I’ve always been a bit confused as to what version to set in the source code of software packages between releases. For Python packages, this is the string in the __version__ attribute of the package. After an in-depth reading of PEP 440 and the Semantic Versioning specification, I’ve come to the conclusion that the correct approach is to either use the version number of the last release, with “+dev” appended, or the version number of the next planned release, with “-dev” appended.

Release Versioning

Semantic Versioning and PEP 440 give relatively straightforward recommendations for the version numbers of releases:

  • Normal releases follow the pattern <major>.<minor>.<patch>.

  • The initial release of a project is 0.1.0.

  • The initial stable release of a project is 1.0.0.

  • A package may publish pre-releases. I recommend following Semantic Versioning, and to append the pre-release identifier with a dash, e.g.

    1.0.0-dev1  # developer's preview 1 for release 1.0.0
    1.0.0-rc1   # release candidate 1 for 1.0.0

    I use “developer’s previews” primarily when another project (like a research paper) depends on an unstable current state of a package, and I want to mark this relationship with something more permanent than a reference to a specific commit. PEP 440 also allows “alpha” and “beta” releases prior to release candidates, but this is not something I would generally consider for a smallish package. In any case, setuptools (and pip) orders these releases correctly:

    >>> from pkg_resources import parse_version  # pkg_resources is part of setuptools
    >>> (parse_version('1.0.0-dev1')
    ...  < parse_version('1.0.0-dev2')
    ...  < parse_version('1.0.0-a1')
    ...  < parse_version('1.0.0-b1')
    ...  < parse_version('1.0.0-rc1')
    ...  < parse_version('1.0.0-rc2')
    ...  < parse_version('1.0.0'))
  • A package may also publish post-releases, for correcting errors in the release meta-data or documentation only. These look as e.g.

    1.0.0.post1  # first post-release after 1.0.0

    and are ordered correctly:

    >>> parse_version('1.0.0') < parse_version('1.0.0.post1')

The recommendation to separate pre-release specifiers with dashes in Semantic Versioning violates a strict PEP 440. That is, the dashed form cannot be used when uploading a package to PyPI. Luckily, twine will correctly normalize e.g. 1.0.0-dev1 into the canonical 1.0.0dev1 that PyPI will accept. Also, pip and similar tools perform the same normalization: A package can be installed using any variation of the version string, as long as it normalizes to the same canonical result. Thus, there is no problem with e.g. 1.0.0-dev1 in practice, and I recommend using it for the __version__ string, and when tagging the release in git (tag name v1.0.0-dev1). If you prefer to user the canonical PEP 440 form of pre-releases without a dash, in violation of Semantic Versioning, you should feel free to do so, as long as releases within a project are consistent. Note also that Semantic Versioning strictly speaking does not allow post-releases. These should be used sparingly anyway, and only ever for fixing meta-data, such as a broken description on PyPI.

Development Versioning

Between releases, PEP 440 and Semantic Versioning requirements technically do not apply to __version__. Traditionally, I’ve usually left __version__ unchanged between releases, or sometimes set it to the version number of an upcoming release. The problem with this is that it is not at all uncommon for a Python package to be installed “from master” (especially during development, or for “in-house” use). Pip directly supports this. Then, one example where the __version__ becomes visible is when using the watermark extension for printing the versions of imported packages in Jupyter notebooks. For reproducibility, the information whether a released version of a package or a development version from an arbitrary git commit is used is highly relevant. With a “development installation”, inspecting __version__ does not allow to detect that the installed version is not a release, and moreover, it is unclear whether the code is in a state before the specified __version__, or after.

A good solution is to append “+dev” to __version__ on the master (release) branch immediately after a release is published. Alternatively, if the next version to be released from a branch is known with certainty, __version__ can be set to that upcoming release with “-dev” appended.

From a technical perspective, “+dev” is a “local version identifier” according to PEP 440, and “build metadata” according to Semantic Versioning. The “-dev” suffix is a pre-release version in either specification. We are stretching these definitions just slightly: Semantic Versioning says that local version identifiers (“+dev”) should be ignored when determining version precedence. However, setuptools orders “+dev” and “-dev” in the “correct” way:

>>> parse_version('1.0.0') < parse_version('1.0.0+dev')
>>> parse_version('1.0.0-dev') < parse_version('1.0.0')

While it takes some getting used to, putting “1.0.0-dev1+dev” in __version__ after having released developer’s preview 1.0.0-dev1 is perfectly fine, and preferable to “1.0.0-dev” unless you are certain that there will be no more dev/rc releases before the normal 1.0.0 release.

>>> parse_version('1.0.0-dev1') < parse_version('1.0.0-dev1+dev')
>>> parse_version('1.0.0-dev1+dev') < parse_version('1.0.0')

Even “1.0.0-dev1-dev” is technically OK to indicate commits leading up to 1.0.0-dev1, although I would avoid this, personally. Generally, on a given branch, the __version__ string should only ever move forward (according to parse_version).

Even more important than setuptools ordering the local __version__ correctly relative to releases is that the “+dev” and “-dev” suffixes read very intuitively to humans: “1.0.0+dev” is the code from release 1.0.0 plus some additional development, and “1.0.0-dev” is the code from release 1.0.0 minus some missing pieces. Note that the “+dev” and “-dev” will never make it into a released version on PyPI.

The system should also be flexible enough for arbitrary branching models. In my own projects, I usually have a very simple model with only master and topic-branches (with a release being a tag on master). Since I don’t usually know which version will be released next, I will keep the “+dev” suffix between releases. For a more involved branching model, e.g. git-flow with its release and hotfix branches, it may be clear which release will be made next from a particular branch, and then the “-dev” suffix would be more appropriate.

Regex for allowed version strings

The above recommendations can be summarized in __version__ having to match the following regex at all times:

>>> import re
>>> RX_VERSION = re.compile(
...    r'^(?P<major>\d+)\.(?P<minor>\d+)\.(?P<patch>\d+)'
...    r'(?P<prepost>\.post\d+|-(dev|a|b|rc)\d+)?'
...    r'(?P<devsuffix>[+-]dev)?$'
... )

For a released version, the devsuffix group must be empty.

While these recommendations apply to Python packages in particular, I would also advocate them for software projects in general, assuming they don’t clash substantially with existing conventions.