James CookeJames Cooke

A successful pip-tools workflow for managing Python package requirements

In this post I present the pip-tools workflow I’ve been using over a number of projects to manage multiple inherited requirements files. At its core is a GNU Make Makefile to provide recipes for managing requirements and specifying the dependencies between the requirements files.

If you are not aware of the excellent pip-tools package it provides two commands: pip-compile and pip-sync. In this post I will be focusing on using pip-compile to compile .in files consisting of top level requirements.

pip-compile consults the PyPI index for each top level package required, looking up the package versions available, outputting a specific list of pinned packages in a .txt file. This extra layer of abstraction (.in files containing top level requirements rather than just outputting .txt files with pip freeze) is very helpful for managing requirements, but does create some complications which mean that a solid workflow is essential for stable package management.

Update 13/10/2019

This post has been updated to use -c constraint files rather than -r recursive inclusion. More info at the end of the post.

Keep requirements files in their own folder

In order to preserve sanity, I keep my project requirements in their own folder directly inside the project.

$ cd project
$ ls requirements/
base.in  base.txt  Makefile  test.in  test.txt

During this post, I’ll use this simple example with one set of “base” requirements and one set of “test” requirements.

Store .in and .txt files in version control

Both .in and .txt files are tracked in the project’s revision control system, for example git. This allows for shipping of the compiled .txt files for installation, but more importantly, it presents the opportunity to check the diff of .txt files when upgrading packages.

I also tend to keep .in files sorted alphabetically.

Set .in files to depend on .txt files

In the example project there are base.in and test.in requirements files:

  • base.in compiles to base.txt
  • test.in compiles to test.txt

I want the test requirements to be compiled to respect the versions of the base packages so that they can be installed without disrupting those selected versions. Therefore I set test.in to be constrained by the base.txt compiled requirements with -c:

base.in contains:


test.in contains:

-c base.txt


Use a Makefile for common tasks

On each project that has multiple requirements files, I use a Makefile and place it in the requirements folder.

.PHONY: all check clean

objects = $(wildcard *.in)
outputs := $(objects:.in=.txt)

all: $(outputs)

%.txt: %.in
    pip-compile -v --output-file $@ $<

test.txt: base.txt

    @which pip-compile > /dev/null

clean: check
    - rm *.txt

Here is [a similar] file in a current project.

Note 1: This is an updated version of the Makefile that I have been using. There are no clean or check recipes.

Note 2: make requires recipes to be indented by tabs, so if you want to copy this file then it could be helpful to pull the raw file from Github rather than copying and pasting from this page which does not show tab characters.

Let’s go over the key functionality provided by this Makefile:

  • First two definitions:

    objects = $(wildcard *.in)

    objects is a list containing every .in file in requirements folder.

    outputs := $(objects:.in=.txt)

    outputs is also a list made of one .txt filename for each .in file in the outputs list. The .txt files do not need to exist yet, this list tells make what they should be called.

  • A recipe called all to build all .txt files:

    all: $(outputs)

    The all recipe has no commands of its own - it solely depends on all the .txt files in the outputs list being built. In order to fulfil this recipe, make will attempt to build every .txt file in the objects list.

  • Up until now, make does not know how to build a .txt file, so here we give it a recipe:

    %.txt: %.in
        pip-compile -v --output-file $@ $<

    The first line tells make that any .txt file depends on the .in file with the same name. make will check the date stamp on the two files and compare them - if the .txt file is older than the .in file or does not exist, then make will build it.

    The next line tells make the command to use to perform the build - it is the pip-compile command with the following flags:

    • -v means pip-compile will give verbose output. I find this helpful for general watchfulness, but you may prefer to remove it.
    • output-file $@ means “send the output to the target of the recipe”, which is the .txt file we’ve asked to be made. For example when invoking make base.txt, then --output-file base.txt will be passed.
    • $< at the end is the corresponding .in input file. Make matches the names using the % sign in the recipe, so it knows to build base.txt from base.in.
  • Now we tell make about the dependency between the requirements files.

    test.txt: base.txt

    This creates a dependency chain. This is an additional recipe for test.txt which tells make that it depends on base.txt. That means that if make is asked to build test.txt, then it should be updated if test.in or base.txt have been updated.

    If base.in is updated, then make knows that it will need to recompile base.txt in order to make test.txt. We can see that here:

    $ touch base.in       # Update timestamp on base.in
    $ make -n test.txt    # What commands will be run to build test.txt
    pip-compile -v --output-file base.txt base.in
    pip-compile -v --output-file test.txt test.in

    This is exactly what we want for requirements constraining. If the requirements in our base have changed, then we want our test file to be recompiled too because of the -c base.txt line we added to the test.in file.

    Of course, this is a trivial example, but I have used multiple lines of dependency in Makefiles to manage multiple levels of inheritance in requirements files.

  • Finally, a recipe to help us update requirements.

        @which pip-compile > /dev/null
    clean: check
        - rm *.txt

    The check recipe will fail if pip-tools is not installed.

    The clean recipe will remove all the .txt files if the check recipe is successful. This makes it harder to accidentally delete your requirements files without pip-tools already installed to be able to build them again.

I’ve explained what the Makefile above does, but not how or when you would use it. So let’s continue with some common workflow actions.

Build one or more requirements files

To update all requirements use the default all recipe.

$ make all

To update a particular file, ask for it by name:

$ make test.txt

If make tells you that a file is up-to-date but you want to force it to be rebuilt you should touch the .in file.

$ make base.txt
make: 'base.txt' is up to date.
$ touch base.in
$ make base.txt
pip-compile -v --output-file base.txt base.in

Add a dependency

To add a dependency, locate the appropriate .in file and add the new package name there. The version number is only required if a particular version of the library is required. The latest version will be chosen by default when compiling.

$ cat >> base.in
$ make all

Update a package

In order to update a single top level package version, remove its lines from the compiled corresponding .txt files. I tend to be quite “aggressive” with this and remove every package that the top level package depended on using sed with a pattern match.

Given that I want to update ipython and it is not pinned in my .in file:

$ sed '/ipython/d' -i *.txt
$ make all

There is no command for this removal built into the Makefile, but potentially it could be. Ideally, it could be provided as extra functionality by pip-tools. Beware that packages often contain each other’s names as substrings so could lead to bad matching. If in doubt review your diff and potentially remove lines from your .txt files manually.

The call to make all will reevaluate the latest version for packages that do not have corresponding lines in the .txt file and they will be updated as required.

Update all requirements

A full update of all requirements to the latest version (including updating all packages that are not pinned in the .in file with a particular version number) can be achieved with:

$ make clean all

The clean recipe will clean out all *.txt files if you have pip-tools installed. Then the all recipe will rebuild them all in dependency order.


A tip for working with Makefiles. If you want to see what commands will be run by a recipe, you can use the -n flag and inspect the commands that were planned:

$ make -n all

Happy requirements packing!

Update 21/11/2016

For more information on the advantages and disadvantages of setting recursive requirements to point at .in files or .txt files please see this Issue on the pip-tools repository.

In particular, my comment illustrates how development requirements can become out of sync with base requirements when .in files are used in recursion which does not happen when .txt files are used. It’s for this reason, that I continue to recommend pointing at .txt files with -r.

Update 30/06/2017

See also this comment on GitHub from Devin Fee for a Makefile which:

… corrects the annoyance -e file:///Users/dfee/code/zebra -> -e ., making the file useful for users who don’t develop / deploy from your directory.

Update 13/10/2019

This pull request updated the pip-tools README to include info on creating layered requirements files using -c constraints. The use of -c came up in this long running issue discussing layered requirements and how to ensure that each layer is compatible with the others.

I think that -c constraints are much better than -r inclusion and have updated the post to reflect that.