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Lucy Linder
Lucy Linder

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helmfile: understand (and visualize !) the order in which releases are deployed

This post looks at helmfile, and how it determines the order in which releases are deployed. More importantly, it gives you a bash script you can use to discover (i.e. print to the console) this order, without having to do a full helmfile sync/helmfile apply.

Skip the first sections if you are already familiar with helmfile and only want the script !

Please, like this feature request if, like me, you would like a command to show the order !


🐙 ⇨ Recap' on helmfile ⇦ 🐙

If you work with Kubernetes and Helm charts, chances are you are already familiar with helmfile. It is

a declarative spec that brings additional functionality to Helm by allowing you to compose several charts together to create a comprehensive deployment artifact.
In other words, it allows you to bundle charts together.

In short, you declare releases, that is instances of specific Helm charts that need to be deployed. By default, all releases are deployed in parallel. To change this default, you declare needs (releases.needs): when a release A needs another release B, A is guaranteed to be deployed before B. This is very similar to the depends_on in docker-compose.

The final order will be computed (and applied) when you run helmfile sync or helmfile apply, which installs/update those releases in a given kubernetes namespace.

Mastering the ordering of releases in big helmfiles is difficult, and it is easy to miss some needs.
Unfortunately, with helmfile the only way to get the final deployment order it to install everything (sync/apply) and see how it goes... Or is it ? (See the hack below)

How helmfile plans the deployment of releases

Internally, helmfile generates a DAG (Direct Acyclic Graph) based on the needs. From there, it groups releases so that each release in a group can be deployed in parallel, and each subsequent group depends only on the groups coming before. In other words, releases in group 3 can only need releases in group 1-2, etc.

When those groups are formed, helmfile knows it can go one group at a time, executing in parallel helm install for all the releases it contains.

If you run helmfile sync without any constraint on parallelism, it is exactly what it does. However, it is possible to provide a threshold to the concurrency, using the --concurrency N flag. When N is smaller than the number of releases in a group, helmfile picks randomly N releases at a time, group by group.

This randomness comes from the way range over maps is implemented in go:

When iterating over a map with a range loop, the iteration order is not specified and is not guaranteed to be the same from one iteration to the next. Since Go 1 the runtime randomizes map iteration order, as programmers relied on the stable iteration order of the previous implementation. src

How to get the deployment order without installing

When running helmfile sync or helmfile apply with a log level DEBUG, the groups are printed at the beginning. For example:

helmfile -log-level debug sync

processing 3 groups of releases in this order:
1     orwell, freud, bradburry, wells, weber 
2     foo, bar
3     buzz
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The trick is thus to trigger a sync/apply in debug mode, and stop (ctrl+c) the command right after the groups are printed, but before any release gets deployed.

As it is a pain to do manually, here is a script to do the job. Note that you will need to be connected to a kubernetes cluster for it to succeed, even though nothing will be deployed (rest easy). If you are in doubt, run kubectl login before running the script:


file=$(mktemp -t hf)

trap "exit 0" INT # ctrl+c is somewhat a regular exit
trap "exit" TERM ERR
trap "rm $file 2>/dev/null || true" EXIT

# ensure a helmfile is present
helmfile $@ list > $file

# read helmfile output and stop when the info is displayed
helmfile --log-level debug $@ sync 2>&1 | tee $file | while IFS='' read -r line
  [[ $line =~ ^"processing "[0-9+]" groups of releases in this order:"$ ]] && start=1
  if [[ "$line" == "processing releases in group 1"* ]]; then
    rm $file # all went fine
    kill -INT -$$ # send ctrl+c to the process, the only way to kill everything right away
  [[ "$start" == 1 ]] && echo "$line"

if [ -f $file ]; then
  # if the file is still present, it means the process
  # didn't complete as expected. Show the logs
  echo -e "An error occurred. Here is the full log:"
  cat $file

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Assuming the script is saved as in the user directory and is executable, the following:

cd folder-with-helmfile
~/ # will use helmfile.yaml in CWD
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processing 3 groups of releases in this order:
1     orwell, freud, bradburry, wells, weber 
2     foo, bar
3     buzz
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Note that it is possible to pass extra global options to helmfile, for example:

# process a helmfile not in CWD
~/ --file folder-with-helmfile/helmfile.yaml
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Written with ❤ by derlin, thank you for reading !

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