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Good Practices for Bioinformatics CLIs



You're the author of an important bioinformatics program that can accurately predict some biologically-meaningful properties. The scientific community would like to use your program as part of a larger pipeline. However, some common follies / design decisions in bioinformatics software can make that job difficult:

  1. Running External Programs
  2. Too Much Magic #1: Automatic Filename(s)
  3. Too Much Magic #2: Automatic Updates

Running External Programs

This section is dedicated to the countless hours I have spent debugging tools which execute an external process but do not produce an error if that external process fails for some reason.

Avoid os.system

os.system is the shortest to type method for running an external program but commonly causes bugs due to the fact that if the command fails, the Python program will continue to execute as if nothing happened, sometimes without noticing.

This example shows what happens if you run a command that fails with os.system

import os

print("generating myfile.txt using nonsense.exe")

exit_code = os.system("nonsense.exe --output myfile.txt")

print("finished generating myfile.txt")

assert exit_code == 0, "You *can* make sure that the program succeeded, but people often forget"

Any downstream code that assumes myfile.txt exists will now break. Also, because os.system did not raise an exception, it becomes more difficult to find out the reason why myfile.txt does not exist.

subprocess.call is a little better because it will fail if nonsense.exe does not exist. However, if you try to run a real command but it fails, the script continues as if nothing bad happened:

import subprocess
# the script would crash here
subprocess.call(["nonsense", "output.txt"])
exit_code = subprocess.call(["ls", "--not-a-real-argument"])

print("finished running ls")

assert exit_code == 0, "You *can* make sure that the program succeeded, but people often forget"

If you really wanted to make this safe, you'd have to do the following:

    exit_code = subprocess.call(["ls", "--not-a-real-argument"])
except FileNotFoundError:
    print("program does not exist")
    assert exit_code == 0, "Program did not exit successfully"

But that involves a lot more typing than simply using subprocess.check_output:

# works

# FileNotFoundError

# subprocess.CalledProcessError
subprocess.call(["ls", "--not-a-real-argument"])

tl;dr It's safest and easiest to just use subprocess.check_output for running external commands. For more advanced features such as reading from standard out or standard error, see subprocess.Popen.

Automatically Generated Output Filenames

Many tools I've encountered will automatically generate the paths to output file(s). This is done to help the user. Who wants to manually specify the output filename especially if there are more than one? This usually causes issues down the line when a user tries to run a program using another program as it adds work to guess the path to the output file(s).

For example, many tools use the input filename as the prefix to all of the outputs.

mytool --input sample123.fastq
# sample123.fastq sample123.results.csv

Let's say the user now wants to count how many lines there are in the output. They now have to write additional code to generate the output file path


mytool --input sample123.fastq

results_path=$(basename ${input_filename} .fastq).results.csv

Consider a user wrapping this tool in a script:

mytool --input "${input_filename}"

# sample123.fastq.results-20210513.csv

Let's say the user now wants to count how many lines there are in the output. The code needed to figure out the output path starts to become more complicated and brittle due to mytool and the wrapping script having to implement formatting the date in the exact same way:


mytool --input "${input_filename}"

output_path="sample123.fastq.results-$(date +%Y%m%d).csv"
wc -l "${output_path}"

If you allow the user to provide the output path(s) as arguments, the script becomes much simpler:


mytool --input sample123.fastq --output results.csv

wc -l results.csv

tl;dr while it might appear that automatically generating output filenames makes a user's life easier; it ends up adding work down the road.

Automatically Self-Updating Code / Data

Tools that use an external database sometimes check to see if the local copy of that database is up-to-date and will automatically check for and download a newer version from the internet if available.

While it is often important to have an up-to-date copy of a database this breaks reproducibility and can lead to failures if the server hosting the database goes offline. When creating robust bioinformatics tools, being able to produce a result reproducibly is more important than unintentially changing the output because an external database has been updated.

# bad
$ mytool --input sample123.fastq
# mytool: checking for updates
# mytool: found newer database... downloading

sample123.fastq.results.csv # <- no longer reproducible result

As an alternative, I recommend not automatically updating and instead provide a command to update the database. Then I have control over when the database is updated and can keep copies of multiple versions if necessary:

mytool update-database --output database.fasta

mytool run-analysis --input sample123.fastq --database database.fasta

(c) 2011-2023 Austin G. Davis-Richardson
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