Managing Helm secret values in ArgoCD

5 minute read

IMPORTANT NOTE: This solution does not work anymore, see here.
I have switched to Flux CD on my setup, it solves this problem simply and elegantly.
I hope ArgoCD also comes up with a proper solution to this problem sooner than later.

Recently I have been reading about GitOps and during the last week, I decided to give it a shot.

I have a self-hosted setup with Kubernetes (k3s) and a bunch of tools running on it. My goal was to migrate my apps which are installed via Helm to ArgoCD.

Everything went well until I hit the problem with the secret management. Here’s how I solved it.

The Problem

ArgoCD uses Kubernetes itself as its storage backend - an application is represented as a custom resource called an application (

To implement a fully git-driven development, there is a commonly used pattern called “the app of apps”. In this pattern, we create 1 parent app that is a Helm chart directory in our git repo. Then we put all of our application resource manifests into the templates/ directory of this chart.

Here’s the problem: The application resources hold all the helm values that are passed to the app installation. Some of these values are sensitive such as DB passwords, private keys, and so on. Here’s an example: the admin password in the PostgreSQL chart.

We must not commit them into the code but at the same time implement a fully git-driven workflow.

There is an open issue for ArgoCD that is unresolved since more than 2 years.

In the past

This was not a problem in a traditional helm install/upgrade based workflow because it’s not fully git-driven - we could put these sensitive values into our CI/CD tool and pass them via --set or --values flags on install/upgrade.

In my personal setup, I was using Ansible Helm module to install the charts and was using ansible-vault to encrypt the sensitive variables and check them into the code.

Unfortunately, these solutions are not applicable as-is in the fully git-driven ArgoCD setup.

The existing solutions (and the problem with them)

ArgoCD have decided to stay agnostic to the secret management methods. Looking at the open issue on the topic, seeing it is the biggest problem for its adoption for so many people, I don’t think this is a good decision.

There are 2 common approaches to work around this problem:

Solution A: Using sealed-secrets

Sealed Secrets is a great tool to manage Kubernetes secrets securely. However, it has a shortcoming in our use-case: it doesn’t offer a solution to encrypt helm values. Sealed secrets can be used only if the chart has an option to point to an external secret (a value like existingSecret).

Some charts give this option but not all of them do. Especially if you are using many 3rd party charts as I do, sealed-secrets won’t be enough to solve your problem.

Solution B: Using helm-secrets

At first glance, helm-secrets seems like the perfect tool for the problem - it uses PGP to encrypt and decrypt the helm values in place.

The problem is its integration to ArgoCD - it is nowhere near trivial to integrate it into ArgoCD. It involves rebuilding the ArgoCD container image to include gpg, sops binaries, helm secrets plugin and even worse, implementing a wrapper script for the Helm binary so that it wraps the helm commands, so that helm upgrade app becomes helm secrets upgrade app.

This solution is described in this blog post.

An alternative solution: Leveraging volumeMounts

Because of these issues with both of these solutions, I started looking into alternatives.

In this approach, we leverage Sealed Secrets together with the valueFiles feature of helm-based ArgoCD applications. In short, in the ArgoCD installation, we mount a Secret (sourced from a SealedSecret) in the optional mode with the secret helm values in it. Each entry in the secret becomes available as a file in the ArgoCD application.

The steps are the following:

  1. Install/upgrade your ArgoCD with an optional secret mount on its repo-server component. Let’s call the secret helm-values and mount it to the /helm-values path in container: Your values file:
    # ...
        - name: helm-values
          mountPath: /helm-values
        - name: helm-values
            secretName: helm-values
            optional: true
    # ...

    Install it via

    helm install argocd --values <VALUES_ABOVE>.yaml

Hint: We define the volume as optional: true because we want ArgoCD to be able to run even when the secret does not exist yet. By doing this we avoid the chicken and egg problem.

  1. We will manage sealed-secrets using ArgoCD as well. We need to make sure that we set up sealed-secrets in a fully deterministic, repeatable manner. In other words, bring your own certificates to it.

  2. Locally, create a secret called helm-values with one entry named <app_name>.yaml for each application you deploy. An example would be:
    apiVersion: v1
    kind: Secret
      name: helm-values
      namespace: argocd
      postgres.yaml: |
        postgresqlPassword: SeCrEtPassword!
      grafana.yaml: |
        adminPassword: sEcReTPW$!_

    Then, seal it with your certificate:

    kubeseal --cert "./${YOURPUBLICKEY}" < helm-values.yaml > helm-values-sealed.yaml
  3. Put this sealed secret helm-values-sealed.yaml into your app of apps along with your sealed-secrets and other application manifests.

Hint: make sure to use sync-waves to create the sealed-secrets controller before the SealedSecret resources.

  1. Edit your app manifests to point to their secrets mounted into the container. Here’s an example:
     kind: Application
       name: grafana
       namespace: argocd
         server: https://kubernetes.default.svc
       project: default
         chart: grafana
           values: |
               type: LoadBalancer
             - /helm-values/grafana.yaml
         targetRevision: 6.16.2
           prune: true
           selfHeal: true

That’s it. You can now safely commit all of your resources including the secret values into your git repository.

When you need to add a new secret you will have to unseal/edit/reseal this secret. When you edit it, the changes will reflect into the repo-server without requiring a restart.

You can check out the sample project I created to demonstrate the steps above.

Pros and Cons

This solution has the following advantages compared to other alternatives:

  • Requires very little change in the charts and chart release configuration
  • Doesn’t require a restart
  • Doesn’t require intervention after the initial setup
  • No need to build your custom image/wrapper

Still, it does not solve all problems, such as:

  • All secret values of all apps are kept together in 1 secret
  • The secret has to reside in the same namespace as ArgoCD
  • Requires modification in the ArgoCD deployment
  • It is still a workaround after all, not a full-fledged solution


Secret management is still a problematic topic in the Kubernetes ecosystem - there are many approaches but none of them has become the defacto standard yet.

Probably because of that ArgoCD does not offer a clean solution for the secrets passed as helm values.

Until the issue is addressed, we can solve the problem using an indirection.

Check out the sample project I created here.