How to install npm packages stored at GitHub Packages Registry as dependencies in a GitHub Actions workflow

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When working on npm projects with multiple subprojects as dependencies, there’s a problem when you need to do frequent updates. Ideally, that dependencies should have their own tests and versioning, but that’s not always possible (for example, private packages) and sometimes we would need to publish multiple development versions while trying to debug some obscure issues. This is tedious and nasty, so that’s why so much people like monorepos.

Problem with them, is that npm was designed with modularity on mind, and tried to enforce the “one package, one repo” identity. That’s why native support for monorepos and workspaces has been delayed for so much time. I personally agree with that original npm concept, so a simple solution that I usually use are git dependencies, and fetch them directly from git repositories. Problem with that aproach is that their own devDependencies are being installed too, making the install process longer, specially when some of them need to be transpiled or compiled. This can be a problem on Github Actions, since it seems there’s a timeout of 10-15 minutes for each workflow step.

So, the solution for that would be to create new standalone packages, and install them. For private ones, one of the best options is to publish them on Github Packages Registry. Problem with that is that it requires authentication also for public packages, so we need to configure its access on our workflow, and it’s not so easy as it should be, nor documentation is fully clear about that. So after trying several aproachs and reading a lot of posts and comments, I was able to understand how they works, and get the minimal needed config with the less permissions (no need of creating and using Personal Access Token) to make it work, and understand why that configs are needed.

There are two places were we need to configure the access to the registry: on the workflow that’s going to install the packages, and on the access permissions of the package itself.

On the workflow, we need to do the next configurations:

  1. Add read access to organization packages on the GITHUB_TOKEN secret:

      contents: read
      packages: read

    Although it’s the default value, We need to also define the contents: read permission because setting the permissions key fully overwrittes the previous value, instead of just cascade mask it. If we don’t do that, the checkout Github Action would fail to download the code of the repo itself due to not having permissions (a bit dumb in my opinion, specially since it’s enabled by default).

  2. Configure the registry URL on the setup-node Github Action to point to Github Packages Registry:

    - uses: actions/setup-node@v3

    This can seem obvious, but the docs lead to think that just by setting the auth token would be enough to use it, that’s not the case. Also you could think that by defining the scope in a .npmrc file and upload it to the repo would be enough, but the fact is that the setup-node overwrites its content, so any config there will be lost. If possible, it’s better to publish packages in both npmjs and Github Packages Registry, add the .npmrc file to the .npmignorefile, and left it as a per-user config just only to use the Github Packages Registry for development purposes, as it’s intended for.

  3. Use GITHUB_TOKEN as NODE_AUTH_TOKEN environment variable when installing the dependencies:

    - run: npm ci --verbose
        NODE_AUTH_TOKEN: $

    Since we added before the packages: read, we don’t need to use a Personal Access Token anymore.

    (The --verbose flag of npm is not needed, but it’s really useful to know when an install process has failed when running the workflow)

Now that we have properly configured the workflow to politely ask for the packages, it’s time to provide access to them. For that, we need to go to the target dependency package settings, and configure what repos can have workflows that can access to them. Not doing so, will result in a 403 Permission permission_denied: read_package error when trying to install them. This will need to be done not only for the direct dependencies, but for all the packages in the dependencies tree with the defined scope, so instead of providing access repository by repository and package by package, if you are using Github Enterprise you can define the packages visibility as internal instead of private, and they’ll be accessible to all the repos of the organization (that’s the default behaviour for Github Enterprise organizations, by the way).


I’ve found that defining a scope-to-registry map in the .npmrc file force all requests to go there, so although Github Packages Registry can proxy packages to npmjs registry, it’s not being done for the actual scoped packages, so it’s not possible to have some packages published on npmjs and other ones on Github Packages Registry with the same scope and use both: if you define a scope on the file, all the needed packages need to be hosted on that registry, so it’s better to publish all of them to both registries, or left Github Packages Registry just only for in-development packages, that’s its real purpose, not for general consumption. Failing to do so, you’ll get a confusing error about the package doesn’t exist.

I’ve also found that removing the .npmrc file and running npm install is not enough to update the package-lock.json file, but instead packages defined there will still be downloaded from the previous registry until you delete and re-create the package-lock.json file again.

Written on May 10, 2023