Setting up a Python development environment

This post was originally published here

Setting up Python is usually simple, but there are some places where newcomers
(and experienced users) need to be careful. What versions are there? What’s the
difference between Python, CPython, Anaconda, PyPy? Those and many other
questions may stump new developers, or people wanting to use Python.

Note: this guide is opinionated.

Glossary and questions

Python versions: 2 vs 3

The Python community has undergone sort of a schism in recent years. Python
3, released in 2008, broke backwards compatibility: deprecated some bad
constructs and libraries (eg. raw_input() became input() and the
original Python 2 function that ran code input by users is gone; print()
became a function; many things that returned lists now are iterators — zip,
range), and completely remodelled strings (which are now Unicode by
default, and the interpreter behavior is stricter when the wrong type is used)

For new code, you should use Python 3. Most popular packages support Python 3, and many of them support both Pythons at
the same time. The early bugs were ironed out in the first few point releases,
some features that made porting easier were added (back).

But what if you end up needing Python 2 later? No problem: you can learn the
differences in a short time, and with the help of a few libraries (eg. six)
you can easily write code that is compatible with Python 2 and 3 at the same
time, using the same codebase (most libraries out there do that).

Python 2 will go EOL and lose official support and updates in 2020.

Read more: Python 2 or Python 3 on Python Wiki

Can I run multiple Pythons on the same machine?

Yes. Note that multiple Python interpreters are completely separate: they have
their own pip and packages, and you can’t run Python 2 code in a Python 3
interpreter. You need to specify which interpreter to use when installing
packages and running some scripts (eg. pip2, pip3 or python3 -m pip).

It’s best to limit yourself to the latest Python 2 and 3 versions. Python is
backwards-compatible within the major release, so Python 2.7 runs code
written with older 2.x versions in mind.


A programming language is an abstract construct. To run code written in that
language, an interpreter or compiler needs to be written. In Python’s case,
there’s a plethora of implementations. Some of them are:

  • CPython is the reference implementation. This is the implementation
    distributed on and as part of many operating systems.
    Most Python features are first implemented in CPython, and then they are
    ported to other implementations. If you don’t know what to choose, use
  • PyPy is a fast implementation, written in a subset of Python. It’s compatible with
    Python 2.7 and 3.5 (beta support). It can run all pure Python code, and many
    extension libraries that use CFFI.
  • IronPython is a .NET CLR implementation. It can integrate with .NET code.
  • Jython is a Java JVM implementation. It can integrate with Java code, as
    well as other JVM languages.

Read more: Python Implementations on Python Wiki


There are also Python (CPython) distributions. They ship the CPython
interpreter and add some extra packages/features. They are maintained by other
communities or corporate entities.

The most popular third-party distribution is Anaconda from Continuum Analytics. It’s popular
for data scientists, and includes over 100 packages, with extra pre-built
binaries available from the conda package manager.

I personally recommend to avoid Anaconda:

  • Most packages have binary wheels for Windows, macOS and Linux (yes, Linux!)
    making the installation as simple as pip install numpy.
  • You waste disk space for packages Anaconda installs that you won’t ever need.
  • It’s provided by some random for-profit company.
  • I’ve seen bugs that were not reproducible outside of Anaconda.
  • You can still do data science using the official distribution. There’s
    nothing special about Anaconda.

Read more: Python distributions on Python Wiki

Can I make .exe files from Python programs?

Yes, you can. There are tools for this — PyInstaller is the best one. Note that you usually need to
run it on the destination operating system. And remember that “compiling” to
exe files like that is not a security measure — your source code is still
easily recoverable. (It’s not a security measure in other languages either,
even if getting source code back might be more expensive/tricky in those.)

Where to learn Python? Where to get help?

The choice of learning material is important. If you get a bad book, it might
discourage you from learning (because it’s boring), or may teach you
bad/outdated practices.

If you can already program in another language, I recommend the official
Python tutorial
. For newcomers to
programming, I recommend Think Python or Automate the Boring Stuff
with Python
. They teach Python 3, and
(mostly) best practices.

If you need help, try #python on freenode IRC, the Tutor or Python-list mailing lists, or a bunch of other communities. (I’m a regular on #python)

Installing Python

This guide will focus on installing CPython 2.7 and 3.x (latest), using the standard
distribution. This choice is satisfactory for most people. Third-party
distributions, while handy in some cases, are not needed for most. (See
Distributions for arguments)

Throughout this guide, I’ll refer to the Python interpreter executable as
python. The exact name depends on your system and desired version. On most
OSes, python is Python 2 and python3 is 3; python2 should also
exist. On Arch Linux, python is Python 3. On Windows, use the py


Download the installer(s):

Those installers come with pip, and modern Python 3.x versions come with
the py launcher. You can use that launcher to pick a specific Python
version, eg.:

  • py -3 -m pip install <package>
  • py -2
  • py -2.7
  • py (default system version)

It’s recommended for most use, and mandatory for upgrading pip.

The 32-bit versions are more versatile. Most packages support both (the only
exception I’m aware of is Tensorflow, which only allows 64-bit Python 3.5 as of


macOS ships with Python 2.7.10 (as of macOS Sierra). It’s not the latest
version; it’s good enough for most people, but I still recommend installing
your own (the system Python doesn’t include pip, for example). You can
install the latest 2.7 version, as well as Python 3, using a package manager. I
recommend Homebrew — it’s the most popular solution, and lets you install many
other packages.

DO NOT use the installers: they do not have uninstallers, so you
will have outdated versions lying around after some time. There is no
auto-update as well.

If you already have a package manager installed (MacPorts, Fink), don’t install
a new one and just use the existing one.

  1. Install Homebrew.
  2. Run brew install python python3.
  3. You should now have python, python3, pip and pip3.

To update Homebrew and Python, run brew update.

Linux (and other Unix-like OSes)

On Linux, there usually are good enough packages in your OS repositories. You
should be able to install the appropriate package for Python (2 and/or 3).

If the version that ships with your distribution is too old, there are some
options. There might be some repositories with better versions, eg. the
deadsnakes PPA
for Ubuntu. Then there’s the other option of compiling Python manually. The
instructions depend on your exact requirements, but here’s a summary:

  1. Download the source distribution from and unpack it. Go into the unpacked source directory.
  2. Ensure you’ve got a functional C compiler and Python’s dependencies. You can
    usually use your system’s package manager to install the build dependencies
    of your system Python. Some dependencies are optional (eg. sqlite3
    requires SQLite headers).
  3. Run ./configure --prefix=/opt/python3.6 and then make. (You may add other options to both. It will
    take a while.)
  4. Run make altinstall as root. Avoid make install, as it can override
    python executables.

Alternatively, you can try pyenv or pythonz — tools that can be used to install and manage different Python versions. Remember: compiling Python should be considered a last resort.

Installing packages

To install third-party packages, you should use pip, the Python package
manager. If you’re using Windows or macOS (from Homebrew), pip is included with
your copy of Python. If you’re on Linux and installed Python from a system
repository, install the correct system package (python-pip,
python3-pip). If you compiled your own Python, pip is also included.

To run pip, use py -m pip (Windows), python -m pip (other platforms),
or the short pip/pip3 commands.

Very important: NEVER use sudo with pip. That can lead to conflicts with
system package managers and does not provide isolation between package

Note that a package install is specific to the Python interpreter used to run
pip. Packages installed to a virtualenv are separate from system packages;
packages installed for “global” Python 2.7 are separate from 3.6 packages.
Virtual environments generally don’t use the system packages, unless
specifically enabled during creation.

Some distros have pouplar packages in their repositories. Sometimes they’re
good; in other cases they’re terribly outdated or they lack important
components, making package managers angry and sick of supporting a 2-year-old
version. (Especially since most bugs are closed with “we’ve fixed that long

User installs

At a small scale, you can install packages with pip for a single user. Use
pip install --user PACKAGE to do this. If your package installs scripts,
they will be installed to ~/.local/bin on Linux, and
~/Library/Python/X.Y/bin on macOS (X.Y is Python version), or you can use
python -m if the package supports it.

For most people and projects, virtual environments are better. There are,
however, use cases for putting some packages user-wide — if you don’t work on
projects, but instead are doing one-off research projects, those are better
suited by user-wide installs.

Virtual environments

Virtual environments are the best way to install and manage Python packages.
Advantages include:

  • Isolation of projects and their requirements: if one app/package requires
    library version X, but another requires version Y, they can live in separate
    virtual environments
  • Independent from system-wide packages
  • Lightweight (an empty virtualenv is about 10 MB)
  • Simple to re-create in any place (pip freeze > requirements.txtpip install -r requirements.txt)

Tools and management

There are two tools to facilitate creation of virtual environments: the older
virtualenv project, and the newer
venv module. The venv module is shipped with Python 3.x; some
distributions may put it in a separate package or remove it altogether. I
recommend using virtualenv — it’s compatible with more Python versions
(it’s better to use the same tool for both Pythons) and cannot be broken by
incompetent OS package mainainers (venv fails on Debian due to no
ensurepip; there is a python3-venv package that fixes it but that’s
hard to discover)

There are multiple schools of thought regarding virtualenv placement and
content. Myself, I use virtualenvwrapper to manage virtualenvs
and put them in ~/virtualenvs. Other people put virtualenvs inside their
git repositories (but they must be in .gitignore) Virtualenvs should only contain packages
installed with pip so they can be rereated quickly.

I also use the virtualenvwrapper plugin for Oh My Zsh, which also
activates virtualenvs with the same name as a git repo, or the environment
named by a .venv file.

Installation and usage

To install virtualenv user-wide, use pip install --user virtualenv. You can
then use it with python -m virtualenv DIRECTORY. You may pass extra
options, eg. interpreter to use (-p python3). Sometimes you need to install
virtualenv for every Python version; usually, one copy is enough.

How to use them? This is a subject of heated debate in the Python community.
Some people believe that activating (source bin/activate on *nix;
Scriptsactivate on Windows) is the right thing to do. Others think that
you should use bin/python (or other scripts in that directory) directly.
Others still think virtualenvs should be used in subshells. In my opinion, if activating
virtualenvs works in your environment, you should do it — it’s the most
convenient option. There are, however, cases when activation fails, or is
otherwise impossible — calling bin/python directly is your best bet in that
case. I’m not a fan of the subshell option, because it complicates stuff if you
work on multiple projects, and requires tracking usage manually.

Upgrading and moving

Upgrading the system Python may make your virtualenvs unusable.
For patch version upgrades, you can just update symlinks (see
However, if the minor version changes, it’s best to re-create the virtualenv
(you need to create requirements.txt ahead of time).

You cannot move a virtualenv between directories/machines or rename
virtualenvs. You need to use pip freeze > requirements.txt, create a new
virtualenv, and run pip install -r requirements.txt (you can then delete
the old environment with a simple rm -rf)

Packages with C extensions (binary)

The situation improved drastically in the past year or so. Nowadays, almost
all packages have a pre-compiled package available in PyPI. Those packages work
for Windows, macOS, and Linux. There are packages for some of the most
common offenders, including Pillow, lxml, PyQt5, numpy… However, there might
still be packages without wheels on PyPI.

If there is no wheel for a package and you are on Windows, check out Christoph
Gohlke’s unofficial binaries
If you can’t find any wheels online, you would have to resort to compiling it
manually — this requires installign Visual Studio in a version that matches
your Python, and it’s kind of a pain to do.

If you are not on Windows, you must install a C compiler and toolchain.
If you get a warning about missing Python.h, install the appropriate development
package — for example, python-dev or python3-dev) on Debian/Ubuntu,
python-devel or python3-devel on RHEL/Fedora. The package you’re trying
to install might have other dependencies that you need to install (the
-dev(el) part is important, too)

Other stuff

If you’re working on a project, use pip install -e . inside the project
directory to install the package in your environment in development (editable)
mode. This loads code directly from your repository — you don’t need to
re-install on every change; you might need to re-install when your version
number changes.

Editors and IDEs

Another important thing a developer should take care of is the choice of an
editor. This is an important decision, and is the reason for many holy wars in
the programmer community.

A good editor should have syntax highlighting for all languages you need to
work with. It should also have features like visual block/multiple selections,
sophisticated find-and-replace, file finding, code completion, and many more minor
but helpful features.

Then there’s the difference between IDEs and text editors. Text editors are
simpler, whereas IDEs try to include many extra things not necessairly related
to writing code. IDEs often use more resources, but you won’t notice it with a
modern computer (especially with a SSD).

I spend the most of my time in Vim (neovim/VimR to be
precise). Vim is the most powerful text editor out there, and with the right
set of plugins it can beat IDEs at speed and productivity. Vim has a steep
learning curve, but it’s worth it — you can do large changes with just a few
keystrokes. Vim is considered so good that many IDEs (Visual Studio, IntelliJ
IDEA/PyCharm) have (mediocre) Vim emulation plugins.

However, if you would prefer an IDE, your best bet would be PyCharm from JetBrains. It has both a free
Community and paid Professional edition. The JetBrains folks are experts at
IDEs — they have fully-fledged tools for many languages. Their Python solution
offers a plethora of options that aid programmers in their work. If you’re on
Windows, you might try Python Tools for Visual Studio (although I haven’t
worked with that and can’t vouch for it)

Another, lighter option is Visual Studio Code — it’s a text editor, but can offer many
IDE-like features with the right set of plugins. It’s Electron-based
architecture, or effectively being based on top of Google’s Chromium, is
unfortunate and can lead to bad performance on lower-end machines. (In my
experience, it’s better than Atom.) You can also try Sublime Text ($70).

But really, almost any editor will do. But please avoid IDLE, the editor
included with Python. It lacks some of the most basic things — it doesn’t even
have an option to show line numbers. Not to mention its ugliness. Also, don’t
use Notepad and TextEdit. Those are too simple, and Notepad has encoding

Related Posts

Coding in Interactive Mode vs Script Mode When programming in Python, you have two basic options for running code: interactive mode and script mode. Distinguishing between these modes can be s...
How to Consolidate Multiple Django Projects Dos and Don’ts For Success If you’ve been developing web applications for your company or a client for a few years, it’s possib...
Text Analytics and Visualization For this post, I want to describe a text analytics and visualization technique using a basic keyword extraction mechanism using nothing but a word cou...
SQL Fundamentals The pandas workflow is a common favorite among data analysts and data scientists. The workflow looks something like this: The pandas workflow works we...