Murray's Blog

Using GitHub Actions to check builds

GitHub Actions

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time adding GitHub Actions to some of my projects. I was lucky enough to get access to the beta, but it has now become available for everyone.

GitHub Actions lets you specify builds, tests, etc, to run on certain triggers, such as after every commit push. I’ve now used it in several projects, each using different build environments. It has worked very well, and has really improved the developer experience, and therefore improved the code, in a few of my projects. It has encouraged me to use pull requests even for changes to niche personal projects so I can benefit fully.

Actually, I’m not sure that Actions is the best name for the system. It really lets you describe Jobs, and each Job might use a few Actions. But maybe that’s just a matter of perspective.

Now that it’s public, the pricing suggests that most open source projects will have enough time for free, for which I’m grateful. Nevertheless, history shows that it wouldn’t be wise to tie your projects too closely to one proprietary system. For instance, that’s another reason not to duplicate your build rules in a GitHub Actions workflow file. You should have a simple build system that you can just call. I generally do that via a simple Makefile, as I mention below.

Here are the GitHub projects that I’ve added GitHub Actions to:

libsigc++

We now have GitHub Actions to build and run tests for libsigc++ with several versions of 3 C++ compilers: 3 versions of gcc, 5 versions of clang, and even 1 version of msvc (thanks to Stuart Dootson). We will also add an action to check our C++ code formatting via clang-format.  If you’d like every libsigc++ commit to work with some other compiler, please do try to make that happen via a pull request.

This will give us valuable confidence that our changes will work everywhere, and give us valuable clues when they don’t. It’s great to know that people can get this feedback automatically when they submit a PR, without waiting for a human.

I might be abusing GitHub’s generosity with so many builds jobs, but luckily there are not that many commits to this project. I wonder if GitHub hope to fund some of the GitHub Actions costs for open source projects via GitHub Sponsors.

angular-bigoquiz -client (The bigoquiz.com frontend)

I added GitHub Actions to build and run tests for this Angular project. I put the npm/ng commands behind a Makefile to keep the CI rules as simple as possible. The only thing worse than having undocumented or overly-complicated build steps, is repeating those incantations in multiple places.

I like how it uses just one Workflow definition, but runs it with several Node versions, thanks to the strategy.matix specifier, and the with.node-version specifier made available by the actions/setup-node action.

See the Workflow definitions.

go-bigoquiz -server (The bigoquiz.com backend)

I added GitHub Actions to build and run tests for this Go microservice. It only builds for go 1.12, but I think I could parameterise that like the node version for angular-bigoquiz-client.

Again, I put the go commands behind a Makefile to keep the CI rules as simple as possible.

I did some major refactoring of this code, adding tests along the way, and having CI made that fairly painless.

See the Workflow definitions.

Minor Imperfections

I have lots of experience using Atlassian’s competing Bitbucket Pipelines system. GitHub Actions feels very similar, though I still miss a few things:

Can’t trigger builds for individual commits

I often create PRs with many small commits while refactoring old code. 10 commits is not so unusual, and 30 has happened. Good test coverage makes this possible, and inevitably that test coverage shows a problem in one of the commits. When that happens in a BitBucket PR, with BitBucket Pipelines, I like doing a manual binary search, starting a new CI run for individual commits until I see where the problem started. (Actually, I wish that it would automatically do that binary search, like a git bisect.)

Unfortunately, I can’t see any way to start a job for an arbitrary commit, so I can only ever see the result for the latest commit in a PR.

No caching

Doing full builds of projects on every commit is simple but wasteful. Ideally, we could do reliable incremental builds, though that’s hard to get right. But some caching could save time and heat.

For instance, Bitbucket Pipelines lets me cache previous Docker build steps and even gives me a ccache cache to reuse C++ compilation units. Well, the ccache cache is not a real cache – it’s just a dump of files that’s re-generated every couple of weeks, and is stale in the meantime, but it’s better than nothing.

Providing CI build time to companies is obviously meant to be a profitable business. Unfortunately, it makes the incentives a bit confused. For instance, I don’t believe that Bitbucket are eager to help their customers spend less money on build time, so they don’t offer very capable caching. But competing services, such as GitHub Actions, if they get this right, could make them care about losing customers.

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