Continuous Integration and Deployment of Docker Images using GitHub Actions

According to GitHub, GitHub Actions allows you to automate, customize, and execute your software development workflows right in your repository. You can discover, create, and share actions to perform any job you would like, including continuous integration (CI) and continuous deployment (CD), and combine actions in a completely customized workflow.

This brief post will examine a simple use case for GitHub Actions — automatically building and pushing a new Docker image to Docker Hub. A GitHub Actions workflow will be triggered every time a new Git tag is pushed to the GitHub project repository.

GitHub Actions Workflow running, based on the push of a new git tag

GitHub Project Repository

For the demonstration, we will be using the public NLP Client microservice GitHub project repository. The NLP Client, written in Go, is part of five microservices that comprise the Natural Language Processing (NLP) API. I developed this API to demonstrate architectural principles and DevOps practices. The API’s microservices are designed to be run as a distributed system using container orchestration platforms such as Docker Swarm, Red Hat OpenShift, Amazon ECS, and Kubernetes.

Public NLP Client GitHub project repository

Encrypted Secrets

To push new images to Docker Hub, the workflow must be logged in to your Docker Hub account. GitHub recommends storing your Docker Hub username and password as encrypted secrets, so they are not exposed in your workflow file. Encrypted secrets allow you to store sensitive information as encrypted environment variables in your organization, repository, or repository environment. The secrets that you create will be available to use in GitHub Actions workflows. To allow the workflow to log in to Docker Hub, I created two secrets, DOCKERHUB_USERNAME and DOCKERHUB_PASSWORD using my organization’s credentials, which I then reference in the workflow.

Actions Secrets shown in the GitHub project’s Secrets tab

GitHub Actions Workflow

According to GitHub, a workflow is a configurable automated process made up of one or more jobs. You must create a YAML file to define your workflow configuration. GitHub contains many searchable code examples you can use to bootstrap your workflow development. For this demonstration, I started with the example shown in the GitHub Actions Guide, Publishing Docker images, and modified it to meet my needs. Workflow files are checked into the project’s repository within the .github/workflows directory.

Workflow Development

Visual Studio Code (VS Code) is an excellent, full-featured, and free IDE for software development and writing Infrastructure as Code (IaC). VS Code has a large ecosystem of extensions, including extensions for GitHub Actions. Currently, I am using the GitHub Actions extension, cschleiden.vscode-github-actions, by Christopher Schleiden.

The extension features auto-complete, as shown below in the GitHub Actions workflow YAML file.

Auto-complete example using the GitHub Actions extension

Git Tags

The demonstration’s workflow is designed to be triggered when a new Git tag is pushed to the NLP Client project repository. Using the workflow, you can perform normal pushes (git push) to the repository without triggering the workflow. For example, you would not typically want to trigger a new image build and push when updating the project’s README file. Thus, we use the new Git tag as the workflow trigger.

Pushing a new tag to GitHub
Git tags as shown in the GitHub project repository

For consistency, I also designed the workflow to be triggered only when the format of the Git tag follows the common Semantic Versioning (SemVer) convention of version number MAJOR.MINOR.PATCH (v*.*.*).

- 'v*.*.*'

Also, following common Docker conventions in the workflow, the Git tag (e.g., v1.2.3) is truncated to remove the letter ‘v’ and used as the tag for the Docker image (e.g., 1.2.3). In the workflow, theGITHUB_REF:11 portion of the command truncates the Git tag reference of refs/tags/v1.2.3 to just 1.2.3.


Workflow Run

Pushing the Git tag triggers the workflow to run automatically, as seen in the Actions tab.

GitHub Actions Workflow running, based on the push of a new git tag
GitHub Actions Workflow running, based on the push of a new git tag

Detailed logs show you how each step in the workflow was processed.

GitHub Actions Workflow running, based on the push of a new git tag

The example below shows that the workflow has successfully built and pushed a new Docker image to Docker Hub for the NLP Client microservice.

Completed GitHub Actions Workflow run

Failure Notifications

You can choose to receive a notification when a workflow fails. GitHub Actions notifications are a configurable option found in the GitHub account owner’s Settings tab.

Example email notification of workflow run failure

Status Badge

You can display a status badge in your repository to indicate the status of your workflows. The badge can be added as Markdown to your README file.

Public NLP Client GitHub project’s README displaying the status badge

Docker Hub

As a result of the successful completion of the workflow, we now have a new image tagged as 1.2.3 in the NLP Client Docker Hub repository: garystafford/nlp-client.

NLP Client Docker Hub repository showing new image tag


In this brief post, we saw a simple example of how GitHub Actions allows you to automate, customize, and execute your software development workflows right in your GitHub repository. We can easily extend this post’s GitHub Actions example to include updating the service’s Kubernetes Deployment resource file to the latest image tag in Docker Hub. Further, we can trigger a GitOps workflow with tools such as Weaveworks’ Flux or Argo CD to deploy the revised workload to a Kubernetes cluster.

Deployed NLP API as seen from Argo CD

This blog represents my own viewpoints and not of my employer, Amazon Web Services (AWS). All product names, logos, and brands are the property of their respective owners.

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