In the last few months, I started seeing more and more customers using Azure Container Registry (or ACR) for storing their Helm charts. However, many of them are confused about how to properly push and use the charts stored in ACR. So, in this post, I will document a few things that need the most clarifications. Let’s start with some definitions!

Helm 2 and Helm 3 – what are those?

Before we even start!

Helm 2 is NOT supported and you should not use it! Period! If you need more details just read Helm’s blog post Helm 2 and the Charts Project Are Now Unsupported from Fri, Nov 13, 2020.

A nice date to choose for that announcement ūüôā

OK, really – what are Helm 2 and Helm 3? When somebody says Helm 2 or Helm 3, they most often mean the version of the Helm CLI (i.e., Command Line Interface). The easiest way to check what version of the Helm CLI you have is to type:

$ helm version

in your Terminal. If the version is v2.x.x , then you have Helm (CLI) 2; if the version is v3.x.x then, you have Helm (CLI) 3. But, it is not that simple! You should also consider the API version. The API version is the version that you specify at the top of your chart (i.e. Chart.yaml) – you can read more about it in Helm Charts documentation. Here is a table that can come in handy for you:

wdt_ID apiVersion Helm 2 CLI Support Helm 3 CLI Support
1 v1 Yes Yes
2 v2 No Yes

What this table tells you is that Helm 2 CLI supports apiVersion V1, while Helm 3 CLI supports apiVersion V1 and V2. You should check the Helm Charts documentation linked above if you need more details about the differences, but the important thing to remember here is that Helm 3 CLI supports old charts, and (once again) there is no reason for you to use Helm 2.

We’ve cleared (I hope) the confusion around Helm 2 and Helm 3. Let’s see how ACR handles the Helm charts. For each one of those experiences, I will walk you step-by-step.

ACR and Helm 2

Azure Container Registry allows you to store Helm charts using the Helm 2 way (What? I will explain in a bit). However:

Helm 2 is NOT supported and you should not use it!

Now that you have been warned (twice! or was it three times?) let’s see how ACR handles Helm 2 charts. To avoid any ambiguity, I will use Helm CLI v2.17.0 for this exercise. At the time of this writing, it is the last published version of Helm 2.

$ helm version
Client: &version.Version{SemVer:"v2.17.0", GitCommit:"a690bad98af45b015bd3da1a41f6218b1a451dbe", GitTreeState:"clean"}

Initializing Helm and the Repository List

If you have a brand new installation of the Helm 2 CLI, you should initialize Helm and add the ACR to your repository list. You start with:

$ helm init
$ helm repo list
NAME     URL
stable   https://charts.helm.sh/stable
local    http://127.0.0.1:8879/charts

to initialize Helm and see the list of available repositories. Then you can add your ACR to the list by typing:

$ helm repo add --username <acr_username> --password <acr_password> <repo_name> https://<acr_login_server>/helm/v1/repo

For me, this looked like this:

$ helm repo add --username <myacr_username> --password <myacr_password> acrrepo https://tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/helm/v1/repo

Here is something very important: you must use the /helm/v1/repo path! If you do not specify the path you will see either 404: Not found error (for example, if you use the root URL without a path) or 403: Forbidden error (if you decide that you want to rename the repo part to something else).

I also need to make a side note here because the authentication can be a bit tricky. The following section applies to both Helm 2 and Helm 3.

Signing In To ACR Using the Helm (any version) CLI

Before you push and pull charts from ACR, you need to sign in. There are few different options that you can use to sign in to ACR using the CLI:

  • Using ACR Admin user (not recommended)
    If you have ACR Admin user enabled, you can use the Admin user username and password to sign in to ACR by simply specifying the --username and --password parameters for the Helm command.
  • Using a Service Principal (SP)
    If you need to push and pull charts using automation, you have most probably already set up a service principal for that. You can authenticate using the SP credentials by passing the app ID in the  --username and the client secret in the --password parameters for the Helm command. Make sure you assign the appropriate role to the service principal to allow access to your registry.
  • Using your own (user) credentials
    This one is the tricky one, and it is described in the ACR docs in az acr login with –expose-token section of the Authentication overview article. For this one, you must use the Azure CLI to obtain the token. Here are the steps:

    • Use the Azure CLI to sign in to Azure using your own credentials:
      $ az login

      This will pop up a browser window or give you an URL with a special code to use.

    • Next, sign in to ACR using the Azure CLI and add the --expose-token parameter:
      $ az acr login --name <acr_name_or_login_server> --expose-token

      This will sign you into ACR and will print an access token that you can use to sign in with other tools.

    • Last, you can sign in using the Helm CLI by passing a GUID-like string with zeros only (exactly this string 00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000) in the¬† --username parameter and the access token in the --password parameter. Here is how the command to add the Helm repository will look like:
      $ helm repo add --username "00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000" --password "eyJhbGciOiJSUzI1NiIs[...]24V7wA" <repo_name> https://<acr_login_server>/helm/v1/repo

Creating and Packaging Charts with Helm 2 CLI

Helm 2 doesn’t have out-of-the-box experience for pushing charts to a remote chart registry. You may wrongly assume that the helm-push plugin is the one that does that, but you will be wrong. This plugin will only allow you to push charts to Chartmuseum (although I can use it to try to push to any repo but will fail – a topic for another story). Helm’s guidance on how chart repositories should work is described in the documentation (… and this is the Helm 2 way that I mentioned above):

  • According to Chart Repositories article in Helm documentation, the repository is a simple web server that serves the index.yaml file that points to the chart TAR archives. The TAR archives can be served by the same web server or from other locations like Azure Storage.
  • In Store charts in your chart repository they describe the process to generate the index.yaml file and how to upload the necessary artifacts to static storage to serve them.

Disclaimer: the term Helm 2 way is my own term based on my interpretation of how things work. It allows me to refer to the two different approaches charts are saved. It is not an industry term not something that Helm refers to or uses.

I have created a simple chart called helm-test-chart-v2 on my local machine to test the push. Here is the output from the commands:

$ $ helm create helm-test-chart-v2
Creating helm-test-chart-v2

$ ls -al ./helm-test-chart-v2/
total 28
drwxr-xr-x 4 azurevmuser azurevmuser 4096 Aug 16 16:44 .
drwxr-xr-x 6 azurevmuser azurevmuser 4096 Aug 17 16:29 ..
-rw-r--r-- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 342 Aug 16 16:44 .helmignore
-rw-r--r-- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 114 Aug 16 16:44 Chart.yaml
drwxr-xr-x 2 azurevmuser azurevmuser 4096 Aug 16 16:44 charts
drwxr-xr-x 3 azurevmuser azurevmuser 4096 Aug 16 16:44 templates
-rw-r--r-- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 1519 Aug 16 16:44 values.yaml

$ helm package ./helm-test-chart-v2/
Successfully packaged chart and saved it to: /home/azurevmuser/helm-test-chart-v2-0.1.0.tgz

$ ls -al
total 48
drwxr-xr-x 6 azurevmuser azurevmuser 4096 Aug 17 16:31 .
drwxr-xr-x 3 root root 4096 Aug 14 14:12 ..
-rw------- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 780 Aug 15 22:48 .bash_history
-rw-r--r-- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 220 Feb 25 2020 .bash_logout
-rw-r--r-- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 3771 Feb 25 2020 .bashrc
drwx------ 2 azurevmuser azurevmuser 4096 Aug 14 14:15 .cache
drwxr-xr-x 6 azurevmuser azurevmuser 4096 Aug 15 21:46 .helm
-rw-r--r-- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 807 Feb 25 2020 .profile
drwx------ 2 azurevmuser azurevmuser 4096 Aug 14 14:12 .ssh
-rw-r--r-- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 0 Aug 14 14:18 .sudo_as_admin_successful
-rw------- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 1559 Aug 14 14:26 .viminfo
drwxr-xr-x 4 azurevmuser azurevmuser 4096 Aug 16 16:44 helm-test-chart-v2
-rw-rw-r-- 1 azurevmuser azurevmuser 3269 Aug 17 16:31 helm-test-chart-v2-0.1.0.tgz

Because Helm 2 doesn’t have a push chart functionality, the implementation is left up to the vendors. ACR has provided proprietary implementation (already deprecated, which is another reason to not use Helm 2) of the push chart functionality that is built into the ACR CLI.

Pushing and Pulling Charts from ACR Using Azure CLI (Helm 2)

Let’s take a look at how you can push Helm 2 charts to ACR using the ACR CLI. First, you need to sign in to Azure, and then to your ACR. Yes, this is correct; you need to use two different commands to sign into the ACR. Here is how this looks like for my ACR registry:

$ az login
To sign in, use a web browser to open the page https://microsoft.com/devicelogin and enter the code AABBCCDDE to authenticate.
[
  {
    "cloudName": "AzureCloud",
    "homeTenantId": "XXXXXXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXXXXXXXXXX",
    "id": "XXXXXXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXXXXXXXXXX",
    "isDefault": true,
    "managedByTenants": [],
    "name": "ToddySM Sandbox",
    "state": "Enabled",
    "tenantId": "XXXXXXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXXXXXXXXXX",
    "user": {
        "name": "toddysm_XXXXXXXX@outlook.com",
        "type": "user"
    }
  }
]
$ az acr login --name tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io
The login server endpoint suffix '.azurecr.io' is automatically omitted.
You may want to use 'az acr login -n tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm --expose-token' to get an access token, which does not require Docker to be installed.
An error occurred: DOCKER_COMMAND_ERROR
Please verify if Docker client is installed and running.

Well, I do not have Docker running, but this is OK – you don’t need Docker installed for pushing the Helm chart. Though, it may be confusing because it leaves the impression that you may not be signed in to the ACR registry.

We will push the chart that we packaged already. Pushing it is done with the (deprecated) built-in command in ACR CLI. Here is the output:

$ az acr helm push --name tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io helm-test-chart-v2-0.1.0.tgz
This command is implicitly deprecated because command group 'acr helm' is deprecated and will be removed in a future release. Use 'helm v3' instead.
The login server endpoint suffix '.azurecr.io' is automatically omitted.
{
  "saved": true
}

This seems to be successful, and I have a Helm chart pushed to ACR using the Helm 2 way (i.e. using the proprietary and deprecated ACR CLI implementation). The problem here is that it is hard to verify that the chart is pushed to the ACR registry. If you go to the portal, you will not see the repository that contains the chart. Here is a screenshot of my registry view in the Azure portal after I pushed the chart:

Azure Portal Not Listing Helm 2 ChartsAs you can see, the Helm 2 chart repository doesn’t appear in the list of repositories in the Azure portal, and you will not be able to browse the charts in that repository using the Azure portal. However, if you use the Helm command to search for the chart, the result will include the ACR repository. Here is the output from the command in my environment:

$ helm search helm-test-chart-v2
NAME                           CHART VERSION        APP VERSION        DESCRIPTION
acrrepo/helm-test-chart-v2     0.1.0                1.0                A Helm chart for Kubernetes
local/helm-test-chart-v2       0.1.0                1.0                A Helm chart for Kubernetes

Summary of the ACR and Helm 2 Experience

To summarize the ACR and Helm 2 experience, here are the main takeaways:

  • First, you should not use Helm 2 CLI and the proprietary ACR CLI implementation for working with Helm charts!
  • There is no push functionality for charts in the Helm 2 client and each vendor is implementing their own CLI for pushing charts to the remote repositories.
  • When you add ACR repository using the Helm 2 CLI you should use the following URL format https://<acr_login_server>/helm/v1/repo
  • If you push a chart to ACR using the ACR CLI implementation you will not see the chart in Azure Portal. The only way to verify that the chart is pushed to the ACR repository is to use the helm search command.

ACR and Helm 3

Once again, to avoid any ambiguity, I will use Helm CLI v3.6.2 for this exercise. Here is the complete version string:

PS C:> helm version
version.BuildInfo{Version:"v3.6.2", GitCommit:"ee407bdf364942bcb8e8c665f82e15aa28009b71", GitTreeState:"clean", GoVersion:"go1.16.5"}

Yes, I run this one in PowerShell terminal ūüôā And, of course, not in the root folder ūüėČ You can convert the commands to the corresponding Linux commands and prompts.

Let’s start with the basic thing!

Creating and Packaging Charts with Helm 3 CLI

There is absolutely no difference between the Helm 2 and Helm 3 experience for creating and packaging a chart. Here is the output:

PS C:> helm create helm-test-chart-v3
Creating helm-test-chart-v3

PS C:> ls .\helm-test-chart-v3\

    Directory: C:\Users\memladen\Documents\Development\Local\helm-test-chart-v3

Mode         LastWriteTime         Length         Name
----         -------------         ------         ----
d----    8/17/2021 9:42 PM                        charts
d----    8/17/2021 9:42 PM                        templates
-a---    8/17/2021 9:42 PM            349         .helmignore
-a---    8/17/2021 9:42 PM           1154         Chart.yaml
-a---    8/17/2021 9:42 PM           1885         values.yaml

PS C:> helm package .\helm-test-chart-v3\
Successfully packaged chart and saved it to: C:\Users\memladen\Documents\Development\Local\helm-test-chart-v3-0.1.0.tgz

PS C:> ls helm-test-*

    Directory: C:\Users\memladen\Documents\Development\Local

Mode         LastWriteTime         Length         Name
----         -------------         ------         ----
d----    8/17/2021 9:42 PM                        helm-test-chart-v3
-a---    8/17/2021 9:51 PM           3766         helm-test-chart-v3-0.1.0.tgz

From here on, though, things can get confusing! The reason is that you have two separate options to work with charts using Helm 3.

Using Helm 3 to Push and Pull Charts the Helm 2 Way

You can use Helm 3 to push the charts the same way you do that with Helm 2. First, you add the repo:

PS C:> helm repo add --username <myacr_username> --password <myacr_password> acrrepo https://tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/helm/v1/repo
"acrrepo" has been added to your repositories

PS C:> helm repo list
NAME         URL
microsoft    https://microsoft.github.io/charts/repo
acrrepo      https://tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/helm/v1/repo

Then, you can update the repositories and search for a chart:

PS C:> helm repo update
Hang tight while we grab the latest from your chart repositories...
...Successfully got an update from the "microsoft" chart repository
...Successfully got an update from the "acrrepo" chart repository
Update Complete. ‚éąHappy Helming!‚éą

PS C:> helm search repo helm-test-chart
NAME                          CHART VERSION     APP VERSION     DESCRIPTION
acrrepo/helm-test-chart-v2    0.1.0             1.0             A Helm chart for Kubernetes

Ha, look at that! I can see the chart that I pushed using the ACR CLI in the ACR and Helm 2 section above – notice the chart name and the version. Also, notice that the Helm 3 search command has a bit different syntax – it wants you to clarify what you want to search (repo in our case).

I can use the ACR CLI to push the new chart that I just created using the Helm 3 CLI (after signing in to Azure):

PS C:> az acr helm push --name tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io .\helm-test-chart-v3-0.1.0.tgz
This command is implicitly deprecated because command group 'acr helm' is deprecated and will be removed in a future release. Use 'helm v3' instead.
The login server endpoint suffix '.azurecr.io' is automatically omitted.
{
  "saved": true
}

By doing this, I have pushed the V3 chart to ACR and can pull it from there but, remember, this is the Helm 2 Way and the following are still true:

  • You will not see the chart in Azure Portal.
  • The only way to verify that the chart is pushed to the ACR repository is to use the helm search command.

Here is the result of the search command after updating the repositories:

PS C:> helm repo update
Hang tight while we grab the latest from your chart repositories...
...Successfully got an update from the "microsoft" chart repository
...Successfully got an update from the "acrrepo" chart repository
Update Complete. ‚éąHappy Helming!‚éą

PS C:> helm search repo helm-test-chart
NAME                           CHART VERSION     APP VERSION     DESCRIPTION
acrrepo/helm-test-chart-v2     0.1.0             1.0             A Helm chart for Kubernetes
acrrepo/helm-test-chart-v3     0.1.0             1.16.0          A Helm chart for Kubernetes

You can see both charts, the one created with Helm 2 and the one created with Helm 3, available. This is understandable though because I pushed both charts the same way – by using the az acr helm command. Remember, though – both charts are stored in ACR using the Helm 2 way.

Using Helm 3 to Push and Pull Charts the OCI Way

Before proceeding, I changed the version property in the Chart.yaml to 0.2.0 to be able to differentiate between the charts I pushed. This is the same chart that I created in the previous section Creating and Packaging Charts with Helm 3 CLI.

You may have noticed that Helm 3 has a new chart command. This command allows you to (from the help text) “push, pull, tag, list, or remove Helm charts”. The subcommands under the chart command are experimental and you need to set the HELM_EXPERIMENTAL_OCI environment variable to be able to use them. Once you do that, you can save the chart. You can save the chart to the local registry cache with or without a registry FQDN (Fully Qualified Domain Name). Here are the commands:

PS C:> $env:HELM_EXPERIMENTAL_OCI=1

PS C:> helm chart save .\helm-test-chart-v3\ helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
ref:     helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
digest:  b6954fb0a696e1eb7de8ad95c59132157ebc061396230394523fed260293fb19
size:    3.7 KiB
name:    helm-test-chart-v3
version: 0.2.0
0.2.0: saved
PS C:> helm chart save .\helm-test-chart-v3\ tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
ref:     tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
digest:  ff5e9aea6d63d7be4bb53eb8fffacf12550a4bb687213a2edb07a21f6938d16e
size:    3.7 KiB
name:    helm-test-chart-v3
version: 0.2.0
0.2.0: saved

If you list the charts using the new chart command, you will see the following:

PS C:> helm chart list
REF                                                                  NAME                   VERSION     DIGEST     SIZE     CREATED
helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0                                             helm-test-chart-v3     0.2.0       b6954fb    3.7 KiB  About a minute
tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0     helm-test-chart-v3     0.2.0       ff5e9ae    3.7 KiB  About a minute

Few things to note here:

  • Both charts are saved in the local registry cache. Nothing is pushed yet to a remote registry.
  • You see only charts that are saved the OCI way. The charts saved the Helm 2 way are not listed using the helm chart list command.
  • The REF (or reference) for a chart can be truncated and you may not be able to see the full reference.

Let’s do one more thing! Let’s save the same chart with FQDN for the ACR as above but under a different repository. Here are the commands to save and list the charts:

PS C:> helm chart save .\helm-test-chart-v3\ tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/my-helm-charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
ref: tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/my-helm-charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
digest: daf106a05ad2fe075851a3ab80f037020565c75c5be06936179b882af1858e6a
size: 3.7 KiB
name: helm-test-chart-v3
version: 0.2.0
0.2.0: saved

PS C:> helm chart list
REF                                                                  NAME                   VERSION     DIGEST     SIZE     CREATED
helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0                                             helm-test-chart-v3     0.2.0       b6954fb    3.7 KiB  11 minutes
tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0     helm-test-chart-v3     0.2.0       ff5e9ae    3.7 KiB  11 minutes
tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/my-helm-charts/helm-test-chart...   helm-test-chart-v3     0.2.0       daf106a    3.7 KiB  About a minute

After doing this, we have three charts in the local registry:

  • helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0 that is available only locally.
  • tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0 that can be pushed to the remote ACR registry tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io and saved in the¬†charts repository.
  • and tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/my-helm-charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0 that can be pushed to the remote ACR registry tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io and saved in the¬†my-helm-charts repository.

Before we can push the charts to the ACR registry, we need to sign in using the following command:

PS C:> helm registry login tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io --username <myacr_username> --password <myacr_password>

You can use any of the sign-in methods described in Signing in to ACR Using the Helm CLI section. And make sure you use your own ACR registry login server.

If we push the two charts that have the ACR FQDN, we will see them appear in the Azure portal UI. Here are the commands:

PS C:> helm chart push tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
The push refers to repository [tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/charts/helm-test-chart-v3]
ref: tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
digest: daf106a05ad2fe075851a3ab80f037020565c75c5be06936179b882af1858e6a
size: 3.7 KiB
name: helm-test-chart-v3
version: 0.2.0
0.2.0: pushed to remote (1 layer, 3.7 KiB total)

PS C:> helm chart push tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/my-helm-charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
The push refers to repository [tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/my-helm-charts/helm-test-chart-v3]
ref: tsmacrtestwus2acrhelm.azurecr.io/my-helm-charts/helm-test-chart-v3:0.2.0
digest: daf106a05ad2fe075851a3ab80f037020565c75c5be06936179b882af1858e6a
size: 3.7 KiB
name: helm-test-chart-v3
version: 0.2.0
0.2.0: pushed to remote (1 layer, 3.7 KiB total)

And here is the result:

An important thing to note here is that:

  • Helm charts saved to ACR using the OCI way will appear in the Azure portal.

The approach here is a bit different than the Helm 2 way. You don’t need to package the chart into a TAR – saving the chart to the local registry is enough.

We need to do one last thing and we are ready to summarize the experience. Let’s use the helm search command to find our charts (of course using Helm 3). Here is the result of the search:

PS C:> helm search repo helm-test-chart 
NAME                           CHART VERSION     APP VERSION     DESCRIPTION 
acrrepo/helm-test-chart-v2     0.1.0             1.0             A Helm chart for Kubernetes 
acrrepo/helm-test-chart-v3     0.1.0             1.16.0          A Helm chart for Kubernetes

It yields the same result like the one we saw in Using Helm 3 to Push and Pull Charts the Helm 2 Way. The reason is that the helm search command doesn’t work for charts stored the OCI way. This is one limitation that the Helm team is working on fixing and is documented in Support for OCI registries in helm search #9983 issue on GitHub.

Summary of the ACR and Helm 3 Experience

To summarize the ACR and Helm 3 experience, here are the main takeaways:

  • First, you can use the Helm 3 CLI in conjunction with the az acr helm command to push and pull charts the Helm 2 way. Those charts will not appear in the Azure portal.
  • You can also use the Helm 3 CLI to (natively) push charts to ACR the OCI way. Those charts will appear in the Azure portal.
  • OCI features are experimental in the Helm 3 client and certain functionalities like helm search and helm repo do not work for charts saved and pushed the OCI way.

Conclusion

To wrap it up, when working with Helm charts and ACR (as well as other OCI compliant registries), you need to be careful which commands you use. As a general rule, always use the Helm 3 CLI and make a conscious decision whether you want to store the charts as OCI artifacts (the OCI way) or using the legacy Helm approach (the Helm 2 way). This should be a transition period and hopefully, at some point in the future, Helm will improve the support for OCI compliant charts and support the same scenarios that are currently enabled for legacy chart repositories.

Here is a summary table that gives a quick overview of what we described in this post.

wdt_ID Functionality Helm 2 CLI (legacy) Helm 3 (legacy) Helm 3 (OCI)
1 helm add repo Yes Yes No
2 helm search Yes Yes No
3 helm chart push No No Yes
4 helm chart list No No Yes
5 az acr helm push Yes Yes No
6 Chart appears in Azure portal No No Yes
7 Example chart helm-test-chart-v2 helm-test-chart-v3 helm-test-chart-v3
8 Example chart version 0.1.0 0.1.0 0.2.0

With the recent Solorigate incident, a lot of emphasis is put on determining the origin of the software running in an enterprise. For Docker container images, this will mean to embed in the image the Dockerfile the image was built from. However, tracking down the software origin is not so trivial to do. For closed-source software, we blindly trust the vendors and if we are lucky enough, we may get a signed piece of code. For open-source one, we rarely check the SHA signature and never even think of verifying what source code this binary was produced from. In talks with customers, I quite often hear them asking, how can they verify what sources a container image is built from. They want to attribute each image with metadata that links to the Dockerfile used to build the image as well as the Git commit and the developer who triggered the build.

There are many articles that discuss this problem. Here are two recent examples. Richard Lander from the Microsoft .NET team writes in his blog post Staying safe with .NET containers about the pedigree and provenance of the software we run and how to think about it. Josh Hendrick in his post Embedding source code version information in Docker images offers one solution to the problem.

Josh Hendrick’s proposal is in the direction I would go, but one problem I have with it is that it requires special handling in the application that runs in the container to obtain this information. I would prefer to have this information readily available without the need to run the container image. Docker images and the Open Container Initiative already have specified ways to do that without adding special files to your image. In this post, I will outline another way you can embed this information into your images and easily retrieve it without any changes to your application.

Using Docker Image Labels

Docker images spec has already built-in functionality to add labels to the image. Labels are intended to be set during build time. They also show up when inspecting the image using docker image inspect, which makes them the right choice to specify the Dockerfile and the other build origin details. One more argument that makes them the right choice for this information is that the labels are layers in the image, and thus immutable. If you change the label in an image the resulting image SHA will change.

To demonstrate how labels can be used to embed the Dockerfile and other origin information into the Docker image, I have published a dynamic labels sample on GitHub. The sample uses a base Python image and implements a simple functionality to print the container’s environment variables. Let’s walk through it step by step.

The Dockerfile is quite simple.

FROM python:slim
ARG IMAGE_COMMITTER
ARG IMAGE_DOCKERFILE
ARG IMAGE_COMMIT_SHA
LABEL "build.user"=${IMAGE_COMMITTER}
LABEL "build.sha"=${IMAGE_COMMIT_SHA}
LABEL "build.dockerfile"=${IMAGE_DOCKERFILE}
ADD ./samples/dynamic-labels/source /
CMD ["python", "/show_environment.py"]

Lines 2-4 define the build arguments that need to be set during the build of the image. Lines 5-7 set the three labels build.user, build.sha, and build.dockerfilethat we want to embed in the image. build.dockerfile is the URL to the Dockerfile in the GitHub repository, while the build.sha is the Git commit that triggers the build. If you build the image locally with some dummy build arguments you will see that new layers are created for each of the lines 5-7.

toddysm@MacBook-Pro ~ % docker build -t test --build-arg IMAGE_COMMITTER=toddysm --build-arg IMAGE_DOCKERFILE=https://test.com --build-arg IMAGE_COMMIT_SHA=12345 -f .\samples\dynamic-labels\Dockerfile .
Sending build context to Docker daemon  376.3kB
Step 1/9 : FROM python:slim
 ---> 8c84baace4b3
Step 2/9 : ARG IMAGE_COMMITTER
 ---> Running in 71ad05f20d20
Removing intermediate container 71ad05f20d20
 ---> fe56c62b9903
Step 3/9 : ARG IMAGE_DOCKERFILE
 ---> Running in fe468c44e9fc
Removing intermediate container fe468c44e9fc
 ---> b776dca57bd7
Step 4/9 : ARG IMAGE_COMMIT_SHA
 ---> Running in 849a82225c31
Removing intermediate container 849a82225c31
 ---> 3a4c6c23a699
Step 5/9 : LABEL "build.user"=${IMAGE_COMMITTER}
 ---> Running in fd4bfb8d5b5b
Removing intermediate container fd4bfb8d5b5b
 ---> 2e9be17c48ff
Step 6/9 : LABEL "build.sha"=${IMAGE_COMMIT_SHA}
 ---> Running in 892323d73495
Removing intermediate container 892323d73495
 ---> b7bc6559629d
Step 7/9 : LABEL "build.dockerfile"=${IMAGE_DOCKERFILE}
 ---> Running in 98687b8dd9fb
Removing intermediate container 98687b8dd9fb
 ---> 35e97d273cbc
Step 8/9 : ADD ./samples/dynamic-labels/source /
 ---> 9e71859892b1
Step 9/9 : CMD ["python", "/show_environment.py"]
 ---> Running in 366b1b6c3bea
Removing intermediate container 366b1b6c3bea
 ---> e7cb39a21c2a
Successfully built e7cb39a21c2a
Successfully tagged test:latest

You can inspect the image and see the labels by issuing the command docker image inspect --format='{{json .Config.Labels}}' <imagename>.

toddysm@MacBook-Pro ~ % docker image inspect --format='{{json .Config.Labels}}' test | jq
{
  "build.dockerfile":"https://test.com",
  "build.sha":"12345",
  "build.user":"toddysm"
}

Now, let’s automate the process with the help of GitHub Actions. I have created one GitHub Action to build and push the image to DockerHub and another to build and push to Azure Container Registry (ACR). Both actions are similar in the steps they use. The first two steps are the same for both actions. They will build the URL to the Dockerfile using the corresponding GitHub Actions variables:

- name: 'Set environment variable for Dockerfile URL for push'
  if: ${{ github.event_name == 'push' }}
  run: echo "DOCKERFILE_URL=${GITHUB_SERVER_URL}/${GITHUB_REPOSITORY}/blob/${GITHUB_REF#refs/*/}/samples/dynamic-labels/Dockerfile" >> $GITHUB_ENV

- name: 'Set environment variable for Dockerfile URL for pull request'
  if: ${{ github.event_name == 'pull_request' }}
  run: echo "DOCKERFILE_URL=${GITHUB_SERVER_URL}/${GITHUB_REPOSITORY}/blob/${GITHUB_BASE_REF#refs/*/}/samples/dynamic-labels/Dockerfile" >> $GITHUB_ENV

Then, there will be specific steps to sign into DockerHub or Azure. After that, the build steps are the ones where the labels are set. Here, for example, is the build step that buildx and automatically pushes the image to DockerHub:

- name: Build and push
  id: docker_build
  uses: docker/build-push-action@v2
  with:
    context: ./
    file: ./samples/dynamic-labels/Dockerfile
    push: true
    tags: ${{ secrets.DOCKER_HUB_REPONAME }}:build-${{ github.run_number }}
    build-args: |
      IMAGE_COMMITTER=${{ github.actor }}
      IMAGE_DOCKERFILE=${{ env.DOCKERFILE_URL }}
      IMAGE_COMMIT_SHA=${{ github.sha }}

The build step for building the image and pushing to Azure Container Registry uses the traditional docker build approach:

- name: Build and push
  id: docker_build
  uses: azure/docker-login@v1
  with:
    login-server: ${{ secrets.ACR_REGISTRY_LOGIN_SERVER }}
    username: ${{ secrets.ACR_REGISTRY_USERNAME }}
    password: ${{ secrets.ACR_REGISTRY_PASSWORD }}
- run: |
    docker build -f ./samples/dynamic-labels/Dockerfile -t ${{ secrets.ACR_REGISTRY_LOGIN_SERVER }}/${{ secrets.ACR_REPOSITORY_NAME }}:build-${{ github.run_number }} --build-arg IMAGE_COMMITTER=${{ github.actor }} --build-arg IMAGE_DOCKERFILE=${{ env.DOCKERFILE_URL }} --build-arg IMAGE_COMMIT_SHA=${{ github.sha }} .
    docker push ${{ secrets.ACR_REGISTRY_LOGIN_SERVER }}/${{ secrets.ACR_REPOSITORY_NAME }}:build-${{ github.run_number }}

After the actions complete, the images are available in DockerHub and Azure Container Registry. Here is how the image looks like in DockerHub:

Docker container image with labels

If you scroll down a little, you will see the labels that appear in the list of layers:

The URL points you to the Dockerfile that was used to create the image while the commit SHA can be used to identify the latest changes that are done on the project that is used to build the image. If you pull the image locally, you can also see the labels using the command:

toddysm@MacBook-Pro ~ % docker pull toddysm/tmstests:build-36
build-36: Pulling from toddysm/tmstests
45b42c59be33: Already exists
8cd3485318db: Already exists
2f564129f025: Pull complete
cf1573f5a21e: Pull complete
ceec8aed2dab: Pull complete
78b1088f77a0: Pull complete
Digest: sha256:7862c2a31970916fd50d3ab38de0dad74a180374d41625f014341c90c4b55758
Status: Downloaded newer image for toddysm/tmstests:build-36
docker.io/toddysm/tmstests:build-36
toddysm@MacBook-Pro ~ % docker image inspect --format='{{json .Config.Labels}}' toddysm/tmstests:build-36
{
  "build.dockerfile":"https://github.com/CrimsonPinnacle/container-image-inspector/blob/development/samples/dynamic-labels/Dockerfile",
  "build.sha":"e80e6ef86f86a11d6a73aea8d8c41700c4d3d7c5",
  "build.user":"toddysm"
}

To summarize, the benefit of using labels for embedding the Dockerfile and other origin information into the container images is that those are considered immutable layers of the image. Thus, they cannot be changed without changing the image.

Who is Using Docker Image Labels?

Unfortunately, labels are not widely used if at all ūüôĀ Checking several popular images from DockerHub yields the following results:

toddysm@MacBook-Pro ~ % docker image inspect --format='{{json .Config.Labels}}' busybox | jq
null
toddysm@MacBook-Pro ~ % docker image inspect --format='{{json .Config.Labels}}' alpine | jq 
null
toddysm@MacBook-Pro ~ % docker image inspect --format='{{json .Config.Labels}}' ubuntu | jq 
null

Tracking down the sources from which the Alpine image is built would require much higher effort.

What is Next for Checking Docker Image Origins?

There are a couple of community initiatives that will play a role in determining the origin of container images.

  • Notary V2 will allow images to be signed. Having the origin information embedded into the image and adding an official signature to the image will increase the confidence in the legitimacy of the image.
  • OCI manifest specification allows artifacts (i.e. images) to be annotated with arbitrary metadata. Unfortunately, Docker doesn’t support those yet. Hopefully, in the future, Docker images will add support for arbitrary metadata that can be included in the image manifest.
  • An implementation of metadata service (see metadata service draft from Steve Lasker) as part of the registry will enable additional capabilities to provide origin information for the images.

Summary

While image metadata is great to annotate images with useful information and enable search and querying capabilities, the metadata is kept outside of the image layers and can mutate over time. Verifying the authenticity of the metadata and keeping a history of the changes will be a harder problem to solve. Docker already provides a way to embed the Dockerfile and other image origin information as immutable layers of the image itself. Using dynamically populated Docker image labels, developers can right now provide origin information and increase the supply chain confidence for their images.