Variable groups for builds and releases

Azure Pipelines | TFS 2018 | TFS 2017


Build and release pipelines are called definitions in TFS 2018 and in older versions. Service connections are called service endpoints in TFS 2018 and in older versions.

Use a variable group to store values that you want to make available across multiple build and release pipelines. Variable groups are defined and managed in the Library tab of the Pipelines hub.


Variable groups can be used in a build pipeline in only Azure DevOps and TFS 2018. They cannot be used in a build pipeline in earlier versions of TFS.

Create a variable group

  1. Open the Library tab to see a list of existing variable groups for your project. Choose + Variable group.

  2. Enter a name and description for the group. Then enter the name and value for each variable you want to include in the group, choosing + Add for each one. If you want to encrypt and securely store the value, choose the "lock" icon at the end of the row. When you're finished adding variables, choose Save.

    Saving a variable group

Variable groups follow the library security model.

Link an existing Azure key vault to a variable group and map selective vault secrets to the variable group.

  1. In the Variable groups page, enable Link secrets from an Azure key vault as variables. You'll need an existing key vault containing your secrets. You can create a key vault using the Azure portal.

    Variable group with Azure key vault integration

  2. Specify your Azure subscription end point and the name of the vault containing your secrets.

    Ensure the Azure service connection has at least Get and List management permissions on the vault for secrets. You can enable Azure Pipelines to set these permissions by choosing Authorize next to the vault name. Alternatively, you can set the permissions manually in the Azure portal:

    • Open the Settings blade for the vault, choose Access policies, then Add new.
    • In the Add access policy blade, choose Select principal and select the service principal for your client account.
    • In the Add access policy blade, choose Secret permissions and ensure that Get and List are checked (ticked).
    • Choose OK to save the changes.

  3. In the Variable groups page, choose + Add to select specific secrets from your vault that will be mapped to this variable group.

Secrets management notes

  • Only the secret names are mapped to the variable group, not the secret values. The latest version of the value of each secret is fetched from the vault and used in the pipeline linked to the variable group during the build or release.

  • Any changes made to existing secrets in the key vault, such as a change in the value of a secret, will be made available automatically to all the definitions in which the variable group is used.

  • When new secrets are added to the vault, they are not made available automatically to all the definitions. New secrets must be explicitly added to the variable group in order to make them available to definitions in which the variable group is used.

  • Azure Key Vault supports storing and managing cryptographic keys and secrets in Azure. Currently, Azure Pipelines variable group integration supports mapping only secrets from the Azure key vault. Cryptographic keys and certificates are not yet supported

Use a variable group

To use a variable group, open your build or release pipeline, select the Variables tab, select Variable groups, and then choose Link variable group. In a build pipeline, you see a list of available groups. In a release pipeline (as shown below), you also see a drop-down list of stages in the pipeline - you can link the variable group to one or more of these stages.

Linking a variable group

  • In a build pipeline, the variable group is linked to the pipeline and all the variables in the group are available for use within this pipeline.
  • In a release pipeline, you can link a variable group to the pipeline itself, or to a specific stage of the release pipeline.
    • If you link to a release pipeline, all the variables in the group are available for use in the pipeline and in all stages of that pipeline.
    • If you link to one or more stages in a release pipeline, the variables from the variable group are scoped to these stages and are not accessible in the other stages of the same release.


Linking a variable group to a specific stage is available only on Azure Pipelines and on TFS 2018 Update 2 and later.

You access the value of the variables in a linked variable group in exactly the same way as variables you define within the pipeline itself. For example, to access the value of a variable named customer in a variable group linked to the pipeline, use $(customer) in a task parameter or a script. However, secret variables (encrypted variables and key vault variables) cannot be accessed directly in scripts - instead they must be passed as arguments to a task.

Note: At present, variables in different groups that are linked to a pipeline in the same scope (such as a release or stage scope) will collide and the result may be unpredictable. Ensure that you use different names for variables across all your variable groups.

Any changes made centrally to a variable group, such as a change in the value of a variable or the addition of new variables, will automatically be made available to all the definitions or stages to which the variable group is linked.

Help and support