Managing Dependencies in Python Applications

How to build reliable environments, share internal libraries, and migrate major versions in a growing organization.

Managing dependencies is hard. Managing 3rd-party dependencies, which might not share your interpretation of semver, is even harder. Doing this with many internal libraries, each with their own dependency constraints, each maintained by independent programming teams, makes for a collection of fun puzzles.

In the Beginning

Consider the starter approach that a small monolithic application might take. This could be a web app built on flask, or a command-line tool built on click. In the beginning, the application specifies its dependencies in requirements.txt. A minimal requirements.txt could look like:

# requirements.txt

This setup would not last very long. As release cadence increases, the risk of pulling in a breaking version of some updated package becomes intolerable. The programming team immediately succumbs to the temptation to pin all dependencies, only to run into pip#988, as well as other diamond dependency problems.

We should just pin everything.
— every Flask developer, 3 weeks into it

# requirements.txt
# with pinned versions of immediate dependencies

Furthermore, notice that Flask depends on jinja>=2.10. Without an upper bound on jinja, the latest version of jinja will always be pulled during a rebuild of the environment. There is no guarantee that even after pinning the versions of immediate dependencies, these packages would not pull in breaking versions of transitive dependencies.

Building Reproducible Environments

At this point, it becomes apparent that we need to start using lock files to enumerate and pin all transitive dependencies — the python’s equivalent of Gemfile.lock in Ruby, or Cargo.lock in Rust.

In Python, we can use pip-tools:

$ pip-compile --output-file requirements.txt

or the newer pipenv:

$ pipenv lock   # newer alternative

The produced lock file is committed to SCM and contains the pinned versions of all immediate and transitive dependencies. In our example above, the application’s lock file would look like:

The output of `pip-compile` (or `pipenv lock`)

The application also needs some reasonable distribution mechanism that packages the environment with the application code e.g. docker images, debian/rpm packages¹. At this point, we have a versioned artifact that

  • contains the entire application,
  • pins all dependencies required to run the application,
  • is reproducible from source control, and
  • can be deployed onto multiple hosts.

This is the minimum required to create an environment that is reproducible in CI and in production. We call this the monolith.

Sharing Internal Libraries

The above approach would work for a monolithic application. Soon, the organization grows and develops more applications and (micro)services. With the right APIs, sharing internal libraries can be very useful, not just for code reuse, but to ensure implementation consistency. Predictably, some internal libraries emerge.

Don’t Repeat Yourself.
— Some C.S. sophomore

We surmise that:

There are other ways to organize this, but managing multiple repositories and supporting multiple versions of internal libraries get messy quickly.

We went from having 1 dependency management problem to having n dependency management problems. Consider this conundrum: how can an internal library update its dependencies? Would this have to be done in lock-step, which forces us to update all the applications all at once?

A puzzle I played as a kid. The goal was to escape the parking lot by sliding the other cars around.

Managing Multiple Applications

One possible approach to avoid lock-step upgrades is to require all internal libraries to support a sufficiently wide range of versions of its 3rd-party dependencies. The organization can enforce, using a linter, that all internal libraries use the compatible release notation ~= instead of == when specifying 3rd-party dependencies.

For example, suppose some internal library depends on requests. This library may declare its dependency on requests like so:

Using requests~=2.10 constrains us to requests>=2.10,<3

When the maintainer of said internal library wishes to upgrade the version of requests from 2.10to 2.19, they can work with each application to upgrade them one at a time.

With pipenv, this can be done using:

$ pipenv update requests  # updates Pipfile.lock
$ pipenv lock --keep-outdated

Since both 2.10 and 2.19 satisfy ~=2.10, some applications can stay on the older version of requests, while others get upgraded. The maintainer does not have to upgrade all applications at once. The compatible release notation buys us this flexibility, and both pip-compile and pipenv will accept that the modified lock files meet all the specified version constraints.

Once all applications have been upgraded, the increased functionality that requires requests>=2.19 can be introduced into the internal library. Our intrepid maintainer then updates the library’s dependencies to reflect this fact:

# Pipfile example
requests = '~=2.19'

With this approach, a conservative maintainer would also run the test suite of the internal library against each version of requests that they are supporting in the interim.

Maybe we shouldn’t add that dependency.
— C.S. sophomore from above, now a Tech Lead

If a 3rd-party library breaks API compatibility within the same major version, we are compelled to add a upper bound on the version constraint e.g. ~=2.10,<=2.19. When that happens, a lock-step upgrade will be required to move into the breaking version, unless the internal library is able to provide an adapter. Welcome to software development.

Migrating Major Versions with Shading

Occasionally, maintainers of 3rd-party libraries break compatibility with a new major version. The most popular libraries can be deeply embedded across multiple applications and internal libraries, often in many call sites within each, making the migration tedious. Moreover, without a full understanding of all the breaking changes, upgrading in one fell swoop can be risky.

At Affirm, we have successfully borrowed the shading technique from maven to carry out one such migration. By cloning the 3rd-party library, renaming it, and releasing it to an internal Artifactory registry, we were able to allow 2 versions of the library to coexist in the same environment.

Using luigi 1.x and luigi 2.x in the same Python process

This shading technique has 2 advantages:

  1. the migration work can be farmed out to the various maintainers of applications and internal libraries which use luigi, since we no longer have to upgrade all at once; and
  2. each chunk of migration is easy to roll back, and with each incremental migration, the risk decreases as we accumulate experience.

Unfortunately, there is one important drawback: should the 3rd-party library have a large set of transitive dependencies, it may be necessary to shade all of them to obtain a viable installation of both major versions in the same environment. This is not always feasible.

Solving Dependency Puzzles

Managing dependencies is hard, especially in a fast moving organization with multiple products and applications. While we strive to keep our dependency trees as small as we can, some 3rd-party dependencies are unavoidable. With some smart rules and workflows, it is possible to construct something sane without spending all your time sorting out dependency conflicts.

If you know of other/better techniques for managing dependencies in a mono-repo with >100 developers, I would love to hear about them.

¹on deb/rpm: note that virtualenvs are not quite relocatable.

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James Lim

James Lim

Engineering@Modern Treasury (ex-Affirm, ex-Samsara) -

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