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Writing documentation

Distinction between General Documentation and Technical Articles

General documentation

General documentation is categorized by User, Admin, and Contributor, and describe what that feature is, what it does, and its available settings.

Technical Articles

Technical articles replace technical content that once lived in the GitLab Blog, where they got out-of-date and weren't easily found.

They are topic-related documentation, written with an user-friendly approach and language, aiming to provide the community with guidance on specific processes to achieve certain objectives.

A technical article guides users and/or admins to achieve certain objectives (within guides and tutorials), or provide an overview of that particular topic or feature (within technical overviews). It can also describe the use, implementation, or integration of third-party tools with GitLab.

They live under doc/articles/article-title/index.md, and their images should be placed under doc/articles/article-title/img/. Find a list of existing technical articles here.

Types of Technical Articles

Understanding guides, tutorials, and technical overviews

Suppose there's a process to go from point A to point B in 5 steps: (A) 1 > 2 > 3 > 4 > 5 (B).

A guide can be understood as a description of certain processes to achieve a particular objective. A guide brings you from A to B describing the characteristics of that process, but not necessarily going over each step. It can mention, for example, steps 2 and 3, but does not necessarily explain how to accomplish them.

A tutorial requires a clear step-by-step guidance to achieve a singular objective. It brings you from A to B, describing precisely all the necessary steps involved in that process, showing each of the 5 steps to go from A to B. It does not only describes steps 2 and 3, but also shows you how to accomplish them.

A technical overview is a description of what a certain feature is, and what it does, but does not walk through the process of how to use it systematically.

Special format

Every Technical Article contains, in the very beginning, a blockquote with the following information:

> **Article [Type](../../development/writing_documentation.html#types-of-technical-articles):** tutorial ||
> **Level:** intermediary ||
> **Author:** [Name Surname](https://gitlab.com/username) ||
> **Publication date:** AAAA/MM/DD

Technical Articles - Writing Method

Use the writing method defined by the Technical Writing team.

Documentation style guidelines

All the docs follow the same styleguide.

Contributing to docs

Whenever a feature is changed, updated, introduced, or deprecated, the merge request introducing these changes must be accompanied by the documentation (either updating existing ones or creating new ones). This is also valid when changes are introduced to the UI.

The one resposible for writing the first piece of documentation is the developer who wrote the code. It's the job of the Product Manager to ensure all features are shipped with its docs, whether is a small or big change. At the pace GitLab evolves, this is the only way to keep the docs up-to-date. If you have any questions about it, please ask a Technical Writer. Otherwise, when your content is ready, assign one of them to review it for you.

We use the monthly release blog post as a changelog checklist to ensure everything is documented.

Feature overview and use cases

Every major feature (regardless if present in GitLab Community or Enterprise editions) should present, at the beginning of the document, two main sections: overview and use cases. Every GitLab EE-only feature should also contain these sections.

Overview: at the name suggests, the goal here is to provide an overview of the feature. Describe what is it, what it does, why it is important/cool/nice-to-have, what problem it solves, and what you can do with this feature that you couldn't do before.

Use cases: provide at least two, ideally three, use cases for every major feature. You should answer this question: what can you do with this feature/change? Use cases are examples of how this feauture or change can be used in real life.

Examples:

Note that if you don't have anything to add between the doc title (<h1>) and the header ## Overview, you can omit the header, but keep the content of the overview there.

Overview and use cases are required to every Enterprise Edition feature, and for every major feature present in Community Edition.

Markdown

Currently GitLab docs use Redcarpet as markdown engine, but there's an open discussion for implementing Kramdown in the near future.

Testing

We try to treat documentation as code, thus have implemented some testing. Currently, the following tests are in place:

  1. docs lint: Check that all internal (relative) links work correctly and that all cURL examples in API docs use the full switches.

If your contribution contains only documentation changes, you can speed up the CI process by following some branch naming conventions. You have three choices:

Branch name Valid example
Starting with docs/ docs/update-api-issues
Starting with docs- docs-update-api-issues
Ending in -docs 123-update-api-issues-docs

If your branch name matches any of the above, it will run only the docs tests. If it doesn't, the whole test suite will run (including docs).


When you submit a merge request to GitLab Community Edition (CE), there is an additional job called ee_compat_check that runs against Enterprise Edition (EE) and checks if your changes can apply cleanly to the EE codebase. If that job fails, read the instructions in the job log for what to do next. Contributors do not need to submit their changes to EE, GitLab Inc. employees on the other hand need to make sure that their changes apply cleanly to both CE and EE.

Previewing the changes live

If you want to preview the doc changes of your merge request live, you can use the manual review-docs-deploy job in your merge request. You will need at least Master permissions to be able to run it and is currently enabled for the following projects:

Note: You will need to push a branch to those repositories, it doesn't work for forks.
Tip: If your branch contains only documentation changes, you can use special branch names to avoid long running pipelines.

In the mini pipeline graph, you should see an >> icon. Clicking on it will reveal the review-docs-deploy job. Hit the play button for the job to start.

Manual trigger a docs build

This job will:

  1. Create a new branch in the gitlab-docs project named after the scheme: preview-<branch-slug>
  2. Trigger a cross project pipeline and build the docs site with your changes

After a few minutes, the Review App will be deployed and you will be able to preview the changes. The docs URL can be found in two places:

In case the Review App URL returns 404, follow these steps to debug:

  1. Did you follow the URL from the merge request widget? If yes, then check if the link is the same as the one in the job output. It can happen that if the branch name slug is longer than 35 characters, it is automatically truncated. That means that the merge request widget will not show the proper URL due to a limitation of how environment: url works, but you can find the real URL from the output of the review-docs-deploy job.
  2. Did you follow the URL from the job output? If yes, then it means that either the site is not yet deployed or something went wrong with the remote pipeline. Give it a few minutes and it should appear online, otherwise you can check the status of the remote pipeline from the link in the job output. If the pipeline failed or got stuck, drop a line in the #docs chat channel.
Tip: Someone that has no merge rights to the CE/EE projects (think of forks from contributors) will not be able to run the manual job. In that case, you can ask someone from the GitLab team who has the permissions to do that for you.
Note: Make sure that you always delete the branch of the merge request you were working on. If you don't, the remote docs branch won't be removed either, and the server where the Review Apps are hosted will eventually be out of disk space.

Behind the scenes

If you want to know the hot details, here's what's really happening:

  1. You manually run the review-docs-deploy job in a CE/EE merge request.
  2. The job runs the scirpts/trigger-build-docs script with the deploy flag, which in turn:
    1. Takes your branch name and applies the following:
      • The slug of the branch name is used to avoid special characters since ultimately this will be used by NGINX.
      • The preview- prefix is added to avoid conflicts if there's a remote branch with the same name that you created in the merge request.
      • The final branch name is truncated to 42 characters to avoid filesystem limitations with long branch names (> 63 chars).
    2. The remote branch is then created if it doesn't exist (meaning you can re-run the manual job as many times as you want and this step will be skipped).
    3. A new cross-project pipeline is triggered in the docs project.
    4. The preview URL is shown both at the job output and in the merge request widget. You also get the link to the remote pipeline.
  3. In the docs project, the pipeline is created and it skips the test jobs to lower the build time.
  4. Once the docs site is built, the HTML files are uploaded as artifacts.
  5. A specific Runner tied only to the docs project, runs the Review App job that downloads the artifacts and uses rsync to transfer the files over to a location where NGINX serves them.

The following GitLab features are used among others: