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The Python Packaging Hell: Delusions of Formats (3 / 7)

Python packaging can sometimes be a nightmare. But, by the way, what is a package? Obviously, as nothing is simple, as nothing will be spared, the non-answer to this question is: it depends…


This article is part of a series of tearful articles about Python packaging:

  1. The Can of Worms
  2. The Roots of Evil
  3. Delusions of Formats
  4. Files Everywhere
  5. The Toolbox
  6. The Expression of Needs
  7. The Minimal Solution

Before starting, we would like to send a lot of love to the members of the PyPA team. We complain a lot in this series, but we have a lot of respect for the sisyphean work already done.

That being said, let’s start (again) the whining 😭.


A Package?

If you’re here, you may have already installed a Python package in your life. You may have used a virtual environment, used pip or installed a module proposed by your distribution. You have probably succeeded, in a way or another, to put Python libraries somewhere on your computer.

PyPI’s logo
Nice Python packages are appealing, but in real life…

First, when we talk about Python packages, we have to be clear. And it’s not easy, because it doesn’t exist only one format, but a swarm of them.

(Caution: this presentation is not meant to be exhaustive, and we’re not going to have a look at all the things that existed and still exist (here’s a small insight to satisfy your curiosity). We’ll also take shortcuts, take liberties with the truth, just to give a chance to this article to be a minimum readable and easily digestible.)


The easiest way to distribute Python code is to transform it into an archive, and to send this archive as is. That’s more or less what happens when we choose to create a source package for a Python module.

As simple it may be, this method requires some configuration. We have to determinate which files are included in the archive, including metadata and configuration files for third-party tools (Tox, Coverage, Pytest…).

So, this archive is quite simple to create, but it comes with a big problem: there’s no particular structure, no defined template for metadata. It provides the files and allows the installer to install them, just like it would do with a folder containing the source code on your hard drive.

So what? Well, when you really think about it, this limitation is absolutely terrible, in many aspects.

The first aspect is the management of dependencies. Packages depend on other packages, as you may know. And without any other metadata, the installer is obliged to read, for example, the file. Now, you have an insight of the problem: if we need to execute a Python file to know the dependencies of a package (and, recursively, its own dependencies!), you’re going to spend a lot of time downloading packages, executing code, solving dependencies, downloading, executing, solving, downloading… In short: dependencies can’t be solved from a simple static tree, all the nodes are dynamic. And if you’re wondering: yes, this is hell.

It doesn’t stop here. Installation too requires code execution, as it depends on the file. For simple Python in simple packages, it’s not that annoying, but it’s another story when we need to compile C, for example. Users need to install the tools required to install everything that’s specific to the operating system or the Python version. That’s complex for users, and that’s a never-ending source of bugs.

Despite its limitations, this format will probably be necessary for a long time. For a lot of reasons, we may want to get the source code in the simplest format. Disastrous consequence: the tools required to install Python packages will have to deal with this format, and all its complex mechanisms, for very long years.


To make up for these failures, a package format has been created in 2004: eggs.

Besides the classic reference to the Monty Python, this idea comes with good intentions: building additional information allowing the project dependencies to be checked and satisfied at runtime. At the time, this format allowed above all to use easy_install to easily install (!) a module and its dependencies. It allowed to include ready-to-use modules, with C extensions already compiled. It also allowed, thanks to namespaces, to distribute plugins. And, above all, it could directly be put in a place accessible for Python, without any additional installation.

Built on top of setuptools, it brought a lot of changes that seem obvious today: dependencies with fixed versions, precomputed metadata, possibility to reach metadata and files from the module code…

Awesome 🎆👏🐈😍.

However, eggs have been quickly outmoded because of their really innovative (it’s a joke, it’s totally copied from Java’s jars) and totally flawed (it’s not a joke) architecture. Using an archive format that doesn’t require the code to be extracted makes error management very complex, with traces leading to untraceable files. Including bytecode makes eggs potentially depend on a Python version, and including compiled files makes them deeply linked to an architecture.

And above all … the format isn’t specified, giving to the "official" implementation an immoderate importance. The successive additions to setuptools, sometimes loosely or not at all documented, transformed the format into a crazy Russian roulette game where retro-compatibility, reproducibility and simplicity are constantly, blithely, mercilessly neglected. The ways to make eggs usable by the interpreter have been expended to deal with more and more complex cases, until it became a big pile of solutions based on symbolic links, files containing absolute paths, archives temporarily extracted, and other abominations that we’ll wisely leave in their Pandora’s box.


After this little youthful error, that can actually break the mind of any person equipped with a normal brain, a PEP appeared to make everyone come to an agreement: PEP 427, introducing wheels.

Wheels were, at the beginning in 2012, a wholesome evolution of eggs, including good ideas without keeping abominations. Finally, we got a nice specification with a lot of nice specified improvements, allowing many tools to work together without depending on implementation details.

The amazing idea (amazing, yes, I mean it) of wheels is to include some information in the filename, considerably simplifying dependencies management. Is the code to include different, depending on the Python version? Are the extensions compiled differently, depending the operating system? Then we can distribute different wheels for the same version of a module, and the installer will deal with that to find the appropriate version.

Wheels also embed metadata with a specified format (see PEP 345). This format allows to describe, in a complex way, conditional dependencies, external dependencies, and supported Python versions. Globally, we have all we need to correctly manage code distribution, easy installation, and build a static tree of dependencies.

Nowadays, everyone should use wheels to distribute and install packages. If everything’s not perfect to manage Python packages, wheels are today the most significant example of what works very well. They allow a smooth transition to have a situation where eggs have widely disappeared, and where source packages are less and less used … thanks to a software ecosystem created around this new format and a clever retro-compatibility system.

Yes, wheels are amazing, but all of that wouldn’t be possible without the preliminary arrival of pip, in 2008, designed to replace easy_install. But don’t go too fast! We’ll have the time to come back to this later, in our next articles…

To be continued…