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Jonathan's thoughts on the state of the art in software design.


A poor man’s multiple-repository build system  

Refactoring feature branches across multiple repositories

A common use case when working with multiple, dependent repositories is to use git flow to create multiple feature branches:

kivakit            [feature/simplify-log-api]
kivakit-extensions [feature/simplify-log-api]

If project(s) in kivakit-extensions here depend on projects in kivakit, refactoring code in kivakit can propagate code changes to kivakit-extensions. Then both feature branches are modified.

When we commit and push these feature branches (ideally all at the same time for convenience), it would be nice to know that our continuous integration (CI) build system will build them correctly. There are existing solutions to the problem of repository build order, including the KIE build chain tool. However, for KivaKit, we decided it was desirable to have a bit more flexibility than GitHub Actions provide with their .yaml configuration files, so we created a few simple scripts to manage our multi-repository builds. Remember Perl?

The KivaKit build system

In our poor man’s solution to this problem, each repository has its own .github/scripts/ file that is invoked from a set of .yaml workflows. The relevant portion of a workflow .yaml file is very simple. It passes all the build responsibility off to the Perl script

- name: Build
   run: |
     perl ./.github/scripts/ package

The script for a given repository takes a build-type argument, which can be one of two values:

  1. package - build the repository’s projects
  2. publish - build the repository’s projects and publish them to OSSRH

The build script clones the repository Telenav/cactus-build into the GitHub Action workspace and includes Perl functions from a shared file in .github/scripts:

system("git clone --branch develop --quiet");

require "./cactus-build/.github/scripts/";

The script then uses the provided functions to clone and build any dependent repositories in the proper order, followed by the repository itself:

my ($build_type) = @ARGV;
my $github = "";

clone("$github/kivakit", "dependency");
clone("$github/kivakit-extensions", "build");


This script in kivakit-extensions clones kivakit and kivakit-extensions into the GitHub Actions workspace (the second parameter determines which branch gets checked out). It then builds the project kivakit before building the dependent project, kivakit-extensions.


This simple build system was created over a fun (and nostalgic!) weekend with Perl. It is true that this is not the most efficient way to build dependent repositories. And for private repositories, that inefficiency will make GitHub a little richer every day. However, this approach to clone and build all required projects, in order, on every repository build action, is conceptually simple, robust, flexible and easy to debug offline.

Caveat - Out of order pushes

It is useful to note here that if the kivakit-extensions build action clones kivakit before it has been pushed it will build against the wrong branch. Out-of-order pushes are a problem with any build method. Imagine that someone pushes a kivakit-extensions feature branch and then goes to lunch without pushing the corresponding kivakit feature branch. Failure is always possible with GitHub CI, because GitHub doesn’t know enough about repositories and branches, and how they relate to each other.

The KivaKit clone() function in makes this issue less likely (assuming you have a high bandwidth Internet connection) by simply delaying for 15 seconds before cloning dependencies. It is no substitute for a proper locking mechanism (which could ensure that cross-repository CI builds would never fail), but in practice it works nearly all the time when all interdependent feature branches are pushed at the same time.


The KivaKit build system is somewhat specific to KivaKit in a few places, but it could easily be modified to work in other situations. Feel free to download it and tailor it to your needs. The Perl code for the kivakit project’s build is here:

The build and workflow files for other KivaKit projects are available in the same location in those projects.

Lexakai also uses the KivaKit build system.

Questions? Comments? Tweet yours to @OpenKivaKit or post here:

Copyright © 2021 Jonathan Locke