Emacs and Python

I use Emacs as a python IDE. The web already offers a significant number of resources on the subject but I've made a couple of specialized tweaks that I feel may be worth sharing. So here we go.

Why am I doing this? Well, the simple answer is that I like using Emacs. I do most of my writing in it. I use it as my task manager and TODO list. I have, in the past, used it as my email client. So it makes sense that I would use it as my python development environment. Your mileage may vary.

Immediate goals

I am mainly a Java developer and Eclipse user at work. Eclipse makes Java programming somewhat tolerable. I use the following features heavily:

  • automatic import management
  • jump to definition
  • auto completion
  • refactoring tools, like method and variable renaming
  • on-the-fly detection of compile errors and warnings.

A python IDE, for me, would have to have roughly the same feature set, insofar as the dynamic nature of the language makes it possible. It turns out that this is possible in Emacs, with a little bit of elbow grease. This discussion focuses on Emacs 24, and assumes you have ELPA set up.

Installing Rope

The first thing to do is to install Rope, a python refactoring library and, since it isn't Emacs specific, the second thing to do is to integrate it with Emacs via a package called ropemacs. According to the github page, ropemacs is an "Emacs mode that uses rope library to provide features like python refactorings and code-assists". Both packages are written in python and can be installed easily via pip.

Though these libraries are usually available via the package management system of your favourite Linux distribution, and though I'm normally an advocate of using a Linux distribution's packaging system wherever possible, the versions on PyPI, installed via pip, are much more up-to-date and are much more likely to work. Plus, using pip makes it easier to use virtualenv, if that's your thing (which it should be, unless you're using docker, which is on my list of things to try out).

"But wait!", I hear you cry. "Ropemacs is an Emacs mode, and it's written in python? What sorcery is this?". No sorcery; ropemacs works via another package called Pymacs, which provides an interface between Emacs and a python process, allowing one to write Emacs extensions in python.

Pymacs has two pieces to it: an Emacs lisp piece and a python piece. The lisp piece is easy to install if you have ELPA set up. The python piece, however, is surprisingly difficult to install, mostly because of its archaic build system. I ended up installing it globally (so I wouldn't have to do this for every virtualenv I manage) as follows:

pip install -e "git+https://github.com/pinard/Pymacs.git#egg=Pymacs"
cd $VIRTUAL_ENV/src/pymacs
cp /root/src/pymacs/Pymacs.py /usr/local/lib/python2.7/dist-packages

Replace the /usr/local/lib/python2.7/dist-packages part by whatever your equivalent is.

Finally, make sure you have this somewhere in your init.el file:

(require 'pymacs)
(pymacs-load "ropemacs" "rope-")
(setq ropemacs-enable-autoimport t)
(defun pymacs-reload-rope ()
"Reload rope"
(pymacs-terminate-services )
(pymacs-load "ropemacs" "rope-"))

Dealing with virtualenvs

Most of my python projects are tucked away inside virtualenvs. Using a virtualenv means I can pip install any python package I want without worrying about whether it's polluting my other projects. It's basically a way of isolating a project's dependencies. You can install it, once again, using pip.

Most of the time I don't use virtualenv directly, but rather a set of extensions that operate a layer above called virtualenvwrapper. It's also installable via pip. With virtualenvwrapper, you get tools to easily create, delete and list existing virtualenvs, as well a hook system that lets you perform certain tasks during certain times. I will have more to say about that feature later.

Before you can use a virtualenv, you have to activate it. The standard way to do this with the virtualenvwrapper toolkit is to use the workon alias from the command line. Sometimes, though, you already have a python process running (maybe it's an interactive environment), and you want to activate the virtualenv from within the python process. In such a case, the standard virtualenvwrapper package includes a script called activate_this.py which you can run from the python process as follows:

activate_this = '/path/to/env/bin/activate_this.py'
execfile(activate_this, dict(__file__=activate_this))

This will load the virtualenv located at /path/to/env into the currently running python process. Note that there is no equivalent way to deactivate a virtualenv in this manner.

Emacs and virtualenvs

Using virtualenvs complicates the Emacs setup, but there are ways to mitigate this. My solution of choice is to use virtualenvwrapper.el, which lets you switch between virtualenvs from within Emacs. It basically replicates, in Emacs, many of the features of virtualenvwrapper.

The virtualenvwrapper.el package handles a number of things for you; for example, it will prepend the current virtualenv's bin directory to the PATH environment variable so you can run any virtualenv local executable directly from Emacs (for example, pep8, pylint, or nosetests). It also comes with a hook system, in the same spirit as its namesake. Specifically - this will be important later - it comes with a venv-postactivate-hook function and a venv-predeactivate-hook function which get run just after a virtualenv is activated and just before it's deactivated, respectively.

Unfortunately, virtualenvwrapper.el and ropemacs don't really play nice together; as mentioned before, ropemacs works via Pymacs, and Pymacs works by launching a single python process from within Emacs. That python process, with its attendant libraries, is usually not the one associated to the virtualenv that Emacs is currently pointing to, which means that rope features like "jump to definition" don't work properly when you have a virtualenv activated. You could launch your Emacs editor on the command line once you've activated your virtualenv, but this is inconvenient if you use Emacs for non-python work and you already have an instance running before you start editing your python files.

Another possibility that comes to mind is to use the activate_this.py method described before to activate the current virtualenv inside the Pymacs process. This almost works but, as noted before, there appears to be no easy way, out of the box, to deactivate the virtualenv, which poses a problem when you want to switch to another one.

The solution I came up with is a bit involved, but it's also fairly general. It consists of two parts.

First, I use the postmkvirtualenv hook (run by virtualenvwrapper) to copy a specialized activate_this.py script into the newly created virtualenv. In addition, I also copy, to the same location, a special deactivate_this.py script which undoes the work of the previous script. The hook looks like this:

# This hook is sourced after a new virtualenv is activated.
cp $WORKON_HOME/custom_activate_this.py "${VIRTUAL_ENV}"/bin/activate_this.py
cp $WORKON_HOME/custom_deactivate_this.py "${VIRTUAL_ENV}"/bin/deactivate_this.py

Secondly, I run the activate_this.py script from the venv-postactivate-hook in Emacs to prep the Pymacs python process, and I use the venv-predeactivate-hook to run the deactivate_this.py script, undoing the changes when I'm done. The requisite code in my init.el file looks like this:

(defun pymacs-activate-virtualenv () 
(when (boundp 'python-shell-virtualenv-path)
(let ((activate-file
(concat python-shell-virtualenv-path "bin/activate_this.py")))
(when (file-exists-p activate-file)
(pymacs-exec (concat "execfile('" activate-file
"', dict(__file__='" activate-file "'))"))))))

(defun pymacs-deactivate-virtualenv()
(when (boundp 'python-shell-virtualenv-path)
(let ((deactivate-file
(concat python-shell-virtualenv-path "bin/deactivate_this.py")))
(when (file-exists-p deactivate-file)
(pymacs-exec (concat "execfile('" deactivate-file
"', dict(__file__='" deactivate-file "'))"))))))

(add-hook 'venv-postactivate-hook
(lambda () (pymacs-activate-virtualenv)))

(add-hook 'venv-predeactivate-hook
(lambda () (pymacs-deactivate-virtualenv)))

The specialized custom_activate_this.py script is exactly the same as the standard one, except that it remembers the paths that it changed, so that the custom_deactivate_this.py can do its work later on. They look like this:


except NameError:
raise AssertionError(
"You must run this like execfile('path/to/custom_activate_this.py',
import sys
import os

old_os_path = os.environ['PATH']
os.environ['PATH'] = os.path.dirname(os.path.abspath(__file__)) + \
os.pathsep + old_os_path
base = os.path.dirname(os.path.dirname(os.path.abspath(__file__)))
if sys.platform == 'win32':
site_packages = os.path.join(base, 'Lib', 'site-packages')
site_packages = os.path.join(base, 'lib', 'python%s' % sys.version[:3], \
prev_sys_path = list(sys.path)
import site
sys.real_prefix = sys.prefix
sys.prefix = base
# Move the added items to the front of the path:
new_sys_path = []
for item in list(sys.path):
if item not in prev_sys_path:
sys.path[:0] = new_sys_path

sys.prev_sys_path = prev_sys_path
sys.old_os_path = old_os_path


except NameError:
raise AssertionError(
"You must run this like execfile('path/to/custom_deactivate_this.py',
import sys
import os

if hasattr(sys, 'real_prefix'):
sys.prefix = sys.real_prefix
sys.path = sys.prev_sys_path
os.environ['PATH'] = sys.old_os_path

delattr(sys, 'real_prefix')
delattr(sys, 'prev_sys_path')
delattr(sys, 'old_os_path')

Activating a virtualenv upon opening a file

It's useful to be able to automatically activate a virtualenv by opening any file in the project. I didn't do anything special here; i just followed the advice given in the virtualenvwrapper.el README file, and I used a .dir-locals.el in the relevant projects. Put a .dir-local.el file in your projects root directory, with the following contents:

((python-mode . ((project-venv-name . "myproject-env"))))

And make sure you have this somewhere in your init.el file:

(add-hook 'python-mode-hook (lambda ()
(when (boundp 'project-venv-name)
(venv-workon project-venv-name))))

Flymake, pylint, pep8

I use flymake, coupled with pylint and pep8, for on-the-fly detection of errors and deviations from pep8 style conventions.

Getting the packages is easy. Install flymake in Emacs via ELPA. Install pylint and pep8 via pip.

Flymake works by running a syntax checker tool against the current buffer, and then parsing the output (which needs to be of a particular form) to mark errors directly in said buffer. Note that as of this writing, flymake is unable to run more than one syntax checker at the same time, which means that we can't run both pep8 and pylint together without jumping through some hoops. The "hoops", in this case, consist of combining the two syntax checkers into a single script that can be run on its own. It's not much to look at, but it works:


epylint $1 -enable=C,R,I,W,E,F
pep8 $1

The epylint call is a variation on the standard pylint script which formats its output in a flymake friendly manner. It comes with the pylint package.

Next, add the following to your init.el file:

(require 'flymake-cursor)
(defun my-flymake-mode-hook ()
(local-set-key (kbd "C-.") 'flymake-goto-next-error)
(local-set-key (kbd "C-,") 'flymake-goto-prev-error))
(add-hook 'flymake-mode-hook 'my-flymake-mode-hook)

(when (load "flymake" t)
(defun flymake-pylint-init ()
(let* ((temp-file (flymake-init-create-temp-buffer-copy
(local-file (file-relative-name
(file-name-directory buffer-file-name))))
(list "~/sandbox/bin/pycheckers" (list local-file))))

(add-to-list 'flymake-allowed-file-name-masks
'("\\.py\\'" flymake-pylint-init)))

;; enable flymake when loading python files
(defun my-python-mode-hook ()
(flymake-mode t))
(add-hook 'python-mode-hook 'my-python-mode-hook)

Flymake-cursor is a package which displays the flymake message in the minibuffer rather than a window. You don't have to use it if you prefer the window.

Autocomplete and yasnippet

Ropemacs, via rope, has direct support for auto-completion. Just explore the menu.

I've opted instead to integrate the rope completion system into auto-complete, a general-purpose Emacs completion framework. The auto-complete package will provide suggestions for you as you type.

In addition, I've integrated yasnippet, a templating system for Emacs. Python, admittedly, is pretty terse, so the argument in favour of a templating system is less strong here than for a language like, let's say, Javascript, but I still find it occasionally useful.

Anyway, I added this to my init.el:

(require 'yasnippet)
(yas-global-mode 1)
(define-key yas-minor-mode-map (kbd "<tab>") nil)
(define-key yas-minor-mode-map (kbd "TAB") nil)
(define-key yas-minor-mode-map (kbd "C-SPC") 'yas-expand)

;; set up auto-complete
(require 'auto-complete)
(require 'auto-complete-config)
(global-auto-complete-mode t)


(add-hook 'python-mode-hook
(lambda ()
(add-to-list 'ac-sources 'ac-source-ropemacs)
(add-to-list 'ac-sources 'ac-source-yasnippet)))

Note that I disabled tab completion of yasnippets in favour of C-SPC. I was finding that the tab key was interfering with the indentation function in Emacs, so I switched it. As always, your mileage may vary.

Furthermore, I've arranged for yasnippet abbreviations to be added to auto-completion candidates. So far it's been okay, but I may remove this feature in the future.

Further considerations

At this point I have what I consider to be a fairly decent python IDE. It does most of what I need it to do.

But there's always room for improvements. Some specific ideas:

  • integration of test results with the Emacs compilation buffer, so you can jump directly to a failed test within Emacs
  • integration and display of test coverage results
  • integration of python documentation

Anyway, I hope this has been useful. Long live Emacs!