External dependencies overview

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Bazel supports external dependencies, source files (both text and binary) used in your build that are not from your workspace. For example, they could be a ruleset hosted in a GitHub repo, a Maven artifact, or a directory on your local machine outside your current workspace.

As of Bazel 6.0, there are two ways to manage external dependencies with Bazel: the traditional, repository-focused WORKSPACE system, and the newer module-focused MODULE.bazel system (codenamed Bzlmod, and enabled with the flag --enable_bzlmod). The two systems can be used together, but Bzlmod is replacing the WORKSPACE system in future Bazel releases, check the Bzlmod migration guide on how to migrate.

This document explains the concepts surrounding external dependency management in Bazel, before going into a bit more detail about the two systems in order.



A directory tree with a boundary marker file at its root, containing source files that can be used in a Bazel build. Often shortened to just repo.

A repo boundary marker file can be MODULE.bazel (signaling that this repo represents a Bazel module), REPO.bazel (see below), or in legacy contexts, WORKSPACE or WORKSPACE.bazel. Any repo boundary marker file will signify the boundary of a repo; multiple such files can coexist in a directory.

Main repository

The repository in which the current Bazel command is being run.

The root of the main repository is also known as the workspace root.


The environment shared by all Bazel commands run in the same main repository. It encompasses the main repo and the set of all defined external repos.

Note that historically the concepts of "repository" and "workspace" have been conflated; the term "workspace" has often been used to refer to the main repository, and sometimes even used as a synonym of "repository".

Canonical repository name

The canonical name a repository is addressable by. Within the context of a workspace, each repository has a single canonical name. A target inside a repo whose canonical name is canonical_name can be addressed by the label @@canonical_name//package:target (note the double @).

The main repository always has the empty string as the canonical name.

Apparent repository name

The name a repository is addressable by in the context of a certain other repo. This can be thought of as a repo's "nickname": The repo with the canonical name michael might have the apparent name mike in the context of the repo alice, but might have the apparent name mickey in the context of the repo bob. In this case, a target inside michael can be addressed by the label @mike//package:target in the context of alice (note the single @).

Conversely, this can be understood as a repository mapping: each repo maintains a mapping from "apparent repo name" to a "canonical repo name".

Repository rule

A schema for repository definitions that tells Bazel how to materialize a repository. For example, it could be "download a zip archive from a certain URL and extract it", or "fetch a certain Maven artifact and make it available as a java_import target", or simply "symlink a local directory". Every repo is defined by calling a repo rule with an appropriate number of arguments.

See Repository rules for more information about how to write your own repository rules.

The most common repo rules by far are http_archive, which downloads an archive from a URL and extracts it, and local_repository, which symlinks a local directory that is already a Bazel repository.

Fetch a repository

The action of making a repo available on local disk by running its associated repo rule. The repos defined in a workspace are not available on local disk before they are fetched.

Normally, Bazel only fetches a repo when it needs something from the repo, and the repo hasn't already been fetched. If the repo has already been fetched before, Bazel only re-fetches it if its definition has changed.

The fetch command can be used to initiate a pre-fetch for a repository, target, or all necessary repositories to perform any build. This capability enables offline builds using the --nofetch option.

The --fetch option serves to manage network access. Its default value is true. However, when set to false (--nofetch), the command will utilize any cached version of the dependency, and if none exists, the command will result in failure.

See fetch options for more information about controlling fetch.

Directory layout

After being fetched, the repo can be found in the subdirectory external in the output base, under its canonical name.

You can run the following command to see the contents of the repo with the canonical name canonical_name:

ls $(bazel info output_base)/external/ canonical_name 

REPO.bazel file

The REPO.bazel file is used to mark the topmost boundary of the directory tree that constitutes a repo. It doesn't need to contain anything to serve as a repo boundary file; however, it can also be used to specify some common attributes for all build targets inside the repo.

The syntax of a REPO.bazel file is similar to BUILD files, except that no load statements are supported, and only a single function, repo(), is available. repo() takes the same arguments as the package() function in BUILD files; whereas package() specifies common attributes for all build targets inside the package, repo() analogously does so for all build targets inside the repo.

For example, you can specify a common license for all targets in your repo by having the following REPO.bazel file:

    default_package_metadata = ["//:my_license"],

Manage external dependencies with Bzlmod

Bzlmod, the new external dependency subsystem, does not directly work with repo definitions. Instead, it builds a dependency graph from modules, runs extensions on top of the graph, and defines repos accordingly.

A Bazel module is a Bazel project that can have multiple versions, each of which publishes metadata about other modules that it depends on. A module must have a MODULE.bazel file at its repo root, next to the WORKSPACE file. This file is the module's manifest, declaring its name, version, list of dependencies, among other information. The following is a basic example:

module(name = "my-module", version = "1.0")

bazel_dep(name = "rules_cc", version = "0.0.1")
bazel_dep(name = "protobuf", version = "3.19.0")

A module must only list its direct dependencies, which Bzlmod looks up in a Bazel registry — by default, the Bazel Central Registry. The registry provides the dependencies' MODULE.bazel files, which allows Bazel to discover the entire transitive dependency graph before performing version resolution.

After version resolution, in which one version is selected for each module, Bazel consults the registry again to learn how to define a repo for each module (in most cases, using http_archive).

Modules can also specify customized pieces of data called tags, which are consumed by module extensions after module resolution to define additional repos. These extensions have capabilities similar to repo rules, enabling them to perform actions like file I/O and sending network requests. Among other things, they allow Bazel to interact with other package management systems while also respecting the dependency graph built out of Bazel modules.

Define repos with WORKSPACE

Historically, you can manage external dependencies by defining repos in the WORKSPACE (or WORKSPACE.bazel) file. This file has a similar syntax to BUILD files, employing repo rules instead of build rules.

The following snippet is an example to use the http_archive repo rule in the WORKSPACE file:

load("@bazel_tools//tools/build_defs/repo:http.bzl", "http_archive")
    name = "foo",
    urls = ["https://example.com/foo.zip"],
    sha256 = "c9526390a7cd420fdcec2988b4f3626fe9c5b51e2959f685e8f4d170d1a9bd96",

The snippet defines a repo whose canonical name is foo. In the WORKSPACE system, by default, the canonical name of a repo is also its apparent name to all other repos.

See the full list of functions available in WORKSPACE files.

Shortcomings of the WORKSPACE system

In the years since the WORKSPACE system was introduced, users have reported many pain points, including:

  • Bazel does not evaluate the WORKSPACE files of any dependencies, so all transitive dependencies must be defined in the WORKSPACE file of the main repo, in addition to direct dependencies.
  • To work around this, projects have adopted the "deps.bzl" pattern, in which they define a macro which in turn defines multiple repos, and ask users to call this macro in their WORKSPACE files.
    • This has its own problems: macros cannot load other .bzl files, so these projects have to define their transitive dependencies in this "deps" macro, or work around this issue by having the user call multiple layered "deps" macros.
    • Bazel evaluates the WORKSPACE file sequentially. Additionally, dependencies are specified using http_archive with URLs, without any version information. This means that there is no reliable way to perform version resolution in the case of diamond dependencies (A depends on B and C; B and C both depend on different versions of D).

Due to the shortcomings of WORKSPACE, Bzlmod is going to replace the legacy WORKSPACE system in future Bazel releases. Please read the Bzlmod migration guide on how to migrate to Bzlmod.