The distil tool is a testbed for distlib, which is a low-level library that implements basic packaging functionality, and is intended for use by packaging tools.

Why distil?

While maintainers of the pip project have expressed an interest in the possibility of implementing some parts of pip functionality using distlib, this is dependent on available volunteer time and overall project priorities, and so no specific timescales for any adoption of particular features of distlib can be expected. Of course, this also applies to packaging tools other than pip.

So, distil aims to fill the gap by providing a packaging tool, based only on distlib and the Python standard library. If it is to demonstrate that distlib is useful for and usable by packaging tools, distil cannot be a toy – it must aim to provide a large part of the functionality of tools like pip, and it must show, where possible, improvements over existing tools that are possible through the use of distlib.


distil is not intended to supplant any existing packaging tool, but rather to act as a testbed for distlib and to explore useful areas in packaging. It should be used in virtual environments set up specifically for the purpose of experimenting with it. Remember, it is alpha software.


The initial release of distil provides the following features:

  • Install projects from PyPI and wheels (see PEP 427). Distil does not invoke setup.py, so projects that do significant computation in setup.py may not be installable by distil. However, a large number of projects on PyPI can be installed, and dependencies are detected, downloaded and installed.
  • Optionally upgrade installed distributions, whether installed by distil or installed by pip.
  • Uninstall distributions installed by distil or pip.
  • Install links to local projects which remain editable so that changes are immediately reflected in an environment (like pip install -e dir).
  • Build source distributions in .tar.gz, .tar.bz2, and .zip formats.
  • Build binary distributions in wheel format. These can be pure-Python, or have C libraries and extensions. Support for Cython and Fortran (using f2py) is possible, though currently distil cannot install Cython or Numpy because of how they use setup.py. You can optionally use pip to build wheels, which can then be installed using distil.
  • Run tests on built distributions.
  • Register projects on PyPI.
  • Upload distributions to PyPI.
  • Upload documentation to http://pythonhosted.org/ (formerly http://packages.python.org/).
  • Very simple deployment – just copy distil.py to a location on your path, optionally naming it to distil on POSIX platforms. There’s no need to install distlib – it’s all included.
  • Display dependencies of a distribution – either as a list of what would be downloaded (and a suggested download order), or in Graphviz format suitable for conversion to an image.
  • Uses either a system Python or one in a virtual environment, but by default installs to the user site rather than system Python library locations.
  • Tab-completion of commands and parameters on Bash-compatible shells.

Logically, packaging activities can be divided into a number of categories or roles:

  • Archiver – builds source distributions from a source tree
  • Builder – builds binary distributions from source
  • Installer – installs source or binary distributions

This version of distil incorporates (for convenience) all of the above roles. There is a school of thought which says that that these roles should be fulfilled by separate programs, and that’s fine for production quality tools – it’s just more convenient for now to have everything in one package for an experimental tool like distil.

Actual Improvements

Despite the fact that distil is in an alpha stage of development and has received no real-world exposure like the existing go-to packaging tools, it does offer some improvements over them:

  • Dependency resolution can be performed without downloading any distributions. Unlike e.g. pip, you are told of which additional dependencies will be downloaded and installed, before any download occurs.
  • Better information is stored for uninstallation. This allows better feedback to be given to users during uninstallation.
  • Dependency checking is done during uninstallation. Say you’ve installed a distribution A, which pulled in dependencies B and C.
    • If you request an uninstallation of B (or C), distil will complain that you can’t do this because A needs it.
    • When you uninstall A, you are offered the option to uninstall B and C as well (assuming you didn’t install something else that depends on B or C, after installing A).
  • By default, installation is to the user site and not to the system Python, so you shouldn’t need to invoke sudo to install distributions for personal use which are not for specific projects/virtual environments.
  • There’s no need to install distil – the exact same script will run with any system Python or any venv (subject to Python version constraints of 2.6, 2.7, 3.2 or greater). There’s no need to have umpteen copies of setuptools, distribute and pip lying about! Not that disk space is a particular constraint, of course.

Unlike the pysetup tool that is part of distutils2, distil can install many source distributions that are already on PyPI without the need to migrate them to setup.cfg first (or the need to convert them to wheels). This allows a more gradual transition to new packaging norms, by not requiring root-and-branch conversion of existing distributions.

More “actual” improvements can be achieved, dependent on feedback from you!

Possible Improvements

In line with recent thinking in packaging, distlib and distil rely on a declarative format for distribution metadata, as opposed to the ad hoc code approach (i.e. setup.py) taken by distutils/setuptools/distribute. This offers a means for different packaging tools to interoperate – because the declarative format is standardised – and this can lead to innovations in packaging and improved features for Python package developers and users. There should be no more “my way or the highway” in Python packaging, which the design of distutils has fostered.


As already mentioned above, distil is not a replacement for pip or easy_install. The main reason why distil cannot do things that pip or easy_install can do is that some projects use code in setup.py to do things like creating new files and moving files around before invoking the actual setup code in distutils/setuptools/distribute. Because distlib and distil are declarative and don’t actually execute setup.py, the code therein cannot be taken advantage of, and so distil can fail when trying to build or install such projects. However, Python packaging standards are expected to provide a migration path such that such code as currently lives in setup.py can be replaced by other mechanisms which allow better interoperability between packaging tools.

Distil can use pip to build wheels, for those cases where setup.py must be executed for a correct build. This only exercises the wheel-building functionality of distlib, but is provided as a convenience when experimenting with wheels.

There are other areas of functionality which distil does not currently provide, such as direct installation from VCS repositories. These could be provided, but are regarded as low priority at present.

Some of the metadata used by distil is generated automatically, and may not capure certain things accurately such as 2to3 options. This may result in 2to3 being sometimes run when it’s not necessary.

Note that distil and distlib are free of dependencies other than the Python standard library, and are expected to remain so for the foreseeable future. (Although distil provides an option to use pip, it is not a hard dependency, and distil is useful even without pip being installed.)

Change Log


Released: Not yet.


Released: 2013-10-18

  • This release is based on distlib 0.1.3, which brings support for PEP 426.
  • Fixed a bug in pre-release handling which occurred when there were only pre-releases available.
  • Added support to convert bdist_wininst installers to wheels. This is done by using distil package, specifying only the wheel format and giving the path to the installer in place of the source directory.
  • Added –wheel-version option to package command to allow specifying a wheel version when building wheels.
  • Fixed bugs in uninstallation code which occurred only for some installations.
  • Fixed a bug in package data installation where data in packages not explicitly named in package-data was missed.
  • Updated distil link to show existing links when invoked with no arguments.
  • When building wheels, native executable launchers are not included, and scripts are not generated from exports.
  • Added support for PEP 426 installation hooks.
  • Added --target argument to distil install to allow partial installation to arbitrary directories.
  • Added --prereleases argument to distil install, distil test, distil download to support inclusion of pre-releases when locating distributions and performing dependency resolution.
  • Numerous documentation updates.


Released: 2013-04-30

  • Added distil init to support creating an initial version of package.json metadata, which can then be added to during development.
  • Added distil link to support “editable” installations, similar to pip install -e local_dir.
  • Take into account pre-confirmation (-y) during uninstallation when dists that are no longer needed are found. These are now removed automatically when -y is specified.
  • Fixed error in setting up SSL certificate verification, and adjusted PyPI URLs to be https:// where specified as http:// in metadata. Successful SSL verification is now logged.
  • Added --local-dists option to allow local wheels and sdists to be used for installation.
  • Fixed a bug in the handling of local archives (e.g. those returned through a configured DirectoryLocator). Local archives shouldn’t be deleted after unpacking.
  • Added --python-tags argument to distil package when building wheels to configure the tags for the built wheel.
  • Added --no-unpack option to distil download.
  • Fixed problem with rollback on error caused by not recording SHARED and RECORD correctly.
  • Fixed bug in writing entry points (EXPORTS) file.
  • Use of 2to3 now defaults to True when run under 3.x.
  • Fixed bug when run in venvs which caused e.g. dist-packages to be used instead of site-packages.
  • Improved error message when run with Python 2.5 (not supported, but this is now clear from the error message).
  • Numerous documentation updates.


Released: 2013-03-22

  • Initial release.