Build a CI/CD pipeline with GitHub Actions in four simple steps

Building a CI/CD pipeline with GitHub Actions in four simple steps

Key advantages of using GitHub Actions for CI/CD pipelines

But first, let’s talk through some of the benefits to using GitHub Actions—because let’s be honest, there are a lot of other tools out there. Let me unpack the four big benefits that I’ve come across:

  • CI/CD pipeline set-up is simple: GitHub Actions is made by and for developers, so you don’t need dedicated resources to set up and maintain your pipeline. There’s no need to manually configure and set up CI/CD. You don’t have to set up webhooks, you don’t have to buy hardware, reserve some instances out there, keep them up to date, do security patches, or spool down idle machines. You just drop one file in your repo, and it works.
  • Respond to any webhook on GitHub: Since GitHub Actions is fully integrated with GitHub, you can set any webhook as an event trigger for an automation or CI/CD pipeline. This includes things like pull requests, issues, and comments, but it also includes webhooks from any app you have integrated into your GitHub repository. Let’s say you’re going to use any one of the many tools that are out there to run part of your development pipeline. With GitHub Actions, you can trigger CI/CD workflows and pipelines of webhooks from these apps (even something simple, like a chat app message, if you’ve integrated your chat app into your GitHub repository, of course).
  • Community-powered, reusable workflows: You can share your workflows publicly with the wider GitHub community or access pre-built CI/CD workflows in the GitHub Marketplace (there are more than 11,000 available actions!). Did I mention every action is reusable just by referencing its name? Yes, that too.
  • Support for any platform, any language, and any cloud: GitHub Actions is platform agnostic, language agnostic, and cloud agnostic. That means you can use it with whatever technology you choose.

How to build a CI/CD pipeline with GitHub Actions

  • Be clear about what a CI/CD pipeline is and should do. This is a simple note, but important. A CI pipeline runs when code changes and should make sure all of your changes work with the rest of the code when it’s integrated. It should also compile your code, run tests, and check that it’s functional. A CD pipeline goes one step further and deploys the built code into production.
  • GitHub Actions takes a “choose-your-own adventure” type of approach to CI/CD. You’ll see it the first time you open GitHub Actions in a repository. There are plenty of guided options with pre-built CI workflows you can leverage, per your technology requirements. But you can also build your own CI workflow from scratch if you want to.

Okay, let’s do this.

Step 1: Create or choose a repository, and pick a project

This might sound pretty basic, but the first step to building a CI pipeline with GitHub Actions is creating or choosing a repository on GitHub. You can either use an existing project code base, fork a project you like on GitHub, or start from scratch.

Step 2: Open GitHub Actions in your repository to start building your CI/CD workflow

To begin building your CI/CD pipeline, open the GitHub Actions tab in your repository’s top navigation bar.

You should see a list of CI/CD and workflow automation templates that match the technology your project uses 

screenshot of workflow options

For this project, we’ll leverage a few different CI/CD workflows to test, build, stage, and deploy our code. These include:

  • A development workflow: This workflow runs through a few different jobs whenever a pull request is opened, edited, synchronized, or reopened. These jobs include setting up Node, installing npm packages and dependencies, running npm test, and cycling through a number of lint jobs too (setup node, install npm@latest, install dependencies, lint code… you get the idea).

A note on YAML

YAML is a markup language that has become a mainstay in declarative automation due to its human-friendly nature as a JSON superset (it uses a lot less brackets, braces, and quotes than other JSON markup language variants).

  • A CodeQL Analysis workflow: This workflow runs a series of CodeQL security tests on our code after we merge it to the main branch to ensure there are no known vulnerabilities.
  • A release and build workflow: This workflow runs tests and enforces lint after releasing code changes to Docker and building the application. It also deploys the final code to our production environment, cuts a release using a similar structure to the automated release notes, bundles the site into a container and publishes to ghcr. From there, it bumps the version number and tag in the repository. This is one of the more complex workflows we’re running,
  • A storybook deployment workflow: This workflow deploys any UI component changes to our production website through our frontend UI tech Storybook.

And those are our workflows. The point here is that if you’re working on a solo project or something small, building a CI pipeline doesn’t have to be an intimidating process. You can start with a few simple things (like what’s highlighted above) to make your workflow a little easier.

A CI/CD pipeline can and should be more complex than this if you’re building enterprise software, maintaining a big open source project, or working with a big team on any array of things. But if you’re just getting started, don’t worry about making your CI/CD pipeline meet every single need of a big team or ambitious project—just make it work for you.

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