Multiple inheritance in buildout configuration files

In zc.buildout's configuration files, you can extend several files. Looks like a powerful feature, doesn't it? I tried it and started wondering what it is designed for. In fact, using this feature made me wonder what is buildout designed for...

In this article, I will try explain buildout's multiple inheritance, then point out problems I encountered, and finally suggest solutions whenever I can.

extend use cases

Configuration reuse

#1 use case for "extend" is configuration reuse:

  • write directives you always use in some "base.cfg" file.
  • make your "buildout.cfg" extend "base.cfg".

If you do this, you are certainly going to copy-paste-adapt your favorite base configuration file. So you'll appreciate:

  • generating buildout configuration from templates (with Jinja, PasteScript, diecutter...).
  • or extending from URL.

Also consider the following advices:

  • extend bases that have distinct roles, i.e. bases which don't overlap each other.
  • use explicit overrides instead of += operator (which performs implicit overrides).

The motivations for the two advices above are detailed in buildout's inheritance mechanism below.


#2 use case for "extend" is management of multiple components:

  • you have some "frontend.cfg" that contains buildout directives to install some frontend component.
  • you have some "backend.cfg" that contains buildout directives to install some backend component.
  • you make your "buildout.cfg" extend both "frontend.cfg" and "backend.cfg" to install both components in a row.
  • but you could use "frontend.cfg" and "backend.cfg" separately.

Well, you can extend several components, but, as of december 2012, I feel buildout is not designed for this purpose:

  • buildout is made to deploy consistent environments. As an example, items in the environment share a set of dependencies, i.e. within the environment, there is one and only one version of each dependency.
  • buildout is not made to deploy independant components in a same location. As an example, if a frontend depends on Django 1.4 and an backend requires version 1.3, then buildout can't deploy both within a single run. You will need to run two deployments.

Deeper explanations below...

Buildout's inheritance mechanism

Let's consider the following example, with 3 files: main "a.cfg" extends both "b.cfg" and "c.cfg".

What will happen when you run buildout -c buildout.cfg?

  • parse "a.cfg", store the resulting configuration for later use.
  • in configuration, found 2 bases: "b.cfg" and "c.cfg".
  • parse bases:
    • parse "b.cfg". Store the result as "bases result".
    • parse "c.cfg". Merge the result with current "bases result", i.e. with "b.cfg". In case of clashes, the latter (b.cfg) overrides the former (a.cfg).
    • there is no more bases, get back.
  • Merge results from bases and results from buildout.cfg. The latter overrides the former.

With buildout implementation, "A extends B and C" is handled exactly the same as "C extends B, then A extends C".

It means that, in case of clashes, = in "c.cfg" overrides value from "b.cfg". And += in "c.cfg" concatenates value from "a.cfg" and "b.cfg".

Beware the += bug

For buildout 1.6.3, I reported a bug with multiple inheritance and +=.

As a summary, you may encounter issues if you extend multiple files and make intensive use of += operator in sections.

Several solutions:

Avoid += in bases

Yes, you can use += in bases. But don't you feel it is a bit strange? I mean, why would you use += in a file that don't inherit from other files?

The only reason I know is that the buildout inheritance mechanism makes bases extend each other. But I believe this is a bad reason.

So, as of version 1.6.3, my recommendation is to avoid += operator in bases, unless themselves have bases (multi-level inheritance).

Here are two designs I'd prefer, but they introduce backward incompatibilities...


  • A extends (B and C)
  • A sets "ac=A"
  • B sets "bc=B"
  • C sets "bc=C" and "ac=C"

I would find it more comprehensive if:

  • bases were parsed separately, then inherited values were computed at the end, i.e. if C doesn't inherit from B. Result would be (ac=A, bc=C).
  • or multiple bases were be concatenated, i.e. result is (ac=A, bc=BC).

Beware implicit overrides

Here is something that could happen if you use one of the popular version manager in buildout (buildout.dumppickedversions or buildout-versions).


extends = frontend.cfg backend.cfg
extensions = buildout-versions
versions = versions
parts = frontend backend


recipe = z3c.recipe.scripts
eggs = Django frontend

Django == 1.3


recipe = z3c.recipe.scripts
eggs = Django backend

Django == 1.2

Here, buildout performs implicit overrides, and you get Django==1.2 as a result. It means that the "frontend" won't work as expected. You don't get warnings or errors about it, so it's quite hard to debug if you aren't aware that implicit overrides occur.

Explicit is better than implicit

When extending multiple bases (and because the "strange" inheritance implementation), you should use explicit overrides.

As an example, in some "a.cfg", you'd better write:

extends = b.cfg c.cfg
parts = b1 b2 c1 c2

... instead of using += in c[parts] and += again in a[parts].

Flat is better than nested

The easiest way to avoid inheritance problems is to maintain a single buildout configuration file, i.e. don't use inheritance.

Try to keep your buildout.cfg small, simple and readable.

If you can't get a simple file, or want to reuse parts of your work, then what about generating your buildout configuration from templates? Template engines provide all you need to create buildout configuration: includes, inheritance, variables, and even more helpers like loops, formatters...

Consider buildout's inheritance and variables features as simple implementations. Use them for simple needs. If you need more, use powerful template engines. Buildout is good at managing execution of recipes ; templates engines are good at generating files.

Multiple components in a buildout

You can apply the pattern below to deploy multiples components in a row, but keep in mind this has a major limitation: all components share the same versions for dependencies. When you run buildout, you build an environment with a consistent set of dependencies.

If you want components to use distinct versions for dependencies, you must run several buildouts.

In the following example, we build an environment with a frontend and a backend.


parts = ${frontend:parts}

parts =

You can run buildout with standalone frontend.cfg. It works and installs frontend-a and frontend-b.


parts = ${backend:parts}

parts =

You can run buildout with backend.cfg. It works and installs backend-a and backend-b.


If you run buildout -c frontend.cfg then buildout -c backend.cfg, the second command will start with uninstall of frontend!

Now let's compose the main buildout.cfg file explicitely:

extends =
parts =

Executing buildout on buildout.cfg installs frontend-a, frontend-b, backend-a and backend-b.


Using this pattern, we didn't had to rewrite the complete (potentially long) list of parts from frontend.cfg and backend.cfg.

Multiple buildouts

As told in previous sections, there are several reasons why you would want to run several buildouts:

  • components have separate set of dependencies (versions).
  • since configuration files are independent, you want to be able to run each one independantly of the other.

There are several techniques. The ones I know customize directories.

Completely separated directories

Use directory options and -c argument to deploy each component in its own directory, i.e. alter buildout:directory option.


By default, buildout:directory option is "the directory where lives configuration file".

As an example:

bin/buildout -c frontend.cfg buildout:directory=frontend
bin/buildout -c backend.cfg buildout:directory=backend

Some shared resources

But you can also share some resources, like the eggs cache or the "bin/" folder.

The minimum thing you can do is to setup distinct buildout:installed option in configuration files, so that parts, eggs, ... are shared. It works well if configuration files don't overlap.

As an example, frontend.cfg:

extensions = buildout-versions
installed = .frontend-installed.cfg
parts = frontend-django

recipe = z3c.recipe.scripts
eggs =
interpreter = frontend

Django = 1.3.4

And backend.cfg:

extensions = buildout-versions
installed = .backend-installed.cfg
parts = backend-django

recipe = z3c.recipe.scripts
eggs = Django
interpreter = backend

Django = 1.4.2

With this example, components don't overlap, so buildout -c frontend.cfg && buildout -c backend.cfg works well.

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