GitLab Runner

Niall Deakin
15 May 20

Oh boy, now this has been truly a pain.

I was first introduced to the idea of Continuous Integrate/Continuous Deployment all the way back in 2018, and I’ve only just been able to create my own runner.

For context, I self-host Gitlab on a private server.
I don’t use any other tools like Jenkins, or sites like DeployHQ, but instead used the feature that is provided by Gitlab. Why muddy the waters?

I’ve worked with agencies which do use those services, and they made things look so easy; just commit the changes to whichever branch and boom, the site is updated in a matter of minutes (depending on the size).

But there is a lot to learn about Gitlab pipelines, runners, and CI/CD.

Where to begin?

Firstly, you need to make sure that the service in enabled on your Gitlab.
I believe that it is, by default, but if you are like me and found that warning message for every project annoying (“hey, you’ve got this thing but it doesn’t work – do something about it”), you found a way to disable it site-wide.

I believe I followed these instructions on how to enable or disable GitLab CI/CD, and opted for the project by project basis, as I also manage other non-DevOps work there.

Once that is in place, you should notice a new CI/CD menu at the side.
If it’s already there, great! GitLab is rather forthcoming with their alerts and messages, so what you need to do next will be obvious.

What to do next?

So you click through and it says “create a pipeline”.
This is a file which is a part of the repo; inside that is a list of instructions for the runner to carry out once certain conditions are met.

So you can set some instructions for the Master branch, Production branch, developer branches, or branches with certain tags, etc.
And the commands, can range from SSH commands, run scripts, grab variables, and probably a lot more (I’ve only needed the most simple tasks).

Essentially, all my runners do is check if their branch is updated, and copy the files to whichever server they need to go. This makes it easier for me, because I have a separate machine to do all the “sitting and waiting” instead of my computer (which I need to use to work).
There are more rules to it than that, such as backups, file permissions, etc., but it is to automate the process.

What is this “Runner”?

Right, yes, runners.
A runner is a service that acts as a user for you. Think of it like a computerised servant, a robot butler (hey, “Jenkins”), that will casually wait around, checking on their repos, and once something happens, they will read through the list of instructions and carry them out.

Why hire someone to do that when you can build a machine to do it for you.

It is recommended that you have a separate machine to do this for you (it doesn’t take a lot of processing power), but if you want to use the same server that the repo is on, or even your own computers, you can too.
You just need to make sure you turn on the runners/activate the service.

I found these instructions on installing a GitLab Runner worked well, although I found issues with getting it to work on Windows and Powershell.
So I used Ubuntu (I am quite familiar with Linux now… I think I actually prefer it).

Here’s a bit of free advice, make sure you give the appropriate permissions to the machines you use.
I was stuck for such a long time, because I didn’t think about the SSH Keys.

Creating the YAML file

This is the list of instructions I mentioned earlier.

For me, I simply wrote what I usually do when deploying a site down.
Some transposing is needed (it’s not quite so straight forward), and there are certain rules you need.

There are quite a few tutorials and guides out there, and with a great amount of luck, I found that this offers the basics for what I need (if you’ve got any suggestions, please, let me know).
Oh, in the example below, I use GitLab variables to store the keys I need to access remotely. I used ssh-keyscan as a command to find the keys (if you don’t have them saved elsewhere).

# What stages we have (think of this like tasks)
stages:
  deploy

# The job name (can have multiple)
deploy_staging:
  # What task we want to do
  stage: deploy

  # The things we actually want to do (aka list of instructions)
  script:
   # Adds the SSH Keys to Remote so we can access via the Runner
   - eval $(ssh-agent -s)
   - echo "$SSH_REPO_KEY" | tr -d '\r' | ssh-add - > /dev/null
   - mkdir -p ~/.ssh && touch ~/.ssh/known_hosts
   - echo "$SSH_KNOWN_STAGING" >> ~/.ssh/known_hosts
   - chmod 644 ~/.ssh/known_hosts

  # SSH Commands, can have multiple, and different commands
   - ssh -p[port number] [user]@[ip] "[the command you would normally use manually]"

  # Only run on this branch, tag, etc.
  only:
   - [branch]

And that is about it.
You can add so many more tasks, jobs, instructions, all sorts. I would only recommend in keeping it simple as it does use processing power for the Runner and Remote; you can run out of RAM.

If you’ve got any questions, suggestions, or just want to chat, you can email me using the form below, or find me on Twitter (I’m usually hanging out there).

AutoDeploy, CI/CD, Continuous Deployment, Continuous Integration, DeployHQ, Gitlab, GItLab Runner, Jenkins, Pipeline, Runner, Self-hosted, SSH, Variables, YAML

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