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A Github update-checker

Problems statement

You've written some piece of code that gets distributed to your friends or co-workers. They're not the code-saavy types to clone the Github repo but instead just grab the standalone app. You make some changes and git commit, sure, but how do the others know that there's a newer version to be had?

Solution overview

Github provides a REST API — whether it's the public or a private, secure company repository hierarchy — that lets you reach in tweak things. The developer API documentation is the place to start should you wish to extend your understanding of this note. (Thanks to Jeff Minard for pointing me in the right direction.)

Authorization credentials

Whereas some of Github is available to "unauth'd users" — those who have neither allowed a cookie to be set nor logged in — the REST API requires authentication.

You have two choices, use a password or an API key (or token). The API key can be created with restricted access permissions, doesn't expose your login password to others, can be revoked; this is the preferred method. On you: create an API key (token).


The REST API is available to almost every programming language. This example happens to be written in bash, that ubiquitous interface, but it's reasonably trivial to implement in whatever you're using at the moment.

That having been said, let's dive into the code:

I've encapsulated the update-checker into a function, ghUpdateCheck. The first section shows the function call along with some hints on what's expected of the parameters. Note please that there's a difference between your login and your owner strings.

ghUpdateCheck () {
	local LOGIN="$1"					# 'username'
	local PW_OR_KEY="$2"				# 'password' or a Github API key
	local GH="$3"						# ''
	local OWNER="$4"					# repo owner username, for URL
	local REPO="$5"						# repository name
	local FP="$6"						# path to the file within repo
	local FN="$7"						# filename to be checked
	local BRANCH="$8"					# 'master' or some other branch

Hashes as unique identifiers

The command shasum generates a "hash", converting the contents of the file into a reasonably unique string like "da39a3ee5e6b4b0d3255bfef95601890afd80709". (There are "hash collissions" but they're reasonably unlikely.) Change anything in the file and the resultant hash changes.

Getting content from a Github repo

First we generate a hash value for our local copy the running program, which can be found with the bash environment variable BASH_SOURCE[0]. That hash is stored in l_sha.

l_sha=$( shasum < "${BASH_SOURCE[0]}" )

Next we grab the contents of the latest commit of this file from the Github repo. We provide curl with

  1. Authentication credentials to gain access to the file we're checking.
  2. A header which specifies that we want to use version 3 of the REST API; someday when Github moves to version 4 this will still work because we're not accepting the default version. When version 3 is retired, if ever, we'll be forced to update this command to communicate however version 4 demands.
  3. A URL that specifies which server, repo, file, and file branch we're using. By specifying /contents/ at the right location within the URL we'll be given the file contents (as opposed to any of the other information for which we can ask).
r=$( curl --user "${LOGIN}:${PW_OR_KEY}" \
	--header 'Accept: application/vnd.github.v3+json' \
	"https://${GH}/${OWNER}/${REPO}/contents/${FP}/${FN}?ref=${BRANCH}" 2>/dev/null \
	| jq --raw-output '.content' | base64 -D )

Because the contents are returned to us as an armored base 64 blob wrapped in a JSON data structure, we have to first unwrap the JSON (with the jq command) and then decode the blob (with base64 -D). Then the file contents are stored within the r variable.

r_sha holds the calculation of the remote hash value.

r_sha=$( shasum < "$r" )

Returning something to the caller

We compare the local and remote hash values.

[[ "${l_sha%% *}" != "${r_sha%% *}" ]]
  • If they're the same, meaning the running program is the same as the latest commit, then there's nothing for the caller to do; we return and empty string.
  • If they're different we assume there's a later version (although if the user has made local changes that'll trigger differences). We return the contents for the caller to handle as appropriate.

Using ghUpdateCheck() — an example

First we extract the filename part of the whole path to the running program.

thisFilename="$(basename ${BASH_SOURCE[0]})"

Then we call ghUpdateCheck() with the proper parameters, returning the string result into the update variable.

update=$(ghUpdateCheck "${GH_USER}" "${PW_OR_KEY}" \
	'' \
	'mickeys' \
	'how_to_tips_and_tricks' 'github/github_update_checker' \
	"${thisFilename}" 'master' )

All that's left is to check whether the result is empty and to implement some actions when there's an update available.

	# -------------------------------------------------------------------------
	# If there's a difference in the hashes for the existing file and the
	# latest commit then ghUpdateCheck() has returned the file contents. Here I
	# temporary file. That having been captured, you can
	#   1. swap out the existing file with the new one and force a restart
	#   2. show the user the new file and have them manually examine & decide
	#   3. something else entirely
	# -------------------------------------------------------------------------
	if [ -n "${update}" ] ; then
		tempd=$(mktemp -d) || { echo "Temporary file creation failed."; exit 1; }
		tempf="${tempd}/$(date +%Y%m%d_%H%M%S)_${thisFilename}"
		echo "${update}" >| "${tempf}"
		echo "There's a later version of ${thisFilename} available."
		echo "You're running the latest version of ${thisFilename}."

And there we go, a Github-based update-checker (source code here) to ensure that your users are running the latest versions of the code you've distributed (without requiring them to clone the repo and to git update whenever they remember).

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