Managing software versioning using Conda environments

Research projects can often take months to years to complete, but the precise version of software they use will often have a shorter lifetime than this. These new versions of software will often include new features which might be of great use, but they might also introduce changes which break your existing work and introduce compatibility issues with other pieces of software. So whilst for newer projects we might want to use the most up-to-date versions of software, for existing projects we want to be able to freeze the versions of software that are in use. This leads to us needing to install and manage multiple versions of software across our various research projects.

With the upcoming release of 0.16.0 of MDAnalysis, alongside various improvements, we are also introducing some changes which could break existing code. In this post we will explain how conda environments or Python virtual environments can be used to manage this transition, allowing you to finish existing projects with version 0.15.0, while also enjoying the benefits provided in version 0.16.0.

Conda Environments

Conda is a general package manager for scientific applications. It is mostly used for Python packages but the system can be used with any program. The conda-forge community also provides a large collection of scientific software for Python, R , Perl and others.

In this guide we will concentrate only on creating and managing environments with conda. For more general information on installing conda please refer to the official documentation.

Software is made available through different conda channels, which each act as a source for different software. When attempting to install packages into a conda environment, these channels are searched. In this post we will be using the conda-forge channel which you can add to your configuration like so:

conda config  --add channels conda-forge

For each research project, it is advised that you create a new environment so that the software used in each project does not interfere across different projects. To create a new environment for your next project that uses MDAnalysis in version 0.15.0 run:

conda create -n myproject mdanalysis=0.15.0 -y

This has created a new software environment called myproject but has not affected anything currently! To have access to all the software installed within it we must first activate it

source activate myproject

To list your available environments

conda env list

A nice feature of using conda-environments is that they are easy to share with colleagues or transferred to other computers. This allows all collaborators on a project to use an identical set of software and makes your research projects reproducible. To store the state of the environment we created in a file called myproject-environment

conda list --explicit --md5 -n myproject > myproject-environment

You can now copy this file to a colleague or onto another computer. The first 3 lines also contain instructions how this file can be used with conda.

# This file may be used to create an environment using:
# $ conda create --name <env> --file <this file>
# platform: linux-64

More information about conda environments can be found in the official documentation.

Python Virtual Environments

Like conda, virtual environments managed with virtualenv allow you to use different versions of python and python packages for your different project. On the contrary to conda, however, virtualenv is not a general-purpose package manager; it leverages what is available on your system, and let you install python packages using pip.

To use virtual environments you have to install the virtualenv package first. This can be done with either pip or the package manager of your system:

pip install virtualenv
# or on ubuntu
sudo apt install virtualenv
# or on fedora
sudo dnf install python-virtualenv

Virtual environments can be created per project directory.

cd myproject
# if you want to use the default python interpretor
virtualenv myproject-env
# or if you want to explicitly use python 2.7
virtualenv -p /usr/bin/python2.7 myproject-env
# or if you want to use python 3.5
virtualenv -p /usr/bin/python3.5 myproject-env
# or maybe you want to use pypy
virtualenv -p /usr/bin/pypy myproject-env

This will create a new folder myproject-env. This folder contains the virtual environment and all packages you have installed in it. To activate it in the current terminal run:

source myproject-env/bin/activate

Now you can install packages via pip without affecting your global environment. The packages you install when the environment is activated will be available in terminal sessions that have the environment activated. You can deactivate the virtual environment by running


The virtualenvwrapper package makes virtual environment easier to use. It provides some very useful features:

To use virtualenvwrapper you first need to install it outside of a virtual environment:

pip install virtualenvwrapper
# or on ubuntu
sudo apt install virtualenvwrapper
# or on fedora
sudo dnf install python-virtualenvwrapper

Then, you need to have it loaded in your terminal session. Add the following lines in ~/.bashrc, they will be executed every time you open a new terminal session:

# Decide where to store the virtual environments
export WORKON_HOME=~/Envs
# Make sure the directory exists
mkdir -p ${WORKON_HOME}
# Load virtualenvwrapper
source /usr/local/bin/

Open a new terminal or run source ~/.bashrc to update your session. You can now create a virtual environment with

mkvirtualenv my-project

Like the virtualenv command we saw earlier, mkvirtualenv lets you choose your python interpretor with the -p option. Regardless of your current working directory, we created the virtual environment in ~/Envs/ and it is now loaded in our terminal session.

You can load your virtual environments by running workon my-project, and exit them by running deactivate.

Virtual environments, especially with virtualenvwrapper, can do much more. The Hitchhikers Guide to Python has a good tutorial that gives a more in depth explanation of virtual environments. The virtualenvwrapper documentation is also a good resource to read.