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James Wallis
James Wallis

Posted on • Originally published at wallis.dev

Using Composite GitHub Actions to make your Workflows smaller and more reusable

At work there has been a drive to move existing CI/CD pipelines from Jenkins to GitHub Workflows in order to empower developers with more control over test, feature and production deployments.

In addition, we've recently moved to a monorepo structure and are building new workflows that deploy multiple applications at once. A result of using a monorepo structure is that the GitHub Workflows vary in size and purpose. For example, some carry out simple tasks such as unit testing an individual component whereas other, larger workflows deploy full production environments.

This post aims to demonstrate how composite GitHub Actions can be used to to split workflows into smaller, reusable components.


Local GitHub Actions

Before discussing Composite actions, we should first talk about local GitHub Actions. Generally, when you're creating GitHub Workflows you will be using actions found on the Marketplace but you don't have to publish to the Marketplace to use your own. Did you know you can use local GitHub Actions stored in your repository?.

Local actions are well suited to componentized GitHub Workflows as they can be maintained alongside other infrastructure code stored in the same repository. It's a good practice to store them next to the GitHub Workflow's .github/workflows directory in .github/actions but in reality they can be located anywhere in the repository.

Each custom action requires its own directory and action.yml to define it. Once the action.yml is created you can add the standard metadata to define how the action will operate.

When you're ready to use your local action in a workflow, use the following syntax (assuming you've stored your custom actions in the .github/actions directory).

jobs:
  run-local-action:
    steps:
      # Checkout the repository first
      # Otherwise the workflow won't be able to find the action
    - use: actions/checkout@v2
    - name: Run custom action
      # Use the location in the repository (without action.yml)
      uses: ./.github/actions/my-custom-action
      with:
        custom-input: 10
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Local actions are a great way to create GitHub actions that are tailored to how you want them to operate without having to manage yet another product release.

Composite Actions

A Composite action is one of three different types custom GitHub Actions that can be created (composite, JavaScript and Docker). The main difference is that a composite action's action.yml -> runs property contains a list of steps to run as opposed to a program to execute.

runs:
  using: "composite"
  steps:
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The steps section acts almost exactly the same as the steps section in a workflow, with a few differences that are outlined later.

Creating a local, composite GitHub Action looks like the perfect way to split up GitHub Workflows!

Should you split your workflows up into composite actions?

Having utilised composite actions for a few weeks I believe you absolutely should use them as they have led to smaller, more readable workflows as each action has a specific purpose.

Below I've added some advantages and limitations of using composite actions in your workflows.

Advantages

  • Separate large workflows into multiple files
  • Create componentized actions to be used in multiple workflows - reducing duplication
  • Many steps are condensed into a single one within the Actions view on GitHub, improving the ability to track a workflows progress
  • The descriptive nature of an action.yml file improves the readability of a GitHub workflow when understanding necessary inputs and outputs.

 Limitations

  • They can't read GitHub Secrets - you have to pass them in
  • Have to define the shell on each step - although this is more of a minor annoyance.

Example

Imagine you have a GitHub Workflow that deploys a Node.js/Express API somewhere and a React application to AWS S3. It will be stored at .github/workflows/deploy-app.yml in your repository and would look something like the below:

name: Deploy app
on:
  pull_request:
jobs:
  deploy-api:
    outputs:
      # Output the deployed API URL for consumption later
      url: ${{ steps.deploy.output.url }}
    steps:
      - uses: actions/checkout@v2
      # ...more steps to deploy an API and output a URL
  deploy-frontend:
    name: Deploy frontend to AWS S3
    needs: deploy-api
    steps:
      - uses: actions/checkout@v2
      - uses: aws-actions/configure-aws-credentials@v1
        with:
          # Always store tokens in a secret manager. Here I am using GitHub Secrets
          aws-access-key-id: ${{ secrets.AWS_ACCESS_ID }}
          aws-secret-access-key: ${{ secrets.AWS_SECRET_KEY }}
          aws-region: eu-west-1
      - uses: actions/setup-node@v2
        with:
          node-version: 14
      - name: Install dependencies
        working-directory: ./frontend
        run: npm ci
      - name: Build app
        working-directory: ./frontend
        run: npm run build
        env:
          APP_NAME: Demo
          API_URL: ${{ needs.deploy-api.outputs.url }}
      - name: Upload app to AWS S3
        working-directory: ./frontend
        run: aws s3 sync build s3://my-bucket --delete
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While this workflow itself is relatively small and readable, imagine if you added additional apps to deploy or simply a more complicated frontend deployment - it would likely become bloated and much more difficult to read.

To future-proof this workflow, we can consolidate much of the frontend-deploy job into a composite action:

Creating the custom action file

First we create the directory and action.yml. As I said previously, it's consistent to store custom actions in a .github/actions directory. So my deploy-frontend-to-s3 action will be stored as .github/actions/deploy-frontend-to-s3/action.yml giving us the repository structure:

.github
  - workflows
    - deploy-app.yml
  - actions
    - deploy-api/action.yml
    - deploy-frontend-to-s3/action.yml
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Implementing the deploy-frontend-to-s3 composite action

Now that the action.yml file is created we can migrate many of the deploy-frontend job's steps out of the workflow and into it.

First we can add the name, description and inputs to the action.yml:

name: "Deploy Frontend to S3"
description: "Builds and deploys the React frontend to AWS S3"
inputs:
   aws-access-key-id:
     required: true
     description: "The aws-access-key-id used to authenticate with AWS"
   aws-secret-access-key:
     required: true
     description: "The aws-secret-access-key used to authenticate with AWS"
   app-name:
     required: false
     description: "The app name used by the React app"
     default: Demo
   api-url:
     required: true
     description: "The URL of the Express app"
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Next we can create the part of the action which will run the commands previously located in the workflow. Note how we can refer to the inputs above with ${{ inputs.input-name }}.

# ...name, description and inputs as above
runs:
  using: "composite"
  steps:
    - uses: aws-actions/configure-aws-credentials@v1
      with:
        # Actions cannot access secrets so pass them in as inputs
        aws-access-key-id: ${{ inputs.aws-access-key-id }}
        aws-secret-access-key: ${{ inputs.aws-secret-access-key }}
        aws-region: eu-west-1
    - uses: actions/setup-node@v2
      with:
        node-version: 14
    - name: Install dependencies
      working-directory: ./frontend
      run: npm ci
    - name: Build app
      working-directory: ./frontend
      run: npm run build
      env:
        APP_NAME: ${{ inputs.app-name }}
        API_URL: ${{ inputs.api-url }}
    - name: Upload app to AWS S3
      working-directory: ./frontend
      run: aws s3 sync build s3://my-bucket --delete
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Notice that the steps section is almost a copy and paste from the steps section of the workflow. The only part missing is the actions/checkout as it is required to be in the workflow so that GitHub can access the local action.

Using the custom actions in the deploy-app workflow

Now that we've built the custom action, we can use it in our workflow:

name: Deploy app
on:
  pull_request:
jobs:
  deploy-api:
    outputs:
      # Output the deployed API URL for consumption later
      url: ${{ steps.deploy.output.url }}
    steps:
      - uses: actions/checkout@v2
      -  id: deploy
         uses: ./.github/actions/deploy-api
  deploy-frontend:
    name: Deploy frontend to AWS S3
    needs: deploy-api
    steps:
      - uses: actions/checkout@v2
      - name: Deploy frontend
        # Directory name only
        uses: ./.github/actions/deploy-frontend-to-s3
        with:
          aws-access-key-id: ${{ secrets.AWS_ACCESS_ID }}
          aws-secret-access-key: ${{ secrets.AWS_SECRET_KEY }}
          # won't pass in app-name as it's defaulted to "Demo"
          api-url: ${{ needs.deploy-api.outputs.url }}
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And we're done! We've reduced the size of the deploy-app workflow and made a reusable composite action to deploy the frontend to S3.

 Using files in the action directory

While building a composite action you may want to create utility files which are consumed by the action.yml. When doing this you should refer to them using the ${{ github.action_path }} variable so that if you relocate the action, you will not need to update any paths.

So for a file named .github/actions/deploy-frontend-to-s3/fetch-bucket-name.sh, you can refer to it as ${{ github.action_path }}/fetch-bucket-name.sh in the action.


Round up

In this post I have demonstrated how composite actions can help to break a GitHub Workflow into smaller, consumable components and explained why its advantageous to do so.

Do you deal with huge workflows at work or are you already using composite actions? Let me know in the comments below.

If this article has helped you, drop a reaction!

Thanks for reading!

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