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Astropy Setup Helpers

author: Erik M. Bray

date-created: 2013 December 26

date-last-revised: 2014 June 28

date-accepted: 2014 June 28

type: Process

status: Accepted


This proposes a new Python package tentatively named astropy_helpers that would be developed in parallel with Astropy, but distributed as a separate product with its own release cycle. It would contain all the utilities used to build and distribute Astropy packaged in such a way that they can be used by Astropy itself, as well as by Astropy affiliated packages. astropy_helpers has no dependency on Astropy as it is used to build and install Astropy itself and other packages that may or may not depend on Astropy.

Detailed description


Astropy uses the standard Python tools of distutils with extensions from setuptools and other third-party extensions to handle tasks related to build and installing Astropy, as well as creating and uploading source and binary distributions of Astropy. Interaction with these tools is primarily through the script that is commonly shipped with Python projects.

Astropy also includes a collection of "helpers" that extend and enhance the built-in functionality of distutils and setuptools, as well incorporate workarounds for some of the shortcomings of those tools and patches for platform-specific issues that may not yet be addressed in any official Python releases. These helpers are currently implemented in submodules of the astropy package. This means that in order to even build Astropy itself from source, much less any affiliated package that uses Astropy's helpers, it must be possible to add those modules to Python's import path and import them when running the project's script. Since contains executable Python code describing the project's metadata, it is necessary for it to be executable for programs like pip to even extract basic information about the project needed at installation time.

In particular, when both pip and easy_install install a package from a source distribution, they first run the egg_info command, which generates all the project's metadata in a plain-text format. The wisdom of requiring essentially arbitrary code to be executed in order to determine a package's metadata is doubtful, but it is currently the reality we have to work with.

Requiring the astropy package in its entirety to be importable for that purpose places an unnecessary burden on affiliated packages that wish to take advantage of these helpers: It means that Astropy must be fully installed before their users can install the affiliated package, even if the affiliated package only has astropy as an optional runtime dependency. This makes it difficult to impossible for developers of affiliated packages to be able to provide their users a simple set of instructions such as pip install <projectname> for installing their product. As it is, pip install astropy is always a prerequisite step.

There is a feature of setuptools that allows a project's to provide a list of setup_requires packages--these are packages that must be available at build/installation time for that project's to fully function. If a package listed in setup_requires is not immediately available, the default behavior is to obtain that package from PyPI and temporarily add it to Python's import path just for the purposes of running the script.

However, Astropy is a rather large and cumbersome package to use in the context of setup_requires. Because using Astropy requires a number of C extensions to be compiled and other complexities it is entirely possible for it to fail even temporary installation, leading to further confusion by users who may just be trying to install an affiliated package.

For the above reasons we propose separating all of Astropy's build/installation helpers into a separate project/Python package tentatively named astropy_helpers that is released and distributed independently of Astropy itself. It is intended to be used as a setup_requires package for use by Astropy's own, and equivalently by that of affiliated packages.

A major advantage of having an independent release cycle for astropy_helpers is that we can respond quickly to installation problems by deploying a new astropy-helpers bugfix release without having to do a full new release of Astropy itself. Then any affiliated packages that use astropy-helpers immediately benefit as well. This is especially useful for responding to installation bugs introduced by external factors such as changes in pip or setuptools, or platform-specific issues (such as OSX changing the default compiler).


Throughout the rest of this APE the term astropy_helpers in teletype or double-backticks depending on the rendering is used to refer to the actual Python module of the same name, while "astropy-helpers" with a hyphen instead of an underscore refers to the project as it is distributed on PyPI. This is partly due to a historically pecularity in Python project naming that prefers hyphens over underscores.

Branches and pull requests

A repository for the astropy_helpers project has already been created on GitHub at

astropy_helpers PR #1 contains an initial implementation of the astropy_helpers package as described in the Implementation section below.

Astropy PR #1563 contains the necessary changes to Astropy for it to use astropy_helpers is its It also includes the entire astropy_helpers repository as a git submodule in the Astropy repository.

Finally, a PR to the package-template repostory, #46 <>, updates the affiliated package template to use the machinery availabe in astropy_helpers rather than depending on astropy itself.

These PRs have already been merged into the master branches of their respective repositories. It was determined that prior to final acceptance of this APE we should see how the proposed implementation works in pracice so that any tweaks can be made if necessary.


astropy_helpers package contents

The initial version of this proposal recommends moving the astropy.setup_helpers, astropy.version_helpers, and astropy.sphinx modules into the astropy_helpers package. These modules need not retain the same names within the astropy_helpers and their contents may be subdivided into new modules in later versions of astropy-helpers.. A sample implementation including these modules is provided along with this APE (see Branches and pull requests below).

A brief overview of the functionality in these modules includes:

  • Various utilities for querying distutils for information about the package being installed, as well as the commands and options passed to the script by the user.
  • Workarounds to known issues in distutils and setuptools, as well as tweaks related to platform-specific issues, such as buggy default C compilers.
  • Tools for generating and updating a submodule in the package being built. This file contains information such as the release version, the most recent VCS revision, and other information regarding provenance of the installed package.
  • Tools for gathering build instructions from various subpackages of the package, allowing the top-level to be simpler (similarly to per-directory Makefiles).
  • Utilities for use in configuring C modules, such as tools for querying pkg-config for library paths.
  • Extensions to the default commands, including but not limited to:
    • A custom build_ext with extensions for handling Cython modules (in particular allowing them to be built without having Cython installed so long as the generated C sources are included in the source distribution).
    • A custom build_py that allows skipping running 2to3 on source modules that already support Python 2 and 3 simultaneously.
    • A bdist_dmg command for building DMG distributions of Astropy for OSX.
  • All Sphinx extensions used to build the Astropy and affiliated package documentation, including the HTML template used for the Astropy documentation. Including the Sphinx extensions allows affiliated packages to run automated documentation builds without requiring all of Astropy as a prerequisite.

The astropy_helpers package also provides a ._compiler module based (and intended to replace) the astropy.utils._compiler module, the purpose of which is to record information about the compiler used to compile C extension modules. Currently, affiliated packages that wish to have this functionality must include their own packagename._compiler module as a standard part of the affiliated package template. Instead, it can now be provided by astropy_helpers just as it generates the packagename.version module.

Astropy's bundled copy of py.test and associated plug-ins are not distributed as part of astropy-helpers. All functionality in astropy-helpers is intended for use only when building and installing a package, that is, running its As Astropy and most affiliated packages provide a packagename.test() facility that can be used with installed versions of the package, the test runner should be considered a runtime dependency that should always be installed on the host system. Furthermore, as most Astropy affiliated packages depend on Astropy itself to run, it is reasonable to require Astropy to be installed in order to run the tests.

Integration with astropy_helpers

There are a few possibilities for integrating astropy_helpers into a project, but the most agreeable solution seems to be one that combines the best of both worlds for both audiences: Astropy developers, and users who only wish to install Astropy, and subcategories therein. It also gives authors of affiliated packages choices in how they want to use astropy_helpers in their package.

The current sample implementation provides three means of including astropy_helpers in a project, though there is a possibility for adding more in the future:

astropy_helpers as a Git submodule

Submodules are an officially supported mechanism in Git for including an entire Git repository as a subdirectory of another Git repository as a means of "vendoring" other projects. In this case, as astropy_helpers is developed in its own repository, it can be included in Astropy's main repository as a submodule.

This solution is intended primarily for Astropy and affiliated package developers: When they clone the Astropy repository they will get astropy_helpers as a submodule. When running Astropy's the path of the astropy_helpers Git submodule is added to sys.path so that the astropy_helpers package is importable. This copy of astropy_helpers would not be included in the official source distributions of Astropy as released on PyPI.

There is one complexity of using Git submodules in this manner: When one clones a Git repository containing submodules, by default the submodules are not initialized. Instead they are left as empty directories in the repository until the user manually runs git submodule update --init in order to clone the submodules. Furthermore, during normal development they must manually run git submodule update to ensure they are always using the latest revision of the submodule required by Astropy.

However, there is a workaround to this complexity that takes a lot of thinking out of it. It has been pointed out that the IPython project, which has also started using submodules for some of its features, resolves this issue by automatically running the appropriate git submodule commands whenever its script is run, thus ensuring that the submodules are always available and up to date when developers build IPython. In Astropy and affiliated packages we can do something similar. But rather than copy/paste the same boilerplate into every, we provide a bootstrap script that projects can include in their repositories that handles this for us. See astropy_helpers bootstrap script below.

By automating the process of updating submodules, most Astropy developers need not even be aware of the use of submodules unless they are actively involved in updating astropy_helpers. When testing changes to astropy_helpers against Astropy itself it may be useful to disable the automatic git submodule updates. Options for this are discussed later in this APE.

astropy_helpers via setup_requires

As explained earlier in this APE, setuptools provides a mechanism for listing build-time dependencies that must be satisfied in order to run commands for that project. If the user's system does not already satisfy that dependency, it is downloaded from PyPI (by default), extracted from its source archive, and installed to a temporary location that is added to sys.path for use only for the duration of installation of the package that requested it.

This is the generally preferred approach for providing astropy-helpers to users installing Astropy or affiliated packages. In general, the user does not need to be aware of astropy-helpers or to go through an extra step of installing it first. So long as they are connected to the internet it will just work. That said, it should still be mentioned in the documentation, in particular for the benefit of users who need to be able to perform offline installations.

There is one major shortcoming to the setup_requires approach that is worth explaining: Every script ends by calling a function called setup() that is the entry point to distutils/setuptools. All of the project's metadata, including setup_requires, is provided to distutils as arguments to the setup() function. However, many of the tools provided by astropy_helpers have the purpose of generating that metadata that is passed through setup(). So it is necessary to be able to import the astropy_helpers package before the call to setup(), even though the list of setup_requires packages is not processed until setup() is called, making it seemingly unhelpful for this purpose.

There is however a workaround to this problem by going through setuptools' public API to force the temporary installation of build-time dependencies in the same manner that it does for setup_requires. This workaround is implemented by the astropy_helpers bootstrap script, so as long as that script is imported at the beginning of a project's it will ensure that the astropy_helpers package is importable.

astropy_helpers as a bundled source archive

Although not used by Astropy itself, projects wishing to require astropy-helpers also have the option of including an archive containing the astropy_helpers package (such as a gzipped tarball or egg file) in their repository and/or source distribution. This has the advantage of pinning to a "known good" version of astropy-helpers.

This works exactly the same as setup_requires in that the source archive is unpacked and installed to a temporary location. The only difference is that it does not need to download the package from PyPI, and thus can be used for offline installations.

One disadvantage of this approach (or any other that involves "bundling" astropy-helpers with one's source code, is that the bundled version may be missing critical bug fixes. To address this shortcoming, a mechanism is provided in the `astropy_helpers boostrap script`_ to automatically update to the latest bugfix release of astropy-helpers available on PyPI if it is newer than the bundled version. This auto-upgrade feature can be disabled for offline installation.

astropy_helpers bootstrap script

To simplify integration of packages with astropy_helpers, a "bootstrap" script, tentatively named, is provided. This is similar in some ways to the bootstrap script provided by the setuptools project to enable setuptools on systems where it is not already installed.

Projects wishing to use astropy_helpers should copy to the root of their project's repository. Then they should add to the beginning of their (before any modules from distutils or setuptools are imported):

import ah_bootstrap

And in their setup.cfg they should add:

auto_use = True

By default simply importing ah_bootstrap does not do anything but read the setup.cfg and read options out of the [ah_bootstrap] section. These options are used to provide arguments to a function called ah_bootstrap.use_astropy_helpers(). But this function is not actually called without the auto_use = True option. Alternatively, one can forgo the auto_use feature and explicitly call use_astropy_helpers() in their like so:

from ah_bootstrap import use_astropy_helpers

The default behavior of the use_astropy_helpers() function depends on the context in which the was run. If run from a cloned Git repository, it first checks for a submodule also named "astropy_helpers" at the root of the repository. If found, it ensures that submodule is initialized and up to date, then inserts it on sys.path so that the astropy_helpers package can be imported from it. If run from an unpacked source archive, that does not include astropy_helpers, it uses the setup_requires mechanism to install astropy-helpers from PyPI as explained in the previous section.

The sample implementation of use_astropy_helpers() supports several optional arguments that allow package developers to control its behavior. It should be clarified that defaults for all of these arguments can be provided as options in the setup.cfg file under the [ah_bootstrap] section, using the same names:

  • path: By default 'astropy_helpers', this is the path (relative to the to of the astropy_helpers Git submodule if it exists. Alternatively, this may be a path to a source archive file containing astropy_helpers, allowing support for the bundled source archive approach to supporting astropy-helpers.
  • download_if_needed: True by default, this allows downloading astropy_helpers from an online package index using the setup_requires method as described earlier. By default this means downloading from PyPI.
  • index_url: This allows specifying a URL to an alternative package index from PyPI. This option is ignored if download_if_needed is False.
  • use_git: Set to False to disable all use of git commands by ah_bootstrap. This effectively disables support for submodule initialization/updates, and is mostly useful for testing. For example, when testing a new astropy_helpers version in the context of the Astropy repository, add this to setup.cfg
  • auto_upgrade: If set to False disables checking on PyPI for newer versions of astropy-helpers before using any already available versions. By default the auto-upgrade feature is enabled.

Although not an option to use_astropy_helpers(), the ah_bootstrap module also recognizes a --offline command-line argument when running This disables all features that try to access the internet. This may be useful for offline installations, so that the process does not hang while trying to connect to the internet.

Similarly, one may provide a --no-git command-line argument that disables all calls to git by the bootstrap script. As this will prevent running git submodule update, it is very useful for testing changes to astropy_helpers against Astropy or another affiliated package that uses it.

It should be noted that if all methods of bootstrapping astropy_helpers fail it is generally not possible to continue the script. In this case the script fails with instructions to the user that they need astropy_helpers installed, and how to do that.


Issues pertaining to astropy-helpers may be submitted either to the astropy-helpers issue tracker on GitHub, or to the main astropy repository's issue tracker. Issues that developers know are definitely with astropy-helpers in particular, and not just astropy, should lean on the side of submitting the issue to astropy-helpers.

If an issue submitted to the main astropy repository turns out to be an astropy-helpers issue, a related issue should be opened in the astropy-helpers issue tracker. Once the issue is fixed and the astropy-helpers submodule updated in the main astropy repository, the original issue can be closed.

On the other hand, astropy-helpers will have its own documentation which will be hosted on This will allow its documentation to evolve with each release, thus not tying it down to any release of Astropy. The Astropy developer documentation will mention astropy-helpers and provide a link to its current stable documentation.

The initial released version of astropy-helpers will be v0.4. Its major and minor version numbers will try to track with the versions of Astropy itself. However, astropy-helpers will always have its own bugfix version.

The future

This APE and the proposed initial implementation do not, for now, make many significant changes to the modules being moved from astropy to astropy_heleprs. This will help make for a smoother transition. But having an astropy_helpers project does open the door to future improvements.

In particular, although astropy_helpers provides many useful utilities, correct use of those utilities still requires a significant amount of boilerplate in the of every project that uses them--beyond just the import ah_bootscript part. In fact, almost all of the of both Astropy and the affiliated package template is boilerplate. See, for example, the latest released version as of writing. With a little refactoring this boilerplate could be significantly simplified, while at the same time giving developers more control. This APE does not propose any specific refactoring plans, however.

Another possibility to consider is adoption of d2to1 or its descendant pbr. These are projects inspired by the since-canceled distutils2 project. They aim to provide a solution to the previously mentioned problem that all of a Python project's metadata is listed in executable code. Instead, the project is described in plain text through an extension to the setup.cfg file. The project's is reduced to a stub that calls out to code that reads the metadata from that file.

Although this sounds less flexible, it still gives developers a fair amount of control over the process through the use of various scriptable hook points. This is where a project like astropy_helpers comes in: It can provide a set of common hook scripts for use with d2to1. For an example of an existing project that fits this mold, see stsci.distutils. Astropy has enough complexities that d2to1 may require a few enhancements before it can be used effectively with Astropy. These include the ability to collate multiple setup.cfg files (so that each subpackage can provide its own setup.cfg) and support for environment markers.

Backward compatibility

This change only affects installation and packaging of Astropy and affiliated packages that use Astropy's package template. It does not affect any APIs used by users once the package is installed.

However, some affiliated packages, and especially older versions of those packages, may rely on the astropy.setup_helpers and/or astropy.version_helpers so there will have to be a deprecation process for those modules even after Astropy itself switches over to using astropy_helpers. Once those modules and the code in them are marked as deprecated there should be no new non-critical changes to them. I would recommend removing them by the Astropy 1.0 release.


The issue that first motivated this discussion was #31 in the package template repository. It brought up the fact that an affiliated package using Astropy in its could not even be installed via a pip-requirements file if Astropy is not already installed. This is because pip runs the egg_info command to determine the dependencies of each requirement before installing them. This command in turn fails if Astropy has not already been installed. One solution to that was provided, which returns from egg_info early without trying to import astropy, so that the command can at least partially work in this specific case. But that solution only increases the complexity of the boilerplate, and leads to other problems.

There was also some discussion as to whether what we are now calling astropy_helpers should be developed in the main Astropy repository, or should be broken out into a separate repository. It was decided that the latter option would be easier for use by affiliated packages, in particular through the use of submodules as explained earlier.

Previous drafts of this APE recommended disabling the issue tracker for the astropy-helpers repository, opting instead to only accept reports for issues with astropy-helpers directly on the main astropy repository. In practice it has turned out to be helpful to have astropy-helpers-specific issues in its own issue tracker.

Finally, there has been some objection to the naming of "astropy-helpers"--in particular to using "astropy" in the name at all. The objection stems from the fact that none of the functionality in astropy-helpers is specific to Astropy, or even to astronomy-related software, and that it could be more broadly useful for other scientific packages. It was agreed that this line of thinking is sound in principle, but that for now we do not want the additional support overhead involved in advertising a tool for use by the broader scientific community. As the product matures through use with Astropy it might become easier to do this, at which point either the name can be changed, or the project can be forked by anyone who wishes to champion such a project.

Decision rationale

No objections were raised to this idea. We merged in the pull requests relating to this, and after ironing out initial issues, this works well, so we decided to go ahead and use it for Astropy 0.4, and accept this APE.