Using virtualenv to replace the broken pip install --user (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 08 Jan 2017

Using virtualenv to replace the broken pip install --user

Python's installation tool, pip, has some problems on Debian.

The obvious way to use pip is as root: sudo pip install packagename. If you hang out in Python groups at all, you'll quickly find that this is strongly frowned upon. It can lead to your pip-installed packages intermingling with the ones installed by Debian's apt-get, possibly causing problems during apt system updates.

The second most obvious way, as you'll see if you read pip's man page, is pip --user install packagename. This installs the package with only user permissions, not root, under a directory called ~/.local. Python automatically checks .local as part of its PYTHONPATH, and you can add ~/.local/bin to your PATH, so this makes everything transparent.

Or so I thought until recently, when I discovered that pip install --user ignores system-installed packages when it's calculating its dependencies, so you could end up with a bunch of incompatible versions of packages installed. Plus it takes forever to re-download and re-install dependencies you already had.

Pip has a clear page describing how pip --user is supposed to work, and that isn't what it's doing. So I filed pip bug 4222; but since pip has 687 open bugs filed against it, I'm not terrifically hopeful of that getting fixed any time soon. So I needed a workaround.

Use virtualenv instead of --user

Fortunately, it turned out that pip install works correctly in a virtualenv if you include the --system-site-packages option. I had thought virtualenvs were for testing, but quite a few people on #python said they used virtualenvs all the time, as part of their normal runtime environments. (Maybe due to pip's deficiencies?) I had heard people speak deprecatingly of --user in favor of virtualenvs but was never clear why; maybe this is why.

So, what I needed was to set up a virtualenv that I can keep around all the time and use by default every time I log in. I called it ~/.pythonenv when I created it:

virtualenv --system-site-packages $HOME/.pythonenv

Normally, the next thing you do after creating a virtualenv is to source a script called bin/activate inside the venv. That sets up your PATH, PYTHONPATH and a bunch of other variables so the venv will be used in all the right ways. But activate also changes your prompt, which I didn't want in my normal runtime environment. So I stuck this in my .zlogin file:

VIRTUAL_ENV_DISABLE_PROMPT=1 source $HOME/.pythonenv/bin/activate

Now I'll activate the venv once, when I log in (and once in every xterm window since I set XTerm*loginShell: true in my .Xdefaults. I see my normal prompt, I can use the normal Debian-installed Python packages, and I can install additional PyPI packages with pip install packagename (no --user, no sudo).

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