Project specific Julia configuration with direnv

I heard about direnv the first time a couple of years ago, but it wasn't until the past autumn that I seriously looked into it and tried it out. Now that I have used it for a just over half a year I can say that direnv has become a huge quality-of-life improvement to my development workflow. direnv was recently discussed in the Julia community chat and it was my understanding that not many people were aware of it, or what it can be used for. Therefore I wanted to briefly present direnv in this post with the focus on how to use direnv effectively together with Julia.

Brief introduction to direnv

This post is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to direnv, but in order to fully appreciate the rest of the post it is good to have a general understanding of what direnv does. For installation and initial configuration refer to the official documentation.

direnv is a shell extension that automatically loads (and unloads!) environment variables depending on configuration in the current directory. Before each shell prompt direnv checks for an .envrc file, and, if it exists, spawns a sub-shell where direnv's standard library (the stdlib) and the .envrc file is loaded. direnv monitors any changes to the environment, and re-exports the changes to the original shell.

Let's look at an example: create a directory my-project with a file .envrc which sets the environment variable HELLO:

~$ tree -a
└── my-project
    └── .envrc

1 directory, 1 file

~$ cat my-project/.envrc
export HELLO=world

Let's first verify that the variable is not set, and then, when we cd to the directory containing the .envrc file, direnv should set the variable:

~$ echo $HELLO

~$ cd my-project
direnv: error /home/fredrik/my-project/.envrc is blocked.
Run `direnv allow` to approve its content

An error – what happened here? direnv comes with a built in security mechanism that blocks execution of .envrc files which have not been manually approved – we wouldn't want to accidentally execute unknown code by just cding to a directory with a file .envrc. After making sure the content of .envrc is legit we can approve the file with the direnv allow command, as the error message suggest. This is not needed the next time we enter this directory, unless the file has been modified.

~/my-project$ direnv allow
direnv: loading ~/my-project/.envrc
direnv: export +HELLO

Success! direnv reports that the file was found and loaded, and that the variable HELLO has been re-exported. We can verify that it has the expected value:

~/my-project$ echo $HELLO

If we step out of this directory, direnv will unload the changes, and the HELLO variable is reset to its original value (unset in this case):

$ cd ..
direnv: unloading

~$ echo $HELLO

Configuring Julia with direnv

Let's have a look at how direnv can be used together with Julia. A good start is to look at the Environment Variables section in the manual. However, it is not only things listed there that might be useful for Julia configuration. In the following sections I will describe the things I have found most useful.

Julia version management

Sometimes it is useful to configure a specific Julia version for a project. In a series of pull requests (#665, #666, #667) I added the use julia X.Y.Z command to the direnv stdlib to make it very simple to load a specific version of Julia (requires direnv version 2.22.0 or newer). For example, to load Julia version 1.6 simply put the following in the .envrc file:

use julia 1.6

Under the hood direnv modifies PATH (and some other variables) such that the specified Julia version is at the top to make sure that julia points to the correct version:

$ cat .envrc
use julia 1.6

$ julia --version
julia version 1.6.0

$ cat .envrc
use julia 1.5

$ julia --version
julia version 1.5.4

The only required configuration is to define the variable JULIA_VERSIONS first, which should point to a directory of Julia installs. In my case I have Julia versions installed to /opt/julia:

$ tree -L 1 /opt/julia/
├── julia-1.0
├── julia-1.1
├── julia-1.2
├── julia-1.3
├── julia-1.4
├── julia-1.5
└── julia-1.6

and thus put:


in my global configuration file, the direnvrc file (by default located at ~/.config/direnv/direnvrc). By default the prefix julia- is used when direnv looks for the specified version, but this can be changed by setting JULIA_VERSION_PREFIX, see the documentation for more details. As an example, if you use the asdf version manager to install Julia you will find that asdf installs versions into ~/.asdf/installs/julia/X.Y.Z, i.e. to directories without the julia- prefix. In that case you can put the following in direnvrc:


Package environments

Before discussing how direnv can be used to control the package environment it is good to understand how Julia's package loading work. The command import Example will prompt Julia to look for a package named Example in the load path. The load path is essentially a list of package environments where Julia should look for what Example means in the current configuration, e.g. which package and which version that should be loaded. The load path is expanded from the global variable LOAD_PATH, where the default configuration looks like this:

julia> LOAD_PATH
3-element Vector{String}:

julia> Base.load_path() # expansion of LOAD_PATH
2-element Vector{String}:

@ expands to the active project which is configured with the --project command line flag, the JULIA_PROJECT environment variable, or with Pkg.activate (in the example above it is unset). @v#.# expands to the default global package environment for the current Julia version, and @stdlib expands to the Julia standard library. When trying to import a package called Example Julia will look in each of the entries of the load path and the first occurance of a package called Example will be loaded.

It is quite common to use a project-local package environment in Julia. This reduces the risk of running into package incompatibilities and helps with reproducibility. The two most common ways to make sure the local package environment is used is to either start Julia with julia --project, or use Pkg.activate(pwd()). This will make sure the first entry in LOAD_PATH expands to the current directory. direnv makes it very easy to enable this behavior by default by putting layout julia in the .envrc file:

layout julia

This command sets the environment variable JULIA_PROJECT to the current directory automatically and there is no risk of forgetting to use --project or Pkg.activate.

As hinted to above the load path is a stack of environments and it is possible to load packages from any entry. In some cases, for example if reproducibility is important, you might want to be even more strict and only allow packages from a single environment. This can be achieved by configuring the JULIA_LOAD_PATH environment variable directly. The global variable LOAD_PATH is initialized from the JULIA_LOAD_PATH variable (with default values discussed above). For example, the following (in .envrc) makes sure there is only a single entry, the project in the current directory, in the load path:


Another usecase is to build a custom stack of environments. Here is an example which puts allows loading of packages from the environment in the current directory, packages from a sub-environment called devtools, and packages from the standard library:

export JULIA_LOAD_PATH="${PWD}:${PWD}/devtools:@stdlib"

Julia command line options

Since the .envrc is just a Bash script it is possible to use side effects from its execution. We can define the following function in direnvrc (for global usage), or in .envrc, to configure project specific Julia command line options:

julia_args() {
    # Create a bin directory
    mkdir -p bin
    # Create a wrapper script to call julia with the arguments
    echo "#!/bin/bash
    exec $(which julia) "$@" \"\$@\"
    " > bin/julia
    # Make it executable
    chmod +x bin/julia
    # Make sure bin is in PATH
    PATH_add bin

This function creates a wrapper script in the bin directory which launches Julia with the specified command line options. From .envrc it is used as follows:

# Configure a Julia version
use julia 1.6

# Configure command line options
julia_args --threads=4 --check-bounds=no --optimize=3

Simply invoking julia now uses the command line options specifiec in the .envrc file:

$ julia -E 'Threads.nthreads()'

Project specific history

To keep a project specific REPL history file it is possible to define the JULIA_HISTORY environment variable in the .envrc file:

export JULIA_HISTORY=${PWD}/repl_history.jl

Julia with direnv in VSCode

In order to use direnv with VSCode and the Julia extension there are some extra configuration needed. The reason for this is that the extension does not launch Julia through the shell, and we can thus not rely on direnv's auto-loading of the environment. In addition, the extension spawns multiple julia processes: one for the language server protocol, and one for evaluating user-code. It is only the latter which is of interest to configure using direnv. Fortunately, direnv provides an exec command that can be used to load a .envrc file and then execute a command. This can be utilized by pointing the Julia: Executable Path extension setting to the following executable wrapper script:


# Absolute path to the direnv executable
# Tell direnv about bash; needed if bash is not in PATH
export DIRENV_BASH=/bin/bash

# Prepend PATH with a fallback julia
export PATH="${JULIA_PATH}:${PATH}"

if [ -z "${JULIA_LANGUAGESERVER}" ]; then
    # REPL process; use direnv exec to load .envrc file
    exec "${DIRENV}" exec "${PWD}" julia "${@}"
    # Language Server process; exec the fallback julia
    exec julia "${@}"

This looks a bit convoluted but it is pretty simple. First we set up the absolute path to direnv and configure direnv's Bash path with the DIRENV_BASH environment variable. This is important since we are not in control of how this script is invoked, and, in particular, PATH might not be what we expect. Next, a fallback julia location is prepended to PATH. This fallback will be used by the language server process (and by the user process unless a different julia location is configured in the .envrc file). Finally, we inspect the JULIA_LANGUAGESERVER variable, which tells us whether we are currently launching the language server process or not. For the user process we launch julia through direnv exec and for the language server process the fallback julia, that was previously configured, is execd.

Let's verify that it worked using the following .envrc file:

export HELLO=world

After approving the file (direnv allow in an embedded or external terminal) we launch a Julia REPL process with the Julia: Start REPL command:

direnv: loading ~/dev/Example/.envrc

From the output we see that direnv found the .envrc file and loaded it and we can verify that the HELLO variable defined in the file is set:

direnv: loading ~/dev/Example/.envrc
julia> ENV["HELLO"]

Concluding remarks

In this post I have presented direnv and how it can be used to configure Julia. direnv is, of course, very useful for other things too, such as project local API keys etc. Most of the things presented in the post are things that I use daily, and that I feel have improved my workflow very much. I really recommend you to try direnv, and I hope you will find it useful!