Github Actions gotchas

The most powerful tool we have as developers is automation. -- Scott Hanselman.

Intro

Recent projects have me moving more and more of our CI/CD pipelines over to Github Actions from Jenkins. Github Actions has proven to be a breath of fresh air compared to Jenkins, as it allows us to have configuration that lives alongside the code it operates on. It has also allowed our teams to iterate quickly on our CI/CD pipelines and it has been much easier for us to customize our pipelines to suit our needs per project. That being said, there have been a few gotchas, some documented and others not. As I run in to more oddities with Github Actions, I will document them here.

Using the default GITHUB_TOKEN does not trigger workflows

This is actually documented briefly, but it didn't fully click with me until I tried to use it. The documentation says it is meant to prevent recursive worklow runs - which makes sense. I could see a scenario where you accidentally trigger infinite workflow runs without realizing it.

For example, we have a workflow that adds an approve label when a review approval is added to the PR. It looks similar to the following:

name: Label approved pull requests

on:
- pull_request_review

jobs:
label-when-approved:
name: Label when approved
runs-on: ubuntu-latest
steps:
- name: Label when approved
uses: pullreminders/label-when-approved-action@1.0.5
env:
APPROVALS: "1"
GITHUB_TOKEN: ${{ secrets.PERSONAL_GITHUB_ACCESS_TOKEN }}
ADD_LABEL: "approved"

You will notice above we are using the default GITHUB_TOKEN that is provided by Github Actions. In our pipeline we have a subsequent workflow that watches for this approval label and runs other steps, like terraform plan for example:

name: Workflow to run on approve

on:
pull_request:
types:
- labeled

jobs:
workflow-to-run-on-approve:
name: 'Workflow to run on approve'
if: github.event.label.name == 'approved'
runs-on: ubuntu-latest
# other steps...

The subsequent pipeline above will never be triggered because of the use of the GITHUB_TOKEN on the previous workflow, even though the label is added successfully to the pull request. The resolution to this issue is to generate a new personal access token to use in the approval workflow above.

if block doesn't require expression syntax

This little gotcha is documented as well. Github Actions allows for expressions in the workflow files and they look something like this:

 ${{ <expression> }} 

However, the expression syntax is not required when it's inside an if block. In fact, as I found out, if you do use the expression syntax inside the if block the if conditional will not evaluate properly. So it's a simple matter of turning something that looks like this:

  if: ${{ contains(github.event.pull_request.labels.*.name, 'approved') }} && ${{ contains(github.event.pull_request.labels.*.name, 'deploy') }} 

to something like this:

  if: contains(github.event.pull_request.labels.*.name, 'approved') && contains(github.event.pull_request.labels.*.name, 'deploy')

Build matrix variables can sometimes unexpectedly be cached between runs

I could not find documentation describing this behavior, but this is most likely a transient bug in Github Actions itself. Intermittently we would have build matrix variables that would cache to their previous values even when we would change them in the workflow file itself. The solution I came across is to temporarily change the name of the variable and that seems to bust whatever internal cache Github has between runs. This one was especially frustrating to diagnose and the only way we figured it out was by manually combing through the Github actions logs.

Github Actions is the future

Working with Github Actions has been probably been one of the most pleasant experiences I have had with any CI/CD solution (yes, even better than Circle CI). It just works and integrates seamlessly with git repos and allows you to host both your code and CI/CD at the same location, so it vastly reduces cognitive overhead. I am looking forward to moving more and more of our repos over to Actions and discovering what other cool things we can do with them.