Automated dependency updates for your internal GitLab server️

In our previous blog post on Open Source Maintenance we revealed that we are big fans of dependency update services like Greenkeeper or dependabot.

These services help you reduce the burden of maintaining a project by creating pull requests for you whenever there is a dependency that can be updated. That could be because of new features in those dependencies or more importantly because of bugs or security issues. dependabot will even label the PR with security in those cases!


Another similar service is called Renovate. The main difference: Renovate is an open source project that you can run yourself, if you want to. The hosted service works fine if your project is on GitHub or GitLab, but if you're using a self-hosted internal GitLab server you will have to run the service yourself. Fear not, this sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is, and the rest of this blog post will show you how to do it.

Before we start, let's make sure we are all in the same boat. The most common setup we have found when working with our clients is running GitLab on a self-hosted server within the corporate firewall and VPN. Most of the time that includes using GitLab CI to run the test suite for new commits or merge requests. This blog post is assuming the above setup and having GitLab CI set up to use the "Docker executor".

To give you a rough idea of how we will set this up: Renovate will use a dedicated user account on your GitLab instance to open merge requests. It will also have a dedicated repository for the main configuration and GitLab CI on that repository will take care of regularly running the Renovate bot.

Now, let's get started setting this up!

anchorGitLab User Account

Depending on how your GitLab instance is set up you can either sign up a new account for our renovate bot yourself, or you may have to ask your admins to create a new account for you.

Once that account exists, we will have to create a "Personal Access Token" for the account, so that our Renovate bot can use it without us having to give it the password directly. This is important, because when you give away the password the account can be hijacked, but when you only give away a token you have control over the actions that can be performed with that token.

To create such a token, follow the instructions in the GitLab docs. In short:

  • Go to the "Settings > Access Tokens" page
  • Enter "Renovate" as the "Name"
  • Choose the api scope
  • Click the "Create personal access token" button
  • Save the generated token somewhere until we need it later

Finally, make sure that our new GitLab account has access to the projects that you want it to run on. It will need to have at least "Developer" permissions so that the bot is able to create branches and push updates to those branches.

anchorRenovate Repository

As mentioned before, we will put the main configuration file into a dedicated repository. You can create the repository either under your personal account, the new Renovate account or, ideally, in the same GitLab group where you keep all your other projects.

Let's start off with a blank repository and then we will add the necessary files as we go. Once the repository is created, git clone it to your local machine so that we can create some content.

Renovate is a JavaScript-based project, but it supports updating dependencies of a lot of other languages too. Because it is based on JavaScript we will use npm (or yarn if you prefer) to install it and for that the first file we will create is the package.json file:

  "name": "renovate-bot",
  "version": "0.0.0",
  "private": true,
  "description": "Configuration for the Renovate bot at ACME Corp.",
  "repository": "",
  "author": "Tobias Bieniek <>",
  "scripts": {
    "renovate": "renovate"
  "dependencies": {
    "renovate": "^15.0.0"

Afterwards, run npm install in the repository to install the renovate package into the node_modules folder. This step should also create a package-lock.json file which we will commit to the repository together with the new package.json file.

You may have noticed that git status shows you a lot of new files in the node_modules folder, so the next quick step we will do is create a .gitignore file, with just node_modules in it, to ignore that folder from now on.

Great, we're almost there!

anchorRenovate Configuration

The last step before we can try things out is adding that main configuration file, that we've been talking about before. Renovate expects this to be called config.js, so let's create a file with that name. Inside of it we will configure how Renovate will behave by default. Note that most of this can be overridden on a per-repository basis.

module.exports = {
  platform: 'gitlab',
  endpoint: '',
  token: process.env.RENOVATE_TOKEN,

  repositories: [

  logLevel: 'info',

  requireConfig: true,
  onboarding: true,
  onboardingConfig: {
    extends: ['config:base'],
    prConcurrentLimit: 5,

  enabledManagers: [

The first section of the file above tells our Renovate bot how to talk to our self-hosted GitLab instance. Afterwards we tell it on which repositories it should run, we configure how much log output we want to see and what the renovate.json config file should look like that it will add to each repository in the first merge request.

You may have noticed that we did not put the token in the config file directly, instead we use an environment variable so that someone with read access to the repository can't easily steal it.

Now let's run it! Open up a terminal, navigate to the repository and run:

npm run renovate -- --dry-run

Don't worry, the --dry-run means it won't actually do anything yet but it will show you what it would do. Most likely you will be greeted by an error like this:

Fatal error: No authentication found

Which makes sense, because we haven't set up the RENOVATE_TOKEN environment variable yet. Instead of doing that, let's quickly paste our generated token into the config.js file: e.g. token: 'WCufshK3rDP1yemwkWQc', save and try again.

You should now see our little bot do its work, analyze the current state of your projects and figure out what it needs to do next.

Before we commit this configuration file to the project make sure to change the token line back to use the RENOVATE_TOKEN and then commit the file and push it to the repository.

anchorUsing GitLab CI

We now have a way to run our Renovate bot manually, but that is not what we want. We want to automate all the things! ... and GitLab CI is a great way to do just that.

The first thing we need to do is teach GitLab CI about our RENOVATE_TOKEN environment variable. We can do so on the "Settings > CI / CD" page of our project in GitLab. In the "Variables" section enter RENOVATE_TOKEN as the "variable key" and your generated token (e.g. WCufshK3rDP1yemwkWQc) as the "variable value". Finally, make sure that the "Protected" switch is turned on and then press the "Save variables" button.

Now we will set up the GitLab CI job that will run our bot. For that we need to create another file in the repository called .gitlab-ci.yml:

image: node:10

  - run

    - schedules
  stage: run
    - npm install
    - npm run renovate

Commit that file to the repository, push the changes and ... nothing happens. Why? Because our new run job will only run when triggered by something called "schedules". Let's configure a schedule then!

In the "CI / CD" menu of the project on GitLab you should find a menu entry called "Schedules". Clicking on that will take you to a page with a "New schedule" button, which we will immediately click too. The "Schedule a new pipeline" form should now show up in your browser and we will fill it like this:

  • Description: "Hourly run"
  • Interval Pattern: Custom (0 * * * *)
  • Target Branch: master
  • Active: Yes, please!

Now, click the "Save pipeline schedule" button and GitLab will take you back to the "Schedules" page showing our newly created schedule.

Aaaand that's it! Some time in the next hour GitLab CI should trigger the run job, that will run our Renovate bot, and that will create merge requests on your configured repositories.

If you need more help getting this set up or if you want to talk about any of the topics here in more detail please do contact us! If you enjoyed this blog post you can also let us know via Twitter.

Team member leaning against wall taking notes while talking to three other team members

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