Getting started with Buildout


In the Buildout documentation, we’ll use the word buildout to refer to:

  • The Buildout software

    We’ll capitalize the word when we do this.

  • A particular use of Buildout, a directory having a Buildout configuration file.

    We’ll use lower case to refer to these.

  • A buildout section in a Buildout configuration (in a particular buildout).

    We’ll use a lowercase fixed-width font for these.

First steps

The recommended way to install Buildout is to use pip within a virtual environment:

virtualenv mybuildout
cd mybuildout
bin/pip install zc.buildout

To use Buildout, you need to provide a Buildout configuration. Here is a minimal configuration:

parts =

By default, Buildout looks for a file named buildout.cfg to find its configuration. The configuration hereabove is thus stored in buildout.cfg.

A minimal (and useless) Buildout configuration has a buildout section with a parts option. If we run Buildout:


Four directories are created:

A directory to hold executables.
A directory to hold develop egg links. More about these later.
A directory that hold installed packages in egg [1] format.
A directory that provides a default location for installed parts.

Buildout configuration files use an INI syntax [2]. Configuration is arranged in sections, beginning with section names in square brackets. Section options are names, followed by equal signs, followed by values. Values may be continued over multiple lines as long as the continuation lines start with whitespace.

Buildout is all about building things and the things to be built are specified using parts. The parts to be built are listed in the parts option. For each part, there must be a section with the same name that specifies the software to build the part and provides parameters to control how the part is built.

Installing software

In this tutorial, we’re going to install a simple web server. The details of the server aren’t important. It just provides a useful example that illustrates a number of ways that Buildout can make things easier.

We’ll start by adding a part to install the server software. We’ll update our Buildout configuration to add a bobo part:

parts = bobo

recipe = zc.recipe.egg
eggs = bobo

We added the part name, bobo to the parts option in the buildout section. We also added a bobo section with two options:

The standard recipe option names the software component that will implement the part. The value is a Python distribution requirement, as would be used with pip. In this case, we’ve specified zc.recipe.egg which is the name of a Python project that provides a number of recipe implementations.
A list of distribution requirements, one per line. [3] (The name of this option is unfortunate, because the values are requirements, not egg names.) Listed requirements are installed, along with their dependencies. In addition, any scripts provided by the listed requirements (but not their dependencies) are installed in the bin directory.

If we run this:


Then a number of things will happen:

  • zc.recipe.egg will be downloaded and installed in your eggs directory.

  • bobo and its dependencies will be downloaded and installed. (bobo is a small Python database server.)

    After this, the eggs directory will look something like:

    $ ls -l eggs
    total 0
    drwxr-xr-x  4 jim  staff  136 Feb 23 09:01 WebOb-1.7.1-py2.7.egg
    drwxr-xr-x  9 jim  staff  306 Feb 23 09:10 bobo-2.3.0-py2.7.egg
  • A bobo script will be installed in the bin directory:

    $ ls -l bin
    total 8
    -rwxr-xr-x  1 jim  staff  391 Feb 23 09:10 bobo

    This script is used to run a bobo server.

Generating configuration and custom scripts

The bobo program doesn’t daemonize itself. Rather, it’s meant to be used with a dedicated daemonizer like zdaemon or supervisord. We’ll use a recipe to set up zdaemon. Our Buildout configuration becomes:

parts = bobo server

recipe = zc.recipe.egg
eggs = bobo

recipe = zc.zdaemonrecipe
program =
    --static /=${buildout:directory}
    --port 8200

Here we’ve added a new server part that uses zc.zdaemonrecipe. We used a program option to define what program should be run. There are a couple of interesting things to note about this option:

  • We used variable substitutions:


    Expands to the full path of the buildout directory.


    Expands to the full path of the buildout’s bin directory.

    Variable substitution provides a way to access Buildout settings and share information between parts and avoid repetition.

    See the reference to see what buildout settings are available.

  • We spread the program over multiple lines. A configuration value can be spread over multiple lines as long as the continuation lines begin with whitespace.

    The interpretation of a value is up to the recipe that uses it. The zc.zdaemonrecipe recipe combines the program value into a single line.

If we run Buildout:

  • The zc.zdaemonrecipe recipe will be downloaded and installed in the eggs directory.

  • A server script is added to the bin directory. This script is generated by the recipe. It can be run like:

    bin/server start

    to start a server and:

    bin/server stop

    to stop it. The script references a zdaemon configuration file generated by the recipe in parts/server/zdaemon.conf.

  • A zdaemon configuration script is generated in parts/server/zdaemon.conf that looks something like:

      daemon on
      directory /Users/jim/t/0214/parts/server
      program /Users/jim/t/0214/bin/bobo --static /=/Users/jim/t/0214 --port 8200
      socket-name /Users/jim/t/0214/parts/server/zdaemon.sock
      transcript /Users/jim/t/0214/parts/server/transcript.log
        path /Users/jim/t/0214/parts/server/transcript.log

    The details aren’t important, other than the fact that the configuration file reflects part options and the actual buildout location.

Version control

In this example, the only file that needs to be checked into version control is the configuration file, buildout.cfg. Everything else is generated. Someone else could check out the project, and get the same result [4].

More than just a package installer

The example shown above illustrates how Buildout is more than just a package installer such as pip. Using Buildout recipes, we can install custom scripts and configuration files, and much more. For example, we could use configure and make to install non-Python software from source, we could run JavaScript builders, or do anything else that can be automated with Python.

Buildout is a simple automation framework. There are hundreds of recipes to choose from [5] and writing new recipes is easy.


A major goal of Buildout is to provide repeatability. But what does this mean exactly?

If two buildouts with the same configuration are built in the same environments at the same time, they should produce the same result, regardless of their build history.

That definition is rather dense. Let’s look at the pieces:

Buildout environment

A Buildout environment includes the operating system and the Python installation Buildout is run with. The more a buildout depends on its environment, the more variation is likely between builds.

If a Python installation is shared, packages installed by one application affect other applications, including buildouts. This can lead to unexpected errors. This is why it’s recommended to use a virtual environment or a “clean python” built from source with no third-party packages installed [6].

To limit dependence on the operating system, people sometimes install libraries or even database servers as Buildout parts.

Modern Linux container technology (e.g. Docker) makes it a lot easier to control the environment. If you develop entirely with respect to a particular container image, you can have repeatability with respect to that image, which is usually good enough because the environment, defined by the image, is itself repeatable and unshared with other applications.

Python requirement versions

Another potential source of variation is the versions of Python dependencies used.

Newest versions

If you don’t specify versions, Buildout will always try to get the most recent version of everything it installs. This is a major reason that Buildout can be slow. It checks for new versions every time it runs. It does this to satisfy the repeatability requirement above. If it didn’t do this, then an older buildout would likely have different versions of Python packages than newer buildouts.

To speed things up, you can use the -N Buildout option to tell Buildout to not check for newer versions of Python requirements:

buildout -N

This relaxes repeatability, but with little risk if there was a recent run without this option.

Pinned versions

You can also pin required versions, and do so in two ways. You can specify them where you list them, as in:

recipe = zc.recipe.egg
eggs = bobo <5.0

In this example, we’ve requested a version of bobo less than 5.0.

You can also add environment markers to restrict some requirements to i.e. a certain platform or python version:

recipe = zc.recipe.egg
eggs =
    bobo ==2.2.0; python_version < '3.0'
    bobo ==2.3.0; python_version >= '3.0'

The more common way to pin a version is using a versions section:

parts = bobo server

recipe = zc.recipe.egg
eggs = bobo

recipe = zc.zdaemonrecipe
program =
    --static /=${buildout:directory}
    --port 8200

bobo = 2.3.0

Larger projects may need to pin many versions, so it’s common to put version requirements in their own file:

extends = versions.cfg
parts = bobo server

recipe = zc.recipe.egg
eggs = bobo

recipe = zc.zdaemonrecipe
program =
    --static /=${buildout:directory}
    --port 8200

Here, we’ve used the Buildout extends option to say that configurations should be read from versions.cfg (it’s allowed to specify several files in extend). Cconfigurations should be read from the named file (or files) and the configuration in the current file should override configuration in the extended files. To continue the example, our versions.cfg file might look like:

bobo = 2.3.0

We can use the update-versions-file option to ask Buildout to maintain our versions.cfg file for us:

extends = versions.cfg
show-picked-versions = true
update-versions-file = versions.cfg

parts = bobo server

recipe = zc.recipe.egg
eggs = bobo

recipe = zc.zdaemonrecipe
program =
    --static /=${buildout:directory}
    --port 8200

With update-versions-file, whenever Buildout gets the newest version for a requirement (subject to requirement constraints), it appends the version to the named file, along with a comment saying when and why the requirement is installed. If you later want to upgrade a dependency, edi this file with the new version. Alternatively, remove the entry altogether and Buildout will add a new entry the next time it runs.

We also used the show-picked-versions to tell Buildout to tell us when it got (picked) the newest version of a requirement.

When versions are pinned, Buildout doesn’t look for new versions of the requirements, which can speed buildouts quite a bit. In fact, The -N option doesn’t provide any speedup for projects whose requirement versions are all pinned.

When should you pin versions?

The rule of thumb is that you should pin versions for a whole system, such as an application or service. You do this because after integration tests, you want to be sure that you can reproduce the tested configuration.

You shouldn’t pin versions for a component, such as a library, because doing so inhibits the ability of users of your component to integrate it with their dependencies, which may overlap with yours. If you know that your component only works for a specific range of versions of some dependency, set the range in your project requirements. Don’t require specific versions.

Unpinning versions

You can unpin a version by just removing it (or commenting it out of) your versions section.

You can also unpin a version by setting the version to an empty string:


In an extending configuration (buildout.cfg in the example above), or on the buildout command line.

You might do this if pins are shared between projects and you want to unpin a requirement for one of the projects, or want to remove a pin while using a requirement in development mode.

Buildout versions and automatic upgrade

In the interest of repeatability, Buildout can upgrade itself or its dependencies to use the newest versions or downgrade to respect pinned versions. This only happens if you run Buildout from a buildout’s own bin directory.

We can use Buildout’s bootstrap command to install a local buildout script:

buildout bootstrap

Then, if the installed script is used:


Then Buildout will upgrade or downgrade to be consistent with version requirements. See the bootstrapping topic to learn more about bootstrapping.

Python development projects

A very common Buildout use case is to manage the development of a library or main part of an application written in Python. Buildout facilitates this with the develop option:

develop = .

The develop option takes one or more paths to project files or, more commonly, directories containing them. Buildout then creates “develop eggs” [7] for the corresponding projects.

With develop eggs, you can modify the sources and the modified sources are reflected in future Python runs (or after reloads).

For libraries that you plan to distribute using the Python packaging infrastructure, You’ll need to write a setup file, because it’s needed to generate a distribution.

If you’re writing an application that won’t be distributed as a separate Python distribution, writing a setup script can feel like overkill, but it’s useful for:

  • naming your project, so you can refer to it like any Python requirement in your Buildout configuration, and for
  • specifying the requirements your application code uses, separate from requirements your buildout might have.

Fortunately, an application setup script can be minimal. Here’s an example:

from setuptools import setup
setup(name='main', py_modules='main', install_requires = ['bobo', 'six'])

We suggest copying and modifying the example above, using it as boilerplate. As is probably clear, the setup arguments used are:

The name of your application. This is the name you’ll use in Buildout configuration where you want to refer to application code.
A list of requirement strings for Python distributions your application depends on directly.

A minimal [8] development Buildout configuration for a project with a setup script like the one above might look something like this:

develop = .
parts = py

recipe = zc.recipe.egg
eggs = main
interpreter = py

There’s a new option, interpreter, which names an interpreter script to be generated. An interpreter script [9] mimics a Python interpreter with its path set to include the requirements specified in the eggs option and their (transitive) dependencies. We can run the interpreter:


To get an interactive Python prompt, or you can run a script with it:


If you need to work on multiple interdependent projects at the same time, you can name multiple directories in the develop option, typically pointing to multiple check outs. A popular Buildout extension, mr.developer, automates this process.

Where to go from here?

This depends on what you want to do. We suggest perusing the topics based on your needs and interest.

The reference section can give you important details, as well as let you know about features not touched on here.

[1]You may have heard bad things about eggs. This stems in part from the way that eggs were applied to regular Python installs. We think eggs, which were inspired by jar files, when used as an installation format, are a good fit for Buildout’s goals. Learn more in the topic on Buildout and packaging.
[2]Buildout uses a variation (fork) of the standard ConfigParser module and follows (mostly) the same parsing rules.
[3]Requirements can have whitespace characters as in bobo <3, so they’re separated by newlines.
[4]This assumes the same environment and that dependencies haven’t changed. We’ll explain further in the section on repeatability.
[5]You can list Buildout-related software, consisting mostly of Buildout recipes, using the Framework :: Buildout classifier search. These results miss recipes that don’t provide classifier meta data. Generally you can find a recipe for a task by searching the name of the task and the “recipe” in the package index.
[6]It’s a little hypocritical to recommend installing Buildout into an otherwise clean environment, which is why Buildout provides a bootstrapping mechanism which allows setting up a buildout without having to contaminate a virtual environment or clean Python install.)
[7]pip calls these “editable” installs.
[8]A more typical development buildout will include at least a part to specify a test runner. A development buildout might define other support parts, like JavaScript builders, database servers, development web-servers and so on.
[9]An interpreter script is similar to the bin/python program included in a virtual environment, except that it’s lighter weight and has exactly the packages listed in the eggs option and their dependencies, plus whatever comes from the Python environment.