Managing Helm Deployment and Releases with GitOps

By Stefan Prodan
August 13, 2018

Learn all about GitOps, Helm, & Helm deployments, as well as setting up centric CICD pipelines in this step-by-step guide.

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Learn all about GitOps, Helm, & Helm deployments, as well as setting up centric CICD pipelines in this step-by-step guide.

What is Helm?

Helm is a package manager that helps you manage Kubernetes applications. Helm is beneficial because it promotes repeatability and consistency. To do this, Helm offers charts and templating, the ability to create catalogs of applications, and Helm deployments. Helm deployment is when a Helm Chart is used to deploy an application.

What is GitOps?

GitOps is a way to do Continuous Delivery, it works by using Git as a source of truth for declarative infrastructure and workloads. For Kubernetes this means using git push instead of kubectl create/apply or helm install/upgrade.

In a traditional CICD pipeline, CD is an implementation extension powered by continuous integration tooling to promote build artifacts to production. In the GitOps pipeline model, any change to production must be committed in source control (preferably via a pull request) prior to being applied on the cluster. This way, Git provides rollback and audit logs. If the entire production state is under version control and described in a single Git repository, when disaster strikes, the whole infrastructure can be quickly restored from that repository.

To better understand the benefits of this approach to CD and the differences between GitOps and Infrastructure-as-Code tools, head to the Weaveworks website and read GitOps - What you need to know article.

In order to apply the GitOps pipeline model to Kubernetes you need three things:

  • a Git repository with your workloads definitions in YAML format, Helm charts and any other Kubernetes custom resource that defines your cluster desired state (I will refer to this as the config repository)

  • a container registry where your CI system pushes immutable images (no latest tags, use semantic versioning or git commit sha)

  • an operator that runs in your cluster and does a two-way synchronization:

    • watches the registry for new image releases and based on deployment policies updates the workload definitions with the new image tag and commits the changes to the config repository

    • watches for changes in the config repository and applies them to your cluster

I will be using GitHub to host the config repo, Docker Hub as the container registry and Weave Flux OSS as the GitOps Kubernetes Operator.

Install Helm and Tiller

If you don't have Helm CLI installed, on macOS you can use brew install kubernetes-helm.

Create a service account and a cluster role binding for Tiller:

kubectl -n kube-system create sa tiller

kubectl create clusterrolebinding tiller-cluster-rule \

    --clusterrole=cluster-admin \


Note that on GKE you need to create an admin cluster user for yourself:

kubectl create clusterrolebinding "cluster-admin-$(whoami)" \

    --clusterrole=cluster-admin \

    --user="$(gcloud config get-value core/account)"

Deploy Tiller in kube-system namespace:

helm init --skip-refresh --upgrade --service-account tiller

Install Weave Flux

The first step in automating Helm releases with  Flux is to create a Git repository with your charts source code. You can fork the gitops-helm project and use it as a template for your cluster config.

If you fork, update the release definitions with your Docker Hub repository and GitHub username located in

\releases(dev/stg/prod)\podinfo.yaml in your master branch before proceeding.

Add the  Flux chart repo:

helm repo add weaveworks

Install Weave Flux and its Helm Operator by specifying your fork URL (replace stefanprodan with your GitHub username):

helm install --name flux \

--set rbac.create=true \

--set helmOperator.create=true \

--set \

--namespace flux \


The Flux Helm operator provides an extension to Weave Flux that automates Helm Chart releases for it. A Chart release is described through a Kubernetes custom resource named HelmRelease. The Flux daemon synchronizes these resources from git to the cluster, and the Flux Helm operator makes sure Helm charts are released as specified in the resources.

Note that Flux Helm Operator works with Kubernetes 1.9 or newer.

At startup Flux generates a SSH key and logs the public key. Find the SSH public key with:

kubectl -n flux logs deployment/flux | grep | cut -d '"' -f2

In order to sync your cluster state with Git you need to copy the public key and create a deploy key with write access on your GitHub repository.

Open GitHub, navigate to your fork, go to Settings > Deploy keys click on Add deploy key, check Allow write access, paste the Flux public key and click Add key.

GitOps pipeline example

The config repo has the following structure:

├── charts

│   └── podinfo

│       ├── Chart.yaml

│       ├──

│       ├── templates

│       └── values.yaml

├── hack

│   ├──

│   └──

├── namespaces

│   ├── dev.yaml

│   └── stg.yaml

└── releases

    ├── dev

    │   └── podinfo.yaml

    └── stg

        └── podinfo.yaml

I will be using podinfo to demonstrate a full CI/CD pipeline including promoting releases between environments.

I'm assuming the following Git branching model:

  • dev branch (feature-ready state)

  • stg branch (release-candidate state)

  • master branch (production-ready state)

When a PR is merged in the dev or stg branch, it will produce an immutable container image as in repo/app:branch-commitsha.

Inside the hack dir you can find a script that simulates the CI process for dev and stg. The script does the following:

  • pulls the podinfo source code from GitHub

  • generates a random string and modifies the code

  • generates a random Git commit short SHA

  • builds a Docker image with the format: yourname/podinfo:branch-sha

  • pushes the image to Docker Hub

Let's create an image corresponding to the dev branch (replace stefanprodan with your Docker Hub username):

$ cd hack && ./ -r stefanprodan/podinfo -b dev

Sending build context to Docker daemon  4.096kB

Step 1/15 : FROM golang:1.10 as builder


Step 9/15 : FROM alpine:3.7


Step 12/15 : COPY --from=builder /go/src/ .


Step 15/15 : CMD ["./podinfo"]


Successfully built 71bee4549fb2

Successfully tagged stefanprodan/podinfo:dev-kb9lm91e

The push refers to repository []

36ced78d2ca2: Pushed

Inside the charts directory there is a podinfo Helm chart. Using this chart I want to create a release in the dev namespace with the image I've just published to Docker Hub. Instead of editing the values.yaml from the chart source I will create a HelmRelease definition:


kind: HelmRelease


  name: podinfo-dev

namespace: dev


    chart: podinfo

  annotations: "true" glob:dev-*


  releaseName: podinfo-dev



    path: charts/podinfo

ref: master


    image: stefanprodan/podinfo:dev-kb9lm91e

    replicaCount: 1

Flux Helm release fields:

  • is mandatory and needs to follow Kubernetes naming conventions

  • metadata.namespace is optional and determines where the release is created

  • metadata.labels.chart is mandatory and should match the directory containing the chart

  • spec.releaseName is optional and if not provided the release name will be $namespace-$name

  • spec.chart.path is the directory containing the chart, given relative to the repository root

  • spec.values are user customizations of default parameter values from the chart itself

The options specified in the HelmRelease spec.values will override the ones in values.yaml from the chart source.

With the annotations I instruct Flux to automate this release. When a new tag with the prefix dev is pushed to Docker Hub, Flux will update the image field in the yaml file, will commit and push the change to Git and finally will apply the change on the cluster.

When the podinfo-dev HelmRelease object changes inside the cluster, Kubernetes API will notify the Flux Helm Operator and the operator will perform a Helm release upgrade.

$ helm history podinfo-dev

REVISION    UPDATED                     STATUS        CHART            DESCRIPTION     

1Fri Jul 20 16:51:52 2018    SUPERSEDED    podinfo-0.2.0Install complete

2Fri Jul 20 22:18:46 2018    DEPLOYED      podinfo-0.2.0Upgrade complete

The Flux Helm Operator reacts to changes in the HelmResources collection but will also detect changes in the charts source files. If I make a change to the podinfo chart, the operator will pick that up and run an upgrade.

$ helm history podinfo-dev

REVISION    UPDATED                     STATUS        CHART            DESCRIPTION     

1Fri Jul 20 16:51:52 2018    SUPERSEDED    podinfo-0.2.0Install complete

2Fri Jul 20 22:18:46 2018    SUPERSEDED    podinfo-0.2.0Upgrade complete

3Fri Jul 20 22:39:39 2018    DEPLOYED      podinfo-0.2.1Upgrade complete

Now let's assume that I want to promote the code from the dev branch into a more stable environment for others to test it. I would create a release candidate by merging the podinfo code from dev into the stg branch. The CI would kick in and publish a new image:

$ cd hack && ./ -r stefanprodan/podinfo -b stg

Successfully tagged stefanprodan/podinfo:stg-9ij63o4c

The push refers to repository []

8f21c3669055: Pushed

Assuming the staging environment has some sort of automated load testing in place, I want to have a different configuration than dev:


kind: HelmRelease


  name: podinfo-rc

namespace: stg


    chart: podinfo

  annotations: "true" glob:stg-*


  releaseName: podinfo-rc



    path: charts/podinfo

ref: master


    image: stefanprodan/podinfo:stg-9ij63o4c

    replicaCount: 2


      enabled: true

      maxReplicas: 10

      cpu: 50

      memory: 128Mi

With Flux Helm releases it's easy to manage different configurations per environment. When adding a new option in the chart source make sure it's turned off by default so it will not affect all environments.

If I want to create a new environment, let's say for hotfixes testing, I would do the following:

  • create a new namespace definition in namespaces/hotfix.yaml

  • create a dir releases/hotfix

  • create a HelmRelease named podinfo-hotfix

  • set the automation filter to glob:hotfix-*

  • make the CI tooling publish images from my hotfix branch to stefanprodan/podinfo:hotfix-sha

Production promotions with sem ver

For production, instead of tagging the images with the Git commit, I will use Semantic Versioning.

Let's assume that I want to promote the code from the stg branch into master and do a production release. After merging stg into master via a pull request, I would cut a release by tagging master with version 0.4.10.

When I push the git tag, the CI will publish a new image in the repo/app:git_tag format:

$ cd hack && ./ -r stefanprodan/podinfo -v 0.4.10

Successfully built f176482168f8

Successfully tagged stefanprodan/podinfo:0.4.10

If I want to automate the production deployment based on version tags, I would use semver filters instead of glob:


kind: HelmRelease


  name: podinfo-prod

namespace: prod


    chart: podinfo

  annotations: "true" semver:~0.4


  releaseName: podinfo-prod



    path: charts/podinfo

ref: master


    image: stefanprodan/podinfo:0.4.10

    replicaCount: 3

Now if I release a new patch, let's say 0.4.11, Flux will automatically deploy it.

$ cd hack && ./ -r stefanprodan/podinfo -v 0.4.11

Successfully tagged stefanprodan/podinfo:0.4.11

Managing Kubernetes secrets

In order to store secrets safely in a public Git repo you can use the Bitnami Sealed Secrets controller and encrypt your Kubernetes Secrets into SealedSecrets. The SealedSecret can be decrypted only by the controller running in your cluster.

This is the sealed-secrets controller release:


kind: HelmRelease


  name: sealed-secrets

namespace: adm


    chart: sealed-secrets


  releaseName: sealed-secrets


    path: charts/sealed-secrets

ref: master



Note that this release is not automated, since this is a critical component I prefer to update it manually.

Install the kubeseal CLI:


sudo install -m 755 kubeseal-darwin-amd64 /usr/local/bin/kubeseal

At startup, the sealed-secrets controller generates a RSA key and logs the public key. Using kubeseal you can save your public key as pub-cert.pem, the public key can be safely stored in Git, and can be used to encrypt secrets without direct access to the Kubernetes cluster:

kubeseal --fetch-cert \

--controller-namespace=adm \

--controller-name=sealed-secrets \

> pub-cert.pem

You can generate a Kubernetes secret locally with kubectl and encrypt it with kubeseal:

kubectl -n dev create secret generic basic-auth \

--from-literal=user=admin \

--from-literal=password=admin \

--dry-run \

-o json > basic-auth.json

kubeseal --format=yaml --cert=pub-cert.pem < basic-auth.json > basic-auth.yaml

This generates a custom resource of type SealedSecret that contains the encrypted credentials:


kind: SealedSecret


  name: basic-auth

namespace: adm



    password: AgAR5nzhX2TkJ.......

    user: AgAQDO58WniIV3gTk.......

Delete the basic-auth.json file and push the pub-cert.pem and basic-auth.yaml to Git:

rm basic-auth.json

mv basic-auth.yaml /releases/dev/

git commit -a -m "Add basic auth credentials to dev namespace" && git push

Flux will apply the sealed secret on your cluster and sealed-secrets controller will then decrypt it into a Kubernetes secret.

To prepare for disaster recovery you should backup the sealed-secrets controller private key with:

kubectl get secret -n adm sealed-secrets-key -o yaml --export > sealed-secrets-key.yaml

To restore from backup after a disaster, replace the newly-created secret and restart the controller:

kubectl replace secret -n adm sealed-secrets-key -f sealed-secrets-key.yaml

kubectl delete pod -n adm -l app=sealed-secrets

Flux Helm Integration FAQ

My Helm charts have more than one container image. How can I automate the image tag update for all my containers?

A container image list can have the following format:


  image: repo/app1:tag



Here is an example with different deployment automation policies:


kind: HelmRelease


  name: openfaas

namespace: openfaas


    chart: openfaas

  annotations: "true" semver:~2.3 glob:v0.15.* regexp:^0.6.*


  releaseName: openfaas



    name: openfaas

    version: 1.3.3



      image: prom/prometheus:v2.3.1


      image: prom/alertmanager:v0.15.0


      image: nats-streaming:0.6.0

I'm using SSL between Helm and Tiller. How can I configure Flux to use the certificate?

When installing Flux, you can supply the CA and client-side certificate using the helmOperator.tls options, more details here.

I've deleted a HelmRelease file from Git. Why is the Helm release still running on my cluster?

Flux doesn't delete resources, there is an issue opened about this topic on GitHub. In order to delete a Helm release first remove the file from Git and afterwards run:

kubectl -n dev delete hr/podinfo-dev

The Flux Helm operator will receive the delete event and will purge the Helm release.

I've uninstalled Flux and all my Helm releases are gone. Why is that?

On HelmRelease CRD deletion, Kubernetes will remove all HelmRelease CRs triggering a Helm purge for each release created by Flux. To avoid this you have to manually delete the Flux Helm Operator with kubectl -n flux delete deployment/flux-helm-operator before running helm delete flux --purge.

I have a dedicated Kubernetes cluster per environment and I want to use the same Git repo for all. How can I do that?

For each cluster create a Git branch in your config repo. When installing Flux set the Git branch using --set git.branch=cluster-name.

How can I monitor the CD pipeline and the workloads managed by Flux?

Weave Cloud is a SaaS product by Weaveworks that extends Flux with:

  • a UI for all Flux operations, audit trail and alerts for deployments

  • a realtime map of your cluster to debug and analyse its state

  • full observability and insights into your cluster (hosted Prometheus with 13 months of metrics history)

  • instant Flux operations via GitHub webhooks routing

Getting Help

If you have any questions about GitOps or Weave Flux:

  • Join the #gitops Kubernetes slack channel.

  • Invite yourself to the Weave community slack.

  • Ask a question on the #flux slack channel.Join the Weave User Group and get invited to online talks, hands-on training and meetups in your area.

Related posts

Meet the Weaveworks Team at GitOpsCon Europe (Virtual Event)

KubeCon Chicago 2023 Recap: Cloud-native Scale & Growth with GitOps

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