GitOps your cloud native pipelines

overview of how to use GitOps to manage your cloud native pipelines

Tekton pipelines are cloud native and are designed from the ground up for kubernetes and the cloud:

  • there’s no single point of failure and the pipelines are elastically scalable
  • each pipeline is completely declarative and self defined
  • each pipeline executes independently of any others
  • pipelines are orchestrated via the sophisticated kubernetes scheduler:
    • can use pipeline specific metadata for resource limits and node selectors: memory, CPU, machine type (GPU, windows/macOS/linux etc)
  • its easy to associate pipelines with Cloud IAM roles to avoid you having to upload cluster admin secrets to your public CI service which really helps security and helps reduce accidental bitcoin mining on your cloud account

In a previous blog we talked about how you can accelerate your use of tekton with Jenkins X.

The problem

We are moving towards a microservice kind of world with many teams writing many bits of software in many repositories. So there are lots and lots of pipelines. These pipelines keep getting more sophisticated over time; doing much more (all kinds of building, analysis, reporting, testing, ChatOps etc) and the software/images/approaches they use change.

So how can we manage, configure and maintain them all so that there are many pipelines for many repositories; where each repository can customise anything it needs but we can easily maintain everything continuously and its easy to understand and tool around?

Previous solutions

We’ve tried to tackle this problem in a number of ways over the years; each has pros and cons.

One option is to put all your pipelines in a shared library. You can then reference the pipelines by name in each of your repositories.

But what if you want to change a bit of a pipeline for a specific repository? If you change it globally for everyone you can break things. You may just want local customisation for your repository only.

You can add parameters into your pipelines. They are quite verbose on Pipelines and PipelineRuns; but it’s hard to think up front of every parameterisation that may be required by downstream repositories. e.g. changing any image; changing any command line argument in any step, adding/changing any environment variables or volumes? How about adding extra steps before/after a particular step? It can soon get very complex and results in very complex pipelines that are hard to understand and use.

Another option is if you need to change a pipeline file you just copy the entire file or create a fork. But then you end up with 100s of copies or forks of pipelines that are hard to synchronise and manage. You end using ancient image versions or older approaches in some repositories which leads to maintenance nightmare. How do you roll out security updates to images in all those repositories, copies and forks?

Another approach we tried is using a tool like kpt to share YAML files across git repositories and then upgrade them via git. This does work quite well; though the downside is whenever you upgrade a new version (e.g. we roll out a new pipeline catalog or a new image change to a tool for security reasons) you need to generate a pull request on every git repository to upgrade them and usually you end up with merge conflicts as the tekton YAML is not trivial; even fairly minor local customisations lead to merge conflict hell.

So how can you apply the benefits of GitOps to your cloud native pipelines while also avoiding copy-paste of lots of YAML into all of your repositories, keeping things easy to understand and flexible so any repository can customize things when required but at the same time make it painless to move reliably forward as the pipeline catalogs and images change?

GitOps your pipelines

Now our recommendation on the Jenkins X project is to use GitOps for your pipelines as well as for your source code and deployment configuration:

This lets each git repository configure what pipelines are triggered by what events with what pipeline steps.

If you need to edit your pipelines in any repository they are right there in git; it is then easy for each repository to use its own version and configuration if required. This lets pipelines and repositories change over time independently to help you accelerate.

Sharing Tasks and Steps across repositories

Rather than copy pasting task and step YAML between repositories we can refer to a Task or a Step in a Task as follows:

  • refer to all the steps in a shared task by using
  - image: uses:sourceURI
  • refer to a single named step from a shared task
      image: uses:sourceURI
    - name: mystep

SourceURI notation

The source URI notation is enabled by a special image prefix of uses: on step or if an image on a step is blank and the stepTemplate: has an image prefix of uses:

We borrowed this idea from ko and mink; the idea of using a custom prefix on image URIs.

You can refer to the detailed documentation on how the step inheritence and overriding works.

For a source URI we use the syntax:

- image: uses:owner/repository/pathToFile@version

This references the repository for owner/repository and @version can be a git tag, branch or SHA.

If you are not using to host your git repositories you can access a pipeline task or step from your custom git serve use the uses:lighthouse: prefix before owner:

- image: uses:lighthouse:owner/repository/pathToFile@version

We recommend you version everything with GitOps so you know exactly what versions are being used from git.

However you can use @HEAD to reference the latest version.

To use a locked down version based on the version stream of your cluster, you can use @versionStream which means use the git SHA for the repository which is configured in the version stream.

The nice thing about @versionStream is that the pipeline catalog you inherit tasks and steps from is locked down to an exact SHA in the version stream; but it avoids you having to go through every one of your git repositories whenever you upgrade a pipeline catalog.

Reusing Tasks and Steps from Tekton Catalog

The Tekton Catalog git repository defines a ton of Tekton pipelines you can reuse in your pipelines

You can image: uses:sourceURI notation inside any pipeline file in your .lighthouse/jenkins-x/mypipeline.yaml file like this:

  - image: uses:tektoncd/catalog/task/git-clone/0.2/git-clone.yaml@HEAD

This will then include the steps from the git-clone.yaml file

It’s not just the Tekton Catalog - you can use this same approach to reuse Tasks or steps from any git repository of your choosing; such as the Jenkins X Pipeline catalog

How it looks

So here is an example release pipeline generated via the Jenkins X Pipeline catalog if you create a JavaScript quickstart

kind: PipelineRun
  name: release
    - name: from-build-pack
          - name: NPM_CONFIG_USERCONFIG
            value: /tekton/home/npm/.npmrc
          image: uses:jenkins-x/jx3-pipeline-catalog/tasks/javascript/release.yaml@versionStream
          name: ""
              cpu: 400m
              memory: 512Mi
          - mountPath: /tekton/home/npm
            name: npmrc
          workingDir: /workspace/source
        - image: uses:jenkins-x/jx3-pipeline-catalog/tasks/git-clone/git-clone.yaml@versionStream
          name: ""
        - name: next-version
        - name: jx-variables
        - name: build-npm-install
        - name: build-npm-test
        - name: check-registry
        - name: build-container-build
        - name: promote-changelog
        - name: promote-helm-release
        - name: promote-jx-promote
        - name: npmrc
            optional: true
            secretName: npmrc
  serviceAccountName: tekton-bot
  timeout: 240h0m0s

You can see it mounts an npm secret for using npm package management and specifies CPU and memory requirements. It then is using the uses: notation to inherit a bunch of steps from the jenkins-x/jx3-pipeline-catalog/tasks/javascript/release.yaml as well as sharing the jenkins-x/jx3-pipeline-catalog/tasks/git-clone/git-clone.yaml task

Also notice we don’t have to copy and paste the exact details of the images, commands, arguments, environment variables and volume mounts required for each step; we can just reference them via Git. Also each pipeline in each repository can reference different versions if required.

Customizing an inherited step

You can edit the step in your IDE and add any custom properties such as command, args, env, script or volumeMount - those values then override the inherited step.

e.g. you can then change any command line, add an environment variable or add a new volume mount without copy pasting the whole step. e.g. we change the script value of the jx-variables step below:

kind: PipelineRun
    - taskSpec:
          image: uses:jenkins-x/jx3-pipeline-catalog/tasks/javascript/release.yaml@versionStream
        - name: jx-variables
          script: |
            #!/usr/bin/env sh
            echo my replacement command script goes here            

Any extra properties in the steps are used to override the underlying uses step.

Inlining a pipeline step locally

If you want to edit a step that is inherited from a pipeline catalog just run the jx pipeline override command from a clone of your repository.

jx pipeline override

This will then prompt you to pick which pipeline and step that’s inherited via the image: uses:sourceURI notation. When chosen the step will be inlined into your local file so you can edit any of the properties.

You can use the git compare to see the changes and remove any properties you don’t wish to override.

Viewing the effective pipeline

To see the actual Tekton pipeline that would be executed from your local source directory you can run the jx pipeline effective command:

jx pipeline effective

If you want to open the effective pipeline in your editor, such as VS Code you can do:

jx pipeline effective -e code

If you use Intellij or any of JetBrains other IDEs you can do the following if you have enabled the idea command line tool:

jx pipeline effective -e idea

If you want to always view an effective pipeline in your editor then define the JX_EDITOR environment variable…

export JX_EDITOR="code"

# now we will always open effective pipelines inside VS Code
jx pipeline effective


We’ve been on our own digital transformation journey in the world of pipelines and used many different approaches over the years to manage many pipelines across many repositories.

A few months ago we moved to the above GitOps approach for our cloud native pipelines and we are absolutely loving it!

Its super easy to:

  • share pipelines across all of your git repositories without copy/paste
  • easily customise pipelines in any project and be able to easily understand what the local changes are and roll them back if required
  • upgrade pipelines across your repositories in a consistent way as you upgrade your images, applications and cluster via GitOps so that new versions of pipeline catalogs are upgraded once they pass the system tests.

If you are thinking about using cloud native pipelines with Tekton please try it out and see what you think. We’d love to hear your feedback