Dependency Resolution in Different Ecosystems

The post discusses how different package managers resolve dependencies while for building.


Maven is a build tool for building Java projects. It defines dependencies in terms of three attributes - groupId, artifactId, and version. For example, io.github.chains-project:collector-sahab:0.5.3, is a maven dependency where groupId is io.gihub.chains-project, artifactId is collector-sahab, and version is 0.5.3. So, when a project is built, Maven resolves the dependencies by looking for these attributes.

However, if there are more than one dependency with same groupId and artifactId, it keeps only one version of that dependency. It decides the version to keep based on the following algorithm.

  1. Choose dependency at the minimum depth in the dependency tree with respect to the project.
  2. If depth is same, the first sibling is selected.

Let’s consider an example. The following graph is dependency tree of a project, and we resolve dependency Dx based on the above resolution algorithm. Note that the tree is ordered. D1, D2, D3, and D4 are declared in an order and the tree reflects it by showing it left to right.

First, we find out the minimum depth of Dx. It is 2 in the branch of D2 and D4. So it has to be either Dx v1.2.0 or Dx v1.5.0.

Then, we select the first sibling. Based on this tree, it is Dx v1.2.0 because it appears first in the tree if we scan the tree left to right. Thus, Dx is resolved to v1.2.0.


To manage dependencies, Go uses Modules. In Go, a module is identified by its module path and a version. A module used as a dependency is recorded in the go.mod file. For instance v1.3.2, where is the module path, and v1.3.2 is the version (semver).

To resolve the modules which are to be included in a build, it uses an algorithm called Minimal Version Selection (MVS) to generate a build list. For dependency resolution, we only need to understand the first step in this algorithm i.e. - Construct Build List

Consider the above dependency graph as an example.

To determine which modules make the build list, it looks into the go.mod files of both the main module and its dependencies, and traverses the graph of all reachable modules/versions. During this traversal, a rough list is created. The rough list will contain all reached modules. In our example: [D1, D11, Dx v1.0.0, D2, Dx 1.2.0 D3, D31, D311, Dx v1.3.0, D4, Dx v1.5.0].

The rough list is then simplified, by keeping only the newest version of any listed module. Hence, Dx which has the highest semver version is selected and that is Dx v1.5.0.

By following this algorithm, the build list is guaranteed to include the oldest module versions available that meet the requirements, thus achieving reproducible behavior.

Node.js + npm

npm is a package manager for Node.js, it facilitates the installation of dependencies for use by Node.js. To understand what dependency is used at runtime, we need to understand how both npm and Node.js work.

Node.js resolves dependencies at runtime. To do this it starts to look for a folder structure matching the dependency name inside a node_modules/ directory in the directory of the file importing the dependency. If it is not found it will repeat this process in the parent folder. This is repeated recursively until the root directory is reached (ref). Importantly, this is also how transitive dependencies are resolved.

This means that for a file at /home/example/projects/file.js on a Unix-like system it will look for the dependency in order, returning the first instance it finds, in the following places:


And, if the --no-global-search-paths option isn’t used, it would also look in the following places:


As a package manager for Node.js, npm installs dependencies by downloading them from the internet (a package registry or source repository) and putting them in the node_modules/ directory. For re-used dependencies two things may happen. If a common version is supported by multiple dependencies, npm will try to put the common version directly in the node_modules/ directory of the root project, where it can be shared. If a transitive version of a dependency is not supported by other dependencies according to SemVer rules, it will instead by installed in the node_modules/ directory of the dependency that needs it, where it isn’t shared.

npm’s dependency version resolution algorithm is roughly as follows. When installing a new dependency, npm will try to use the latest available version of each dependency such that it can be reused the most. This may result in downgrading of a previously installed dependency or installing a dependency multiple times if no common version is available (e.g. two different major versions). Further control over the resolution is possible through commands such as npm upgrade and npm dedupe which can upgrade dependencies on a specific path and try to reduce unnecessary dependency duplication respectively.

Consider the above dependency graph as an example. If the version constraint of Dx for all parent dependencies is something like ^1.0.0 (i.e. any version at or above 1.0.0 but below 2.0.0) it will be installed only once, say as 1.6.0, at node_modules/Dx. If instead D11 depends on exactly 1.0.0 and all others depend on ^1.0.0 it will still be installed only once at node_modules/Dx but as 1.0.0. If instead D11 depends on exactly 1.0.0 and all other depends on ^1.2.0, Dx will be installed twice: once as 1.6.0 at node_modules/Dx and once as 1.0.0 at node_modules/D11/node_modules/Dx.

If a lockfile is used by the parent project, the contents of the node_modules/ directory are, and by extension Node.js’ dependency resolution is, entirely reproducible (ignoring installation scripts).



pip is the package installer for Python and included with modern versions of Python, it is used to find, download, and install packages from PyPI and other Python package indexes.

The process of package resolution in pip relies on three key pieces of information: project name, release version and dependencies. The first two pieces of information identify an individual “candidate” for installation, and the third one is used on “on demand” when backtracking algorithm starts to check that particular candidate.

When pip install is executed, pip first performs a dependency resolution process by analyzing all the dependencies of the requested packages to determine the most compatible version (starts from latest version that satisfies the given constraints). The latest version is determined using the version scheme. It is not based on dates. The resolution process might involve backtracking to find the best combination that satisfies all dependency constraints. Only one version of a dependency will get installed.

The resolution process is based on a separate package, resolvelib which implements an abstract backtracking resolution algorithm. resolvelib implements backjumping technique in 1.0.0 version which was vendored from pip 23.1, it can find a set of packages that meet requirements and whose requirements themselves don’t conflict.

Now, consider the above dependency graph as an example.


You will get a ResolutionImpossible error since all four dependents requires exact version and the conflict couldn’t be resolved.

There are two ways to avoid ResolutionImpossible error.

Dependency version specifier is flexible

The resolved version for Dx will be 1.5.0.

Parent version specifier is flexible

pip will automatically find a version for dependent that can fulfill all the requirements. For example, if D11 v1.1.0, D2 v2.4.0, D311 v2.6.0 and D4 v4.0.3 are all dependent upon Dx 1.3.0, then the resolved version for Dx would be1.3.0.