Build System Support#

What is it?#

Python packaging has come a long way.

The traditional setuptools way of packaging Python modules uses a setup() function within the script. Commands such as python bdist or python bdist_wheel generate a distribution bundle and python install installs the distribution. This interface makes it difficult to choose other packaging tools without an overhaul. Because scripts allow for arbitrary execution, it is difficult to provide a reliable user experience across environments and history.

PEP 517 therefore came to the rescue and specified a new standard to package and distribute Python modules. Under PEP 517:

A pyproject.toml file is used to specify what program to use for generating the distribution.

Then, two functions provided by the program, build_wheel(directory: str) and build_sdist(directory: str) create the distribution bundle at the specified directory. The program is free to use its own configuration script or extend the .toml file.

Lastly, pip install *.whl or pip install *.tar.gz does the actual installation. If *.whl is available, pip will go ahead and copy the files into site-packages directory. If not, pip will look at pyproject.toml and decide what program to use to ‘build from source’ (the default is setuptools).

With this standard, switching between packaging tools is a lot easier. build_meta implements setuptools’s build system support.

How to use it?#

Start with a package that you want to distribute. You will need your source files, a pyproject.toml file and a setup.cfg file:


The pyproject.toml file is required to specify the build system (i.e. what is being used to package your scripts and install from source). To use it with setuptools, the content would be:

requires = ["setuptools"]
build-backend = "setuptools.build_meta"

The setuptools package implements the build_sdist command and the wheel package implements the build_wheel command; the latter is a dependency of the former exposed via PEP 517 hooks.

Use setuptoolsdeclarative config to specify the package information:

name = meowpkg
version = 0.0.1
description = a package that meows

packages = find:

Now generate the distribution. To build the package, use PyPA build:

$ pip install -q build
$ python -m build

And now it’s done! The .whl file and .tar.gz can then be distributed and installed:


$ pip install dist/meowpkg-0.0.1.whl


$ pip install dist/meowpkg-0.0.1.tar.gz

Dynamic build dependencies and other build_meta tweaks#

With the changes introduced by PEP 517 and PEP 518, the setup_requires configuration field was made deprecated in setup.cfg and, in favour of directly listing build dependencies in the requires field of the build-system table of pyproject.toml. This approach has a series of advantages and gives package managers and installers the ability to inspect in advance the build requirements and perform a series of optimisations.

However some package authors might still need to dynamically inspect the final users machine before deciding these requirements. One way of doing that, as specified by PEP 517, is to “tweak” setuptools.build_meta by using a in-tree backend.


Before implementing a in-tree backend, have a look on PEP 508. Most of the times, dependencies with environment markers are enough to differentiate operating systems and platforms.

If you add the following configuration to your pyproject.toml:

requires = ["setuptools", "wheel"]
build-backend = "backend"
backend-path = ["_custom_build"]

then you should be able to implement a thin wrapper around build_meta in the _custom_build/ file, as shown in the following example:

from setuptools import build_meta as _orig

prepare_metadata_for_build_wheel = _orig.prepare_metadata_for_build_wheel
build_wheel = _orig.build_wheel
build_sdist = _orig.build_sdist

def get_requires_for_build_wheel(self, config_settings=None):
    return _orig.get_requires_for_build_wheel(config_settings) + [...]

def get_requires_for_build_sdist(self, config_settings=None):
    return _orig.get_requires_for_build_sdist(config_settings) + [...]

Note that you can override any of the functions specified in PEP 517, not only the ones responsible for gathering requirements.


Make sure your backend script is included in the source distribution, otherwise the build will fail. This can be done by using a SCM/VCS plugin (like setuptools-scm and setuptools-svn), or by correctly setting up

If this is the first time you are using a customised backend, please have a look on the generated .tar.gz and .whl. On POSIX systems that can be done with tar -tf dist/*.tar.gz and unzip -l dist/*.whl. On Windows systems you can rename the .whl to .zip to be able to inspect it on the file explorer, and use the same tar command in a command prompt (alternativelly there are GUI programs like 7-zip that handle .tar.gz).

In general the backend script should be present in the .tar.gz (so the project can be build from the source) but not in the .whl (otherwise the backend script would end up being distributed alongside your package). See “Package Discovery and Namespace Package” for more details about package files.