Working on a virtualenv without magic

written by Ruud van Asseldonk

To keep installed dependencies nice and isolated, Python programmers run their code inside a virtualenv. Unfortunately virtualenvs can be a bit hairy. They require you to source an 80-line shell script (eww), and you need to locate the activate script manually inside the virutalenv. Fortunately, there is Virtualenvwrapper. After all, any problem in computer science can be solved with another layer of indirection. Among other things, it provides a handy workon command to activate a virtualenv. But do we really need any of this? And what is actually going on?

I don’t like tools that I don’t understand. That is not to say that I am wary of tools that hide complexity, as long as I know what they are hiding from me. Frustrated by the virtualenv magic, I decided to investigate. And surely enough, I was not the only one who felt like this. Michael F. Lamb has a great writeup about what virtualenv actually does, and how to do that in a better way. Instead of repeating that, I’ll share the solution that I derived from it here.

A simpler workon

It turns out that the only thing required to get the virtualenv working, is to set and unset a few environment variables. That shouldn’t be too hard. The next thing to do is to start a new shell with this environment, so you can get out of the virtualenv simply with exit — not some ad-hoc deactivate command. I put this all together in a workon function defined in my shell startup script:

# A function to activate a virtualenv without sourcing madness.
# Based on
function workon {
  export VIRTUAL_ENV="$HOME/env/$1"
  export PATH="$VIRTUAL_ENV/bin:$PATH"

It behaves similar to Virtualenvwrapper: workon foo will activate the ~/env/foo virtualenv. Note that I am storing my virtualenvs in ~/env.

Adding tab completion

I quickly grew tired of not having tab completion for my custom workon, so I added the following Zsh completion definition right after the function:

# Autocomplete the "workon" command with directories in ~/env.
compdef '_path_files -/ -g "$HOME/env/*" -W "$HOME/env/"' workon

Here _path_files activates filename completion. The -/ flag specifies that only directories should be completed, and -g specifies that only directories matching the given pattern should be suggested. Finally, the -W flag indicates that the prefix $HOME/env/ should be stripped from the suggested paths.

Decorating the prompt

One thing the activate script does in addition to setting environment variables, is putting the name of the virtualenv in the promt. In the process it messes up the newlines in my prompt, and I can’t stand the lack of a space after the virtualenv name. I am glad to have gotten rid of this “feature”, although occasionally it can be useful to know whether you are inside a virtualenv. Putting it in the prompt is a nice indicator. Fortunately that is not hard to do at all:

if [ -n "$VIRTUAL_ENV" ]; then
  VENV_PROMPT=" $(basename $VIRTUAL_ENV)"

Inside a virtualenv, $VENV_PROMPT will be the name of the virtualenv, prefixed by a space. Outside of a virtualenv it will be empty. This variable can then be used in the prompt however you like.

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