Package Management and Dependency Management

Software usually builds on (a collection of) other software, which necessitates dependency management.

Package/dependency management programs are language-specific, but many share common ideas.

Package repositories

Packages are hosted in package repositories. There are different repositories for different languages (and sometimes multiple for a particular language), such as PyPI for Python, RubyGems for Ruby, and for Rust. They generally store software (source code and sometimes pre-compiled binaries for specific platforms) for all versions of a package.

Semantic versioning

Software evolves over time, and we need a way to refer to software versions. Some simple ways could be to refer to software by a sequence number or a commit hash, but we can do better in terms of communicating more information: using version numbers.

There are many approaches; one popular one is Semantic Versioning:

^ ^ ^
| | +- patch
| +--- minor
+----- major

Increment major version when you make incompatible API changes.

Increment minor version when you add functionality in a backward-compatible manner.

Increment patch when you make backward-compatible bug fixes.

For example, if you depend on a feature introduced in v1.2.0 of some software, then you can install v1.x.y for any minor version x >= 2 and any patch version y. You need to install major version 1 (because 2 can introduce backward-incompatible changes), and you need to install a minor version >= 2 (because you depend on a feature introduced in that minor version). You can use any newer minor version or patch version because they should not introduce any backward-incompatible changes.

Lock files

In addition to specifying versions, it can be nice to enforce that the contents of the dependency have not changed to prevent tampering. Some tools use lock files to specify cryptographic hashes of dependencies (along with versions) that are checked on package install.

Specifying versions

Tools often let you specify versions in multiple ways, such as:

Specifying an exact version can be advantageous to avoid different behaviors based on installed dependencies (this shouldn’t happen if all dependencies faithfully follow semver, but sometimes people make mistakes). Specifying a minimum requirement has the advantage of allowing bug fixes to be installed (e.g. patch upgrades).

Dependency resolution

Package managers use various dependency resolution algorithms to satisfy dependency requirements. This often gets challenging with complex dependencies (e.g. a package can be indirectly depended on by multiple top-level dependencies, and different versions could be required). Different package managers have different levels of sophistication in their dependency resolution, but it’s something to be aware of: you may need to understand this if you are debugging dependencies.

Virtual environments

If you’re developing multiple software projects, they may depend on different versions of a particular piece of software. Sometimes, your build tool will handle this naturally (e.g. by building a static binary).

For other build tools and programming languages, one approach is handling this with virtual environments (e.g. with the virtualenv tool for Python). Instead of installing dependencies system-wide, you can install dependencies per-project in a virtual environment, and activate the virtual environment that you want to use when you’re working on a specific project.


Another very different approach to dependency management is vendoring. Instead of using a dependency manager or build tool to fetch software, you copy the entire source code for a dependency into your software’s repository. This has the advantage that you’re always building against the same version of the dependency and you don’t need to rely on a package repository, but it is more effort to upgrade dependencies.

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