Karan Sharma

Ramblings on tech, cycling, and finance

29 January 2021

Setup Gitlab Runner with AWS ECR

There are some things you expect to just work. Sadly trying to make Gitlab Runner with AWS ECR turned out to be quite a daunting task and the little documentation in this area doesn't help. There's even a 4 years old issue and everyone there is echoing the sentiment that this is unnecessarily a lot harder than it should have been.

Anyway, since I spent a lot of time figuring out how to make a Private Registry work with a cross-account ECR, I'm documenting these steps hoping it'll help someone someday :).

The Problem

There are mainly 2 seemingly same but different problems when it comes to using ECR. Let's discuss both of them separately:

  • Pulling a private image from ECR using the Docker Executor. For eg, if your gitlab-ci.yml looks like:
    - echo "Hello World!"

In this case, the Docker Executor needs to be "authenticated" to AWS ECR so that it can pull $PRIVATE_ECR_IMAGE.

  • Pulling a private image inside the job. For eg, if you're using Kaniko:
  image: gcr.io/kaniko-project/executor:debug
    - |
      /kaniko ...
      # Inside this step, we use a PRIVATE_ECR_IMAGE defined in our `Dockerfile`.

In this case, Kaniko needs to be "authenticated" to AWS ECR so that it can pull $PRIVATE_ECR_IMAGE.

NOTE I prefer Kaniko over DIND as it is faster, doesn't require running the privileged container, caching is simplified, and is in general a lot simpler to setup.

The Solution

So, for the first case, where you want to authenticate the Docker Executor to AWS ECR, you'll need 2 things:

  1. Setup DOCKER_AUTH_CONFIG environment variable to { "credsStore": "ecr-login" } in the config.toml of the runner. For eg:
  name = "Test"
  url = "https://gitlab.internal/"
  token = "REDACTED"
  executor = "docker"
  environment = ["DOCKER_AUTH_CONFIG={ \"credsStore\": \"ecr-login\" }"]
  1. Now, we've specified the Credential Store for Docker, but we don't have this binary docker-credential-ecr-login in our runner. AWS provides amazon-ecr-credential-helper which is a neat way of automatically authenticating with AWS ECR based on your Access Keys/IAM role. What does automatic mean here? So, the normal docker login is a basic auth command, where if you've to log in to ECR, you need to do something like:
aws ecr get-login-password --region region | docker login --username AWS --password-stdin aws_account_id.dkr.ecr.region.amazonaws.com

This is problematic because the authorization token is valid for 12 hours. Further, you've to log in to multiple registry IDs separately. Managing this is a nightmare, so Docker instead of just relying on Basic Auth, came up with a neat mechanism: docker-credential-helpers. This allows you to keep your secret tokens in your Keystore. A new credential helper can be written in Go which implements the credentials.Helper interface. This is what amazon-ecr-credential-helper does by offering various ways like AWS IAM Roles, Assumed Roles, Access Keys, etc to authenticate with ECR.

This is where I stumbled the most. I downloaded the binary from the Github Releases but this binary is statically compiled with muslc libraries.

However gitlab/gitlab-runner is based on the ubuntu docker image, so the above binary never worked. The strangest thing was the unhelpful error message that sh returned as explained in this post.

To make things easier, I baked my own gitlab-runner image with the above binary compiled inside the image using go get:

FROM ubuntu:20.04 AS build
ENV DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive 
RUN : \
 && apt-get update \
 && apt-get install --no-install-recommends -y git golang-go ca-certificates \
 && rm -rf /var/lib/apt/lists/* \
RUN go get -u github.com/awslabs/amazon-ecr-credential-helper/ecr-login/cli/docker-credential-ecr-login
WORKDIR /build
RUN mv /root/go/bin/docker-credential-ecr-login .

FROM gitlab/gitlab-runner:v13.8.0 AS deploy
COPY --from=build /build/docker-credential-ecr-login /usr/local/bin/docker-credential-ecr-login

The above image bakes in the docker-credential-ecr-login binary and also puts it under /usr/local/bin so it'll be available under $PATH to the Docker engine.

With the above 2 things, if the runner's server (EC2 instance/K8s pod) has access to the ECR image, it should be able to pull.

Now coming to the 2nd problem, where we wanted kaniko to authenticate to ECR, things are a bit simpler:

  • Kaniko comes with docker-credential-ecr-login baked in. All you need to do is add the following to ~/.docker/config.json as explained here.
{ "credsStore": "ecr-login" }

Next, we need to mount the AWS Credentials to Kaniko's image so that it can use AWS SDK to perform a login to ECR. We do that by using volumes of the runner:

volumes = ["/home/ubuntu/runners/test/aws-credentials:/root/.aws/credentials:ro"]

This mounts the aws-credentials file from the host inside the container which the runner spawned (kaniko in this case).

A sample aws-credentials file if you're using a cross-account access can look like:


You can put in your normal AWS Keys or leave them blank if you want to use your IAM Role. With mounting the AWS Credentials inside Kaniko's container, you can authenticate to cross-account ECRs as well (once you set up the whole assumed-role/trusted entities flow).

Sample Runner

If you want to take a look at how the complete flow looks like:

  • Start the Runner service using docker-compose:
version: '3.7'


    # As explained above, this image has `docker-credentials-ecr-login` baked in.
    image: {{ACCOUNT_ID}.dkr.ecr.ap-south-1.amazonaws.com/custom/gitlab-runner:13.8.0
    restart: always
      # Automatically created; config.toml.
      - './test/runner-config:/etc/gitlab-runner'
      # Mount AWS Credentials for Docker Executor to authenticate.
      - './test/aws-credentials:/root/.aws/credentials:ro'
      # Mount Docker Socket so that executor can communicate with it.
      - '/var/run/docker.sock:/var/run/docker.sock'
  • Register a new runner:
docker-compose exec test register

Fill in the basic info and edit ./test/runner-config.toml with the following options:

  name = "Test"
  executor = "docker"
  environment = ["DOCKER_AUTH_CONFIG={ \"credsStore\": \"ecr-login\" }"]
    volumes = ["/home/ubuntu/runners/test/aws-credentials:/root/.aws/credentials:ro"]


Honestly, this was a lot of trial and error to figure out how to use private images with Gitlab. Some important links and references that helped me figure this out: