Notebook Portability

Per the “Interoperable” and “Reusable” guidelines of the FAIR principles, Dockstore notebooks should run correctly in as many environments as possible. To that end, we have the following recommendations for authors:

  • Prefer stable language constructs and time-tested functionality of core packages. A notebook that uses a brand-new Python feature or unusual software is less likely to run everywhere.

  • Catalog software dependencies using requirements.txt or similar mechanisms. Many notebook environments will automatically read requirements.txt and install the packages it specifies.

  • Access remote data via publically-accessible urls and standard protocols. If your notebook can always read the data it requires, it’s more likely to run successfully.

  • Avoid using a custom kernel image, if possible. Some notebook environments, such as Google Colab, don’t allow you to use a custom kernel image.

Depending upon your goals for your notebook, you might choose to follow or ignore the above recommendations. However, keep in mind that as your notebook’s needs diverge from the baseline level of support across all notebook environments - basically, for Jupyter notebooks, the ability to execute vanilla Python 3 code with no external dependencies - it becomes less likely to run everywhere.

Environment-Specific Recommendations

Some notebook environments have requirements and quirks that could affect if and how well your notebook runs. The following sections explain how you can improve portability by modifying your notebook to run better in each environment. Our goal is to improve overall portability: for example, if you take our advice and change your notebook to make it run better on Google Colab, it should continue to work, at least as well, elsewhere.

Google Colab

At startup, most notebook environments copy all files from the repository to the environment and install the packages listed in requirements.txt. However, some environments, most notably Google Colab, don’t.

To ensure that after a notebook launches, it can access the repo file content and use the software packages listed in requirements.txt, even when running on Colab, a common pattern is to include a code cell at the top of the notebook that executes:

  • git clone to copy the source GitHub repo’s files into the notebook environment.

  • pip install to install the packages listed in requirements.txt.

For example:

%mkdir -p /tmp/repo
%pushd /tmp/repo
!git clone /tmp/repo
!git checkout main
!pip install -r requirements.txt
%cp -rn /tmp/repo/* .

The above iPython code will copy the repo files into the current working directory, install the packages listed in requirements.txt, and have no effect if the files are already available and the packages have been previously installed (as they might be when the notebook runs in another environment).

GitHub Codespaces

To launch a notebook to a GitHub Codespace, the repo must include a dev container file that specifies the path of the notebook file and to launch the Codespace notebook extensions. So, to make your notebook launch correctly to a Codespace, you’ll need to add a dev container file to it. See Launch with GitHub Codespaces page for more details.

Other environments will ignore the dev container file.


Most notebooks run correctly, without modification, on MyBinder.

Help Us

Dockstore is actively researching ways to improve notebook portability. Have an idea, feedback, or solution? Please let us know via the “Discussion” link below!