Pin All Dependencies (& Let Pip Sort ’Em Out)

Dustin Ingram discusses dependency pinning, when it's appropriate, why it’s a good idea, and how to do it.

by Dustin Ingram

There are significant advantages to explicitly declaring versions of your dependencies, both to the quality of your software products, your developers, and the open source community which makes up your custom software ecosystem.

In this post, I'll discuss what dependency pinning is, when it is appropriate to pin your dependencies, why it's a good idea, and how you should do it. I'll be focusing on the Python ecosystem, but it's likely that the same principles apply to your ecosystem as well.1

What is dependency pinning?

Dependency pinning is explicitly specifying the exact version of a dependency.

That means instead of your requirements.txt looking like this:


You have this:


Note that none of the following are considered to be pinned dependencies, simply because they all specify a range of possible versions:


Why should you pin your dependencies?

There are two main scenarios which pinning will help you avoid. I've seen both of these cause time-consuming and costly problems in the past, which would have been easily avoided:

Scenario #1: A broken new version

Most often, the issue that arises from not pinning your dependencies is when a maintainer releases a new version of some package that either has known breaking changes that you are unaware of, or has unknown (or just incompatible) changes that you haven't tested your software against.

If you haven't pinned your dependencies, the next time you go to deploy your software solution you'll get an automatic upgrade to the latest version, which will break your software if it has breaking changes.

Scenario #2: An insecure or incompatible old version

Ideally, when you deploy your software, you are creating a new environment from scratch and rebuilding it based on the dependencies you've specified every time. If you haven't pinned your dependencies, this would leave you with the possibility of the first scenario, but that's all.

However, this is not the case for many software projects. Keeping around an environment across multiple deployments is bad enough, but if this is combined with simply running pip install instead of pip install --upgrade upon a new build, this can result in an old version of a dependency hanging around longer than it should, which can rear its ugly head when it turns out that this version has a security issue, or that it's incompatible with some new dependency that you're introducing.

When should you pin a dependency?

Any dependencies which are required to run your software should be pinned.

Since packages published to package managers like PyPI are immutable,2 this means you're guaranteed to have a safe, repeatable build every time you deploy your software, even as new versions of your dependencies are released.

When should you not pin a dependency?

There are two distinct instances when it is not appropriate or necessary to pin the dependencies for your software:

Instance #1: Your software is a third-party module

If you are authoring an open-source, third-party module which itself will be a dependency for someone else's software, you should not pin your dependencies in your file. From the Python Packaging docs on requirements:

It is not considered best practice to use install_requires to pin dependencies to specific versions, or to specify sub-dependencies. This is overly-restrictive, and prevents the user from gaining the benefit of upgrades.

Instead you should specify a range which includes any potential future version or no range at all.

Instance #2: Your software has dependencies that are not deployed

Any dependencies that are not going to be deployed along with your application shouldn't be pinned. This means that any dependency used for local development, testing, or continuous integration only doesn't really need a specific version specified.3

A good best-practice that I follow is splitting your requirements up depending on what they're used for:

$ ls requirements/
main.txt  test.txt  lint.txt  development.txt

Here, only the main.txt dependencies are pinned, and everything else is un-pinned.

This means that your requirements.txt file looks like this:

-r requirements/main.txt

This is used when you pip install requirements.txt in production, and only installs pinned dependencies.

And the requirements/development.txt file looks like:

-r main.txt
-r test.txt
-r lint.txt

So when you're setting up your development environment locally, you just have to do pip install -r requirements/development.txt to install everything you need, including pinned and non-pinned dependencies.

This leads to a small problem though...

Out of date dependencies in local development environments

Now that you're pinning all your main dependencies, a small problem is that your developer's locally installed packages might quickly become out of date. Usually this won't create any problems if all your dependencies are perfectly forwards-compatible. However, in practice, this isn't always the case, and when one developer updates the pin for a given dependency, tests might start failing locally for another developer.

There are a couple possible solutions to this problem:

  • Automatically update local dependencies: This would either update local dependencies on some kind of Git hook when they change, or check for updates before every run of the test suite.
  • Make sure developers manually update dependencies: This would mean that every developer is keeping an eye on new PRs, and knows when they need to update, and then actually does update their dependencies.
  • Just let the tests fail: If we don't do anything, any dependency change that isn't forwards-compatible will break the build, and the developer can just figure it out.

Personally I'm not really satisfied with these approaches because they all have one or more of the following downsides:

  • It slows down a git pull or a run of the test suite significantly.
  • It magically changes local dependencies, which could be unexpected or downright irksome if you're trying to specifically test some version of a dependency.
  • It depends on developers fastidiously monitoring every change.
  • It wastes the developer's time with cryptic error messages.

To address this, I created a py.test plugin called pytest-reqs, which checks your requirements files for specific versions, and compares those versions with the installed libraries in your local environment, failing your test suite if any are invalid or out of date.4,5

Out of date dependencies in your requirements files

The final piece to the coding puzzle is actually keeping your pinned dependencies up to date as part of your project management. Because we're all good developers (read: lazy), ideally this would be automated. Luckily, a number of services have your back:

All of these will auto-detect pinned dependencies in your repository, as well as keep an eye on new releases to PyPI, and will issue a pull request (with varying degrees of context) against your repository.

The main advantages to using one of these services are:

  • You immediately get new fresh-baked delicious dependencies delivered right to your Git repo.
  • Assuming you have some form of continuous integration running, you'll know right away if you have some work to do to upgrade a specific dependency.
  • Alternatively, you'll also know right away if you can upgrade seamlessly to a fancy new version.
  • If a new version of a dependency breaks your build, and it's actually a bug in the new release, you get to be the person who brings it to the maintainer's attention!6

Momentum in the ecosystem

The one extra advantage to pinning dependencies is that it moves the ecosystem as a whole forward. This isn't a direct advantage to you as a developer, but eventually you get dividends on this investment: the more people that are living out on the bleeding edge, the more feedback software authors get on latest versions, the more pressure they feel to fix bugs and incompatibilities, and the entire community benefits as a result.

Thanks to Patrick Smith for reading drafts of this post.

  1. Or have already been applied to your ecosystem for you.

  2. Unless you’re using NPM.

  3. Unless absolutely necessary. It’s still possible that you might need to add some specifiers if a particular version breaks the build, but you shouldn’t need to pin them.

  4. This also has the nice added bonus of acting as a linter for your requirements files!

  5. Ironically, this package currently depends on undocumented internal APIs of pip (Sorry, Donald) and will probably break someday and leave me scrambling to fix it. At least no one will be depending on it in prod (I hope).

  6. Or if you’re really cool, you can just make a pull request instead.

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