Helm Based Operator Advanced Features

This document shows the advanced features available to a developer of helm operator.

Passing environment variables to the Helm chart

Sometimes it is useful to pass down environment variables from the Operators Deployment all the way to the helm charts templates. This allows the Operator to be configured at a global level at runtime. This is new compared to dealing with the helm CLI as they usually don’t have access to any environment variables in the context of Tiller (helm v2) or the helm binary (helm v3) for security reasons.

With the helm Operator this becomes possible by override values. This enforces that certain template values provided by the chart’s default values.yaml or by a CR spec are always set when rendering the chart. If the value is set by a CR it gets overridden by the global override value. The override value can be static but can also refer to an environment variable. To pass down environment variables to the chart override values is currently the only way.

An example use case of this is when your helm chart references container images by chart variables, which is a good practice. If your Operator is deployed in a disconnected environment (no network access to the default images location) you can use this mechanism to set them globally at the Operator level using environment variables versus individually per CR / chart release.

Note that it is strongly recommended to reference container images in your chart by helm variables and then also associate these with an environment variable of your Operator like shown below. This allows your Operator to be mirrored for offline usage when packaged for OLM.

To configure your operator with override values, add an overrideValues map to your watches.yaml file for the GVK and chart you need to override. For example, to change the repository used by the nginx chart, you would update your watches.yaml to the following:

- version: v1alpha1
  group: example.com
  kind: Nginx
  chart: helm-charts/nginx
    image.repository: quay.io/mycustomrepo

By setting image.repository to quay.io/mycustomrepo you are ensuring that quay.io/mycustomrepo will always be used instead of the chart’s default repository (nginx). If the CR attempts to set this value, it will be ignored.

It is now possible to reference environment variables in the overrideValues section:

    image.repository: $IMAGE_REPOSITORY # or ${IMAGE_REPOSITORY}

By using an environment variable reference in overrideValues you enable these override values to be set at runtime by configuring the environment variable on the operator deployment. For example, in deploy/operator.yaml you could add the following snippet to the container spec:

    value: quay.io/mycustomrepo

If an environment variable reference is listed in overrideValues, but is not present in the environment when the operator runs, it will resolve to an empty string and override all other values. Therefore, these environment variables should always be set. It is suggested to update the Dockerfile to set these environment variables to the same defaults that are defined by the chart.

To warn users that their CR settings may be ignored, the Helm operator creates events on the CR that include the name and value of each overridden value. For example:

  Type     Reason               Age   From              Message
  ----     ------               ----  ----              -------
  Warning  OverrideValuesInUse  1m    nginx-controller  Chart value "image.repository" overridden to "quay.io/mycustomrepo" by operator's watches.yaml

Changing the concurrent worker count

Depending on the number of CRs of the same type, a single reconciling worker may have issues keeping up. You can increase the number of workers by passing --max-workers <number of workers>.

For example:

$ operator-sdk exec-entrypoint helm --max-workers 10

Use helm upgrade --force for deployment

By adding the annotation helm.operator-sdk/upgrade-force: "True" to the deployed CR, the operator uses the --force flag of helm to replace the rendered resources. For more info see the Helm Upgrade documentation and this explanation of --force behavior.


apiVersion: example.com/v1alpha1
kind: Nginx
  name: example-nginx
    helm.operator-sdk/upgrade-force: "True"
  replicaCount: 2
    port: 8080

Setting this annotation to True and updating the spec (for example changing to spec.replicaCount: 3) will cause this CR to be reconciled and upgraded with the force option. This can be verified in the log message when an upgrade succeeds:

{"level":"info","ts":1591198931.1703992,"logger":"helm.controller","msg":"Updated release","namespace":"helm-nginx","name":"example-nginx","apiVersion":"cache.example.com/v1alpha1","kind":"Nginx","release":"example-nginx","force":true}