Helm Classic Generate and Template

Introduced in Helm Classic 0.3.0, Helm Classic has the ability to embed and run generators that can perform arbitrary modifications on charts. The intent of this feature is to provide chart developers with the ability to modify charts using strategies like parameterization.

Along with the generation feature, Helm Classic includes a templating command that simply provides Go template support.

This document describes how to use this pair of tools, and how to extend generation to use other tools.


Helm Classic includes a simple templating solution based on Go templates. Running helmc template example.yaml will compile and execute the template example.yaml.

As a simple example, here is a basic template:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Namespace
  name: {{lower "Foo"}}
    heritage: deis

The above is a Kubernetes namespace YAML file with one template directive: {{lower "Foo"}} will lowercase the string "Foo" to "foo" and insert it into the template. Here is the result of running helmc template example.yaml:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Namespace
  name: foo
    heritage: deis

Parameterizing Templates

Templates become more powerful when we parameterize them. For example, we can modify the above template to say "If there is a parameter named .Namespace, use that. Otherwise set the default namespace to 'foobar'":

apiVersion: v1
kind: Namespace
  name: {{default "foobar" .Namespace}}
    heritage: deis

Once again, if we render that template, we'll see the same results:

apiVersion: v1
kind: Namespace
  name: foobar

Template Functions

Helm Classic's template tool includes an array of built-in functions. A few particularly useful ones are:

  • default <default> <other>: This function allows you to set a default value. We saw it used above.
  • b64enc <string>: This base-64 encodes a string. Useful for secrets.
  • randAlphaNum <int>: This generates a random alphanumeric string of length INT
  • env <string>: This retrieves the value of an environment variable.

But there are 40+ functions available. These functions are supplied by the built-in Go text/template package and the Sprig template function library.

The Values File

To pass parameters into the helmc template rendering process, we need to supply a file of values. Above we used the .Namespace placeholder, but no value was ever supplied to it, and so it is always empty.

We can now supply a value in a file called values.toml.

Namespace = "goldie"

Helm Classic templates support three file formats for values files, and it uses the file extensions to determine which type of data is in a value file.

  • TOML is a clear and concise configuration file format (.toml).
  • YAML is the same format Helm Classic uses (.yaml or .yml).
  • JSON is the Javascript-like syntax (.json).

We prefer TOML because it is clear and concise, and because the different format makes it easy to visually distinguish values files from manifest files. But you can use whichever you like.

Once we have a values file, we can tell helmc template about it:

$ helmc template -d values.toml example.yaml
apiVersion: v1
kind: Namespace
  name: goldie
    heritage: deis

Note that name is now goldie (the value in values.toml) instead of the default foobar.

Finally, by default helmc template writes to STDOUT. You can redirect output to a file with the -o or --out flags:

$ helmc template -o out.yaml -d values.toml example.yaml

This final form is the one used most frequently by generators.


Helm Classic provides a command called helmc generate. This function operates on charts within your workspace (e.g. charts that you have fetched or installed).

The generator's job is to scan the files inside of a chart looking for helm:generate headers.

Files that begin with the appropriate helm:generate header will trigger a generation run.

The helm:generate Header

The helm:generate header must be the first line of a file (any file), and must exactly follow one of the three formats described below:

#helm:generate CMD [ARGS]
//helm:generate CMD [ARGS]
/*helm:generate CMD [ARGS]*/

The generate header is space-sensitive and case-sensitive. Lines MUST begin with one of the above comment sequences, and MUST have a lowercase helm:generate string.

CMD is the command that Helm Classic will run, and the optional [ARGS] are arguments passed to the CMD.

For example, we could embed a simple sed script inside of a generate header:

#helm:generate sed -i -e s|ubuntu-debootstrap|fluffy-bunny| my/pod.yaml

It is important to note that generate commands are not run in a shell. However, environment variables are expanded.

Along with any existing environment variables, the following variables are specially defined:

  • HELM_HOME: The Helm Classic home directory
    • Although the value of the HELMC_HOME environment variable, if defined, may play a role in defining the specially expanded HELM_HOME variable, the two are not equivalent. To produce charts that remain compatible with the original Helm tool, which has now become Helm Classic, only the HELM_HOME variable should be used within helm:generate headers.
  • HELM_DEFAULT_REPO: The repository alias for the default repository.
  • HELM_GENERATE_FILE: The present file's name
  • HELM_GENERATE_DIR: The absolute path to the chart directory of the present chart

These are available both from the invocation of the CMD, and from inside any generator command itself.

As an example, consider a generation header like this, inside of a file named example.js:

//helm:generate echo $HELM_GENERATE_FILE

This will be expanded to the command echo /path/to/example.json.

Writing A Custom Generator

A generator is any tool that is executable within your environment. When helmc generate runs, it looks for the generator in two places:

  • First, if the generator is an absolute path (any path that begins with /), it will execute it on that path.
  • Otherwise it will search for CMD on $PATH.

To execute a script relative to the chart's path, you can use the $HELM_GENERATE_DIR variable:

/*helm:generate $HELM_GENERATE_DIR/myscript.sh */

Note that the above variable is the absolute path to the chart directory, not to the file that helmc generate found.

The following guidelines should be kept in mind when writing Helm Classic generator plugins:

  • All of the named environment variables are available to the plugin.
  • The plugin does not execute in a shell. Thus you cannot expect that implementors will be able to easily redirect STDOUT or STDERR using shell redirects.
  • It is advised, therefore, that you not write generated output to STDOUT, but provide a flag for writing to a file.
  • User-facing output like progress meters should be written to STDOUT. helmc generate will pass this information on to the user during execution.
  • Errors should be written to STDERR so that helmc generate can capture them and redirect them to the user.
  • Plugins should return the exit code 0 on success. Any other exit code will be treated as an error and will stop execution of further generators.
  • No recovery action is performed by helmc generate. So if your script dirties the environment, it must also clean the environment.

In addition to these, it is important to remember that the plugins you write may not be used in isolation. Other plugins may operate on the same chart, even during the course of the same helmc generate run.

It is considered a best practice to not embed generator headers inside of Chart.yaml or inside of manifests/ files. Conversely, it is considered good practice to encourage plugin users to store files in separate subdirectories inside of a chart. For example, if your tool is called secgenerate, you might suggest that any charts that use this tool place their tool-specific files within $CHART/secgenerate/.

Combining Generate and Template

The helmc template command is an example of a generator plugin. It is designed to be invoked within a generator. Here is an example of using the two in conjunction:

The Deis Namespace chart contains a tpl/ directory with a file named namespace.yaml. This file contains the following text:

#helm:generate helm tpl -d tpl/values.toml -o manifests/namespace.yaml $HELM_GENERATE_FILE
apiVersion: v1
kind: Namespace
  name: {{default "deis" .Namespace}}
    heritage: deis

IMPORTANT NOTE: To produce charts that remain compatible with the original Helm tool, which has now become Helm Classic, the helmc binary should not be invoked directly from within a helm:generator header. Using helm instead will allow older versions of the tool to execute your generators successfully. Meanwhile, Helm Classic intelligently invokes helmc wherever helm is invoked within a helm:generator header.

To run the generators, we first fetch the chart, and then run the generator:

$ helmc fetch deis/namespace
---> Fetched chart into workspace /Users/mattbutcher/.helmc/workspace/charts/namespace
---> Done
$  helmc generate namespace
---> Ran 2 generators.

At this point, if we look inside of the generated namespace.yaml file, we will see the result:

$ cat $(helmc home)/workspace/charts/namespace/manifests/namespace.yaml
#helm:generate helm tpl -d tpl/values.toml -o manifests/namespace.yaml $HELM_GENERATE_FILE
apiVersion: v1
kind: Namespace
  name: deis
    heritage: deis

To modify the value of the name, we merely need to create a values.toml file in the workspace's charts/namespace/tpl/ directory and we will be able to substitute.


Generators are a powerful way of extending Helm Classic's generative capabilities. While we have provided the template generator, the system can be extended to your needs.