Project dependencies in Julia

When you work on a project using the Julia language most likely you will use some packages that are available in the Julia ecosystem. In particular, JuliaHub is a great place to look for packages that might be useful for you.

Most likely the first thing you start doing is adding the package to your default environment. This is the easiest thing to do, but has one significant downside — Julia package ecosystem is evolving very fast. This, in particular, means that during your project life cycle the versions of the packages provided by their maintainers can go up and introduce breaking changes. In consequence your code might suddenly stop working for no apparent reason.

In this post I have collected some practices I find useful to avoid such problems. Even if you do not end up using the functionalities of the Julia package manager I discuss on daily basis I think it is worth to be aware of their existence.

All examples were tested under Julia 1.4.1.

For every project keep a separate project environment

This is a basic rule. Unless I do quick-and-dirty interactive calculations I always create a project environment for my work.

Fortunately this is really easy. Just use generate command in the Julia package manager. The steps to achieve it are easy:

  1. start julia in the folder in which you want to create a project
  2. press ] character to enter package manager mode
  3. execute generate [target folder name] and press enter
  4. press backspace to leave this mode
  5. write exit()

Here is a screen shot of the session where I executed these steps:

~$ julia
               _
   _       _ _(_)_     |  Documentation: https://docs.julialang.org
  (_)     | (_) (_)    |
   _ _   _| |_  __ _   |  Type "?" for help, "]?" for Pkg help.
  | | | | | | |/ _` |  |
  | | |_| | | | (_| |  |  Version 1.4.1 (2020-04-14)
 _/ |\__'_|_|_|\__'_|  |  Official https://julialang.org/ release
|__/                   |

(@v1.4) pkg> generate test_project
 Generating  project test_project:
    test_project/Project.toml
    test_project/src/test_project.jl

julia> exit()
~$

Alternatively you can achieve this by running the following command:

~$ julia -e 'using Pkg; Pkg.generate("test_project")'
 Generating  project test_project:
    test_project/Project.toml
    test_project/src/test_project.jl
~$

When I use -e command Julia executes the commands that I pass and quits. In this case I loaded the Pkg module and executed Pkg.generate function that is a part of Pkg module API.

Let us check what is the contents of the test_project folder:

~$ cd test_project/
~/test_project$ ls -R
.:
Project.toml  src

./src:
test_project.jl
~/test_project$

You can see that two files were created: a Project.toml file in the top-level directory that specifies the dependencies of our project and src/test_project.jl which is a placeholder for our code. Let us quickly inspect their contents:

~/test_project$ cat Project.toml
name = "test_project"
uuid = "d78710ad-1861-4169-903b-684d2f77c7fa"
authors = ["Bogumił Kamiński <bkamins@sgh.waw.pl>"]
version = "0.1.0"
~/test_project$ cat src/test_project.jl
module test_project

greet() = print("Hello World!")

end # module
~/test_project$

You can change the contents or rename the test_project.jl file in whatever way you like, but do not touch Project.toml file as it contains the list of dependencies of your project (currently there are none). Here you can find the details of the specification of Project.toml file contents.

Now — a crucial step is that whenever you want to work with your project always activate the project environment specified by Project.toml file when starting Julia.

The easiest way to do it is to make sure that you are in the folder that contains Project.toml file and write:

~/test_project$ julia --project=.
               _
   _       _ _(_)_     |  Documentation: https://docs.julialang.org
  (_)     | (_) (_)    |
   _ _   _| |_  __ _   |  Type "?" for help, "]?" for Pkg help.
  | | | | | | |/ _` |  |
  | | |_| | | | (_| |  |  Version 1.4.1 (2020-04-14)
 _/ |\__'_|_|_|\__'_|  |  Official https://julialang.org/ release
|__/                   |

julia>

The --project=. part tells Julia to start the interpreter using Project.toml file from the current working directory as a specification of your dependencies.

I this post I discuss how to make Julia automatically activate the project environment in your current working directory on startup.

Now we can check that indeed we are in a correct project environment that is empty:

julia> using Pkg

julia> Pkg.status()
Project test_project v0.1.0
Status `~/test_project/Project.toml`
  (empty environment)

julia>

In the next section I discuss how to add packages to your project.

When adding packages use preserve=PRESERVE_DIRECT keyword argument

You can add dependencies to your project using the Pkg.add function in the project manager. You can find the list of the available options by running the help for the Pkg.add function (I omit the output here as it is long).

It is crucial that the Pkg.add function has a preserve keyword argument that tells Julia what it is allowed to do with the already installed packages. In this post I have discussed potential problems when multiple packages you install have conflicting dependencies. Therefore my practice is to use preserve=PRESERVE_DIRECT keyword argument. I do not want the packages that my code depends on to change versions (and if there is some conflict generated due to this restriction I prefer to get an error rather than a package version change). However, I typically allow changing versions of recursive dependencies as normally it should not affect my code.

Let me give an example how one can run such a command (in this case it does not really matter if we add the preserve=PRESERVE_DIRECT keyword argument as we do not have any packages installed):

julia> Pkg.add("Pipe", preserve=PRESERVE_DIRECT)
   Updating registry at `~/.julia/registries/General`
   Updating git-repo `https://github.com/JuliaRegistries/General.git`
  Resolving package versions...
   Updating `~/test_project/Project.toml`
  [b98c9c47] + Pipe v1.2.0
   Updating `~/test_project/Manifest.toml`
  [b98c9c47] + Pipe v1.2.0

julia>

If you are curious what Pipe.jl package does you can check it out here.

We are informed that Project.toml and Manifest.toml were updated. Let us inspect their contents from within Julia as an exercise:

julia> print(read("Project.toml", String))
name = "test_project"
uuid = "d78710ad-1861-4169-903b-684d2f77c7fa"
authors = ["Bogumił Kamiński <bkamins@sgh.waw.pl>"]
version = "0.1.0"

[deps]
Pipe = "b98c9c47-44ae-5843-9183-064241ee97a0"

julia> print(read("Manifest.toml", String))
# This file is machine-generated - editing it directly is not advised

[[Pipe]]
git-tree-sha1 = "f11840ebaf295b39319c2750f158621a96173fc5"
uuid = "b98c9c47-44ae-5843-9183-064241ee97a0"
version = "1.2.0"
julia>

In general Manifest.toml contains the exact specification of all dependencies of our project (direct and recursive) and Project.toml lists only essential information about direct dependencies.

Before we move on let me stress in what cases using preserve=PRESERVE_DIRECT is most important. Assume you have worked on some project for some time already. It had several packages as its dependencies. Now you decide that you need to add some new package to its direct dependencies. The potential problem is that it is possible (as you have worked on your project already for some time) that the packages that you have installed previously have new versions available. Most likely you do not want these packages to change their versions when you add a new package as your code might stop working. This is exactly what preserve=PRESERVE_DIRECT keyword argument safeguards you against.

When updating packages use level=UPDATELEVEL_PATCH option

However, if you work on a project for some time the packages that you depend on, might have released patches (e.g. bug fixes or documentation enhancements) that you want to allow in your project.

You can achieve such an update by running Pkg.update(level=UPDATELEVEL_PATCH). Here is an example of this command run:

julia> Pkg.update(level=UPDATELEVEL_PATCH)
   Updating registry at `~/.julia/registries/General`
   Updating git-repo `https://github.com/JuliaRegistries/General.git`
   Updating `~/test_project/Project.toml`
 [no changes]
   Updating `~/test_project/Manifest.toml`
 [no changes]

julia>

In this case nothing happened as we have just installed that package. To check out all the options of the Pkg.update function run its help. In particular, it is OK to allow changing major or minor versions of your dependencies when running the Pkg.update function, but remember that in this case your code might stop working correctly, so if you do this please make sure to test that your code produces the expected results after the update (and if it fails you can use the Pkg.undo() function to undo the latest change to the active project).

Final notes on using package manager

In this post I used the Pkg module API by calling functions. All this functionality is also available via a package manager, which you enter by pressing ] in the Julia command line. The names of the commands are the same, and you can get help on them by writing e.g. help add.