Using Helm

This guide explains the basics of using Helm to manage packages on your Kubernetes cluster. It assumes that you have already installed the Helm client.

If you are simply interested in running a few quick commands, you may wish to begin with the Quickstart Guide. This chapter covers the particulars of Helm commands, and explains how to use Helm.

Three Big Concepts

A Chart is a Helm package. It contains all of the resource definitions necessary to run an application, tool, or service inside of a Kubernetes cluster. Think of it like the Kubernetes equivalent of a Homebrew formula, an Apt dpkg, or a Yum RPM file.

A Repository is the place where charts can be collected and shared. It’s like Perl’s CPAN archive or the Fedora Package Database, but for Kubernetes packages.

A Release is an instance of a chart running in a Kubernetes cluster. One chart can often be installed many times into the same cluster. And each time it is installed, a new release is created. Consider a MySQL chart. If you want two databases running in your cluster, you can install that chart twice. Each one will have its own release, which will in turn have its own release name.

With these concepts in mind, we can now explain Helm like this:

Helm installs charts into Kubernetes, creating a new release for each installation. And to find new charts, you can search Helm chart repositories.

‘helm search’: Finding Charts

Helm comes with a powerful search command. It can be used to search two different types of source:

  • helm search hub searches the Helm Hub, which comprises helm charts from dozens of different repositories.
  • helm search repo searches the repositories that you have added to your local helm client (with helm repo add). This search is done over local data, and no public network connection is needed.

You can find publicly available charts by running helm search hub:

$ helm search hub wordpress
URL                                               	CHART VERSION	APP VERSION	DESCRIPTION      	7.6.7        	5.2.4      	Web publishing platform for building blogs and ...	v0.6.3       	v0.6.3     	Presslabs WordPress Operator Helm Chart	v0.7.1       	v0.7.1     	A Helm chart for deploying a WordPress site on ...

The above searches for all wordpress charts on Helm Hub.

With no filter, helm search hub shows you all of the available charts.

Using helm search repo, you can find the names of the charts in repositories you have already added:

$ helm repo add brigade
"brigade" has been added to your repositories
$ helm search repo brigade
brigade/brigade             	1.3.2        	v1.2.1     	Brigade provides event-driven scripting of Kube...
brigade/brigade-github-app  	0.4.1        	v0.2.1     	The Brigade GitHub App, an advanced gateway for...
brigade/brigade-github-oauth	0.2.0        	v0.20.0    	The legacy OAuth GitHub Gateway for Brigade
brigade/brigade-k8s-gateway 	0.1.0        	           	A Helm chart for Kubernetes
brigade/brigade-project     	1.0.0        	v1.0.0     	Create a Brigade project
brigade/kashti              	0.4.0        	v0.4.0     	A Helm chart for Kubernetes

Helm search uses a fuzzy string matching algorithm, so you can type parts of words or phrases:

$ helm search repo kash
brigade/kashti	0.4.0        	v0.4.0     	A Helm chart for Kubernetes

Search is a good way to find available packages. Once you have found a package you want to install, you can use helm install to install it.

‘helm install’: Installing a Package

To install a new package, use the helm install command. At its simplest, it takes two arguments: A release name that you pick, and the name of the chart you want to install.

$ helm install happy-panda stable/mariadb
Fetched stable/mariadb-0.3.0 to /Users/mattbutcher/Code/Go/src/
Last Deployed: Wed Sep 28 12:32:28 2016
Namespace: default

==> extensions/Deployment
happy-panda-mariadb   1         0         0            0           1s

==> v1/Secret
NAME                     TYPE      DATA      AGE
happy-panda-mariadb   Opaque    2         1s

==> v1/Service
NAME                     CLUSTER-IP   EXTERNAL-IP   PORT(S)    AGE
happy-panda-mariadb    <none>        3306/TCP   1s

MariaDB can be accessed via port 3306 on the following DNS name from within your cluster:

To connect to your database run the following command:

   kubectl run happy-panda-mariadb-client --rm --tty -i --image bitnami/mariadb --command -- mysql -h happy-panda-mariadb

Now the mariadb chart is installed. Note that installing a chart creates a new release object. The release above is named happy-panda. (If you want Helm to generate a name for you, leave off the release name and use --generate-name.)

During installation, the helm client will print useful information about which resources were created, what the state of the release is, and also whether there are additional configuration steps you can or should take.

Helm does not wait until all of the resources are running before it exits. Many charts require Docker images that are over 600M in size, and may take a long time to install into the cluster.

To keep track of a release’s state, or to re-read configuration information, you can use helm status:

$ helm status happy-panda
Last Deployed: Wed Sep 28 12:32:28 2016
Namespace: default

==> v1/Service
NAME                     CLUSTER-IP   EXTERNAL-IP   PORT(S)    AGE
happy-panda-mariadb    <none>        3306/TCP   4m

==> extensions/Deployment
happy-panda-mariadb   1         1         1            1           4m

==> v1/Secret
NAME                     TYPE      DATA      AGE
happy-panda-mariadb   Opaque    2         4m

MariaDB can be accessed via port 3306 on the following DNS name from within your cluster:

To connect to your database run the following command:

   kubectl run happy-panda-mariadb-client --rm --tty -i --image bitnami/mariadb --command -- mysql -h happy-panda-mariadb

The above shows the current state of your release.

Customizing the Chart Before Installing

Installing the way we have here will only use the default configuration options for this chart. Many times, you will want to customize the chart to use your preferred configuration.

To see what options are configurable on a chart, use helm show values:

$ helm show values stable/mariadb
Fetched stable/mariadb-0.3.0.tgz to /Users/mattbutcher/Code/Go/src/
## Bitnami MariaDB image version
## ref:
## Default: none
imageTag: 10.1.14-r3

## Specify a imagePullPolicy
## Default to 'Always' if imageTag is 'latest', else set to 'IfNotPresent'
## ref:
# imagePullPolicy:

## Specify password for root user
## ref:
# mariadbRootPassword:

## Create a database user
## ref:
# mariadbUser:
# mariadbPassword:

## Create a database
## ref:
# mariadbDatabase:
# ...

You can then override any of these settings in a YAML formatted file, and then pass that file during installation.

$ echo '{mariadbUser: user0, mariadbDatabase: user0db}' > config.yaml
$ helm install -f config.yaml stable/mariadb --generate-name

The above will create a default MariaDB user with the name user0, and grant this user access to a newly created user0db database, but will accept all the rest of the defaults for that chart.

There are two ways to pass configuration data during install:

  • --values (or -f): Specify a YAML file with overrides. This can be specified multiple times and the rightmost file will take precedence
  • --set: Specify overrides on the command line.

If both are used, --set values are merged into --values with higher precedence. Overrides specified with --set are persisted in a ConfigMap. Values that have been --set can be viewed for a given release with helm get values <release-name>. Values that have been --set can be cleared by running helm upgrade with --reset-values specified.

The Format and Limitations of --set

The --set option takes zero or more name/value pairs. At its simplest, it is used like this: --set name=value. The YAML equivalent of that is:

name: value

Multiple values are separated by , characters. So --set a=b,c=d becomes:

a: b
c: d

More complex expressions are supported. For example, --set outer.inner=value is translated into this:

  inner: value

Lists can be expressed by enclosing values in { and }. For example, --set name={a, b, c} translates to:

  - a
  - b
  - c

As of Helm 2.5.0, it is possible to access list items using an array index syntax. For example, --set servers[0].port=80 becomes:

  - port: 80

Multiple values can be set this way. The line --set servers[0].port=80,servers[0].host=example becomes:

  - port: 80
    host: example

Sometimes you need to use special characters in your --set lines. You can use a backslash to escape the characters; --set name=value1\,value2 will become:

name: "value1,value2"

Similarly, you can escape dot sequences as well, which may come in handy when charts use the toYaml function to parse annotations, labels and node selectors. The syntax for --set nodeSelector."kubernetes\.io/role"=master becomes:

nodeSelector: master

Deeply nested data structures can be difficult to express using --set. Chart designers are encouraged to consider the --set usage when designing the format of a values.yaml file.

More Installation Methods

The helm install command can install from several sources:

  • A chart repository (as we’ve seen above)
  • A local chart archive (helm install foo foo-0.1.1.tgz)
  • An unpacked chart directory (helm install foo path/to/foo)
  • A full URL (helm install foo

‘helm upgrade’ and ‘helm rollback’: Upgrading a Release, and Recovering on Failure

When a new version of a chart is released, or when you want to change the configuration of your release, you can use the helm upgrade command.

An upgrade takes an existing release and upgrades it according to the information you provide. Because Kubernetes charts can be large and complex, Helm tries to perform the least invasive upgrade. It will only update things that have changed since the last release.

$ helm upgrade -f panda.yaml happy-panda stable/mariadb
Fetched stable/mariadb-0.3.0.tgz to /Users/mattbutcher/Code/Go/src/
happy-panda has been upgraded. Happy Helming!
Last Deployed: Wed Sep 28 12:47:54 2016
Namespace: default

In the above case, the happy-panda release is upgraded with the same chart, but with a new YAML file:

mariadbUser: user1

We can use helm get values to see whether that new setting took effect.

$ helm get values happy-panda
mariadbUser: user1

The helm get command is a useful tool for looking at a release in the cluster. And as we can see above, it shows that our new values from panda.yaml were deployed to the cluster.

Now, if something does not go as planned during a release, it is easy to roll back to a previous release using helm rollback [RELEASE] [REVISION].

$ helm rollback happy-panda 1

The above rolls back our happy-panda to its very first release version. A release version is an incremental revision. Every time an install, upgrade, or rollback happens, the revision number is incremented by 1. The first revision number is always 1. And we can use helm history [RELEASE] to see revision numbers for a certain release.

Helpful Options for Install/Upgrade/Rollback

There are several other helpful options you can specify for customizing the behavior of Helm during an install/upgrade/rollback. Please note that this is not a full list of cli flags. To see a description of all flags, just run helm <command> --help.

  • --timeout: A value in seconds to wait for Kubernetes commands to complete This defaults to 5m0s
  • --wait: Waits until all Pods are in a ready state, PVCs are bound, Deployments have minimum (Desired minus maxUnavailable) Pods in ready state and Services have an IP address (and Ingress if a LoadBalancer) before marking the release as successful. It will wait for as long as the --timeout value. If timeout is reached, the release will be marked as FAILED. Note: In scenario where Deployment has replicas set to 1 and maxUnavailable is not set to 0 as part of rolling update strategy, --wait will return as ready as it has satisfied the minimum Pod in ready condition.
  • --no-hooks: This skips running hooks for the command
  • --recreate-pods (only available for upgrade and rollback): This flag will cause all pods to be recreated (with the exception of pods belonging to deployments). (DEPRECATED in Helm 3)

‘helm uninstall’: Uninstalling a Release

When it is time to uninstall a release from the cluster, use the helm uninstall command:

$ helm uninstall happy-panda

This will remove the release from the cluster. You can see all of your currently deployed releases with the helm list command:

$ helm list
NAME            VERSION UPDATED                         STATUS          CHART
inky-cat        1       Wed Sep 28 12:59:46 2016        DEPLOYED        alpine-0.1.0

From the output above, we can see that the happy-panda release was uninstalled.

In previous versions of Helm, when a release was deleted, a record of its deletion would remain. In Helm 3, deletion removes the release record as well. If you wish to keep a deletion release record, use helm uninstall --keep-history. Using helm list --uninstalled will only show releases that where uninstalled with the --keep-history flag.

The helm list --all flag will show you all release records that Helm has retained, including records for failed or deleted items (if --keep-history was specified):

$  helm list --all
NAME            VERSION UPDATED                         STATUS          CHART
happy-panda     2       Wed Sep 28 12:47:54 2016        UNINSTALLED     mariadb-0.3.0
inky-cat        1       Wed Sep 28 12:59:46 2016        DEPLOYED        alpine-0.1.0
kindred-angelf  2       Tue Sep 27 16:16:10 2016        UNINSTALLED     alpine-0.1.0

Note that because releases are now deleted by default, it is no longer possible to rollback an uninstalled resource.

‘helm repo’: Working with Repositories

Helm 3 no longer ships with a default chart repository. The helm repo command group provides commands to add, list, and remove repositories.

You can see which repositories are configured using helm repo list:

$ helm repo list
NAME            URL

And new repositories can be added with helm repo add:

$ helm repo add dev

Because chart repositories change frequently, at any point you can make sure your Helm client is up to date by running helm repo update.

Repositories can be removed with helm repo remove.

Creating Your Own Charts

The Chart Development Guide explains how to develop your own charts. But you can get started quickly by using the helm create command:

$ helm create deis-workflow
Creating deis-workflow

Now there is a chart in ./deis-workflow. You can edit it and create your own templates.

As you edit your chart, you can validate that it is well-formed by running helm lint.

When it’s time to package the chart up for distribution, you can run the helm package command:

$ helm package deis-workflow

And that chart can now easily be installed by helm install:

$ helm install deis-workflow ./deis-workflow-0.1.0.tgz

Charts that are packaged can be loaded into chart repositories. See the documentation for your chart repository server to learn how to upload.

Note: The stable repository is managed on the Kubernetes Charts GitHub repository. That project accepts chart source code, and (after audit) packages those for you.


This chapter has covered the basic usage patterns of the helm client, including searching, installation, upgrading, and uninstalling. It has also covered useful utility commands like helm status, helm get, and helm repo.

For more information on these commands, take a look at Helm’s built-in help: helm help.

In the next chapter, we look at the process of developing charts.