How to make sortable image tags to use with automation

how to construct container image tags compatible with Flux automation.

Flux does not support selecting the latest image by build time. Obtaining the build time needs the container config for each image, and fetching that is subject to strict rate limiting by image registries (e.g., by DockerHub).

This guide explains how to construct image tags so that the most recent image has the tag that comes last in alphabetical or numerical order. The technique suggested is to put a timestamp or serial number in each image tag.

Formats and alternatives

The important properties for sorting are that the parts of the timestamp go from most significant to least (e.g., the year down to the second). For numbers it is best to use numerical order, since this will work with values of different width (e.g., ‘12’ sorts after ‘2’).

Image tags are often shown in user interfaces, so readability matters. Here is an example of a readable timestamp that will sort well:

$ # date and time (remember ':' is not allowed in a tag)
$ date +%F.%H%M%S
2021-01-28.133158

You can use a timestamp that sorts as a number, like Unix time:

$ # seconds since Jan 1 1970
$ date +%s
1611840548

Alternatively, you can use a serial number as part of the tag. Some CI platforms will provide a build number in an environment variable, but that may not be reliable to use as a serial number – check the platform documentation. For example, Github makes availabe the variable github.run_number which can be used as a reliable ever increasing serial number.

A commit count can be a reasonable stand-in for a serial number, if you build an image per commit and you don’t rewrite the branch in question:

$ # commits in branch
$ git --rev-list --count HEAD
1504

Beware: this will not give a useful number if you have a shallow clone.

Other things to include in the image tag

It is also handy to quickly trace an image to the branch and commit of its source code. Including the branch also means you can filter for images from a particular branch.

A useful tag format is

<branch>-<sha1>-<timestamp>

The branch and tag will usually be made available in a CI platform as environment variables. See

Example of a build process with timestamp tagging

Here is an example of a GitHub Actions job that creates a “build ID” with the git branch, SHA1, and a timestamp, and uses it as a tag when building an image:

jobs:
  build-push:
    env:
        IMAGE: org/my-app
    runs-on: ubuntu-latest
    steps:

    - name: Generate build ID
      id: prep
      run: |
          branch=${GITHUB_REF##*/}
          sha=${GITHUB_SHA::8}
          ts=$(date +%s)
          echo "::set-output name=BUILD_ID::${branch}-${sha}-${ts}"          

    # These are prerequisites for the docker build step
    - name: Set up QEMU
      uses: docker/setup-qemu-action@v1
    - name: Set up Docker Buildx
      uses: docker/setup-buildx-action@v1
    - name: Login to DockerHub
      uses: docker/login-action@v1
      with:
          username: ${{ secrets.DOCKERHUB_USERNAME }}
          password: ${{ secrets.DOCKERHUB_TOKEN }}

    - name: Build and publish container image with tag
      uses: docker/build-push-action@v2
      with:
          push: true
          context: .
          file: ./Dockerfile
          tags: |
                        ${{ env.IMAGE }}:${{ steps.prep.outputs.BUILD_ID }}

Alternative example utilizing github.run_number

Here is another example example of a GitHub Actions job which tags images using Github action’s built in run_number and the git SHA1:

jobs:
  build-push:
    env:
        IMAGE: org/my-app
    runs-on: ubuntu-latest
    steps:
    # These are prerequisites for the docker build step
    - name: Set up QEMU
      uses: docker/setup-qemu-action@v1
    - name: Set up Docker Buildx
      uses: docker/setup-buildx-action@v1
    - name: Login to DockerHub
      uses: docker/login-action@v1
      with:
          username: ${{ secrets.DOCKERHUB_USERNAME }}
          password: ${{ secrets.DOCKERHUB_TOKEN }}

    - name: Build and publish container image with tag
      uses: docker/build-push-action@v2
      with:
          push: true
          context: .
          file: ./Dockerfile
          tags: |
                        ${{ env.IMAGE }}:${{ github.sha }}-${{ github.run_number }}

Using in an ImagePolicy object

When creating an ImagePolicy object, you will need to extract just the timestamp part of the tag, using the tagFilter field. You can filter for a particular branch to restrict images to only those built from that branch.

Here is an example that filters for only images built from main branch, and selects the most recent according to a timestamp (created with date +%s) or according to the run number (github.run_number for example):

apiVersion: image.toolkit.fluxcd.io/v1beta1
kind: ImagePolicy
metadata:
  name: image-repo-policy
  namespace: flux-system
spec:
  imageRepositoryRef:
    name: image-repo
  filterTags:
    ## use "pattern: '[a-f0-9]+-(?P<ts>[0-9]+)'" if you copied the workflow example using github.run_number
    pattern: '^main-[a-f0-9]+-(?P<ts>[0-9]+)'
    extract: '$ts'
  policy:
    numerical:
      order: asc

If you don’t care about the branch, that part can be a wildcard in the pattern:

apiVersion: image.toolkit.fluxcd.io/v1beta1
kind: ImagePolicy
metadata:
  name: image-repo-policy
  namespace: flux-system
spec:
  imageRepositoryRef:
    name: image-repo
  filterTags:
    pattern: '^.+-[a-f0-9]+-(?P<ts>[0-9]+)'
    extract: '$ts'
  policy:
    numerical:
      order: asc