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Tools for managing namespaces in Clojure. Parse ns declarations from source files, extract their dependencies, build a graph of namespace dependencies within a project, update that graph as files change, and reload files in the correct order.

This is only about namespace dependencies within a single project. It has nothing to do with Leiningen, Maven, JAR files, or repositories.

Releases and Dependency Information

Leiningen configuration for development snapshots:

:dependencies [ ;; ...
               [org.clojure/tools.namespace "0.2.0-SNAPSHOT"]]
:repositories {"sonatype-oss-public"

Maven configuration for development snapshots:

  <!-- ... -->


API Documentation

tools.namespace consists of several parts: A parser for namespace declarations in Clojure source files. Given a stream of characters from a Clojure source file, it can find the ns declaration and parse the :require and :use clauses to find the names of other namespaces that file depends on. This is all syntactic analysis: it does not evaluate any code. Utilities to search for Clojure namespaces on the filesystem, in directories or JAR files. Combined with java.classpath, it can search for namespaces on the Java classpath. This namespace contains most of the functions in version 0.1.x. Utilities to load and reload code based on the namespace dependency graph. This takes some explaining, see below. c.t.n.repl is built out of smaller parts:

  • c.t.n.dependency - generic dependency graph data structure
  • c.t.n.track - namespace dependency tracker
  • c.t.n.file - file-reader extension to tracker
  • c.t.n.dir - directory-scanner extension to tracker
  • c.t.n.reload - namespace-reloading extension to tracker

You can recombine these parts in other ways, but c.t.n.repl is the main public entry-point to their functionality.

Reloading Code: Motivation

c.t.n.repl is a smarter way to reload code.

The traditional way to reload Clojure code without restarting the JVM is (require ... :reload) or :reload-all or an editor/IDE feature that does the same thing. This has several problems:

  • If you modify two namespaces which depend on each other, you must remember to reload them in the correct order to avoid compilation errors.

  • If you remove definitions from a source file and then reload it, those definitions are still available in memory. If other code depends on those definitions, it will continue to work but will break the next time you restart the JVM.

  • If the reloaded namespace contains defmulti, you must also reload all of the associated defmethod expressions.

  • If the reloaded namespace contains macros, you must also reload any namespaces which use those macros.

  • If the reloaded namespace contains defprotocol, you must also reload any records or types implementing that protocol and create new instances.

  • If the running program contains functions which close over values in the reloaded namespace, those closed-over values are not updated. (This is common in web applications which construct the web "stack" as a composition of functions.)

In short, the only safe way to reload Clojure code is to restart the JVM. A large application can take 20 seconds or more just to compile. I wrote tools.namespace to help speed up this development cycle.

Reloading Code: Usage

There's only one important function, refresh:

user=> (use '[ :only (refresh)])
user=> (refresh)

The refresh function will scan all the directories on the classpath for Clojure source files, read their ns declarations, build a graph of their dependencies, and load them in dependency order. (You can change the directories it scans with set-refresh-dirs.)

Later on, after you have changed and saved a few files in your editor, run it again:

user=> (refresh)

Based on file modification timestamps and the graph of dependencies, the refresh function will reload only the namespaces that have changed, in dependency order. But first, it will unload the namespaces that changed to clear out any old definitions.

This is subtle, and quite unlike (require ... :reload). Calling refresh will blow away your old code. Sometimes this is helpful: it can catch trivial mistakes like deleting a function that another piece of code depends on. But sometimes it hurts when you have built-up application state stored in a Var that got deleted by refresh.

This brings us to the next section:

Reloading Code: Preparing Your Application

Being able to safely destroy and reload namespaces without breaking your application requires some discipline and careful design. It won't "just work" on any Clojure project.

No Global State

The first rule for making your application reload-safe is no global state. That means you should never do this:

(def state-of-world (ref {}))
(def window-handle (atom nil))

When you store a mutable reference in a global Var, you have effectively created a mutable global variable. This is generally considered a bad idea in every programming paradigm. (Using alter-var-root signals the same problem.)

You can't avoid mutable state: that's one of the principles behind Clojure's mutable reference types. But you can avoid making it global. Instead of storing your state in global Vars, store it locally in an object that represents the running state of your application. Then provide a constructor function to initialize that state:

(defn create-application []
  {:state-of-world (ref {})
   :window-handle (atom nil)})

You can choose what representation works best for your application: map, vector, record, or even just a single Ref by itself.

Typically you'll still need one global def somewhere, perhaps in the REPL itself, to hold the current application instance. See "Managing Reloads" below.

Managed Lifecycle

The second rule for making your application reload-safe is having a consistent way to start and stop the entire system. I like to do this with a protocol implemented by each major component in the system:

(defprotocol Lifecycle
  (start [component])
  (stop [component]))

But smaller applications can probably get away with a simple pair of functions.

The point is that you need a convenient way to destroy all the built-up state of your application and then recreate it from scratch. The "stop" function should stop any running processes, release all external resources, and zero-out any internal state. The "start" function should create internal state, acquire resources, and start processes.

It might take a few tries to get it right, but once you have a working start/stop you can have a workflow like this:

Step 1. Start up a REPL.

Step 2. Load the app:

user=> (use '[ :only (refresh)])
user=> (refresh)
user=> (def my-app (create-application))
user=> (start my-app)

Step 3. Test it out.

Step 4. Modify some source files.

Step 5. Restart:

user=> (stop my-app)
user=> (refresh)
user=> (def my-app (create-application))
user=> (start my-app)

After that, you've got a squeaky-clean new instance of your app running, in a fraction of the time it takes to restart the JVM.

Managing Reloads

Some projects have a "project REPL" or a "scratch" namespace where you want keep state during development. You can use the functions disable-unload! and disable-reload! in to prevent refresh from automatically un/reloading those namespaces.

Use this feature sparingly: it exists as a development-time convenience, not a work-around for code that is not reload-safe.


Try to avoid loading any code before running refresh for the first time. (For example, by specifing an :init-ns for Leiningen.) This can cause errors when you do run refresh for the first time.

Be careful when reloading the namespace in which you run your REPL. Because namespaces are removed when reloading, all your past definitions are lost. It will be easier to keep your REPL in a namespace which has no file associated with it, such as user.

Be careful when using fully-qualified symbol names without namespace aliases (require with no :as). If the namespace happens already to be loaded, it will not necessarily cause an error if you forget to require it, but the dependency graph of namespaces will be incorrect.

Beware of code which has references to old definitions, especially references to things you created in the REPL.

If you create your own instance of the dependency tracker, do not store it in a namespace which gets reloaded.

Warnings for Protocols

When reloading namespaces which contain protocols, be careful that you do not leave any old instances of records or types implementing those protocols.

For example, if you have a namespace like this:


(defprotocol IFoo
  (foo [this]))

(defrecord FooRecord []
  IFoo (foo [this] nil))

And you do something like the following at the REPL:

user=> (def my-foo (->FooRecord))
user=> (
user=> (foo my-foo)

You will get a confusing error message like this:

No implementation of method: :foo
of protocol: #'
found for class:
clojure.core/-cache-protocol-fn (core_deftype.clj:527)

That's because my-foo is an instance of the old version of FooRecord, implementing the old version of IFoo. As far as the JVM is concerned, the old IFoo and the new IFoo are completely different classes.

To avoid this problem, always create new instances of records after a refresh.

Copyright and License

Copyright © 2012 Stuart Sierra

Licensed under the Eclipse Public License Version 1.0.

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