Repository Rules

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This page covers how to define repository rules and provides examples for more details.

An external repository is a directory tree, containing source files usable in a Bazel build, which is generated on demand by running its corresponding repo rule. Repos can be defined in a multitude of ways, but ultimately, each repo is defined by invoking a repo rule, just as build targets are defined by invoking build rules. They can be used to depend on third-party libraries (such as Maven packaged libraries) but also to generate BUILD files specific to the host Bazel is running on.

Repository rule definition

In a .bzl file, use the repository_rule function to define a new repo rule and store it in a global variable. After a repo rule is defined, it can be invoked as a function to define repos. This invocation is usually performed from inside a module extension implementation function.

The two major components of a repo rule definition are its attribute schema and implementation function. The attribute schema determines the names and types of attributes passed to a repo rule invocation, and the implementation function is run when the repo needs to be fetched.


Attributes are arguments passed to the repo rule invocation. The schema of attributes accepted by a repo rule is specified using the attrs argument when the repo rule is defined with a call to repository_rule. An example defining url and sha256 attributes as strings:

http_archive = repository_rule(
        "url": attr.string(mandatory=True),
        "sha256": attr.string(mandatory=True),

To access an attribute within the implementation function, use repository_ctx.attr.<attribute_name>:

def _impl(repository_ctx):
    url = repository_ctx.attr.url
    checksum = repository_ctx.attr.sha256

All repository_rules have the implicitly defined attribute name. This is a string attribute that behaves somewhat magically: when specified as an input to a repo rule invocation, it takes an apparent repo name; but when read from the repo rule's implementation function using, it returns the canonical repo name.

Implementation function

Every repo rule requires an implementation function. It contains the actual logic of the rule and is executed strictly in the Loading Phase.

The function has exactly one input parameter, repository_ctx. The function returns either None to signify that the rule is reproducible given the specified parameters, or a dict with a set of parameters for that rule that would turn that rule into a reproducible one generating the same repo. For example, for a rule tracking a git repository that would mean returning a specific commit identifier instead of a floating branch that was originally specified.

The input parameter repository_ctx can be used to access attribute values, and non-hermetic functions (finding a binary, executing a binary, creating a file in the repository or downloading a file from the Internet). See the API docs for more context. Example:

def _impl(repository_ctx):
  repository_ctx.symlink(repository_ctx.attr.path, "")

local_repository = repository_rule(

When is the implementation function executed?

The implementation function of a repo rule is executed when Bazel needs a target from that repository, for example when another target (in another repo) depends on it or if it is mentioned on the command line. The implementation function is then expected to create the repo in the file system. This is called "fetching" the repo.

In contrast to regular targets, repos are not necessarily re-fetched when something changes that would cause the repo to be different. This is because there are things that Bazel either cannot detect changes to or it would cause too much overhead on every build (for example, things that are fetched from the network). Therefore, repos are re-fetched only if one of the following things changes:

  • The attributes passed to the repo rule invocation.
  • The Starlark code comprising the implementation of the repo rule.
  • The value of any environment variable passed to repository_ctx's getenv() method or declared with the environ attribute of the repository_rule. The values of these environment variables can be hard-wired on the command line with the --repo_env flag.
  • The content of any file passed to the read(), execute() and similar methods of repository_ctx which is referred to by a label (for example, //mypkg:label.txt but not mypkg/label.txt)
  • When bazel fetch --force is executed.

There are two parameters of repository_rule that control when the repositories are re-fetched:

  • If the configure flag is set, the repository is only re-fetched on bazel fetch when the--configure parameter is passed to it (if the attribute is unset, this command will not cause a re-fetch)
  • If the local flag is set, in addition to the above cases, the repo is also re-fetched when the Bazel server restarts.

Restarting the implementation function

The implementation function can be restarted while a repo is being fetched if a dependency it requests is missing. In that case, the execution of the implementation function will stop, the missing dependency is resolved and the function will be re-executed after the dependency has been resolved. To avoid unnecessary restarts (which are expensive, as network access might have to be repeated), label arguments are prefetched, provided all label arguments can be resolved to an existing file. Note that resolving a path from a string or a label that was constructed only during execution of the function might still cause a restart.

Forcing refetch of external repos

Sometimes, an external repo can become outdated without any change to its definition or dependencies. For example, a repo fetching sources might follow a particular branch of a third-party repository, and new commits are available on that branch. In this case, you can ask bazel to refetch all external repos unconditionally by calling bazel fetch --force --all.

Moreover, some repo rules inspect the local machine and might become outdated if the local machine was upgraded. Here you can ask Bazel to only refetch those external repos where the repository_rule definition has the configure attribute set, use bazel fetch --all --configure.


  • C++ auto-configured toolchain: it uses a repo rule to automatically create the C++ configuration files for Bazel by looking for the local C++ compiler, the environment and the flags the C++ compiler supports.

  • Go repositories uses several repository_rule to defines the list of dependencies needed to use the Go rules.

  • rules_jvm_external creates an external repository called @maven by default that generates build targets for every Maven artifact in the transitive dependency tree.