pip-accel: Accelerator for pip, the Python package manager

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The pip-accel program is a wrapper for pip, the Python package manager. It accelerates the usage of pip to initialize Python virtual environments given one or more requirements files. It does so by combining the following two approaches:

  1. Source distribution downloads are cached and used to generate a local index of source distribution archives. If all your dependencies are pinned to absolute versions whose source distribution downloads were previously cached, pip-accel won't need a network connection at all! This is one of the reasons why pip can be so slow: given absolute pinned dependencies available in the download cache it will still scan PyPI and distribution websites.
  2. Binary distributions are used to speed up the process of installing dependencies with binary components (like M2Crypto and LXML). Instead of recompiling these dependencies again for every virtual environment we compile them once and cache the result as a binary *.tar.gz distribution.

In addition, since version 0.9 pip-accel contains a simple mechanism that detects missing system packages when a build fails and prompts the user whether to install the missing dependencies and retry the build.

The pip-accel program is tested on Python 2.6, 2.7 and 3.4 although support for Python 3 is very new so may still have some issues.


Paylogic uses pip-accel to quickly and reliably initialize virtual environments on its farm of continuous integration slaves which are constantly running unit tests (this was one of the original use cases for which pip-accel was developed). We also use it on our build servers.

When pip-accel was originally developed PyPI was sometimes very unreliable (PyPI wasn't behind a CDN back then). Because of the CDN, PyPI is much more reliable nowadays however pip-accel still has its place:

  • The CDN doesn't help for distribution sites, which are as unreliably as they have always been.
  • By using pip-accel you can make Python deployments completely independent from internet connectivity.
  • Because pip-accel caches compiled binary packages it can still provide a nice speed boost over using plain pip.


The pip-accel command supports all subcommands and options supported by pip, however it is of course only useful for the pip install subcommand. So for example:

pip-accel install -r requirements.txt

If you pass a -v or --verbose option then pip and pip-accel will both use verbose output.

Based on the user running pip-accel the following file locations are used by default:

Root user All other users Purpose
/root/.pip/download-cache ~/.pip/download-cache Assumed to be pip's download cache
/var/cache/pip-accel ~/.pip-accel Used to store the source/binary indexes

These defaults can be overridden by defining the environment variables PIP_DOWNLOAD_CACHE and/or PIP_ACCEL_CACHE.

How fast is it?

To give you an idea of how effective pip-accel is, below are the results of a test to build a virtual environment for one of the internal code bases of Paylogic. This code base requires more than 40 dependencies including several packages that need compilation with SWIG and a C compiler:

Program Description Duration Percentage
pip Default configuration 444 seconds 100% (baseline)
pip With download cache (first run) 416 seconds 94%
pip With download cache (second run) 318 seconds 72%
pip-accel First run 397 seconds 89%
pip-accel Second run 30 seconds 7%

Dependencies on system packages

Since version 0.9 pip-accel contains a simple mechanism that detects missing system packages when a build fails and prompts the user whether to install the missing dependencies and retry the build. Currently only Debian Linux and derivative Linux distributions are supported, although support for other platforms should be easy to add. This functionality currently works based on configuration files that define dependencies of Python packages on system packages. This means the results should be fairly reliable, but every single dependency needs to be manually defined...

Here's what it looks like in practice:

2013-06-16 01:01:53 wheezy-vm INFO Building binary distribution of python-mcrypt (1.1) ..
2013-06-16 01:01:53 wheezy-vm ERROR Failed to build binary distribution of python-mcrypt! (version: 1.1)
2013-06-16 01:01:53 wheezy-vm INFO Build output (will probably provide a hint as to what went wrong):

gcc -pthread -fno-strict-aliasing -DNDEBUG -g -fwrapv -O2 -Wall -Wstrict-prototypes -fPIC -DVERSION="1.1" -I/usr/include/python2.7 -c mcrypt.c -o build/temp.linux-i686-2.7/mcrypt.o
mcrypt.c:23:20: fatal error: mcrypt.h: No such file or directory
error: command 'gcc' failed with exit status 1

2013-06-16 01:01:53 wheezy-vm INFO python-mcrypt: Checking for missing dependencies ..
2013-06-16 01:01:53 wheezy-vm INFO You seem to be missing 1 dependency: libmcrypt-dev
2013-06-16 01:01:53 wheezy-vm INFO I can install it for you with this command: sudo apt-get install --yes libmcrypt-dev
Do you want me to install this dependency? [y/N] y
2013-06-16 01:02:05 wheezy-vm INFO Got permission to install missing dependency.

The following extra packages will be installed:
Suggested packages:
The following NEW packages will be installed:
  libmcrypt-dev libmcrypt4
0 upgraded, 2 newly installed, 0 to remove and 68 not upgraded.
Unpacking libmcrypt4 (from .../libmcrypt4_2.5.8-3.1_i386.deb) ...
Unpacking libmcrypt-dev (from .../libmcrypt-dev_2.5.8-3.1_i386.deb) ...
Setting up libmcrypt4 (2.5.8-3.1) ...
Setting up libmcrypt-dev (2.5.8-3.1) ...

2013-06-16 01:02:13 wheezy-vm INFO Successfully installed 1 missing dependency.
2013-06-16 01:02:13 wheezy-vm INFO Building binary distribution of python-mcrypt (1.1) ..
2013-06-16 01:02:14 wheezy-vm INFO Copying binary distribution python-mcrypt-1.1.linux-i686.tar.gz to cache as python-mcrypt:1.1:py2.7.tar.gz.

Control flow of pip-accel

The way pip-accel works is not very intuitive but it is very effective. Below is an overview of the control flow. Once you take a look at the code you'll notice that the steps below are all embedded in a loop that retries several times. This is mostly because of step 2 (downloading the source distributions).

  1. Run pip install --no-index --no-install -r requirements.txt to unpack source distributions available in the local source index. This is the first step because pip-accel should accept requirements.txt files as input but it will manually install dependencies from cached binary distributions (without using pip or easy_install):
  • If the command succeeds it means all dependencies are already available as downloaded source distributions. We'll parse the verbose pip output of step 1 to find the direct and transitive dependencies (names and versions) defined in requirements.txt and use them as input for step 3. Go to step 3.
  • If the command fails it probably means not all dependencies are available as local source distributions yet so we should download them. Go to step 2.
  1. Run pip install --no-install -r requirements.txt to download missing source distributions to the download cache:
  • If the command fails it means that pip encountered errors while scanning PyPI, scanning a distribution website, downloading a source distribution or unpacking a source distribution. Usually these kinds of errors are intermittent so retrying a few times is worth a shot. Go to step 2.
  • If the command succeeds it means all dependencies are now available as local source distributions; we don't need the network anymore! Go to step 1.
  1. Run python setup.py bdist_dumb --format=gztar for each dependency that doesn't have a cached binary distribution yet (taking version numbers into account). Go to step 4.
  2. Install all dependencies from binary distributions based on the list of direct and transitive dependencies obtained in step 1. We have to do these installations manually because easy_install nor pip support binary *.tar.gz distributions.


If you have questions, bug reports, suggestions, etc. please create an issue on the GitHub project page. The latest version of pip-accel will always be available on GitHub. The internal API documentation is hosted on Read The Docs.


This software is licensed under the MIT license just like pip (on which pip-accel is based).

© 2013 Peter Odding and Paylogic International.

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