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Replace Dependabot With a Single Dependency Upgrade Pull Request

Keeping your project dependencies up to date can become an unwieldy task when Dependabot opens a dozen pull requests every week. We present an alternative approach that uses only one scheduled pull request for all upgrades.

Dependabot is a useful tool provided by GitHub to all repositories. Maintainers only need to specify the frequency at which they want to check for updates and Dependabot will open a pull request for each package that has published a new version since the last check. Combined with a robust automated test suite, this greatly reduces the burden of manually keeping dependencies up to date.

However, as projects grow and more dependencies are added, the noise produced by individual pull requests starts becoming an issue in itself. That’s why a “grouped updates” feature for Dependabot has been requested since 2018. As of May 2022, the feature is on Dependabot’s roadmap, but doesn’t have a concrete release date.

At OddBird we decided to leverage GitHub Actions to produce a pull request with all dependencies updated at once. We have created a workflow that runs every Monday in the early morning. By the time we start our work day the pull request has been opened and we can merge it right away if all tests pass, or debug any issues introduced by upstream breaking changes. We also have the option of running the workflow on demand to upgrade dependencies at our convenience.

Broadly speaking, the workflow will:

  1. Checkout our code
  2. Configure the runtimes required by our project (Python and Node)
  3. Run a custom command to upgrade all dependencies
  4. Use git to detect changed files
  5. Commit the changes to a pre-defined branch (if they exist)
  6. Open a pull request for that branch (if it doesn’t exist already)

This workflow should be compatible with most projects, but you will need to adjust steps two and three to run your own commands depending on what package manager you use. We’ll explain how to do it with pip-tools for Python and yarn for Node.

By using GitHub’s own setup-python action we can easily install our required Python version on the runner and configure dependency caching. Once the Python runtime has been set up we just need to call pip-tools to upgrade all dependencies:

pip install -U pip pip-tools
pip-compile --upgrade -o requirements/prod.txt requirements/prod.in
pip-compile --upgrade -o requirements/dev.txt requirements/dev.in

This results in changes to .txt and .in files in the requirements folder. These changes will be included in the automated pull request and CI will test the project against the new package versions.

Note that if you use other tools to install Python packages (like Poetry, Pipenv, or plain pip) you will need to use those instead of pip-tools to generate the upgraded requirement files.

GitHub also provides an official setup-node action that will configure Node on the runner. After the Node runtime has been set up we can upgrade Node dependencies with:

rm -f yarn.lock
npx --yes yarn-upgrade-all

In this case we are using yarn-upgrade-all to get updated versions for all dependencies. This will modify both package.json and yarn.lock, which will cause CI to test against the new package versions when the automated pull request is opened.

One of the main advantages of yarn-upgrade-all is that it allows us to specify individual dependencies to ignore. This is useful when old versions of a package are still receiving security fixes, you’re using an alpha/beta/rc version of a package, or you just want to avoid or postpone the breaking changes introduced by major version bumps. For example, here we are excluding three packages from the weekly upgrades with a bit of configuration in package.json:

"yarn-upgrade-all": {
"ignore": [
"@testing-library/vue",
"node-fetch",
"vue-svg-loader"
]
}

Lastly, note that setup-node is also compatible with npm and pnpm, so a similar setup should work for you if you use those tools to manage Node dependencies.

GitHub runners include two useful command line utilities that will allow us to open pull requests without manual intervention:

This snippet will commit and push to a new branch and open a pull request based on it:

BRANCH_NAME="auto-upgrades"
git add .
git commit -m "Automated dependency upgrades"
git push -f origin $BRANCH_NAME
gh pr create \
--head $BRANCH_NAME \
--title "Automated dependency upgrades"

The resulting pull request includes upgrades for both Python and Node dependencies. Most of the time it can be merged cleanly without any extra commits by maintainers. In other cases we have to do some cleanup to account for breaking changes in our dependencies.

We’ve been using this approach on several projects now, and are thrilled with the reduction in PR noise without compromising on security and features. So, without further ado, here’s the sweet YAML file you can drop into your repo that leverages all tools we’ve discussed so far:

# File: .github/workflows/upgrade-dependencies.yml
name: Upgrade dependencies

on:
workflow_dispatch: # Allow running on-demand
schedule:
# Runs every Monday at 8:00 UTC (4:00 Eastern)
- cron: '0 8 * * 1'

jobs:
upgrade:
name: Upgrade & Open Pull Request
runs-on: ubuntu-latest
env:
# This branch will receive updates each time the workflow runs
# It doesn't matter if it's deleted when merged, it'll be re-created
BRANCH_NAME: auto-dependency-upgrades
steps:
- uses: actions/checkout@v3
with:
# [Optional] Use a separate key to automatically execute checks on the resulting PR
# https://github.com/peter-evans/create-pull-request/blob/main/docs/concepts-guidelines.md#triggering-further-workflow-runs
ssh-key: ${{ secrets.DEPLOY_KEY }}

# START PYTHON DEPENDENCIES
- uses: actions/setup-python@v3
with:
python-version: "3.10"
cache: pip
- name: Upgrade Python dependencies
# ADD YOUR CUSTOM DEPENDENCY UPGRADE COMMANDS BELOW
run: |
pip install -U pip pip-tools
pip-compile --upgrade -o requirements/prod.txt requirements/prod.in
pip-compile --upgrade -o requirements/dev.txt requirements/dev.in

# END PYTHON DEPENDENCIES

# START NODE DEPENDENCIES
- uses: actions/setup-node@v3
with:
node-version: "16"
cache: yarn
- name: Upgrade JS dependencies
# ADD YOUR CUSTOM DEPENDENCY UPGRADE COMMANDS BELOW
run: |
rm -f yarn.lock
npx --yes yarn-upgrade-all

# END NODE DEPENDENCIES

- name: Detect changes
id: changes
run:
# This output boolean tells us if the dependencies have actually changed
echo "::set-output name=count::$(git status --porcelain=v1 2>/dev/null | wc -l)"
- name: Commit & push changes
# Only push if changes exist
if: steps.changes.outputs.count > 0
run: |
git config user.name github-actions
git config user.email github-actions@github.com
git add .
git commit -m "Automated dependency upgrades"
git push -f origin ${{ github.ref_name }}:$BRANCH_NAME

- name: Open pull request if needed
if: steps.changes.outputs.count > 0
env:
GITHUB_TOKEN: ${{ secrets.GITHUB_TOKEN }}
# Only open a PR if the branch is not attached to an existing one
run: |
PR=$(gh pr list --head $BRANCH_NAME --json number -q '.[0].number')
if [ -z $PR ]; then
gh pr create \
--head $BRANCH_NAME \
--title "Automated dependency upgrades" \
--body "Full log: https://github.com/${{ github.repository }}/actions/runs/${{ github.run_id }}"
else
echo "Pull request already exists, won't create a new one."
fi