Python Packaging Is Good Now

setup.py is your friend. It’s real sorry about what happened last time.

Okay folks. Time’s up. It’s too late to say that Python’s packaging ecosystem terrible any more. I’m calling it.

Python packaging is not bad any more. If you’re a developer, and you’re trying to create or consume Python libraries, it can be a tractable, even pleasant experience.

I need to say this, because for a long time, Python’s packaging toolchain was … problematic. It isn’t any more, but a lot of people still seem to think that it is, so it’s time to set the record straight.

If you’re not familiar with the history it went something like this:

The Dawn

Python first shipped in an era when adding a dependency meant a veritable Odyssey into cyberspace. First, you’d wait until nobody in your whole family was using the phone line. Then you’d dial your ISP. Once you’d finished fighting your SLIP or PPP client, you’d ask a netnews group if anyone knew of a good gopher site to find a library that could solve your problem. Once you were done with that task, you’d sign off the Internet for the night, and wait about 48 hours too see if anyone responded. If you were lucky enough to get a reply, you’d set up a download at the end of your night’s web-surfing.

pip search it wasn’t.

For the time, Python’s approach to dependency-handling was incredibly forward-looking. The import statement, and the pluggable module import system, made it easy to get dependencies from wherever made sense.

In Python 2.01, Distutils was introduced. This let Python developers describe their collections of modules abstractly, and added tool support to producing redistributable collections of modules and packages. Again, this was tremendously forward-looking, if somewhat primitive; there was very little to compare it to at the time.

Fast forwarding to 2004; setuptools was created to address some of the increasingly-common tasks that open source software maintainers were facing with distributing their modules over the internet. In 2005, it added easy_install, in order to provide a tool to automate resolving dependencies and downloading them into the right locations.

The Dark Age

Unfortunately, in addition to providing basic utilities for expressing dependencies, setuptools also dragged in a tremendous amount of complexity. Its author felt that import should do something slightly different than what it does, so installing setuptools changed it. The main difference between normal import and setuptools import was that it facilitated having multiple different versions of the same library in the same program at the same time. It turns out that that’s a dumb idea, but in fairness, it wasn’t entirely clear at the time, and it is certainly useful (and necessary!) to be able to have multiple versions of a library installed onto a computer at the same time.

In addition to these idiosyncratic departures from standard Python semantics, setuptools suffered from being unmaintained. It became a critical part of the Python ecosystem at the same time as the author was moving on to other projects entirely outside of programming. No-one could agree on who the new maintainers should be for a long period of time. The project was forked, and many operating systems’ packaging toolchains calcified around a buggy, ancient version.

From 2008 to 2012 or so, Python packaging was a total mess. It was painful to use. It was not clear which libraries or tools to use, which ones were worth investing in or learning. Doing things the simple way was too tedious, and doing things the automated way involved lots of poorly-documented workarounds and inscrutable failure modes.

This is to say nothing of the fact that there were critical security flaws in various parts of this toolchain. There was no practical way to package and upload Python packages in such a way that users didn’t need a full compiler toolchain for their platform.

To make matters worse for the popular perception of Python’s packaging prowess2, at this same time, newer languages and environments were getting a lot of buzz, ones that had packaging built in at the very beginning and had a much better binary distribution story. These environments learned lessons from the screw-ups of Python and Perl, and really got a lot of things right from the start.

Finally, the Python Package Index, the site which hosts all the open source packages uploaded by the Python community, was basically a proof-of-concept that went live way too early, had almost no operational resources, and was offline all the dang time.

Things were looking pretty bad for Python.


Intermission

Here is where we get to the point of this post - this is where popular opinion about Python packaging is stuck. Outdated information from this period abounds. Blog posts complaining about problems score high in web searches. Those who used Python during this time, but have now moved on to some other language, frequently scoff and dismiss Python as impossible to package, its packaging ecosystem as broken, PyPI as down all the time, and so on. Worst of all, bad advice for workarounds which are no longer necessary are still easy to find, which causes users to pre-emptively break their environments where they really don’t need to.


From The Ashes

In the midst of all this brokenness, there were some who were heroically, quietly, slowly fixing the mess, one gnarly bug-report at a time. pip was started, and its various maintainers fixed much of easy_install’s overcomplexity and many of its flaws. Donald Stufft stepped in both on Pip and PyPI and improved the availability of the systems it depended upon, as well as some pretty serious vulnerabilities in the tool itself. Daniel Holth wrote a PEP for the wheel format, which allows for binary redistribution of libraries. In other words, it lets authors of packages which need a C compiler to build give their users a way to not have one.

In 2013, setuptools and distribute un-forked, providing a path forward for operating system vendors to start updating their installations and allowing users to use something modern.

Python Core started distributing the ensurepip module along with both Python 2.7 and 3.3, allowing any user with a recent Python installed to quickly bootstrap into a sensible Python development environment with a one-liner.

A New Renaissance

I won’t give you a full run-down of the state of the packaging art. There’s already a website for that. I will, however, give you a précis of how much easier it is to get started nowadays. Today, if you want to get a sensible, up-to-date python development environment, without administrative privileges, all you have to do is:

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$ python -m ensurepip --user
$ python -m pip install --user --upgrade pip
$ python -m pip install --user --upgrade virtualenv

Then, for each project you want to do, make a new virtualenv:

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$ python -m virtualenv lets-go
$ . ./lets-go/bin/activate
(lets-go) $ _

From here on out, now the world is your oyster; you can pip install to your heart’s content, and you probably won’t even need to compile any C for most packages. These instructions don’t depend on Python version, either: as long as it’s up-to-date, the same steps work on Python 2, Python 3, PyPy and even Jython. In fact, often the ensurepip step isn’t even necessary since pip comes preinstalled. Running it if it’s unnecessary is harmless, even!

Other, more advanced packaging operations are much simpler than they used to be, too.

  • Need a C compiler? OS vendors have been working with the open source community to make this easier across the board:
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    $ apt install build-essential python-dev # ubuntu
    $ xcode-select --install # macOS
    $ dnf install @development-tools python-devel # fedora
    C:\> REM windows
    C:\> start https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/download/details.aspx?id=44266
    

Okay that last one’s not as obvious as it ought to be but they did at least make it freely available!

  • Want to upload some stuff to PyPI? This should do it for almost any project:

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    $ pip install twine
    $ python setup.py sdist bdist_wheel
    $ twine upload dist/*
    
  • Want to build wheels for the wild and wooly world of Linux? There’s an app4 for that.

Importantly, PyPI will almost certainly be online. Not only that, but a new, revamped site will be “launching” any day now3.

Again, this isn’t a comprehensive resource; I just want to give you an idea of what’s possible. But, as a deeply experienced Python expert I used to swear at these tools six times a day for years; the most serious Python packaging issue I’ve had this year to date was fixed by cleaning up my git repo to delete a cache file.

Work Still To Do

While the current situation is good, it’s still not great.

Here are just a few of my desiderata:

  • We still need better and more universally agreed-upon tooling for end-user deployments.
  • Pip should have a GUI frontend so that users can write Python stuff without learning as much command-line arcana.
  • There should be tools that help you write and update a setup.py. Or a setup.python.json or something, so you don’t actually need to write code just to ship some metadata.
  • The error messages that you get when you try to build something that needs a C compiler and it doesn’t work should be clearer and more actionable for users who don’t already know what they mean.
  • PyPI should automatically build wheels for all platforms by default when you upload sdists; this is a huge project, of course, but it would be super awesome default behavior.

I could go on. There are lots of ways that Python packaging could be better.

The Bottom Line

The real takeaway here though, is that although it’s still not perfect, other languages are no longer doing appreciably better. Go is still working through a number of different options regarding dependency management and vendoring, and, like Python extensions that require C dependencies, CGo is sometimes necessary and always a problem. Node has had its own well-publicized problems with their dependency management culture and package manager. Hackage is cool and all but everything takes a literal geological epoch to compile.

As always, I’m sure none of this applies to Rust and Cargo is basically perfect, but that doesn’t matter, because nobody reading this is actually using Rust.

My point is not that packaging in any of these languages is particularly bad. They’re all actually doing pretty well, especially compared to the state of the general programming ecosystem a few years ago; many of them are making regular progress towards user-facing improvements.

My point is that any commentary suggesting they’re meaningfully better than Python at this point is probably just out of date. Working with Python packaging is more or less fine right now. It could be better, but lots of people are working on improving it, and the structural problems that prevented those improvements from being adopted by the community in a timely manner have almost all been addressed.

Go! Make some virtualenvs! Hack some setup.pys! If it’s been a while and your last experience was really miserable, I promise, it’s better now.


Am I wrong? Did I screw up a detail of your favorite language? Did I forget to mention the one language environment that has a completely perfect, flawless packaging story? Do you feel the need to just yell at a stranger on the Internet about picayune details? Feel free to get in touch!


  1. released in October, 2000 

  2. say that five times fast. 

  3. although I’m not sure what it means to “launch” when the site is online, and running against the production data-store, and you can use it for pretty much everything... 

  4. “app” meaning of course “docker container”