Introduction to Packaging


This document describes the current state of packaging in Python using Distribution Utilities (“Distutils”) and its extensions from the end-user’s point-of-view, describing how to extend the capabilities of a standard Python installation by building packages and installing third-party packages, modules and extensions.

Python is known for it’s “batteries included” philosophy and has a rich standard library. However, being a popular language, the number of third party packages is much larger than the number of standard library packages. So it eventually becomes necessary to discover how packages are used, found and created in Python.

It can be tedious to manually install extra packages that one needs or requires. Therefore, Python has a packaging system that allows people to distribute their programs and libraries in a standard format that makes it easy to install and use them. In addition to distributing a package, Python also provides a central service for contributing packages. This service is known as The Python Package Index (PyPI). Information about The Python Package Index (PyPI) will be provided throughout this documentation. This allows a developer to distribute a package to the greater community with little effort.

This documentation aims to explain how to install packages and create packages for the end-user, while still providing references to advanced topics.

The Packaging Ecosystem

A Package

A package is simply a directory with an file inside it. For example:

$ mkdir mypackage
$ cd mypackage
$ touch
$ echo "# A Package" >
$ cd ..

This creates a package that can be imported using the import. Example:

>>> import mypackage
>>> mypackage.__file__

Discovering a Python Package

Using packages in the current working directory only works for small projects in most cases. Using the working directory as a package location usually becomes a problem when distributing packages for larger systems. Therefore, distutils was created to install packages into the PYTHONPATH with little difficulty. The PYTHONPATH, also sys.path in code, is a list of locations to look for Python packages. Example:

>>> import sys
>>> sys.path
>>> import mypackage
>>> mypackage.__file__

The first value, the null or empty string, in sys.path is the current working directory, which is what allows the packages in the current working directory to be found.


Your PYTHONPATH values will likely be different from those displayed.

Explicitly Including a Package Location

The convention way of manually installing packages is to put them in the .../site-packages/ directory. But one may want to install Python modules into some arbitrary directory. For example, your site may have a convention of keeping all software related to the web server application under /www. Add-on Python modules might then belong in /www/pythonx.y/, and in order to import them, this directory must be added to sys.path. There are several different ways to add the directory.


TODO Better define where the .../site-packages/ directory is located.

The most convenient way is to add a path configuration file to a directory that’s already in Python’s path, which could be the .../site-packages/ directory. Path configuration files have an extension of .pth, and each line must contain a single path that will be appended to sys.path. (Because the new paths are appended to sys.path, modules in the added directories will not override standard modules. This means you can’t use this mechanism for installing fixed versions of standard modules.)

Paths can be absolute or relative, in which case they’re relative to the directory containing the .pth file. See the documentation of the site module for more information.

In addition there are two environment variables that can modify sys.path. PYTHONHOME sets an alternate value for the prefix of the Python installation. For example, if PYTHONHOME is set to /www/python/lib/python2.6/, the search path will be set to ['', '/www/python/lib/python2.6/', ...].

The PYTHONPATH variable can be set to a list of paths that will be added to the beginning of sys.path. For example, if PYTHONPATH is set to /www/python:/opt/py, the search path will begin with ['', '/www/python', '/opt/py', ...].


Directories must exist in order to be added to sys.path. The site module removes paths that don’t exist.

Finally, sys.path is just a regular Python list, so any Python application can modify it by adding or removing entries.


The zc.buildout package modifies the sys.path in order to include all packages relative to a buildout. The zc.buildout package is often used to build large projects that have external build requirements.

Python file layout

A Python installation has a site-packages directory inside the module directory. This directory is where user installed packages are dropped. A .pth file in this directory is maintained which contains paths to the directories where the extra packages are installed.


For details on the .pth file, please refer to modifying Python’s search path. In short, when a new package is installed using distutils or one of its extenders, the contents of the package are dropped into the site-packages directory and then the name of the new package directory is added to a .pth file. This allows Python upon the next startup to see the new package.

Benefits of packaging

While it’s possible to unpack tarballs and manually put them into your Python installation directories (see Explicitly Including a Package Location), using a package management system gives you some significant benefits. Here are some of the obvious ones:

  • Dependency management
    Often, the package you want to install requires that others be there. A package management system can automatically resolve dependencies and make your installation pain free and quick. This is one of the basic facilities offered by distutils. However, other extensions to distutils do a better job of installing dependencies. (see Distribute)
  • Accounting
    Package managers can maintain lists of things installed and other metadata like the version installed etc. which makes is easy for the user to know what are the things his system has. (see Pip Installs Python (Pip))
  • Uninstall
    Package managers can give you push button ways of removing a package from your environment. (see Pip Installs Python (Pip))
  • Search
    Find packages by searching a package index for specific terminology. (see Pip Installs Python (Pip))

Current State of Packaging


The distutils modules is part of the standard library and will be until Python 3.3. The distutils module will be discontinued in Python 3.3. The distutils2 (note the number two) will be backwards compatible for Python 2.4 onward; and will be part of the standard library in Python 3.3.

The distutils module provides the basics for packaging Python. Unfortunately, the distutils module is riddled with problems, which is why a small group of python developers are working on distutils2. However, until distutils2 is complete it is recommended that the Developer either use pure distutils or the `Distribute package <distribute_info_>`_ for packaging Python software.

In the mean time, if a package requires the setuptools package, it is our recommendation that you install the Distribute package, which provides a more up to date version of setuptools than does the original Setuptools package.

In the future distutils2 will replace setuptools and distutils, which will also remove the need for Distribute. And as stated before distutils will be removed from the standard library. For more information, please refer to the Future of Packaging.


Please use the Distribute package rather than the Setuptools package because there are problems in this package that can and will not be fixed.

Creating a Micro-Ecosystem with virtualenv

Here we have a small digression to briefly discuss Virtual Environments, which will be covered later in this guide. In most situations, the site-packages directory is part of the system Python installation and not writable by unprivileged users. Also, it’s useful to have a solid reliable installation of the language which we can use. Experimental packages shouldn’t be mixed with the stable ones if we want to keep this quality. In order to achieve this, most Python developers use the virtualenv package which allows people to create a virtual installation of Python. This replicates the site-packages directory in an user writable area. The site-packages directory located in the Virtual Environments is in addition to the global one. While orthogonal to the whole package installation process, it’s an extremely useful and natural way to work and so the whole thing will be mentioned again. The installation and usage of virtualenv is covered in Virtual Environments document.