Building packages with dh-virtualenv

Building packages with dh-virtualenv is relatively easy to start with but it also supports lot of customization to fit in your general needs.

By default, dh-virtualenv installs your packages under /opt/venvs/<packagename>. The package name is provided by the debian/control file.

To use an alternative install prefix, add a line like

export DH_VIRTUALENV_INSTALL_ROOT=</your/custom/install/dir>

to the top of your debian/rules file. dh_virtualenv will use DH_VIRTUALENV_INSTALL_ROOT instead of /opt/venvs when it constructs the install path.

To use an install suffix other than the package name, call the dh_virtualenv command using the --install-suffix command line option. See Advanced Usage for further information on passing options.

Simple usecase

To signal debhelper to use dh-virtualenv for building your package, you need to pass --with python-virtualenv to debhelper sequencer.

In a nutshell, the simplest debian/rules file to build using dh-virtualenv looks like this:

#!/usr/bin/make -f

      dh $@ --with python-virtualenv

However, the tool makes a few assumptions of your project’s structure:

  • For installing requirements, you need to have a file called requirements.txt in the root directory of your project. The requirements file is not mandatory.
  • The project must have a file in the root of the project. Sequencer will run install to install the package inside the virtualenv.

After these are place, you can just build the package with your favorite tool!

Environment variables

Certain environment variables can be used to customise the behaviour of the debhelper sequencer in addition to the standard debhelper variables.


Define a custom root location to install your package(s). The resulting location for a specific package will be ``/path/to/install/root/<packagename>` unless --install-suffix is used.

Command line options

To change the default behavior the dh_virtualenv command accepts a few command line options:

-p <package>, --package <package>

Act on the package named <package>

-N <package>, --no-package <package>

Do not act on the specified package

-v, --verbose

Turn on verbose mode. This has a few effects: it sets root logger level to DEBUG and passes verbose flag to pip when installing packages. This can also be provided using the standard DH_VERBOSE environment variable.

--install-suffix <suffix>

Override virtualenv installation suffix. The suffix is appended to /opt/venvs, or the DH_VIRTUALENV_INSTALL_ROOT environment variable if specified, to construct the installation path.

--extra-index-url <url>

Use extra index url <url> when running pip to install packages. This can be provided multiple times to pass multiple URLs to pip. This is useful if you for example have a private Python Package Index.

--preinstall <package>

Package to install before processing the requirements. This flag can be used to provide a package that is installed by pip before processing requirements file. This is handy if you need to install for example a custom setup script or other packages needed to parse This flag can be provided multiple times to pass multiple packages for pre-install.

--pip-tool <exename>

Executable that will be used to install requirements after the preinstall stage. Usually you’ll install this program by using the --preinstall argument. The replacement is expected to be found in the virtualenv’s bin/ directory.

--upgrade-pip <package>

New in version 1.0.

Force upgrading pip to the latest available release. Note: This can produce non-repeatable builds.

--index-url <URL>

Base URL of the PyPI server. This flag can be used to pass in a custom URL to a PyPI mirror. It’s useful if you for example have an internal mirror of the PyPI or you run a special instance that only exposes selected packages of PyPI. If this is not provided, the default will be whatever pip uses as default (usually

--extra-pip-arg <PIP ARG>

Extra parameters to pass to the pip executable. This is useful if you need to change the behaviour of pip during the packaging process. You can use this flag multiple times to pass in different pip flags. As an example passing in --extra-pip-arg “–no-compile” to the override_dh_virtualenv section of the debian/rules file will disable the generation of pyc files.

--extra-virtualenv-arg <VIRTUALENV ARG>

Extra parameters to pass to the virtualenv executable. This is useful if you need to change the behaviour of virtualenv during the packaging process. You can use this flag multiple times to pass in different virtualenv flags.

--requirements <REQUIREMENTS FILE>

Use a different requirements file when installing. Some packages such as pbr expect the requirements.txt file to be a simple list of requirements that can be copied verbatim into the install_requires list. This command option allows specifying a different requirements.txt file that may include pip specific flags such as -i, -r- and -e.


Use setuptools instead of distribute in the virtualenv


New in version 1.0.

Run python test when building the package. This was the old default behaviour before version 1.0. This option is incompatible with the deprecated --no-test.

--python <path>

Use a specific Python interpreter found in path as the interpreter for the virtualenv. Default is to use the system default, usually /usr/bin/python.


Enable the use of the build-in venv module, i.e. use python -m venv to create the virtualenv. For this to work, requires Python 3.4 or later to be used, e.g. by using the option --python /usr/bin/python3.4. (Python 3.3 has the venv module, but virtualenvs created with Python 3.3 are not bootstrapped with setuptools or pip.)

-S, --use-system-packages

Enable the use of system site-packages in the created virtualenv by passing the --system-site-packages flag to virtualenv.


Skip running pip install . after dependencies have been installed. This will result in anything specified in being ignored. If this package is intended to install a virtualenv and a program that uses the supplied virtualenv, it is up to the user to ensure that if exists, any installation logic or dependencies contained therein are handled.

This option is useful for web application deployments where the package is expected contain the virtual environment to support an application which itself may be installed via some other means – typically, by the packages ./debian/<packagename>.install file, possibly into a directory structure unrelated to the location of the virtual environment.

--pypi-url <URL>

Deprecated since version 1.0: Use --index-url instead.


Deprecated since version 1.0: This option has no effect. See --setuptools-test.

Advanced usage

To provide command line options to dh_virtualenv sequence the override mechanism of the debhelper is the best tool.

Following debian/rules will provide as additional Python Package Index URI:

#!/usr/bin/make -f

      dh $@ --with python-virtualenv

      dh_virtualenv --extra-index-url

Experimental buildsystem support

Important: Following chapters describe a completely experimental functionality of dh-virtualenv.

Starting with version 0.9 of dh-virtualenv, there is a buildsystem alternative. The main difference in use is that instead of the --with python-virtualenv option, --buildsystem=dh_virtualenv is passed to debhelper. The debian rules file should look like this:

#!/usr/bin/make -f

        dh $@ --buildsystem=dh_virtualenv

Using the buildsystem instead of the part of the sequence (in other words, instead of the --with python-virtualenv) one can get more flexibility into the build process.

Flexibility comes from the fact that buildsystem will have individual steps for configure, build, test and install and those can be overridden by adding override_dh_auto_<STEP> target into the debian/rules file. For example:

#!/usr/bin/make -f

        dh $@ --buildsystem=dh_virtualenv

        py.test test/

In addition the separation of build and install steps makes it possible to use debian/install files to include built files into the Debian package. This is not possible with the sequencer addition.

The build system honors the DH_VIRTUALENV_INSTALL_ROOT environment variable. Following other environment variables can be used to customise the functionality:


Pass given extra arguments to the virtualenv command

For example:

export DH_VIRTUALENV_ARGUMENTS="--no-site-packages --always-copy"

The default is to create the virtual environment with --no-site-packages.


New in version 1.0.

Override the location of requirements file. See --requirements.


New in version 1.0.

Force upgrade of the pip tool by setting DH_UPGRADE_PIP to empty (latest version) or specific version. For example:


New in version 1.0.

Force upgrade of setuptools by setting DH_UPGRADE_SETUPTOOLS to empty (latest version) or specific version.


New in version 1.0.

Force upgrade of wheel by setting DH_UPGRADE_WHEEL to empty (latest version) or specific version.


New in version 1.0.

Pass additional parameters to the pip command. For example:

export DH_PIP_EXTRA_ARGS="--no-index --find-links=./requirements/wheels"