Flex is a framework for building and executing computing pipelines

data, science, research, build, automation
pip install flexds==1.1


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Expressive pipelines for data science

Data science projects get disorganized quickly. Every test involves a new script, each script requires a panoply of arguments and produces one or more data files. Keeping track of all this implied structure is a pain - what is this script for? What does it depend on? What created this data file? Which parameters updated this table in the database?

Enter xp - a utility that allows you to express and run all the computational tasks in a project. Crucially, it captures the specific parameters used for each task, the data files produced, and any dependencies that task has on other tasks. All this is captured in files called pipelines (which can even be connected to one another). Toss in some helpful comments, and you have executable documentation for your project.

This may sound a lot like scientific notebook environments (e.g., Jupyter and Mathematica), but there are some key differences. Notebooks only allow linear dependencies between computational tasks - which is a tremendous simplification of even moderate-sized projects.

To this end, it has three primary goals:

  1. Capture the task-level logic and structure of a data science project in a language-agnostic way

  2. Make it possible to trace data back to the specific tasks (and commands) that produced it

  3. Connect documentation of tasks to the task logic itself

It aims to achieve these three things without introducing any overhead. You won't have to write more code than you currently are doing, write or maintain any extra documentation, or use fancy data management solutions. Whatever you are already doing, xp is compatible with it.

xp is a command-line tool for building data-science pipelines, particularly in the research context. By pipeline, we mean writing tasks that depend on one another. Imagine make, except with a lot of intelligence built into it that is relevant to data science work.

Moreover, xp makes it easy to create and update pipelines while always retaining a connection to the data that the pipeline produced and is self-documenting at the same time.

Detailed documentation is available on readthedocs.


Install xp off pypi using

pip install xp

or install from source by downloading from github and running

python setup.py install


sudo python setup.py install

depending on permission settings for your python site-packages.

Writing a pipeline

A pipeline is a sequence of steps (called tasks) that manipulates data. On a very practical level, each task takes some data as input and produces other data as output. In the example below, there are four tasks, each involved in a different part of the workflow.

# Pipeline: cluster_data


        curl $DATA_URL > data.tsv

extract_columns: download_data
        cut -f $NAME_COLUMN,$COUNT_COLUMN data.tsv | tail +2 > xdata.tsv
        from csv import reader
        fout = open('xdata2.tsv','w')
        for data in reader(open('xdata.tsv','r'),delimiter='\t'):
            fout.write('%s\t%s\n' % (data[0],data[1][1:-1])

cluster_rows: extract_columns
        ./cluster.sh --alpha $ALPHA xdata2.tsv > clusters.tsv

plot_clusters: cluster_rows
        plot "clusters.tsv" using 1:2 title 'Cluster quality'

Tasks can depend on other tasks (e.g., extract_columns depends on download_data) - either in the same pipeline or in other pipelines. By making tasks depend on other pipelines, it's possible to treat pipelines as modular parts of much larger workflows.

Once a task completes without error, it is marked - which flags it as not needing to be run again. In order to re-run a task, one can simply unmark it and run it again.

If you choose to run a task which has unmarked dependencies, these will be run before the task itself is run - in this way, an entire workflow can be run using a single command.

A task contains blocks which describe the actual computational steps being taken. As is seen in the example above, blocks can contain code for various different languages - making it possible to stitch together workflows that involve different languages. A single task can even contain multiple blocks for the same or different languages.

Currently, xp supports four block types:

  • export (export) - this allows environment variables to be set and unset within the context of a specific task

  • python (code.py)

  • shell (code.sh)

  • gnuplot (code.gnuplot)

These, of course, require that the appropriate executables are present on the system. To customize the executable used, environment variables can be set (PYTHON_EXEC and GNUPLOT_EXEC, respectively).

Future releases will support additional languages natively and also provide a plugin mechanism for adding new block types.

Once a pipeline has been written, it can be run using the xp command-line tool.

xp run pipeline_file

The command-line tool also allows easy marking (mark), unmarking (unmark), and querying task info (tasks) for a pipeline.

Pipeline-specific Data

A common activity that creates a lot of data management issues is running effectively the same or similar pipelines using different parameter settings: files can get overwritten and, more generally, the user typically loses track of exactly which files came from what setting.

In xp, files produced by a pipeline can be easily bound to their pipeline, eliminating this confusion.


        curl $DATA_URL > $PLN(data.tsv)


In the excerpt above, the file data.tsv is being bound to this pipeline using the $PLN(.) function. In effect, the file is prefixed (either by name or placed in a pipeline-specific directory). Future references to this file via $PLN(data.tsv) will access only this pipeline's version of the file - even if many pipelines are downloading the files at various times.

(Note that $ is treated as a special character by xp and so identifiers such as $PATH or $1 will be parsed as xp variables. To avoid this, escape the $ using \, e.g. \$PATH or \$1).

Extending Pipelines

In some cases, one will want to run exactly the same pipeline over and over with different parameter settings. To support this, xp allows extending pipelines. Much like subclassing, extending a pipeline brings all the content of one pipeline into another one. Assume we are clustering some data using the process here (in pipeline cluster_pln). The process is parameterized by the alpha value.

# Pipeline: cluster_pln

cluster_rows: extract_columns
        ./cluster.sh --alpha $ALPHA xdata2.tsv > $PLN(clusters.tsv)

plot_clusters: cluster_rows
        plot "$PLN(clusters.tsv)" using 1:2 title 'Cluster quality at alpha=$ALPHA'

We can extend this pipeline to retain the same workflow, but use different values:

# Pipeline: cluster_a2
extend cluster_pln


and again for a different value

# Pipeline: cluster_a3
extend cluster_pln


Note that in each case the cluster data will be stored to $PLN(clusters.tsv), so that each pipeline will have its own separate stored data.

Connecting Pipelines Together

It's quite reasonable to expect that one pipeline could feed into another pipeline. xp supports this - pipelines can depend on the tasks in other pipelines - and in doing so, create even larger workflows that retain their nice modular organization.

Consider that the earlier pipeline given above, cluster_a2, could actually be assembling the data for a classifier. Let's break this classifier portion of the project into its own workflow.

# Pipeline: lda_classifier

use cluster_a2 as cdata


build_lda: cdata.cluster_rows

        ${LDA_CLASSIFIER} -input $PLN(cdata,clusters.tsv) -output $PLN(lda_model.json)

label_articles: build_lda
        ${LDA_LABELER} -model $PLN(lda_model.json) -data "$NEWS_ARTICLES" > $PLN(news.labels)

In the example above, notice how the task build_lda both depends on a task from the cluster_a2 pipeline and also uses data from that pipeline's namespace, $PLN(cdata,clusters.tsv).

Of course, we might want to try multiple classifiers on the same source data, so we can create other pipelines that use cluster_a2, shown next.

# Pipeline: crf_classifier

use cluster_a2 as cdata


build_crf_model: cdata.cluster_rows
        /opt/bin/build_crf -data $PLN(cdata,clusters.tsv) -output $PLN(crf_model.json)

label_articles: build_crf_model
        import crf_model

        model = crf_model.load_model('$PLN(crf_model.json)')


See the examples/ directory in the xp root directory to see some real pipelines that demonstrate the core features of the tool.

Command-line usage

The xp command provides several core capabilities:

  • xp tasks <pipeline> will out info about one or more tasks in the pipeline including whether they are marked

  • xp run <pipeline> will run a pipeline (or a task within a pipeline)

  • xp mark <pipeline> will mark specific tasks or an entire pipeline

  • xp unmark <pipeline> will unmark specific tasks or an entire pipeline

All of these commands have help messages to help their correct use.