How to wrap a command line tool

The aim of this section is to describe how external programs and scripts can be wrapped for use in Nipype either as interactive interfaces or within the workflow/pipeline environment. Currently, there is support for command line executables/scripts and matlab scripts. One can also create pure Python interfaces. The key to defining interfaces is to provide a formal specification of inputs and outputs and determining what outputs are generated given a set of inputs.

Defining inputs and outputs

In Nipype we use Enthought Traits to define inputs and outputs of the interfaces. This allows to introduce easy type checking. Inputs and outputs are grouped into separate classes (usually suffixed with InputSpec and OutputSpec). For example:

class ExampleInputSpec(TraitedSpec):
        input_volume = File(desc = "Input volume", exists = True,
                            mandatory = True)
        parameter = traits.Int(desc = "some parameter")

class ExampleOutputSpec(TraitedSpec):
        output_volume = File(desc = "Output volume", exists = True)

For the Traits (and Nipype) to work correctly output and input spec has to be inherited from TraitedSpec (however, this does not have to be direct inheritance).

Traits (File, Int etc.) have different parameters (called metadata). In the above example we have used the desc metadata which holds human readable description of the input. The mandatory flag forces Nipype to throw an exception if the input was not set. exists is a special flag that works only for File traits and checks if the provided file exists. More details can be found at Interface Specifications.

The input and output specifications have to be connected to the our example interface class:

class Example(Interface):
        input_spec = ExampleInputSpec
        output_spec = ExampleOutputSpec

Where the names of the classes grouping inputs and outputs were arbitrary the names of the fields within the interface they are assigned are not (it always has to be input_spec and output_spec). Of course this interface does not do much because we have not specified how to process the inputs and create the outputs. This can be done in many ways.

Command line executable

As with all interfaces command line wrappers need to have inputs defined. Command line input spec has to inherit from CommandLineInputSpec which adds two extra inputs: environ (a dictionary of environmental variables), and args (a string defining extra flags). In addition input spec can define the relation between the inputs and the generated command line. To achieve this we have added two metadata: argstr (string defining how the argument should be formatted) and position (number defining the order of the arguments). For example

class ExampleInputSpec(CommandLineSpec):
        input_volume = File(desc = "Input volume", exists = True,
                            mandatory = True, position = 0, argstr="%s")
        parameter = traits.Int(desc = "some parameter", argstr = "--param %d")

As you probably noticed the argstr is a printf type string with formatting symbols. For an input defined in InputSpec to be included into the executed commandline argstr has to be included. Additionally inside the main interface class you need to specify the name of the executable by assigning it to the _cmd field. Also the main interface class needs to inherit from CommandLine:

class Example(CommandLine):
        _cmd = 'my_command'
        input_spec = ExampleInputSpec
        output_spec = ExampleOutputSpec

There is one more thing we need to take care of. When the executable finishes processing it will presumably create some output files. We need to know which files to look for, check if they exist and expose them to whatever node would like to use them. This is done by implementing _list_outputs method in the main interface class. Basically what it does is assigning the expected output files to the fields of our output spec:

def _list_outputs(self):
        outputs = self.output_spec().get()
        outputs['output_volume'] = os.path.abspath('name_of_the_file_this_cmd_made.nii')
        return outputs

Sometimes the inputs need extra parsing before turning into command line parameters. For example imagine a parameter selecting between three methods: “old”, “standard” and “new”. Imagine also that the command line accept this as a parameter “–method=” accepting 0, 1 or 2. Since we are aiming to make nipype scripts as informative as possible it’s better to define the inputs as following:

class ExampleInputSpec(CommandLineSpec):
        method = traits.Enum("old", "standard", "new", desc = "method",

Here we’ve used the Enum trait which restricts input a few fixed options. If we would leave it as it is it would not work since the argstr is expecting numbers. We need to do additional parsing by overloading the following method in the main interface class:

def _format_arg(self, name, spec, value):
        if name == 'method':
            return spec.argstr%{"old":0, "standard":1, "new":2}[value]
        return super(Example, self)._format_arg(name, spec, value)

Here is a minimalistic interface for the gzip command:

from nipype.interfaces.base import (
import os

class GZipInputSpec(CommandLineInputSpec):
    input_file = File(desc="File", exists=True, mandatory=True, argstr="%s")

class GZipOutputSpec(TraitedSpec):
    output_file = File(desc = "Zip file", exists = True)

class GZipTask(CommandLine):
    input_spec = GZipInputSpec
    output_spec = GZipOutputSpec
    _cmd = 'gzip'

    def _list_outputs(self):
            outputs = self.output_spec().get()
            outputs['output_file'] = os.path.abspath(self.inputs.input_file + ".gz")
            return outputs

if __name__ == '__main__':

    zipper = GZipTask(input_file='an_existing_file')
    print zipper.cmdline

Creating outputs on the fly

In many cases, command line executables will require specifying output file names as arguments on the command line. We have simplified this procedure with three additional metadata terms: name_source, name_template, keep_extension.

For example in the InvWarp class, the inverse_warp parameter is the name of the output file that is created by the routine.

class InvWarpInputSpec(FSLCommandInputSpec):
    inverse_warp = File(argstr='--out=%s', name_source=['warp'],
                        hash_files=False, name_template='%s_inverse',

we add several metadata to inputspec.


indicates which field to draw from, this field must be the name of a File.


indicates that the input for this field if provided should not be used in computing the input hash for this interface.

name_template (optional)

overrides the default _generated suffix

output_name (optional)

name of the output (if this is not set same name as the input will be assumed)

keep_extension (optional)

if you want the extension from the input or name_template to be kept. The name_template extension always overrides the input extension.

In addition one can add functionality to your class or base class, to allow changing extensions specific to package or interface. This overload function is triggered only if keep_extension is not defined.

def self._overload_extension(self, value):
    return value #do whatever you want here with the name

Finally, in the outputspec make sure the name matches that of the inputspec.

class InvWarpOutputSpec(TraitedSpec):
    inverse_warp = File(exists=True,
                        desc=('Name of output file, containing warps that '
                        'are the "reverse" of those in --warp.'))