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A little while back, GitHub released their Actions integrated CI/CD (continuous integration and delivery) platform. I signed up for the beta and managed to get in. This article will cover how I used GitHub Actions to completely automate the building and deployment of my personal site (and this blog).

Actions Introduction

GitHub Actions is a continuous integration and delivery product. It’s similar to Travis CI or Circle CI or other similar existing providers. In simple terms, it means that on every commit, pull request, or whatever else you setup, scripts run. These can be to run tests to make sure your commit doesn’t break anything (integration), or to automatically format code, or to deploy your software (delivery), or anything else you want.

In the case of GitHub Actions, these scripts are defined in .yml files placed in the folder .github/workflows/ in the root of your repository (example). The workflows you setup can be run on repository events (push, pull request, etc.), webhook events (forking, wiki update, etc.), scheduled events (a cron schedule), or external events (external webhook). These workflows run on premade Docker containers for a variety of operating systems, which include a lot of useful software already installed (like Python 3, webpack, MySQL, etc.).

However, if you need more functionality than what is available in the workflows, or want to make something reusable, you can create your own Docker container or JavaScript action. These are automatically executed within the existing Docker container your action runs in, seamlessly.

Arguably, the best part of Actions, is the Marketplace. With the GitHub marketplace, people can make their custom actions available for others to use, and you can import them into your workflows easily. GitHub also publishes some of their own actions with some basic, yet widely used functionality.

My Website Setup

My website is built with the Hugo static site generator, using a theme I made for myself. I admit, my website doesn’t exactly have the cleanest structure. While Hugo is meant to be used with Markdown files (like this blog), I wanted extremely structured content for my website. In order to do this, I used Hugo’s data templates (example).

Because the theme and actual content are extremely coupled together, I decided not to release the theme separately, and just tie it into my main Hugo site repo. This means that I’m not using git submodules, and my npm scripts for the HTML/CSS are in the same package.json file as my scripts for Hugo.

Anyways, this was my build process for my site previously:

  1. Make content/theme update
  2. Run npm run svgmin to minify SVG files (if needed)
  3. Run npm run critical to generate new critical CSS (if needed)
  4. Run npm run build:css to polyfill and minify the CSS (if needed)
  5. Run npm run build:js to minify the JS (if needed)
  6. Run hugo to actually build the site’s contents
  7. Run npm run beautify to beautify the output HTML because whitespace with HTML templates is surprisingly difficult
  8. Run npm run deploy to actually commit and push the changes

While I did basically have steps 4-7 clumped together into a single build script, it was clunky and I’d always inevitably forget to run something. No more!

My Website Actions Workflow

With the help of GitHub Actions, I was able to automate every single step of this process, plus steps I hadn’t even automated previously.

My workflow file (at time of writing):

 1name: Build
 4  push:
 5    branches:
 6      - master
 9  build:
10    runs-on: ubuntu-latest
12    steps:
13      - name: Checkout code
14        uses: actions/checkout@master
15        with:
16          submodules: true
17      - name: Install Node
18        uses: actions/setup-node@master
19      - name: Install dependencies
20        run: npm install
21      - name: Build Critical CSS
22        run: npm run critical
23      - name: Build Site
24        run: npm run build
25      - name: Deploy Site
26        uses: peaceiris/actions-gh-pages@master
27        if: success()
28        env:
29          ACTIONS_DEPLOY_KEY: ${{ secrets.ACTIONS_DEPLOY_KEY }}
30          PUBLISH_BRANCH: gh-pages
31          PUBLISH_DIR: ./public
32      - name: Purge Cache
33        uses: nathanvaughn/actions-cloudflare-purge@master
34        if: success()
35        env:
36          CLOUDFLARE_ZONE: ${{ secrets.CLOUDFLARE_ZONE }}
38      - name: Load Site
39        run: curl $(echo $GITHUB_REPOSITORY | cut -d "/" -f 2-) --location --output /dev/null


2  push:
3    branches:
4      - master

I want this workflow to run on every single push to the master branch. I don’t have this set to every branch, because I publish the output HTML to the gh-pages branch for GitHub Pages (how I host the site). Plus, if I want to work on a separate branch and not have the changes deployed, I can do so.

2  build:
3    runs-on: ubuntu-latest

You can define multiple “jobs” per workflow, but mine just has one called “build”. I want it to run on the latest build of Ubuntu.

2  - name: Checkout code
3    uses: actions/checkout@master
4    with:
5      submodules: true

This is where the steps of the job start. To begin, I use the latest copy of the premade checkout action to git clone my repository and initialize all submodules (though I don’t use any submodules currently for my main site).

1- name: Install Node
2  uses: actions/setup-node@master

Next I use the premade setup-node action to setup NodeJS and npm.

1- name: Install dependencies
2  run: npm install

After that, I simply run the npm install command to install all the dependencies. Since I’m using the hugo-bin package, this also sets up Hugo for me. While I could run a different script to download and install Hugo, doing it in one shot with npm just makes things easier.

1- name: Build Critical CSS
2  run: npm run critical

Next, I run my npm script to start the Hugo server, and generate the critical CSS.

1- name: Build Site
2  run: npm run build

Then, I run my npm script to build the site (CSS, JS, Hugo) as described above.

1- name: Deploy Site
2  uses: peaceiris/actions-gh-pages@master
3  if: success()
4  env:
6    PUBLISH_BRANCH: gh-pages
7    PUBLISH_DIR: ./public

Afterwards, I use an action from the Marketplace to automatically commit and push all the changes to the ./public directory to my gh-pages branch. The if: success() statements means this step will only run if the previous step ran successfully. This is important, as I don’t want to commit a broken site build.

1- name: Purge Cache
2  uses: nathanvaughn/actions-cloudflare-purge@master
3  if: success()
4  env:

This uses a custom action I made to purge Cloudflare’s cache of my site. Otherwise, old CSS or JS can get cached for too long leading to things breaking. This uses repository secrets passed in as environment variables to securely store important tokens.

1- name: Load Site
2  run: curl $(echo $GITHUB_REPOSITORY | cut -d "/" -f 2-) --location --output /dev/null

To finish it off, I do a curl pull of my site to ensure it’s working properly. This should also make sure Cloudflare refreshes their cache of my site.

The echo $GITHUB_REPOSITORY | cut -d "/" -f 2- command is simply taking the GITHUB_REPOSITORY environment variable, which gives the author and repository name as a single string (like nathanvaughn/ and returns everything past the first /.

The --location flag tells curl to follow redirects (since my site redirects to HTTPS) and --output /dev/null just prevents the return HTML from being spit out to the console.

My Blog Actions Workflow

While the above covered how I setup my website with Actions, the workflow for my blog is extremely similar. As I don’t use my own theme for my blog, I don’t use any npm scripts. Therefore, to build the site with Hugo, I use someone else’s custom action. The other steps are all the same.

Other Uses

There’s all sorts of stuff you can do with Actions too.

I currently have a repository for a Dockerfile of a web app I use. I have a workflow setup which checks the latest version of the underlying web app, and if a new version has been released (stable, beta, or alpha), it automatically updates the Dockerfile to reflect the new version on the appropriate branch of my repo, and commits the change. This will cause Docker Hub to automatically build, tag, and publish the image. No more subscribing to RSS release feeds and doing updates manually (to be fair, most of this is done with a Python script run on a schedule by Actions).

Another example is my main website again. I have a separate workflow setup which runs weekly, and checks all the links on the site to see if they’re broken, and automatically creates GitHub issues for the links that don’t work.


GitHub Actions is extremely powerful, flexible, and best of all, free (for public repos). There are tons of possibilities, such as running tests, automating administrative tasks, doing deployments, or anything else. I’m excited to see where GitHub and the community take the product.