Packages for Emacs Programmers

So Emacs 24 has been released. It's a major step forward for Emacs because 24 includes a packaging system. The packaging system is variously known as elpa or package.el but here we will call it just package.

This article is a few tips and tricks to make working with packages easier, particularly aimed at developers of Emacs packages. Some tips are still useful for people who just want to install packages though.

Why you should care about package

package is important because it's a standard way for people to build Emacs extensions that can be incorporated by other Emacs users quickly and easily. We no longer need to have a 3 or 4 year wait for a new piece of code to get into Emacs.

By default Emacs pulls packages from a GNU package repository called ELPA. ELPA has strict submission requirements, the ownership of the code must still be assigned to the FSF. But it's easy to add usage of other repositories to your Emacs, rather like you can with yum, or apt or macports.

A couple of other Emacs package repositories have sprung up, marmalade-repo by Nathan Weizenbaum and now maintained by me is a repository for Emacs packages that does not require code ownership to be assigned to the FSF; indeed, it does not even require a free licence (though that may change if I feel it's becomming an issue). It's really easy to get your code into marmalade. You just register with maramalade, build your package and upload it.

Another repository, called Melpa is rather clever in that it creates a repository automatically out of code on GitHub. There's no need to upload your code to Melpa, you just mark your repository in a particular way for Melpa to pull it and build it for you.

Testing with clean

So package is a great boon for Emacs developers because it means you can share your code more effectively than ever. Not just that though. It's actually easier to develop with packages, they make testing much easier.

This first dev's trick is actually useful for users too; it's the ability to build a clean Emacs, with no packages in it, that you can install stuff in without affecting your personal copy:

(setq package-user-dir
(setq package-archives
      '(("gnu" . "")
        ("marmalade" . "")))

I call this emacs-clean.el and I keep it in ~/. I can therefore get a clean Emacs to play around in anytime I want like this:

$ mkdir myclean ; cd myclean ; emacs -Q -nw -l ~/emacs-clean.el

this will start Emacs with no init file but with it's own elpa directory (the name of the package store).

You can install packages to your hearts content here without affecting your own Emacs. This means it's easy to test in a fresh Emacs.

Automated installation into clean

When you're developing a package you probably want to install it in a clean emacs over and over again. So here's an extension of the above script that let's you do just that. This one is a bit interesting because it's an Emacs shell script:

:;exec emacs -nw -Q -l "$0" -f main "$@"
(require 'cl)
(defun main ()
  (destructuring-bind (package &optional elpa-parent) command-line-args-left
    ;; Make the elpa dir for this if we need to.
    (when (and elpa-parent
               (not (file-exists-p elpa-parent)))
      (make-directory elpa-parent t))
    ;; Package stuff
    (setq package-user-dir
           (or (concat elpa-parent "/")
    (setq package-archives
          '(("gnu" . "")
            ("marmalade" . "")))
    (if (and (file-exists-p (expand-file-name package))
             (not (file-directory-p (expand-file-name package))))
        (package-install-file (expand-file-name package))
        ;; Else must just be a package
        (package-install (intern package)))))

;; End

I call this emacs-install-clean.el, you can use it like this:

$ bash ~/emacs-install-clean.el keywiz ~/mycleantest

that will install the keywiz package into the new directory mycleantest.

If you want to test a package of your own then you can do this:

$ bash ~/emacs-install-clean.el ~/work/myproject/mypackage.el ~/mycleandir

It will, of course, handle any type of package.

Automated testing and packages

The next important tool for developers is how you can apply these tricks to a regular build so you can do automated, clean, testing with your Emacs project.

To automatically test a package you need to:

I have 2 files which I use for this, the first is the build file which I call build.el:

(let ((package
         (or (buffer-file-name)
        (car (reverse command-line-args)))))
  (message "the package is: %s" package)
  (package-install-file package))
;; End

This let's you go like this:

$ emacs --batch -l ./build.el -- package-file-name

with your local package and it will batch run an Emacs to install the package.

That's not much use (though it does cause byte-compilation which is a useful testing step in itself) so you also need packagedir.el which sets the target package directory, just like emacs-clean.el did above, and then runs the tests. Here's elnode's example:

(setq package-user-dir
        (or (buffer-file-name)
(setq package-archives
      '(("gnu" . "")
        ("marmalade" . "")))
(load-file "build.el")
(require 'elnode-db-tests)
(require 'elnode-wiki)
(require 'elnode-tests)
(require 'elnode-client)

You can then run this file like this:

emacs -Q --batch -l ./packagedir.el -- package-file-name

And it will do the installation into a clean Emacs and run the tests. I have this setup in a Makefile so I can just go:

M-x compile [RET] clean test

Some people might be asking why separate out the package dir setting from emacs-clean like that? because we've moved the setting of the package-user-dir to a different file from build.el and the reason is because then the build.el can also be used to install, possibly from a Makefile as well. An example of this is Elnode's Makefile which has just such an install target.

It might be that there is signifcant reuse to be had from these scripts, it's early days.

Offline testing

The last thing I want to talk about is a probably a little specialized. It's the ability to cache package files so they can be downloaded without Internet connectivity. This is fantastically useful to me because I often find myself in airports, on planes or on trains with no WIFI and wanting to run a few tests of an Emacs package I'm working on. Without a cache I'm stuck. So I built one.

To use it download the package package-store from Marmalade. This will create a package cache of everything you install (at least while the package is installed). Once you've got everything you need cached (just running tests in your personal Emacs while you are online should be enough) you can then go offline in any Emacs with packages installed:

M-x toggle-package-store-connected

any further package installs with then come from the cache.

The Great Leap

This is the absolutely best thing about Emacs 24 in my opnion. It makes life much much better for developers because it let's them make better software for users.

If you have developed an Emacs add on at all in the past, now might be the time to consider revisting, giving it a few tests and then adding it to Marmalade or Melpa. Go on. Make it better.