Universal tox tests (from just about any CI)

Posted on Sun 17 October 2021 in hints-and-kinks • 5 min read

I like tox. A lot. I use it all the time. This is a quick summary on how to use it in such a way that it becomes a central anchor point that you can use from all your CI systems.

What’s tox for?

Normally tox is used to run tests for Python projects, and it’s very well suited for that. You can use it with Python libraries, Django projects, scripts you use for system automation, whatever. But you can use it just the same for code that isn’t a Python application or library itself, but a Python application just happens to come in handy for testing that code.

In this example, I’ll describe a super simple use case: using a barebones tox configuration that lints YAML configurations. Suppose you’ve got a Git repo that’s full of YAML files. And you want to make sure, for example, that all your truthy values are true or false and never yes, no, on or off. Or that your indentation is always consistent.


There first thing you’ll do is create tox.ini, the central tox configuration file, in the top level directory of your repository. Here’s a tiny example:

envlist = py{3,36,39}
skipsdist = True

deps = yamllint
commands = yamllint {toxinidir}

That’s it. What this’ll do, when invoked as simply tox, is

  • create a Python 3 venv,
  • pip-install the latest version of yamllint,
  • invoke the yamllint command, which will recursively check for all .yml, .yaml, and .yamllint files in the directory where the tox.ini file itself lives.

What’s helpful here is that tox does a little bit of magic with the testenv names. tox knows that if you call a testenv py36, you want to test with Python 3.6 (more precisely, CPython 3.6). py39, that’s Python 3.9. Just py3 means whatever Python version maps to the python3 binary on your system.1

Running tox on every commit

Now the first thing you might want to do is run tox on every commit, and encourage your collaborators to do the same. You can easily do that by dropping this tiny shell script2 into your repo as a file named pre-commit in the .githooks directory:


exec tox -e py3

Add that file to your repository as .githooks/pre-commit, and make it executable. Also, add a little note to your README explaining that, to enable the pre-commit hook, all your collaborators can simply run

git config core.hooksPath .githooks

Easy, right? And once you’ve run that command, every git commit will kick off a tox run and you’ll never commit borked YAML again.3

Now of course, using those hooks is entirely optional, and can be overridden with --no-verify. So, for those slackers that can’t be bothered to use them, you also want to check centrally. Here’s where your CI comes in.

Running tox on every GitHub PR

If you collaborate via GitHub, you can run tox on every PR, with a simple GitHub Actions workflow. To use it, you’ll need a small addition to your tox.ini file:

envlist: py{3,36,39}
skipsdist = True

python =
    3.6: py36
    3.9: py39

deps = yamllint
commands = yamllint {toxinidir}

And then, you add a workflow to .github/workflows, say .github/workflows/tox.yml:

name: Test with tox
  - push
  - pull_request
    runs-on: ubuntu-latest
          - 3.6
          - 3.9
      - name: Checkout
        uses: actions/checkout@v2
          submodules: true
      - name: Set up Python ${{ matrix.python-version }}
        uses: actions/setup-python@v2
          python-version: ${{ matrix.python-version }}
      - name: Install dependencies
        run: |
          pip install tox tox-gh-actions
      - name: Test with tox
        run: tox

So that sets up your workflow so that it tests with two different Python versions that you care about, and then runs a test with each of them.

It does this via a combination of the information contained in the [gh-actions] section of tox.ini, and the matrix strategy defined in the workflow. The tox-gh-action plugin then pulls that information together and sets up testenvs as needed.

And it runs these checks every time you push to a branch (topic branch or default branch), and also on every pull request.

Running tox from GitLab CI

So you’re either using only GitLab and not GitHub, or you’re mirroring a GitHub repo to a self-hosted GitLab and want to run your pipelines there as well? Easy. Here’s the exact same functionality for your .gitlab-ci.yml file:4

  image: python:3.6
  stage: build
    - pip install tox
    - tox -e py36

  image: python:3.9
  stage: build
    - pip install tox
    - tox -e py39

In GitLab CI I know of no elegant matrix syntax to map the image version to the testenv. But on the other hand there’s a bunch of things that “just happen” in a GitLab CI pipeline, which you specifically need to define in a GitHub Actions workflow definition. So overall your .gitlab-ci.yml ends up shorter than your GitHub Actions tox.yml.

Running tox from Zuul

If you’re running a tox testenv from Zuul, you would use the built-in tox jobs in your pipeline, as referenced in .zuul.yaml:

- project:
        - tox-py36
        - tox-py39
        - tox-py36
        - tox-py39

Here, the tox-py36 and tox-py39 environments are both derivatives of the base tox job, which will run with cPython versions 3.6 and 3.9, and by default invoke testenvs called py36 and py39, respectively.

And now?

Now that all of your Python testing standardizes on tox, you can go to town. Add more tests, add more testenvs, more Python versions, whatever.

You might need to make minimal changes, like add one line for each new Python version you want to support, to all your CI definitions. But if your project moves from GitHub to GitLab or from GitLab to Gerrit/Zuul, or your entire company goes on a great big CI migration, then you’ll have one less thing to worry about, because your tests already run anywhere.

By the way: when you set up your tox.ini and your CI configuration files as shown in this article, then yamllint will of course also lint your YAML CI configuration files themselves. Which comes in handy; I found 4 yamllint warnings and one error while testing the examples I’ve given here.

  1. Testing with multiple Python versions may seem less than useful when you’re dealing with just one upstream package, yamllint. I use that here as an oversimplified example. As soon as you add your own Python scripts or modules to the tox checks, you may very well be interested in multiple python versions. 

  2. If you’re being a purist, you could also invoke the tox runner from a Python script. I prefer the shell exec one-liner. 

  3. In this case, for testing locally, we’re not going to care about a specific installed Python version. We’ll just make sure that the commit doesn’t obviously break anything. In my humble opinion it’s OK to catch version-specific issues in CI, but we shouldn’t feed the CI code that’s outright broken. 

  4. This example assumes that you’re either using shared GitLab runners using Docker, or a self-hosted runner on Kubernetes.