ducttape: A Crash Course « 4. Versioning & Packages

5. Grab Bag

This section addresses miscellaneous ducttape features that may prove useful.

External config files

Global variables may be defined in a configuration file that is separate from the workflow file. This allows a configuration file to be used with multiple workflows.

The configuration file should consist of a global block (see section 1). Simply pass the path to the configuration file with the -C option when invoking ducttape at the command line.


A few global variables are reserved as directives, offering additional control over ducttape's behavior.

The Attic

Partial output or invalidated output from previous runs is relegated to the Attic: that is, it gets moved to a numbered directory under the output directory for a realization.1 This may help prevent accidental deletion of data and can help diagnose issues if tasks fail repeatedly. The attic directory number (workflow version) is incremented every time the workflow is executed.

Shorthand variable references

Within the task header, the name of a nonlocal variable on the right-hand side of an assignment can be omitted if it is the same as the name of the local variable being assigned to:

# variable from another task
task prev :: a=42 {
  echo ${a}
task next :: a=@prev { # short for a=$a@prev
  echo ${a}

# global variable
global {
     foo="hello, world"
task hello :: foo=@ { # short for foo=$foo
     echo ${foo}

Sequence branch points

Branches may be expressed as a range of integers using the .. operator:

task run_several_times > x :: trial=(WhichTrial: 1..10) {
  # Use bash's built-in random number generator
  echo $RANDOM > $x

This creates 10 branches of the WhichTrial branch point.

Nested branch points

Sometimes it is useful to encode hierarchical interactions between multiple branch points. For instance, imagine a cross-validation setup where a prediction step needs to be run for each of 4 folds in development and each of 8 folds at test time. We assume the data for each fold is in a separate file. We wish to encode the prediction mode as dev or test in a branch point for experimental convenience. This can be expressed succinctly:

task predict < in=(DevOrTest: dev=(DevFold: d1 d2 d3 d4)
                             test=(TestFold: t1 t2 t3 t4 t5 t6 t7 t8)) 
             > out { … }

Here, a different nested branch point obtains depending on the branch of the outer branch point, DevOrTest. We can then define two plans, one targeting the dev set and one targeting the test set, without having to repeat the names of the individual folds.

An alternate strategy would be to use nested sequence branch points:

task predict < indir=(DevOrTest: dev=/path/to/dev test=/path/to/test) 
             > out
            :: fold=(DevOrTest: dev=(Fold: 1..4) test=(Fold: 1..8)) { … }

In this case the nested branch points have the same name, but different numbers of branches. (In general, they could have different branch names and/or values.) A disadvantage of this approach is that ducttape will check only for the directories containing the input files, not the files themselves: the full filename will have to be assembled in the body of the task by combining $indir and $fold.

Branch grafting

As noted in section 2, plans may be used to select execution paths in a HyperWorkflow with many paths, especially if it would be intractable to execute all possible paths. In some cases, however, it is desirable to have a task whose inputs are limited to certain branches.

For example, a machine learning workflow might have a predict task that operates separately on dev and test datasets—each with its own branch—and a subsequent tune task that uses its output, but only applies to the dev set. We can sketch these two tasks as follows:

task predict < in=(DevOrTest: dev=dev.txt test=test.txt) > out { … }

task tune < in=$out@predict[DevOrTest:dev] > out { … }

The branch grafting notation [DevOrTest:dev] expresses that the input from an upstream task is limited to a particular branch—the dev branch of the DevOrTest branch point. No realization of the tune task will be created for the test branch.2

Advanced branch grafting

The general behavior of branch grafting is difficult to explain, but we will give an informal description and a few examples.

Consider two tasks, t and t′, in a dependency relationship established by an input variable v in the header of t′. Suppose the upstream task t defines a branch point B. There are two scenarios:

The following workflow is a simple 2-task pipeline with 3 variants of the downstream task:

task t1 < in=(B: a b) > out1 out2 { … }

task t2-par < in1=$out1@t1 in2=$out2@t1 { … }

task t2-zee < in1=$out1@t1 in2=$out2@t1[B:b] { … }

task t2-vee < in1=$out1@t1[B:a] in2=$out2@t1[B:b] { … }

Both of the inputs in t2-par form unqualified dependencies on t1. t2-zee and t2-vee use branch grafting to form qualified dependencies. We depict the three dependency structures as follows:

Each realization node is shown with the task name and realization name (BL stands for Baseline.baseline). The diagrams make clear that the grafting in the zee and vee structures does not merely filter the allowed realizations relative to the fully unqualified dependencies (parallel): here the grafting actually imposes "cross-branch" or "mixed-branch" dependencies.

Another advanced example

The grafting mechanism is powerful enough to allow fairly baroque workflows, such as the following:

task t1 < in=(B: a b) > out { … }

task t2 < in=$out@t1[B:a] > out :: Q=(X: x y) { … }

task t3 < in1=$out@t1 in2=$out@t2 > out { … }

task t4 < in1=$out@t3[B:b,X:y] in2=$out@t2[X:x] :: Q=(B: a b) { … }

TODO: advanced branch grafts example in next section

Some workflow design patterns

Complementary branch points

When different tasks pertain to different groupings of branches, this can be enforced with multiple branch points whose branch values are linked by grafts:

task preproc < in=(Data: train=/data/train.txt dev=/data/dev.txt test=/data/test.txt) > out { … }

task learn < in=$out@preproc[Data:train] > model { … }

task eval < in=(EvalData: dev=$out@preproc[Data:dev] test=$out@preproc[Data:test]) model=@learn > preds { … }

Here preproc is run for all three datasets, each of which is then fed into one of the two other tasks. The EvalData branch point is effectively a subset of the Data branch point.

Sometimes-skip tasks

Consider a workflow to be run for several different inputs in which some, but not all, of these inputs need to be passed through a cleanup task before reaching the rest of the workflow. How can we specify that the rest of the workflow should use the output of cleanup for certain inputs and the original input files for others?

Concretely: Suppose the input depends on a branch point Data: a b c d, and the cleanup step is only necessary for c and d. We can encode branch-contingent skips in the structure of the workflow, rather than forcing the body of cleanup to behave differently for different inputs.

The recommended solution is for the downstream tasks to share a global input variable whose value is contingent on the branch. I.e.:

task cleanup < in=(Data: a=/data/a b=/data/b c=/data/c d=/data/d) > out {
global {
  clean=(Data: a=/data/a b=/data/b c=$out@cleanup d=$out@cleanup)
task task1 < in=$clean > out { … }
task task2 < in=$clean > out { … }
task task3 < in=$clean > out { … }
plan FinalTasks {
  reach task1, task2, task3 via (Data: *)

The global variables ensure that downstream tasks use the correct inputs. The FinalTasks plan does not ask for all realizations of cleanup to be run, only those that are necessary for the downstream tasks.

This principle also holds if the input to the sometimes-optional step is the output from an earlier task.

Combining outputs across all realizations of a task as input to a single realization of another task

For example, if a training task is run with several different parameter values (different branches), a tuning task might wish to consider all the trained models to choose the best one, in a sort of reduce step.

This is not currently supported by ducttape, but is planned with a feature called globbing.

6. Advanced Example »

  1. Or task, with the directive ducttape_structure=flat.

  2. This use case of restricting the paths followed could also be accomplished with a plan, though this is not true of all uses of branch grafting.