07 November 2021

How to use GitHub Actions for continuous integration and deployment

In a previous article I explained how to use Travis CI to get continuous integration in your project. Problem is that Travis has changed its usage terms in the last year and now its not so comfortable for open source projects. The keep saying they are still free for open source project but actually you have to beg for free credits every time you expend them and they make you to prove you still comply with what they define as an open source project (I've heard about cases where developers where discarded for free credits just because they had GitHub sponsors).

So, although I've kept my vdist project at Travis (at the moment) I've been searching alternatives for my projects. As I use GitHub for my open source repositories its natural to try its continuous integration and deployment framework: GitHub Actions.

Conceptually, using GitHub Actions is pretty much the same as Travis CI, so I'm not going to repeat myself. If you want to learn why to use a continuous integration and deployment framework you can read the article I linked at this one start.

So, lets focus at the point of how to use GitHub Actions.

As Travis CI what you do with GitHub Actions is centered in yaml files you place at .github/workflows folder in your repository. GitHub will look at that folder to execute CI/CD workflows. In that folder you can have many workflows to be executed depending on different GitHub events (pushes over branches, pull requests, issues filling and a long etcetera). 

But I find GitHub Actions way better than Travis CI. GitHub promotes massive reusing. Every single step can be encapsulated and shared with your other workflows and with other people at GitHub. With so many people developing and sharing at GitHub you'll find yourself reusing others tasks (a.k.a actions) than implementing by yourself. Unless your are automatizing something really weird, chances are that some other has implemented it and shared. In this article we'll use others actions and implement our own custom steps. Besides you can reuse your own workflows (or share with others) so if you have a working workflow for your project you can reuse it in a similar project so you don't need to reimplement its workflow from scratch.

For this article we'll focus in a typical "test -> package -> deploy" workflow which we're going to call test_and_deploy.yaml (if you feel creative you can call it as you like, but try to be expressive). If you want this article full code you can find it in this commit of my Cifra-rust project at GitHub.

To create that file you have two options: create it in your IDE and push like any other file or write it using built-in GitHub web editor. For the first time my advice is to use web editor as it guides you better to get your first yaml up and working. So go to your GitHub repo page and click over Actions tab:

There, your are prompted to create your first workflow. When you choose to create a workflow you're offered to use a predefined template (GitHub has many for different tasks and languages) or set up a workflow yourself. For the sake of this article choose "set up a workflow yourself". Then you will enter to web editor. An initial example will be already loaded to let you have and initial scaffolding.

Now lets check Cifra-rust yaml file to learn what we can do with GitHub actions.


At very first few lines (from line 1 to 12) you can see we name this workflow ("name" tag). Use an expressive name, to identify quickly what this workflow does. You will use this name to reuse this workflow from other repositories.

The "on" tag defines which events trigger this workflow. In my case, this workflow is triggered by pushes and pull requests over staging branch. There're many more events you can use.

The "workflow_dispatch" tag allows you to trigger this workflow manually from GitHub web interface. I use to set it, it doesn't harm to have that option.


Next is the "jobs" tag (line 15) and there is where the "nuts and guts" of workflow begins. A workflow is composed of jobs. Every job is runned in a separate virtual machine (the runner) so each job has its dependencies encapsulated. That encapsulation is good to avoid jobs messing dependencies and filesystems of others jobs. Try to focus every job in just one task. 

Jobs are run in parallel by default unless you explicitly set dependencies between them. If you need a job B be run after a job A is completed successfully you need to use tag "needs" to set B needs A to be completed to start. In Cifra-rust example jobs "merge_staging_and_master", "deploy_crates_io" and "generate_deb_package" need "tests" job to be successfully finished to start. You can see an example of "needs" tag usage at line 53:

As "deploy_debian_package" respectively needs "generate_deb_package" to be finished before, you end with an execution tree like this:


Every job is composed of one or multiple steps. One step is a sequence of shell commands You can run native shell commands or scripts you had included in your repository. From line 112 to 115 we have one of those steps:

There we are calling a script stored in a folder called ci_scripts from my repository. Note the pipe (" | ") next to "run" tag. Without that pipe you can include just one command in run tag but that pipe allows you to include multiple command to executed separated in different lines (like step in lines 44 to 46).

If you find yourself repeating the same commands across multiple workflows them you have a good candidate to encapsulate those commands in an action. As you can guess Actions are the key stones of GitHub Actions. An action is a set of commands packaged to be shared and reused in many workflows (yours or of others users). An action has inputs and outputs and what happens inside is not your problem while it works as intended. You can develop your own actions and share with others but it deserves an article on its own. In next article I will convert that man page generation step in a reusable action.

At right hand side, GitHub Actions web editor has a searcher to find actions suitable for the task you want to perform. Guess you want to install a Rust toolchain, you can do this search:

Although GitHub web editor is really complete and useful to find mistakes in your yaml files, its searcher lacks a way to filter or reorder its results. Nevertheless that searcher is your best option to find shared actions for your workflows.

Once you click in any searcher result you are shown a summary about which text to include in your yaml file to use that action. You can get more detailed instructions clicking in "View full Marketplace listing" link.

As any other step, and action uses a "name" tag to document which task is intended to do and an "id" if that step must be referenced from other workflow places (see an example at line 42). What makes different an action from a command step is the "uses" tag. That tag links to the action we want to use. the text to use in that tag differs for every action but you can find what to write there at searcher results instructions. In those instructions the use to describe which inputs the action accepts. Those inputs are included in the "with" tag. For instance, in lines 23 to 27 I used an action to install the Rust building framework:

As you can see, in "uses" tag you can include which version of given action to use. There are wildcards to use latest version but you'd better set an specific version to avoid your workflows get broken by actions updates.

You make a job chaining actions as steps. Every step in a job is executed sequentially. If any of then fails the entire workflow fails. 

Sharing data between steps and jobs

Although the steps of a workflow are executed in the same virtual machine they cannot share bash environment variables because every step spawns a different bash process. If you set an environment variable in a step that needs to be used in another step of the same job you have two options:

  • Quick and dirty: Append that environment variable to $GITHUB_ENV so that variable can be accessed later using env context. For instance, at line 141 we create DEB_PACKAGE environment variable:

That environment variable is accessed at line 146, in the next step:

  • Set step outputs: Problem with last method is that although you can share data between steps of the same job you cannot do it across different jobs. Setting steps outputs is a bit slower but leaves your step ready to share data not only with other steps of the same job but with any step of the workflow. To set a variable environment as an step output you need to echo that variable to ::set-output and give a name to that variable followed by its value after a double colon ("::"). You have an example at line 46:

Note that step must be identified with an "id" tags to further retrieve the shared variable. As that step is identified as "version_tag" the created "package_tag" variable can be later retrieved from another step of the same job using: 

${{ steps.version_tag.outputs.package_tag }}

Actually that method is used at line 48 to prepare that variable to be recovered from another job. Remember that method so far helps you to pass data to steps in the same job. To export data from a job to be used from another job you have to declare it first as a job output (lines 47-48):

Note that in last screenshot indentation level should be at the same level as "steps" tag to properly set package_tag as a job output.

To retrieve that output from another job, the catching job must declare giving job as needed in its "needs" tag. After that, the shared value can be retrieved using next format:

${{ needs.<needed_job>.outputs.<output_varieble_name> }} 

In our example, "deploy_debian_package" needs the value exported at line 48 so it declares its job (tests) as needed in line 131:

After that, it can get and use that value at line 157:

Passing files between jobs

Sometimes passing a variable is not enough because you need to produce files in a job to be consumed in another job.

You can share files between steps in the same job because those steps share the same virtual machine. But between jobs you need to transfer files from a virtual machine to another.

When you generate a file (an artifact) in a job, you can upload it to a temporal shared storage to allow other jobs in the same workflow get that artifact. To upload and download artifact to that temporal storage you have two predefined actions: upload-artifact and download-artifact.

In our example, "generate_deb_package" job generates a debian package that is needed by "deploy_debian_package". So, in lines 122 to 126 "generated_deb_package" uploads that package:

On the other side "deploy_debian_package" downloads saved artifact in lines 132 to 136:

Using your repository source code

By default you start every job with a clean virtual machine. To have your source code downloaded to that virtual machine you use an action called checkout. In our example it is used as first step of "tests" job (line 21) to allow code to be built and tested:

You can set any branch to be downloaded, but if you don't set anyone the one related to triggering event is used. In our example, staging branch is the used one.

Running your workflow

You have two options to trigger your workflow to try it: you can do the triggering event (in our example pushing code to staging branch) or you can launch workflow manually from GitHub web interface (assuming you set "workflow_dispatch" tag in your yml file as I advised).

To do a manual triggering, go to repository Actions tab and select the workflow you want to launch. Then you'll see "Run workflow button" at right hand side:

Once pushed that button, workflow will start and that tab list will show that workflow as active. Selecting that workflow in the list shows an execution tree like the one I showed earlier. Clicking in any of the boxes shows running logs of every step of that job. It is extremely easy read through generated logs.


I've found GitHub Actions really enjoyable. Its focus in reusability and sharing makes really easy and fast creating complex workflow. Unless you're working in a really weird workflow, chances are that most of your workflow components (if not all) are already implemented and shared as actions, so designing a complex workflow becomes an easy task of joining already available pieces. 

GitHub Actions documentation is great, and it popularity makes easy find answers online for any problem you meet.

Besides that, I've felt yml files structure coherent and logic so its easy to grasp concepts an gain a good level really quickly. 

Being free and unlimited for open source repositories I guess I'm going to migrate all my CI/CD workflows to GitHub Actions from Travis CI.

23 October 2021

How to use PackageCloud to distribute your packages

Recently I wrote an article explaining how to setup a JFrog Artifactory account to host Debian and RPM repositories. 

Since then, my interest in Artifactory has weakened because they have a policy of continuous activity to keep your account alive. If you have periods with no packages uploads/downloads they suspend your account and you have to reactivate it manually. That is extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable and happens frequently (I've been receiving suspensions every few weeks) when you're like me, a hobbyist developer in his spare time who can't keep a continuous advance in his projects. That and the extremely complex setup to run a package repository made me look for another option.

Searching through the web I've found PackageCloud and so far it happens to be an appealing alternative to Artifactory. PackageCloud has a free tier with 2GB storage and 10GB of monthly transfer. For a hobbyist like I think it is enough. 

Creating a repository

Once your register at PackageCloud you access to an extremely clean dashboard. Compared to Artifactory everything is simple and easy. At up-right corner of "Home" page you have a big button to "Create a repository". You can use it to create a repository for every application you have. 


A wonderful feature of PackageCloud is that a single repository can host many packages types simultaneously. So you don't have to create a repository for every package type you want to host for your application, instead you have a single repository for your application and you upload there your deb, rpm, gem, etc packages you build. 

Uploading packages

While you use PackageCloud your realize it's developers have made a great effort to guide at every step. Once you create a new repository you are given immediate guidance about how to upload packages through console (although you have a nice blue button too to upload them through web interface if you like):

As a first approach we will first try web interface to upload a package and after we will test console approach.

If you select your recently created repository at Home page you will enter to the same screen I posted before. To use web interface to upload packages push "Upload a package" button. That button will trigger next pop-up window:

As you can see in last screenshot, I've pushed "Select a package" button and selected vdist_2.1.0:amd64.deb. After you have to select your target distribution in given combo box. I'd suggest selecting a general compatible distribution to widen you audience. For example, I develop in a Linux Mint box and although Linux Mint is present at combo box I prefer to select Ubuntu Focal as a wider equivalent (being aware that my Linux Mint Uma is based in Ubuntu Focal). After selecting package and target distribution, "upload" button will be enabled. Upload will start when you push that button. You will informed that upload has ended with a green boxed "Upload Successful!".

If you prefer console you can use PackageCloud console application. That package is developed in Ruby so you have to be sure you have it installed:

dante@Camelot:~/$ sudo apt install ruby ruby-dev g++
[sudo] password for dante:


Ruby package gives you "gem" command to install PackageCloud application:

dante@Camelot:~/$ sudo gem install package_cloud
Building native extensions. This could take a while...
Successfully installed unf_ext-0.0.8
Successfully installed unf-0.1.4
Successfully installed domain_name-0.5.20190701
Successfully installed http-cookie-1.0.4
Successfully installed mime-types-data-3.2021.0901
Successfully installed mime-types-3.3.1
Successfully installed netrc-0.11.0
Successfully installed rest-client-2.1.0
Successfully installed json_pure-1.8.1
Building native extensions. This could take a while...
Successfully installed rainbow-2.2.2
Successfully installed package_cloud-0.3.08
Parsing documentation for unf_ext-0.0.8
Installing ri documentation for unf_ext-0.0.8
Parsing documentation for unf-0.1.4
Installing ri documentation for unf-0.1.4
Parsing documentation for domain_name-0.5.20190701
Installing ri documentation for domain_name-0.5.20190701
Parsing documentation for http-cookie-1.0.4
Installing ri documentation for http-cookie-1.0.4
Parsing documentation for mime-types-data-3.2021.0901
Installing ri documentation for mime-types-data-3.2021.0901
Parsing documentation for mime-types-3.3.1
Installing ri documentation for mime-types-3.3.1
Parsing documentation for netrc-0.11.0
Installing ri documentation for netrc-0.11.0
Parsing documentation for rest-client-2.1.0
Installing ri documentation for rest-client-2.1.0
Parsing documentation for json_pure-1.8.1
Installing ri documentation for json_pure-1.8.1
Parsing documentation for rainbow-2.2.2
Installing ri documentation for rainbow-2.2.2
Parsing documentation for package_cloud-0.3.08
Installing ri documentation for package_cloud-0.3.08
Done installing documentation for unf_ext, unf, domain_name, http-cookie, mime-types-data, mime-types, netrc, rest-client, json_pure, rainbow, package_cloud after 8 seconds
11 gems installed


That package_cloud command lets you do many things, even create repositories from console, but let focus on package uploading. To upload a package to an existing repository just use "push" verb:

dante@Camelot:~/$ package_cloud push dante-signal31/vdist/ubuntu/focal vdist_2.2.0post1_amd64.deb 

/var/lib/gems/2.7.0/gems/json_pure-1.8.1/lib/json/common.rb:155: warning: Using the last argument as keyword parameters is deprecated
Got your token. Writing a config file to /home/dante/.packagecloud... success!
/var/lib/gems/2.7.0/gems/json_pure-1.8.1/lib/json/common.rb:155: warning: Using the last argument as keyword parameters is deprecated
Looking for repository at dante-signal31/vdist... /var/lib/gems/2.7.0/gems/json_pure-1.8.1/lib/json/common.rb:155: warning: Using the last argument as keyword parameters is deprecated
Pushing vdist_2.2.0post1_amd64.deb... success!


URL you pass to "package_cloud push" is always of the form <username>/<repository>/<distribution>/<distribution version>.

After that you can see the new package registered at web interface:

Installing packages

Ok, so far you know everything you need from the publisher side, but know you need to learn what your users have to do to install your packages.

The thing cannot be simplest. Every repository has a button in its packages section called "Quick install instructions for:". Push its button and you will get a pop-up window like this:

Just copy given command text (or use copy button) and make your user paste that command in their consoles (i.e. include that command at your installation instructions documentation):

dante@Camelot:~/$ curl -s https://packagecloud.io/install/repositories/dante-signal31/vdist/script.deb.sh | sudo bash
[sudo] password for dante:
Detected operating system as LinuxMint/uma.
Checking for curl...
Detected curl...
Checking for gpg...
Detected gpg...
Running apt-get update... done.
Installing apt-transport-https... done.
Installing /etc/apt/sources.list.d/dante-signal31_vdist.list...done.
Importing packagecloud gpg key... done.
Running apt-get update... done.

The repository is setup! You can now install packages.


That command registered your PackageCloud repository as one of the system authorised packaged sources. Theoretically now your user could do a "sudo apt update" and get your package listed but here comes the only gotcha of this process. Recall when I told that I develop in Linux Mint but I set repository to Ubuntu/focal? the point is that last command detected my system and set my source as it was for Linux Mint:

dante@Camelot:~/$ cat /etc/apt/sources.list.d/dante-signal31_vdist.list 
# this file was generated by packagecloud.io for
# the repository at https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist

deb https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/linuxmint/ uma main
deb-src https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/linuxmint/ uma main


I've marked as red the incorrect path. If you insist to update apt in this moment you get next error:

dante@Camelot:~/$ sudo apt update
Hit:1 http://archive.canonical.com/ubuntu focal InRelease
Hit:2 https://download.docker.com/linux/ubuntu focal InRelease
Hit:3 http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu focal InRelease
Get:4 http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu focal-updates InRelease [114 kB]
Ign:5 http://packages.linuxmint.com uma InRelease
Get:6 http://security.ubuntu.com/ubuntu focal-security InRelease [114 kB]
Get:7 http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu focal-backports InRelease [101 kB]
Hit:8 http://packages.linuxmint.com uma Release
Ign:11 https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/linuxmint uma InRelease
Hit:10 https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/cifra-rust/ubuntu focal InRelease
Err:12 https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/linuxmint uma Release
404 Not Found [IP: 443]
Reading package lists... Done
E: The repository 'https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/linuxmint uma Release' does not have a Release file.
N: Updating from such a repository can't be done securely, and is therefore disabled by default.
N: See apt-secure(8) manpage for repository creation and user configuration details.


So, in my case I have to correct it manually to let it this way:

dante@Camelot:~/$ cat /etc/apt/sources.list.d/dante-signal31_vdist.list 
# this file was generated by packagecloud.io for
# the repository at https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist

deb https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/ubuntu/ focal main
deb-src https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/ubuntu/ focal main


Now "apt update" will work and you'll find our package:

dante@Camelot:~/$ sudo apt update
Hit:1 https://download.docker.com/linux/ubuntu focal InRelease
Hit:2 http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu focal InRelease
Hit:3 http://archive.canonical.com/ubuntu focal InRelease
Get:4 http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu focal-updates InRelease [114 kB]
Ign:5 http://packages.linuxmint.com uma InRelease
Get:6 http://security.ubuntu.com/ubuntu focal-security InRelease [114 kB]
Get:7 http://archive.ubuntu.com/ubuntu focal-backports InRelease [101 kB]
Hit:8 http://packages.linuxmint.com uma Release
Hit:10 https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/cifra-rust/ubuntu focal InRelease
Get:11 https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/ubuntu focal InRelease [24,4 kB]
Get:12 https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/ubuntu focal/main amd64 Packages [963 B]
Fetched 353 kB in 3s (109 kB/s)
Reading package lists... Done
Building dependency tree
Reading state information... Done
All packages are up to date.
dante@Camelot:~/Downloads$ sudo apt show vdist
Package: vdist
Version: 2.2.0post1
Priority: extra
Section: net
Maintainer: dante.signal31@gmail.com
Installed-Size: 214 MB
Depends: libssl1.0.0, docker-ce
Homepage: https://github.com/dante-signal31/vdist
Download-Size: 59,9 MB
APT-Sources: https://packagecloud.io/dante-signal31/vdist/ubuntu focal/main amd64 Packages
Description: vdist (Virtualenv Distribute) is a tool that lets you build OS packages from your Python applications, while aiming to build an isolated environment for your Python project by utilizing virtualenv. This means that your application will not depend on OS provided packages of Python modules, including their versions.

N: There is 1 additional record. Please use the '-a' switch to see it


Obviously, if your user system matches your repository target there would be nothing to fix, but chances are that your user have derivatives boxes so they'll need to apply this fix, so make sure to include it in your documentation.

At this point, your users will be able to install your package as any other:

dante@Camelot:~/$ sudo apt install vdist



PackageCloud makes extremely easy deploying your packages. Comparing with Bintray or Artifactory, its setup is a charm. I have to check how things go on the long term but at first glance it seems a promising service.