Introduction to Waf

Waf is our tool of choice to automate the dependency tracking via a DAG (directed acyclic graph) structure. Written in Python and originally designed to build software, it directly extends to our purposes. You find the program in the root folder of the project template (the file and the hidden folder .mywaflib). The settings for a particular project are controlled via files called wscript, which are kept in the root directory (required) and usually in the directories close to the tasks that need to be performed.

There are three phases to building a project:

  • configure: Set the project and build directories, find required programs on a particular machine
  • build: Build the targets (intermediate and final: cleaned datasets, graphs, tables, paper, presentation, documentation)
  • install: Copy a selection of targets to places where you find them more easily.
Additionally, there are two phases for cleanup which are useful to enforce a rebuild of the project:
  • clean: Cleans up project so that all tasks will be performed anew upon the next build.
  • distclean: Cleans up more thoroughly (by deleting the build directory), requiring configure again.

The project directory is always the root directory of the project, the build directory is usually called bld. This is how we implement it in the main wscript file:

# The project root directory and the build directory.
top = '.'
out = 'bld'

We will have more to say about the directory structure in the Organisation section. For now, we note that a step towards achieving the goal of clearly separating inputs and outputs is that we specify a separate build directory. All output files go there (including intermediate output), it is never kept under version control, and it can be safely removed – everything in it will be reconstructed automatically the next time Waf is run.

The configure phase

The first time you fire up a project you need to invoke Waf by typing:

python configure

in a command prompt. You only need to do this once, or whenever the location of the programs that your project requires changes (say, you installed a new version of LaTeX), you performed a distclean, or manually removed the entire build directory. Because of the configure argument Waf will call the function by the same name, which lives in the main wscript file:

def configure(ctx):
    ctx.env.PYTHONPATH = os.getcwd()
    # Disable on a machine where security risks could arise
    ctx.env.PDFLATEXFLAGS = '-shell-escape'

Let us dissect this function line-by-line:

  • ctx.env.PYTHONPATH = os.getcwd() sets the PYTHONPATH environmental variable to the project root folder so we can use hierarchical imports in our Python scripts
  • ctx.load('why') loads a tool that helps in debugging dependencies, very useful in complicated situations.
  • ctx.load('biber') loads a modern replacement for BibTeX and the entire LaTeX machinery with it.
  • ctx.load('run_py_script') loads a little tool for running Python scripts. Similar tools exist for Matlab, Stata, R, and Perl. More can be easily created.
  • ctx.load('sphinx_build') loads the tool required to build the project’s documentation.
  • ctx.load('write_project_headers') loads a tool for handling project paths. We postpone the discussion until the section by the same name.

Waf now knows everything about your computer system that it needs to know in order to perform the tasks you ask it to perform. Of course, other projects may require different tools, but you load them in the same way.


The ctx argument that is passed to all functions (configure, build, ...) in Waf is short for “context”. It holds all kinds of methods and variables relevant for executing the task (configure, build, ...) at hand. See the Waf documentation (here or here).

Specifying dependencies and the build phase

Let us go step-by-step through the entire dependency graph of the project from the section on DAG’s, which is reproduced here for convenience:


Remember the colors of the edges follow the step of the analysis; we will split our description along the same lines. First, we need to show how to keep the Waf code in separate directories (else it would become quickly unmanageable).

Distributing the dependencies by step of the analysis

Waf makes it easy to proceed in a step-wise manner by letting the user distribute wscript files across a directory hierarchy. This is an excerpt from the build function in the main wscript file:

def build(ctx):

When this function is called, it will descend into a subfolder src, look for a file called wscript and invoke the build function defined therein. If any of the three does not exist, it will fail. In the file src/wscript, you will find (among other calls), the following statements:

def build(ctx):

The same comments as before apply to what the ctx.recurse calls do. Hence you can specify the dependencies separately for each step of the analysis.

The “data management” step

The dependency structure at this step of the analysis is particularly simple, as we have one source and one target:


This is the entire content of the file src/data_management/wscript:

#! python

def build(ctx):

    # Illustrate simple use of run_py_script
        target=ctx.path_to(ctx, 'OUT_DATA', 'initial_locations.csv'),

The ctx() call is a shortcut for creating a task generator. We will be more specific about that below in the section A closer look at the build phase. Let us look at the lines one-by-one again:

  • features='run_py_script' tells Waf what action it needs to perform. In this case, it should run a Python script.
  • source='' tells Waf that it should perform the action on the file in the current directory.
  • target=ctx.path_to(ctx, 'OUT_DATA', 'initial_locations.csv') tells Waf that the specified action will produce a file called initial_locations.csv in a directory that is determined in the ctx.path_to(). We will examine this in detail in the Organisation section, for now we abstract from it beyond noting that the OUT_DATA keyword refers to the directory where output data are stored.
  • name='get_simulation_draws' gives this task generator a name, which can be useful if we only want to produce a subset of all targets.

And this is it! The rest are slight variations on this procedure and straightforward generalisations thereof.

The “analysis” step

We concentrate our discussion on the top part of the graph, i.e. the baseline model. The lower part is the exact mirror image. We have the following structure:


Just a reminder on the purpose of each of these files:

  • schelling_baseline.pickle is the file that contains the locations of agents after each round
  • initial_locations.csv is the file we produced before
  • is the file with the main code to run the analysis
  • contains a class Agent that specifies how a Schelling-agent behaves in given circumstances (i.e. move or stay)
  • baseline.json contains the specification for the baseline model.

In addition to this, we keep a log-file, which is omitted from the graph for legibility. We specify this dependency structure in the file src/analysis/wscript, which has the following contents:

#! python

def build(ctx):

    for model in 'baseline', 'max_moves_2':

        # Illustrate use of run_py_script with automatic model specification.
                ctx.path_to(ctx, 'OUT_DATA', 'initial_locations.csv'),
                ctx.path_to(ctx, 'IN_MODEL_CODE', ''),
                ctx.path_to(ctx, 'IN_MODEL_SPECS', '{}.json'.format(model)),
                ctx.path_to(ctx, 'OUT_ANALYSIS', 'schelling_{}.pickle'.format(model)),
                ctx.path_to(ctx, 'OUT_ANALYSIS', 'log', 'schelling_{}.log'.format(model))

Some points to note about this:

  • The loop over both models allows us to specify the code in one go; we focus on the case where the variable model takes on the value 'baseline'.

  • Note the difference between the source and the deps: Even though the dependency graph above neglects the difference, Waf needs to know on which file it needs to run the task. This is done via the source keyword. The other files will only be used for setting the dependencies.

  • The first item in the list of deps is exactly the same as the target in the data management step.

  • Don’t worry about the directories in the ctx.path_to() calls until the section “Organisation” below

  • We keep a log-file called schelling_baseline.log, which we left out of the dependency tree.

  • The append keyword allows us to pass arguments to the Python script. In particular, will be invoked as follows:

    python /path/to/project/src/analysis/ baseline

    In, the model name is then read in using:

    model_name = sys.argv[1]

    and we can load the correct model specification (i.e., baseline.json). This works similarly in other languages; see the respective project template as an example.

The “final” step

Again, we concentrate on the baseline model.


This step is shown here mostly for completeness, there is nothing really new in the wscript file:

#! python

def build(ctx):

    for model in 'baseline', 'max_moves_2':

                ctx.path_to(ctx, 'OUT_ANALYSIS', 'schelling_{}.pickle'.format(model)),
                ctx.path_to(ctx, 'IN_MODEL_SPECS', '{}.json'.format(model))
            target=ctx.path_to(ctx, 'OUT_FIGURES', 'schelling_{}.png'.format(model)),

Everything works just as before: We set as the source, specify additional dependencies (among them the relevant target from the analysis step), and append the model name on the command line.

The “paper” step

The pdf with the final “paper” depends on two additional files that were not shown in the full dependency graph for legibility reasons, a reference bibliography, and a LaTeX-file with the formula for the agents’ decision rule (specified in a separate file so it can be re-used in the presentation, which is omitted from the graph as well):


The corresponding file src/paper/wscript is particularly simple:

#! python

def build(ctx):

    for s in 'research_paper', 'research_pres_30min':
            source=s + '.tex',

Note that we only request Waf to execute the tex machinery for the source file (research_paper.tex).

The line prompt=1 only tells Waf to invoke pdflatex in such a way that the log-file is printed to the screen. You can shut this off (it is often very long and obfuscates the remaining output from Waf) by setting it to 0.

So how does Waf know about the additional four dependencies? The tex tool is smart enough to find out by itself! In particular, it parses the contents of research_paper.tex and looks for lines such as:


Invoking the build

You start building the project by typing:

python build

at a command prompt. Because this is the most frequent command to execute, you can leave out the build qualifier and use:


as a shortcut; it has exactly the same effect.

The installation phase

Some targets you want to have easily accessible. This is particularly true for the paper and the presentation. Instead of having to plow through lots of byproducts of the LaTeX compilation in bld/src/paper, it would be nice to have the two pdf’s in the project root folder.

In order to achieve this, the following code is found in src/paper/wscript (still in the loop where s takes on the values 'research_paper' or 'research_pres_30min'):

            s + '.pdf'

This installation of targets can be triggered by typing either of the following commands in a shell:

python build install
python install

Conversely, you can remove all installed targets by:

python uninstall

A closer look at the build phase

The following figure shows a little bit of how Waf works internally during the build phase:


The build phase of a project, reproduced from Nagy (2013), section 4.1.4

The important part to remember is that there is a logical and temporal separation between

  • the execution of the functions we discussed above;
  • and Waf’s execution of the tasks.

In between, it has to set the order in which it would execute the tasks and whether a target is up-to-date or not (hence the reading from and writing to an internal cache).

While developing your code, errors will usually show up in the last step: The task returns an error and Waf stops. However, the errors do not have anything to do with Waf, it simply runs the code you wrote on your behalf.

“Genuine” Waf errors will occur only if you made errors in writing the wscript files (e.g., syntax errors) or specify the dependencies in a way that is not compatible with a DAG (e.g., circular dependencies or multiple ways to build a target). A hybrid error will occur, for example, if a task did not produce one of the targets you told Waf about. Waf will stop with an error again and it lies in your best judgement of whether you misspecified things in your wscript file or in your research code.

By default, Waf will execute tasks in parallel if your computer is sufficiently powerful and if the dependency graphs allows for it. This often leads to a major speed gain, which comes as a free lunch. However, it can be annoying during the development phase because error messages from different tasks get into each others’ way. You can force execution of a single task at a time by starting Waf with the -j1 switch:

python waf -j1

Other useful options are:

  • -v or -vv or -vvv for making Waf’s output ever more verbose – this is helpful for diagnosing problems with what you specified in your wscript files. Verbose output is especially useful when combined with the following options.
  • --zones=deps tells you about the dependencies that Waf finds for a particular task
  • --zones=task tells you why a target needs to be rebuilt (i.e. which dependency changed)

Concluding notes on Waf

To conclude, Waf roughly works in the following way:

  1. Waf reads your instructions and sets the build order.

    • Think of a dependency graph here.
    • It stops when it detects a circular dependency or ambiguous ways to build a target.
    • Both are major advantages over a master-script, let alone doing the dependency tracking in your mind.
  2. Waf decides which tasks need to be executed based on the nodes’ signatures and performs the required actions.

    • A signature roughly is a sufficient statistic for file contents.
    • Minimal rebuilds are a huge speed gain compared to a master-script.
    • These gains are large enought to make projects break or succeed.

We have just touched upon the tip of the iceberg here; Waf has many more goodies to offer. The Waf book [Nag17] is an excellent source – you just need to get used to the programmer jargon a little bit and develop a feeling for its background in building software.