This lesson is in the early stages of development (Alpha version)

Make your workflow portable and reduce duplication


Teaching: 15 min
Exercises: 20 min
  • How can I eliminate duplicated file names and paths in my workflows?

  • How can I make my workflows portable and easily shared?

  • Learn to use configuration files to make workflows portable.

  • Learn a safe way to mix global variables and snakemake wildcards.

  • Learn to use configuration files, global variables, and wildcards in a systematic way to reduce duplication and make your workflows less error-prone.

Duplication in file names, paths, and pattern strings is a common source of errors in snakefiles. For example, have a look at how often the directory names are mentioned (dats, plots etc) in the examples from this workshop.

This episode presents a pattern for reducing file name duplication and making your workflows less error-prone. In addition, this approach makes your workflows more portable by moving all configurable items into a separate configuration file.

For these exercises, you should start with either your completed Snakefile from the end of the previous episode, or else use the example Snakefile .solutions/reduce_duplication/Snakefile-start. Copy it to your working directory and rename to Snakefile.

Removing Duplication

First, examine the Snakefile to identify duplicated file names, paths, and patterns. Move each one to a common global variable at the top of the Snakefile.

For example, we currently refer to single input books in two locations:

BOOK_NAMES = glob_wildcards('books/{book}.txt').book
rule count_words:

The different wildcard names ({book}, {file}) are a distraction. Both patterns refer to an input file.

Similarly, the strings that identify a single plot and a single dat file are duplicated.

Identify Duplication

How many times does the dat file pattern occur?


Three times.

DATS = expand('dats/{file}.dat', file=BOOK_NAMES)
rule count_words:
    output: 'dats/{file}.dat'
    shell: 'python {input.cmd} {} {output}'
rule make_plot:
    output: 'plots/{file}.png'
    shell: 'python {input.cmd} {input.dat} {output}'

Once duplicated file patterns have been identified, they can be moved to global variables at the start of the Snakefile and then just refered to by name.

Here is what the changes for input files might look like:

# a single input book
BOOK_FILE = 'books/{book}.txt'

# Build the list of book names.
BOOK_NAMES = glob_wildcards(BOOK_FILE).book

rule count_words:
    output: 'dats/{book}.dat'
    shell: 'python {input.cmd} {} {output}'

Note that we have adopted {book} as the wildcard name, rather than the inconsistent use of {book} and {file}.

Global variables also work for glob_wildcards and expand

Another point to note is the previous code used BOOK_FILE for a rule input and for a call to glob_wildcards. Remember this when updating the calls to expand in the next challenge.

Replace all other duplicated strings with global variables

You will need to update:

  • the string for dat files (dats/{file}.dat)
  • the string for plot files (plots/{file}.png)
  • the archive file zipf_analysis.tar.gz
  • the results file results.txt


  • A formatted string can be used to get the global variables into the clean shell command.
  • If you have inconsistent wildcard names, make them the same.


This solution is also available as .solutions/reduce_duplication/Snakefile-remove-duplicates. Possibly the only tricky part is in the clean rule where we use a formatted Python string to build the global variables into the shell command. We used f-string notation, but string.format would also work.

RESULTS_FILE = 'results.txt'
ARCHIVE_FILE = 'zipf_analysis.tar.gz'

# a single plot file
PLOT_FILE = 'plots/{book}.png'

# a single dat file
DAT_FILE = 'dats/{book}.dat'

# a single input book
BOOK_FILE = 'books/{book}.txt'

# Build the list of book names.
BOOK_NAMES = glob_wildcards(BOOK_FILE).book

# The list of all dat files

# The list of all plot files

# pseudo-rule that tries to build everything.
# Just add all the final outputs that you want built.
rule all:
    input: ARCHIVE_FILE

# Generate summary table
rule zipf_test:
    output: RESULTS_FILE
    shell:  'python {input.cmd} {input.dats} > {output}'

# delete everything so we can re-run things
rule clean:
    shell: f'rm -rf dats/ plots/ {RESULTS_FILE} {ARCHIVE_FILE}'

# Count words in one of the books
rule count_words:
    output: DAT_FILE
    shell: 'python {input.cmd} {} {output}'

# plot one word count dat file
rule make_plot:
    output: PLOT_FILE
    shell: 'python {input.cmd} {input.dat} {output}'

# create an archive with all results
rule create_archive:
    output: ARCHIVE_FILE
    shell: 'tar -czvf {output} {input}'

The Benefits So Far

These changes bring a lot of benefits to Snakefiles, and most of these benefits increase as your Snakefiles become more complex. Defining each file pattern just once reduces the chance of error, and makes changing patterns easier. Having all the file patterns and lists defined at the start of the file also makes things easier to read. Finally, using the global variable names elsewhere in the file tends to make rules easier to read. Instead of trying to remember what the right pattern is, or what a given pattern means, the extra level of abstraction should improve readability. For example, the create_archive rule now looks something like this:

rule create_archive:
    output: ARCHIVE_FILE
    shell: 'tar -czvf {output} {input}'

The intent of the rule should be clear, and the intricacies of paths and file name patterns are not confusing things.

Use Consistent Naming Conventions

I suggest the following global variable naming conventions:

  • *_FILE for single files or wildcard patterns
  • ALL_* for lists of files (frequently built using expand)

You can of course use your own conventions. Consistency is the key.

Improving Portability

Imagine that we now want to share this workflow with a colleague, but they have their input files in a different location. Additionally, they require a different directory layout for the results, and a different results file name.

In other words, they think our workflow is great, but they want to customise and configure it.

Of course, they can just modify the Snakefile, but this can get annoying when the Snakefile is shared (such as through a shared directory or via Git).

A better approach is to use configuration files. Snakemake supports json and yaml formats, we use yaml here as it is easier to edit and read.

First, move all values that need to be configurable into a configuration file alongside the Snakefile. Here we show the input file directory that has been added to a new file called config.yaml (it’s just a text file):

input_dir: books/

In the Snakefile we first load the configuration with the configfile keyword:

configfile: 'config.yaml'

Once that has been done, the configuration is accessed through the config dictionary created by Snakemake:

INPUT_DIR = config['input_dir']

Finally, we use Python string formatting to build BOOK_FILE. Note that the we need to escape the wildcard in double curly braces. This ensures the formatted string contains {book}. Failure to do this will cause an exception since the string formatting code will be expecting a token called book (try it and see!).

BOOK_FILE = f'{INPUT_DIR}{{book}}.txt'

The rest of the workflow remains unchanged.

Combining global variables and wildcards in formatted strings

The safest way to mix global variables and wildcards in a formatted string is to remember the following:

  • Global variables are surrounded in single curly braces (e.g. {INPUT_DIR}).
  • Wildcards are surrounded with double curly braces (e.g. {{book}}).
  • Use upper-case for globals and lower-case for wildcards.

Make your workflow configurable

Move all other configurable values into config.yaml and adjust the Snakefile.

Remember to test your workflow as you go.


No example code is given here. By this stage you should be able to trust your own judgement.

If you really need it, a full example of the entire workflow with no duplication and all configurable values moved into a configuration file is in .solutions/reduce_duplication/Snakefile and .solutions/reduce_duplication/config.yaml in the downloaded code package.

Note that the example uses f-strings, which are only available in Python 3.6 and higher. If you must use an older version of Python then you can use the older string formatting methods, although the results will be less concise.

Don’t put your configuration file in source control


  • create a sample configuration with a different name such as config_template.yaml.
  • instruct users to copy the template to the real configuration file (config.yaml).
  • make sure the configuration file name is in the .gitignore file (or equivalent).

Key Points

  • Careful use of global variables can eliminate duplication of file names and patterns in your Snakefiles

  • Consistent naming conventions help keep your code readable.

  • Configuration files can make your workflow portable.

  • In general, don’t add configuration files to source control. Instead, provide a template.

  • Take care when mixing global variables and Snakemake wildcards in a formatted string. In general, surround wildcards with double curly braces.