.
  3. All primary key identifiers are unique across the cluster.

GitLab Configuration

The GitLab configuration in gitlab.yml is extended with the following parameters to:

      certificate: ...
    secrets_prefix: kPptz

Topology Service

All services supported are described in dedicated documented about Topology Service.


  • The proposal is lean:
    • Each Cell holds only a fraction of the data that is required for the cluster to operate.
    • The tables marked as main_clusterwide that are stored locally can be selectively replicated across Cells following a mesh-architecture.
      • Based on the assumption that Cells require only a fraction of shared data (like users), it is expected that Cells might need a small percentage of records across the whole cluster.
  • The Topology Service is a single point of failure:
    • Reduced set of features allows to make it highly-available service.
    • Use highly-available database solution (Cloud Spanner).
  • The routing layer makes this service very simple, because it is secret-based and uses prefix.
    • Reliability of the service is not dependent on Cell availability. It depends on availability of Topology Service to perform classification.
  • Mixed-deployment compatible by design.
    • We do not share database connections. We expose APIs to interact with cluster-wide data.
    • The application is responsible to support API compatibility across versions, allowing us to easily support many versions of the application running from day zero.
  • Database migrations.
    • Work out of the box, and are isolated to the Cell.
    • Because we don’t share databases across Cells, the Cell has full ownership of main_clusterwide tables.
    • Fixing all the cross-joins between cluster-wide tables and cell-local tables is a large work. Storing main_clusterwide tables locally in each cell allows us to save time for the first iteration.


  • We intentionally split data for tables marked as main_clusterwide across all cluster cells.
    • These tables will be selectively replicated (likely) outside of the application to allow Secondary Cells to share data.
    • We effectively reinvent database replication to some extent.
  • We are severely limited by how many tables can be made main_clusterwide. Exposing many tables is a significant amount of additional code to allow cross-Cell interaction.
    • We require all tables to be classified. We want to ensure data consistency across the cluster if records are replicated.

Features on that are not supported on Cells

For the initial deployment of Cells 1.0, we are cutting scope on some features to get something deployed. This doesn’t mean that Cells 1.0 is not going to support these in the future, but our application/infrastructure doesn’t support them yet.

The table below is a comparison between the existing features, and not self-managed/Dedicated.

No Initial Support Reasoning
GitLab Pages Complexity.
CI Catalog CI Catalog depends on public projects, organizations in Cells 1.0 can’t see public projects.
Organization Switching A user belongs to a single organization.
Shared user accounts across Cells Users will need to have new user accounts on each Cell for now
GitLab Duo Pro license works across all projects on instance GitLab Duo Pro licenses, once granted, should allow users to use GitLab Duo Pro on all projects on the instance. With Cells 1.0, this will only work within their own cell.
User removal Users can only be part of one Organization. A removal would equal a deletion in this case, so only user deletions will be offered in Organizations on Cells 1.0. Upon removal, there would be no way for a User to discover another Organization to join, as they are private for Cells 1.0.
Windows and Mac OS Runners Mac and Windows runners are still in beta and there are some more complex technical considerations related to cost. See the discussion: #434982 (comment 1789275416) on sharing resources.
Multiple Sizes for Linux Runners We will only support small linux runners on Cells 1.0.


  1. How do we create new Organizations with the user on additional Cells?

    To be defined.

  2. How do we register new users for the existing Organization on additional Cell?

    If an Organization is already created, users can be invited. We can then serve the registration flow from additional Cell.

  3. How would users log in?

    • UI: The login to Organizations would be scoped to the Organization: https://<GITLAB_DOMAIN>/users/sign_in?organization=gitlab-inc.
    • SAML: https://<GITLAB_DOMAIN>/users/auth/saml/callback would receive ?organization=gitlab-inc which would be routed to the correct Cell.
    • This would require using the dynamic routing method with a list of Organizations available using a solution with high availability.
  4. How do we add a new table if it is initially deployed on additional Cell?

    The Topology Service is ensuring uniqueness of sequences, so it needs to have sequence.

  5. Is Container Registry cluster-wide or cell-local?

    The Container Registry can be run Cell-local, and if we follow the secret-based routing, it can follow the same model for filtering. We would have to ensure that the JWT token signed by GitLab is in a form that can be statically routed by the routing layer.

  6. Are GitLab Pages cluster-wide or Cell-local?

    GitLab Pages was determined to be non-essential for Cells 1.0, so we would not support them for Cells 1.0. The discussion about this can be found here.

    If GitLab Pages are meant to support the domain:

    • GitLab Pages need to be run as a single service that is not run as part of a Cell.
    • Because GitLab Pages use the API we need to make them routable.
    • Similar to routes, claim pages_domain on the Topology Service
    • Implement dynamic classification in the routing service, based on a classification key.
    • Cons: This adds another table that has to be kept unique cluster-wide.


    • Run GitLab Pages in a Cell, but provide a separate domain.
    • Custom domains would use the separate domain.
    • Cons: This creates a problem with having to manage a domain per Cell.
    • Cons: We expose Cells to users.
  7. Should we use a static secret for the internal endpoint or JWT?

    To be defined. The static secret is used for simplicity of the presented solution.

  8. How do we handle SSH cloning?

    This is a separate problem tangential to routing, which is intentionally not solved by this proposal. The problems associated with SSH cloning are:

    • We need to validate a user public key to identify the Cell holding it.
    • We need to ensure uniqueness of public keys across the cluster.
  9. Are there other cluster-wide unique constraints?

    • Authorized keys
    • GPG keys
    • Custom e-mails
    • Pages domains
    • TBD
  10. How do we synchronize cluster-wide tables, such as broadcast messages or application settings?

    We would very likely take a naive approach: expose those information using API, and synchronize it periodically. Tables likely to be made synchronized are:

    • Application Settings
    • Broadcast Messages
    • TBD
  11. How do we dogfood this work?

    To be defined.

  12. How do we manage admin accounts?

    Since we don’t yet synchronize across the cluster, admin accounts would have to be provided per Cell. This might be solved by GitLab Dedicated already?

  13. How are secrets are generated?

    The Cell prefix is used to generate a secret in a way that encodes the prefix. The prefix is added to the generated secret. Example:

    • GitLab Runner Tokens are generated in the form: glrt-2CR8_XYZ
    • For Cell prefix: secrets_prefix: kPptz
    • We would generate Runner tokens in the form: glrt-kPptz_2CR8_XYZ
  14. Why secrets-based routing instead of path-based routing?

    Cells 1.0 are meant to provide a first approximation of the architecture allowing to deploy a multi-tenant and multi-Cell solution quickly. Solving path-based routing requires significant effort:

    • Prefixing all existing routes with /org/<org-name>/-/ will require a deliberate choice how to handle ambiguous or Cell-local or cluster-wide routes, such as /api/v4/jobs/request. Changing routes also introduces breaking changes for all users that we would migrate.
    • Making all existing routes routable would be a significant effort to fix for routes like /-/autocomplete/users and likely a multi-year effort. Some preliminary analysis how many routes are already classified can be found in this comment.
    • In each case the routing service needs to be able to dynamically classify existing routes based on some defined criteria, requiring significant development effort, and increasing the dependency on the Topology Service.

    By following secret-based routing we can cut a lot of initial complexity, which allows us to make the best decision at a later point:

    • The injected prefix is a temporary measure to have a static routing mechanism.
    • We will have to implement dynamic classification anyway at a later point.
    • We can figure out what is the best way to approach path-based routing after Cells 1.0.
  15. What about data migration between Cells?

    Cells 1.0 is targeted towards internal customers. Migrating existing customers, and onboarding new customers is a big undertaking on its own:

    • Customers to be migrated need to opt into the Organization model first.
    • New Customers are not willing to have missing features
    • We expect most of the isolation features to work.
    • We have to transparently move data from the source Cell to the target Cell. Initially we would follow a model of Cell split. We would clone the Cell and mark where the given record is located.

    Existing customers could still be migrated onto a Cells 1.0, but it would require to use import/export features similar to how we migrate customers from to Dedicated. As a result, not all information would be migrated. For example, the current project import/export does neither migrate CI traces, nor job artefacts.

  16. Is secret-based routing a problem?

    To be determined.

  17. How would we synchronize users across Cells?

    We build out-of-band replication of tables marked as main_clusterwide. We have yet to define if this would be better to do with an API that is part of Rails, or using the Dedicated service. However, using Rails would likely be the simplest and most reliable solution, because the application knows the expected data structure.

    Following the above proposal we would expose users and likely all adjacent tables using API: /api/v4/internal/cells/users/:id. The API would serialize the users table into a protobuf data model. This information would be fetched by another Cell that would synchronize user entries.

  18. How would the Cell find users or projects?

    The Cell would use Classify Service of Topology Service.

  19. Would the User Profile be public if created for enterprise customer?

    No. Users created on another Cell in a given Organization would be limited to this Organization only. The User Profile would be available as long as you are logged in.

  20. What is the resiliency of a Topology Service exposing cluster-wide API?

    The API would be responsible for ensuring uniqueness of: User, Groups, Projects, Organizations, SSH keys, Pages domains, e-mails. The API would also be responsible for classifying a classification key for the routing service. We need to ensure that the Topology Service cluster-wide API is highly available.

  21. How can instance-wide CI runners be configured on the new cells?

    To be defined.

  22. Why not use FQDN ( or instead?

    We want the to feel like a single application, regardless how many organizations you interact with. This means that we want to share users, and possibly some data between organizations at later point. Following model of or creates a feel of a strong isolation between instances, and different perception of how system operates compared to how we the system to actually behaves.

  23. Are feature-flags cell-local or cluster-wide?

    To be defined.

  24. How the Cells 1.0 differ to GitLab Dedicated?

    • The GitLab Dedicated is a single-tenant hosted solution provided by GitLab Inc. to serve a single customer under a custom domain.
    • The Cellular architecture is meant to be multi-tenant solution using domain.
    • The GitLab Dedicated by design has all resources separate between tenants.
    • The Cellular architecture does share resources between tenants to achieve greater operational efficiency and lower cost.
  25. Why the Organization is private, and cannot be made public in Cells 1.0?

    • Private organizations on Secondary Cells do not require any data sharing or isolation as this is achieved by the current system.

      • We don’t have to do extensive work to isolate organizations yet.
    • Routing is simpler since we anticipate all requests to be authenticated, making them easier to route.

      • We don’t have to “fix” routes to make them sharded yet.
  26. Why not to prefix all endpoints with the relative_path for all organizations?

    This breaks the main contract of what we want to achieve:

    • Migration to use organizations is seamless.
    • We do not want to break existing user workflows if user migrates their groups to organization, or when we migrate the organization to another Cell.
    • For the following reason this is why we don’t want to force particular paths, or use of subdomains.
    • If we choose the path to force to use relative_path it would break all cell-wide endpoints This seems to be longer and more complex that approaching this by making existing to be shareded.
    • If we choose to fix existing not sharded can be made at later point we will achieve much better API consistency, and likely much less amount of the work.
  27. Why not use subdomains, like

    Reasons to avoid using DNS for routing:

    • Risks setting an expectation of full isolation, which is not the case.
    • Care must be taken to prevent security issues with cookies leaking across subdomains.
    • Complicates working across Organizations, with changing hostnames. and a requirement to pass full hostname in all links.
    • Complicates integrations and API interactions, as the URL and host will change based on the organization.
    • We will need to build a common login service, which will redirect users to a valid organization/URL.
    • Increased risk of naming collisions with higher impact. For example different divisions or organizations across a large enterprise, or companies with similar names.
  28. What about Geo support?

    The Geo support is out of scope of Cells 1.0. However, it is fair to assume the following:

    • Geo is per-Cell.
    • Routing Service can direct to Geo replica of the Cell (if it knows it).
    • We might have many routing services in many regions.
  29. Are cluster-wide tables available to all cells?

    No, cluster-wide tables are stored in a Cell-local database. However, we will determine synchronization of cluster-wide tables on a case by case basis.

  30. How can I adapt a feature to be compatible with Cells?

    Many groups have questions about how to adapt a feature for Cell. This especially applies if a feature is available at the instance level, or can be used across groups.

    Here are some strategies for evolving a thing for Cells 1.0:

    • Leave the feature unchanged. For example, admins / users will have to create an account per cell.
    • Disable the feature for Cells 1.0.
    • For critical cases, move the feature to cluster-wide level. For example, users can sign in at a single location,

    In many cases, it is not yet necessary to re-implement an instance-wide feature to work on a cluster-wide level. This is because for Cells 1.0, the net effect of only allowing private visibility and new users mean that we can defer this until Cells 1.5.