Dec 282013

Now that we have the CS Department’s GitLab server set up, and CS-140 Lab 1 is rewritten and tested using the new server, I’ve started to think about how to automate my interactions with the server. I had already  written some Bash scripts to interact with the Bitbucket server to get student code, convert it to PDF files, and put it back on the server after grading. Those scripts should still work fine with GitLab, since it’s just git on a different server.

One thing that I had not been able to automate previously is the step of issuing a pull request for students to merge my grading branch into their repository. This was not too much of an issue when there were only 6 students in the summer class (so only 3 repositories per lab assignment), but it was going to take more time with ~48 students in the spring class. While reading RSS feeds, I came across a post mentioning the GitLab API. This could be the solution to my problems! And there’s a Python module for the API! I had already been writing Python scripts to make my grading easier, and had been starting to rewrite my Bash scripts in Python.

I started playing with the GitLab API in Python, and had managed to create a merge request (GitLab’s term for pull request.) I had also noticed that you could create GitLab accounts through the API. This seemed like something I should pursue – creating ~48 accounts per semester seemed like something that should be automated.

Since I intended to post my code on Github, one of the first issues I had to address is how to avoid publishing my private token for GitLab. I could have put in a dummy token before pushing my code, but I would have to remember to do that before every time I committed my code. The solution to this issue was solved through the use of the .gitignore file. If I put my token into a file, then I could add a line to my .gitignore file so that it would not be committed.

# Private GitLab Token - not to be stored in repository #

Then I could just read the token out of the file, and use that string.

# Get my private GitLab token
# stored in a file so that I can .gitignore the file
token = open('gitlabtoken.txt').readline().strip()

After importing the pyapi-gitlab module, I could use that token, along with the server’s URL to create a GitLab object. Notice, that I had to turn ssl verification off, since we only have a self-signed certificate.

# Create a GitLab object
# For our server, verify_ssl has to be False, since we have a self-signed certificate
git = gitlab.Gitlab(GITLAB_URL, token, verify_ssl=False)

Creating a user account is pretty simple using the API:

# Create the account  
success = git.createuser(name, username, password, email)

The returned success value is a boolean — either it worked, or it failed (but you can’t tell why…).

One thing that’s a bit odd about the createuser call, is that you have set a password for the user, but the notification email to the doesn’t include the password. (If you create a user account from the web interface, it generates a random password, includes it in the notification email to the user, and requires the user to change their password when first logging in.) And, the password you set doesn’t seem to work either!

So, I’m just telling the students that they should use the “Forgot Password” link to have a password reset email sent to them, and then proceed from there. (If this is ever fixed, I’ll have to generated a random password.)

Getting the class list as a CSV file from the Blackboard Grade Center is pretty easy, and the first three rows contain the student’s last name, first name, and username. I can use those three strings to generate the name, username, and email needed for the createuser API call.

The only challenge with processing the CSV file is that Blackboard puts some strange character at the beginning of the file, so the file has to be opened with utf-8 encoding. (And the header line needs to be thrown away.)

The last thing I wanted to add is a way to have optional verbose output, so that I could see if the user creation was working. (I decided that it should always notify the user if the account creation failed.)  To do this I had to learn two new things about Python: how to parse arguments1, and how to send output to stderr.

I used the argparse module:

import argparse
# Set up to parse arguments
parser = argparse.ArgumentParser()
parser.add_argument('filename', help='Blackboard CSV filename with user information')
parser.add_argument('-v', '--verbose', help='increase output verbosity', action='store_true')
args = parser.parse_args()

and used the verbose argument to determine what to print:

if not success:
    sys.stderr.write('Failed to create acccount for: '+name+ ', '+username+', '+email+'\n') 
elif args.verbose:
    sys.stderr.write('Created account for: '+name+', '+username+', '+email+'\n')

Full code is on Github here.

  1. I already knew how to do simple argument parsing, but I wanted to learn how to deal with optional arguments.