Python Installation and Environments#


While we will be using a cloud-hosted computing environment during the hackweek (Why are we using a shared cloud environment?), it is often desirable to run Python code on your laptop. We also want to ensure that hackweek tutorials or other scientific code is reproducible and can be run on different computers and operating systems.

This lesson takes you through our recommended procedure for managing Python environments and software on your personal computer. We suggest you follow these instructions in advance so that we can help you troubleshoot during the hackweek and have a fully functioning environment after.

Python Software#

Python software is distributed as a series of libraries that are called within your code to perform certain tasks. There are many different collections, or distributions of Python software. Generally you install a specific distribution of Python and then add additional libraries as you need them. There are also several different versions of Python. Support for Python 2 ended in 2020, so you should use Python>=3!


If you open a terminal on your computer, chances are if you type python you will find it is already installed! But it is best-practice to create separate environments or virtual environments to not interfere with existing installations. This also allows you to have different projects in different workspaces, each one of them with different Python versions and different packages installed. You can use conda for this (see next sections).

What is Conda?#

Conda is an open source package and environment management system for installing multiple versions of software packages, their dependencies and switching easily between them. Conda works with many programming languages but is very popular in the Python community. It works on Linux, OS X and Windows.

Installing Miniconda#

Miniconda is a command line tool which contains only Python and essential packages. We recommend installing it because it is the easiest way to use conda for Python environment management without taking up too much space.


Click here to download the proper installer for your Windows platform (64 bits). We recommend to download the Python 3 version of Miniconda.

When installing, you will be asked if you wish to make the Anaconda Python your default Python for Windows. If you do not have any other installation that is a good option. If you want to keep multiple versions of python on your machine (e.g. ESRI-supplied python, or 64 bit versions of Anaconda), then don’t select the option to modify your path or modify your windows registry settings.

Linux and OS X#

You may follow manual steps from here similar to the instructions on Windows (see above). Alternatively, you can execute these commands on a terminal shell (in this case, the bash shell):

# For MacOSX
# For Linux
wget $url -O
bash -b -p $HOME/miniconda

Notice that this last command is using bash. If bash is not already your default shell, you need to set it to be so (use the chsh -s /bin/bash command to change your default shell to bash).

Installing Anaconda (Optional)#

Anaconda is a data science platform that comes with a lot of packages. At its core, Anaconda uses the conda package management system. The list of packages included can be found here.

  1. To install Anaconda, please click on the link below for your operating system, and follow the instructions on the site.

  2. Once Anaconda installation step is finished run python in the command line to test if Anaconda is installed correctly. Note: For windows, please use the Anaconda prompt as the command line. It should be installed with your installation of Anaconda. If Anaconda is installed correctly, you should have this prompt, which emphasizes Anaconda:

$ python
Python 3.7.3|Anaconda custom (x86_64)| (default, Mar 27 2019, 22:11:17)

Installing Mamba (Optional)#

Setting up an environment with package dependencies using conda may be quite slow… A better option is to use mamba instead to solve version dependencies, which is much faster and archives the same result than conda. In order to use mamba, first install mamba in your base environment using conda:

conda install mamba

Now, every conda command can be replaced by mamba. For example, you can use mamba install <package> instead of conda install <package> (except the conda activate! That is the only command for which you need to use conda).

Working in an Environment#

Once miniconda/conda/mamba has been installed, we can use it to create new virtual environments with different Python versions and packages. A good practice is to have different environments for different projects when these have different dependencies.

Persistent Environments

By default, conda environments are not persistent in the CryoCloud Hub. This means that every time you open a new CryoCloud session, all the installations you made in previous sessions will be gone. In order to be able to work in the same computational environment across sessions without re-installing the same packages, we encourage users to create a folder in their home directory to store all their customized environments. By doing this, your environments will stay in your account when you comeback to work in the future. In order to do this, create a folder called envs in your home directory (that is, /home/jovyan). You can do this directly from the terminal:

mkdir envs

Then, also in your home directory, create a new textfile called .condarc (the name is important! don’t forget the initial dot .) with the following content:

# .condarc

 - ~/envs

This will indicates to conda that all the new environments have to live inside ~envs (~ is the unix character for your home directory). In doing so, you ensure that the new environments you build will be permanent to your CryoCloud account.

You can now create a new environment with conda. If you are just starting to work in a new project or want to test something, you can create an environment from scratch with

conda env create --name <ENVIRONMENT NAME> python=3.9

where you have to replace <ENVIRONMENT NAME> with the name you want to put to your new environment. Alternatively, you can create an environment directly from a environment.yml file

conda env create -f environment.yml

This second option is particularly practical for reproducibility and collaboration in a team.

You can check that the creation and installation of the new environment is working by first activating the environment

conda activate <ENVIRONMENT NAME>

and then check if you have the correct Python version installed

which python
python --version

The best practice for reproducibility and collaboration is to have an updated environmnent.yml file in your working space (eg, in the GitHub repository of your project). This allows members of the team to keep the environment updated and shared among users. You can create a environment.yml file associated to the environment with the command

conda env export --from-history > environment.yml` 

This will write the required dependencies to reproduce the environment in the environment.yml file. Conversely, if you have new packages listed in your environment.yml file (because you edited it or changes were made to it by a colleague and you got these changes over git, for example), you can apply these updates with this command

conda env update --file environment.yml --prune

By doing this, you will keep the conda environment and the environment.yml file synchronized. Sharing the environment.yml file ensures that other users will have the set of instructions to reproduce your virtual environment. Notice that the environment and the environment.yml are not the same thing! The latest is just a text file that allows the creation of a conda environment by using the instructions in this section.

Making the Environment Accessible to the iPython Kernel#

In order to access the kernel associated to our new environment from a Jupyter Notebook, we need to install ipykernel. We first activate the new environment,

conda activate <ENVIRONMENT NAME>

and then install ipykernel:

conda install ipykernel

This steps are not needed if you created the environment directly from a .yml file that includes ipykernel as a dependency.

Then we create the kernel with

python -m ipykernel install --user --name <ENVIRONMENT NAME> --display-name "IPython - <NAME>"

to create the associated kernel. Replace <NAME> with the name you want to call the iPython kernel and <ENVIRONMENT NAME> with the name of the respective environment.

You are done! Next time you start your JupyterHub session, you will see the new kernel available from your launcher or from the upper right corner of any Jupyter Notebook.