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An open source parser for GitHub Actions

Update: This blog post is no longer relevant with the update to GitHub Actions in August 2019. See the GitHub Actions documentation for more information. Since the beta release of…


Update: This blog post is no longer relevant with the update to GitHub Actions in August 2019. See the GitHub Actions documentation for more information.

Since the beta release of GitHub Actions last October, thousands of users have added workflow files to their repositories. But until now, those files only work with the tools GitHub provided: the Actions editor, the Actions execution platform, and the syntax highlighting built into pull requests. To expand that universe, we need to release the parser and the specification for the Actions workflow language as open source. Today, we’re doing that.

We believe that tools beyond GitHub should be able to run workflows. We believe there should be programs to check, format, compose, and visualize workflow files. We believe that text editors can provide syntax highlighting and autocompletion for Actions workflows. And we believe all that can only happen if the Actions community is empowered to build these tools along with us. That can happen better and faster if there is a single language specification and a free parser implementation.

The first project to use the open source parser will be act, which is @nektos‘s tool for running Actions workflows in a local development environment.

The parser and language specification are both in actions/workflow-parser, which we’re sharing under an MIT license. As of today, there is a Go implementation, which is the same code that powers both the Actions UI and the Actions execution platform. The repository also contains a Javascript parser in development, along with syntax-highlighting configurations for Atom and Vim.

GitHub Actions

GitHub Actions is platform for automating software development workflows, from idea to production. Developers add a simple text file to their repository, .github/main.workflow, to describe automation. The workflow file describes how events like pushing code or opening and closing issues map to automation actions, implemented in any Docker container. Those automation actions have whatever powers you grant them: pushing commits to the repository, cutting a new release, building it through continuous integration, deploying it to staging in the cloud, testing the deployment, flipping it to production, and announcing it to the world — and any others you can build.

Every workflow begins with an event and runs through a set of actions to reach some target or goal. Those events and actions are described in a main.workflow file, which you can create and edit with the visual editor or any text editor you like. Here is a simple example:

workflow "when I push" {
  on = "push"
  resolves = "ci"

action "ci" {
  uses = "docker://golang:latest"
  runs = "./script/cibuild"

Whenever I push to a branch that contains that file, the when I push workflow executes. It resolves the target action ci, which runs ./script/cibuild in a golang:latest Docker container. I can add more workflow blocks to harness more events, and I can add more action blocks to run after the ci action or in parallel with it.

The Actions workflow language

All main.workflow files are written in the Actions workflow language, which is a subset of Hashicorp’s HCL. In fact, our parser builds on top of the open source hashicorp/hcl parser.

All Actions workflow files are valid HCL, but not all HCL files are valid workflows. The Actions workflow parser is stricter, allowing only a specific set of keywords and prohibiting nested objects, among other restrictions. The reason for that is a long-standing goal of Actions: making the Actions editor and the text representation of workflows equivalent and interchangeable. Any file you write in the graphical editor can be expressed in a main.workflow file, of course, but also: any main.workflow can be fully displayed and edited in the graphical editor. There is one exception to this: the graphical editor does not display comments. But it preserves them: changes you make in the graphical editor do not disturb comments you have added to your main.workflow file.


We have two reasons for releasing the parser. First, we want to encourage the Actions community to build tools that generate and manipulate workflow files. The language specification should help developers understand the language, and the parser should save developers the trouble of writing their own.

Second, we welcome your contributions. If you find bugs, please open an issue or send a pull request. If you want to add a syntax highlighter for a new editor or implement the parser in another language, we welcome that. The only real limitation is on features that go beyond the parser to the rest of Actions. For broader questions and suggestions about the rest of Actions, reach out through support; we’re listening.

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