CI/CD: how to resolve private repository dependencies when using Poetry

Poetry is a Python tool that resolves packaging and dependency management. Although it is a relatively young tool, it does a number of things well:

Poetry has become the de facto standard to handle dependencies and virtual environments when our team start new projects. It makes it easy to ensure that everyone in the team (including the GitHub Action runners) are working with the same Python environment and saves valuable time sorting out dependency issues when new libraries introduce backwards incompatible changes.

However, not every DevOps setup becomes immediately trivial. Like many organisations, a single project can encompass multiple private repositories that need to be installed in tandem for a functioning framework or app. Luckily, Poetry can help us here as well. In this post, we demonstrate how to build a GitHub Actions workflow for a repository depending on other (private) repositories.

Our model project consists of a web-app named fred that has a database called barney as a dependency. Both projects have a pyproject.toml describing the setup. For a new project, these files can be generated with poetry init. The repositories are hosted on GitHub, in (imaginary) repositories and

Local setup

Poetry facilitates cloning and setting up packages from GitHub directly. Packages can be added with

poetry add git+ssh://

where git+ssh specifies that Poetry will connect to GitHub, clone over ssh and use the code from the main branch (more details in the documentation).

The dependency is now listed in pyproject.toml:

barney = {git = "", rev = "main"}

rev refers to the name of the branch that should be installed. Keep in mind that because Poetry fixes versions, updates to the main branch of barney won’t be installed to fred automatically!

A subsequent poetry install will install all project dependencies and clone the barney repository (provided git can find the right SSH keys).

Running in CI

Usually, this runs without a hitch. However, if you are trying to build from a container associated with fred and you want to access the private barney repository, you are gonna run into security issues. You don’t want to commit valid SSH keys to the repository, nor make barney public. One of the easiest solutions is adding the private key as a secret to GitHub.

1. Generate and encrypt deploy key

There are a lot of different ways to use, encrypt and decrypt SSH keys, not all equally secure. I am by no means a security expert, so I won’t reinvent the wheel and use a standard ssh-keygen setup.

cd /path/to/fred
ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -f ~/deploy_key -C "fred@bedrock" -N ""

2. Upload key and passphrase to GitHub

Next, add the public key to the barney repository as a deploy key. Go to the repository page, click ‘Settings’, ‘Deploy keys’ and Add deploy key. There, add the public key ~/

Then, go to the fred repository, click ‘Settings’,-> ‘Secrets’ -> ‘Actions’ and add a ‘New repository secret’. Name the secret DEPLOY_KEY and upload the output of

cat ~/deploy_key | base64 -w 0

Because GitHub Secrets did not like the newlines in the private key, I chose to encode the key in a one-line string. Finally, remove the key (or store it in a vault in case you need to reuse it).

3. Setup GitHub workflow

Now, we can build a workflow that checks out the code, sets up Python 3, installs poetry and builds the project on each push and pull request.

name: CI
on: [push, pull_request]
      - name: Checkout repo
        uses: actions/checkout@v2
      - name: Set up Python
        uses: actions/setup-python@v2
          python-version: '3.x'
      - name: Add SSH key
            DEPLOY_KEY: ${{ secrets.DEPLOY_KEY }}
        run: |
          echo $DEPLOY_KEY | base64 -d > ~/deploy_key
          chmod 600 ~/deploy_key
      - name: Install poetry and dependencies
          GIT_SSH_COMMAND: "ssh -i ~/deploy_key"
        run: |
          python -m pip install pip poetry --upgrade
          poetry install 

We use GIT_SSH_COMMAND to override the ssh command with a private key location that git will use when poetry attempts to clone barney. We decrypt the key with the secret value and impose the right access permissions on the key.

After this setup, we can add automated testing or deployment with additional run commands.

The same can be done in automated Docker building. Just remember that you will have to add a build argument in the Dockerfile so you can pass the key and use it as an environment variable with a line


and set that build argument like

docker build --build-arg ENCRYPTION_KEY=$(keyvar) ...

Happy deploying!